Aggressive interior attack: What's in a name?

Names are as dangerous as they are important, especially in firefighting

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail."

A rabbit with a name…? Why do we not sing, "…Here comes a rabbit, hopping down the rabbit trail." Why must we give him a name?

The process of naming is a part of the process of developing ownership. It does not matter whether it be dog, rabbit, cat, bird or hamster: if we own it, we give it a name.

When we name, we don't usually do it lightly either. We try to pick a name that reflects a part of ourselves or a part of the animal. We look for something meaningful.

A young firefighter, nearing the end of his yearlong probationary period, hears the words "aggressive interior attack" from the older firefighters at the table.

He does not understand in these heady first days what it means, but he can tell from the tone of the conversation that it is something to be desired. He has been a part of this group for just about long enough to get a nickname.

The shift has named him "Curly" in honor of his intractable locks. Having this nickname means that on some level he has been accepted, that they like him enough to name him; to own him.

Attacking on its turf
Aggressive interior attack is the name for something. It is a rigorous dialectical linkage. It is, at its root, the notion that fire crews will "attack" a fire with determination and resolve at its base, on its turf, from the inside.

It is the natural end result of a reliance on militaristic metaphors. It is a notion that is so deeply embedded in the firefighter psyche that people have stopped asking what it means. They all just "know." And based on that fragile knowing, they frame risk, they take action, and

...people base their judgments of an activity or a technology not only on what they think about it but also on what they feel about it. If they like an activity, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if they dislike it, they tend to judge the opposite — high risk and low benefit. Under this model, affect comes prior to, and directs, judgments of risk and benefit …. (1)  

Names are as dangerous as they are important. They are important because they afford meaning. They are dangerous because we spend a lot of time trying to live up to them.  An aggressive interior attack by any other name…

Curly has a new name, given to him by a new family. How would they feel, how would he feel, if he failed to live up to the unwritten expectations of the aggressive interior attack? Our names and our customs are sociological tools that import meaning and identity, without which we can be lost.

… implicit in the idea that people can drop their tools is the assumption that tools and people are distinct, separable, and dissimilar. But fires are not fought with bodies and bare hands, they are fought with tools that are often distinctive trademarks of firefighters and central to their identity.

Firefighting tools define the firefighter's group membership, they are the firefighter's reason for being deployed in the first place, they create capability, they are given the same care that the firefighters themselves get (e.g., tools are collected and sharpened after every shift), and they are meaningful artifacts that define the culture.

Given the central role of tools in defining the essence of a firefighter, it is not surprising that dropping one's tools creates an existential crisis.

Without my tools, who am I? A coward? A fool? The fusion of tools with identities means that under conditions of threat, it makes no more sense to drop one's tools than to drop one's pride. Tools and identities form a unity without seams or separable elements. (2)

"A unity without seams…" The aggressive interior attack

Need understanding
It is important to understand the names that we give to things and the allegorical or metaphorical implications that support them.

It is important to ask questions, like, "What does an aggressive interior attack consist of?" If we fail to ask those questions, we will fail to have a clear understanding of the answers and we will hesitate when it is time to drop our tools and run.

Of all the people sitting at the table, Curly is the only one who does not yet realize that the aggressive interior attack is only meaningful in a limited number of scenarios.

He thinks that it is the panacea, the antidote to all those safety-crazed scientists. He thinks this mainly because all the stories, the stories that he never questions, are about the aggressive interior attack.

The exterior attack is always discussed in hushed tones, infused with an overpowering sense of failure and shame. Curly just got his name and does not want to trade it in for a new one like, "Sissy."

Curly has been set up for failure.

There will come a time when Curly will stand before a structure that is burning vigorously and he will be forced in a moment to make a decision about whether or not to go hopping down the bunny trail or leaping down the rabbit hole.

The decision that he makes in that moment will not depend entirely on some complicated logic based system of mathematical analysis, but mostly on names.

He has a name his mother gave him, he has a name his shift gave him, and he has the name of how he is to behave, and each one is etched deeply in his brain.

But it's those last two names have the power to override any analysis he does. Each one in the right context can send him to an untimely death.

We are more careful about how we name our pets than we are about how we name our fire tactics even though the latter is poised to strip us of reason when we need it most.

"Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the flow path … with a flashover on the way."


(1) Risk As Analysis and Risk As Feelings: Some Thoughts About Affect, Reason, Risk, and Rationality. Paul Slovic, Melissa L. Finucane, Ellen Peters, and Donald G. MacGregor

(2) "Drop your tools: An allegory for organizational studies"
Weick, Karl E., Administrative Science Quarterly. pp301-313. 1996 Jun. 

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