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Balancing science and tactics in the volunteer fire service

Embrace new technology, but make sure it fits your organization


When making tactical decisions in a volunteer setting, time, staffing, water and training become critical factors that limit the tactical decisions for volunteer or limited staffed departments. Science becomes the equalizer in overcoming limitations of tactical decision-making.

Photo/Jason Caughey

If you have spent any time around a volunteer fire department over the last few decades, you might have heard sayings like, “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff” or “We have never lost a foundation.”

It is sad to say that for many years, statements like those were the culture of many organizations and, right or wrong, there was some truth to those statements. With limited resources and staffing, old equipment and lack of water, many organizations truly hoped to save just the foundation.

Fast forward a decade or two, and the volunteer fire service finds itself in a rapidly evolving position. New fire science, higher expectations from growing communities, better equipment (thanks to FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants program and other sources) and rapid information and training outlets have provided today’s volunteer fire service a competitive edge that it hasn’t seen in a century.

The American fire service is becoming more than a blue-collar trade. Think about it: Today’s volunteer firefighters are required to learn and train on a much wider spectrum of topics and skills. With EMS, technical rescue, hazmat, wildland, and structural firefighting, we are asking our members to be a hybrid of white-collar “thinking firefighters” and blue-collar “physical firefighters.”

Beyond this, we expect our volunteers to hold down a full-time job, spend time with their families, and complete all the required training necessary to remain proficient in the skills needed to safely and effectively serve our community. All the while we handicap them by training them on how we have always done it, using old tactics, old technics and old tools. Because of our lack of knowledge or lack of willingness to learn new things, we hinder the effectiveness and safety of our members.

I hope through this article will challenge you to explore new tactics, techniques and equipment.

Gaining knowledge

The first step for leaders of volunteer fire departments is to gain knowledge.

Back in the day, training really only came in a few formats: reading magazines or publications, like those from the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), or attending a national trade show.

Today, it has never been easier to gain new perspective and scientific knowledge to support growth in your organization. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are two resources that you can use to browse and complete online training. Additionally, social media, podcasts, webcast, vlogs (video logs) and other digital training sources, along with trade shows and training conferences, offer a ton of knowledge.

All of the new scientific information can be daunting. Smile, breathe, it’s OK.

I suggest starting with the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute’s online learning program. Vice President of Research Steve Kerber and his team have done an excellent job providing an online educational platform from which all firefighters can learn.

I suggest small bites. Savor each section of the training and allow the concepts to set in. For some of us, the data might contradict what we were taught. By taking the data in small bites, it’s easier to digest. Gain perspective and take from the data the parts and pieces that fit your organization. Call upon regional and national instructors to provide you with more data or host an online digital presentation. Digital presentations can be an affordable way to start introducing the research into your organization.

Seek other organizations that have implemented the data and visit them. Note: Remember to visit organizations with response models similar to your own.

Exploring tactical operations

There is no shortage of opinions on what tactics and tools are best for the fire service. For many of us, decisions on what tactic to choose stem from a popularity contest versus scientific information. This is not a good practice.

When choosing tactics, there are several critical factors that should impact your decision-making:

  • Occupancy type and size
  • Potential rescue
  • Time, speed of event, and duration of burning and response time
  • Staffing – what did you bring to the event?
  • Water supply – do you have it or not?
  • Training – proficiency and capabilities
  • Location of fire – known or unknown, deep-seated, reachable
  • Clutter – interior and exterior clutter
  • Command
  • Pulse – What’s the status of your people? Are they calm or hyped up?

When making tactical decisions in a volunteer setting, time, staffing, water and training become critical factors that limit the tactical decisions for volunteer or limited staffed departments. Science becomes the equalizer in overcoming limitations of tactical decision-making.

Science-based tactics

There are three science-based tactics that can significantly impact your fireground approach:

  1. Transitional fire attack (“hitting it hard from the yard”): This is a great tactic when the fire has self-vented and is showing on approach. It can be accomplished with little staffing and water supply. Don’t forget that you can “hit it hard from the yard” with a handline, deck gun or front monitor. Transitional fire attack allows you to reset the fire (slow it down), buying you time for additional resources to arrive on scene. UL FSRI offers a great source of information on this tactic.
  2. Close the door (“vent limited”): Through research from UL and Kill The Flashover, we have identified that closing the door to a fire compartment can place the fire in a vent-limited status, which slows the growth of the fire. For years we practiced opening the structure as fast as we could to let the super-heated gases escape. When coordinated with fire suppression, this is still a good tactic. However, with limit staffing and limited water supply, you can make an immediate impact on fire growth by just closing the door or hanging a portable curtain. This tactic again allows you to slow the fire growth and buy time. (Watch UL FSRI “Close Before You Doze” video.)
  3. Piercing nozzles: Another valuable but often-forgotten tool for limited-resource tactical operations that has been reinforced by science is the use of piercing nozzles. Deploying a piercing nozzle in a vent-limited fire is like installing a sprinkler head in that compartment. The benefit to fire departments with limited staffing is that it takes one person to deploy, can be operated from the warm zone and again allows you to buy time for the calvary to arrive and support interior operations.

Advancing technologies in equipment

It has been said that firefighters hate two things: the way things are today and change.

The fire service has been going through technological advances for the last 100 years, so we’re actually pretty good at change. Thermal imagers, improved hose construction, PPE, apparatus design, mobile tablets, gas monitoring, drones and firefighting robots are just a few of the technological advances we have seen in recent years.

Technology is also impacting our tactics through communications, paging, digital imaging and other advancements. Technology also affects training, and for rural departments, technology has become a great asset to provide and update in-house training programs.

Science and technology are critical for the continued growth in capabilities for volunteer and limited-staffed fire departments. Utilizing scientific research from UL to update your training and tactical fireground operations will grow the capabilities of your organization, providing safer and more effective operations for you members and your community.

Embrace the science, but balance it with your experience as you implement new changes in your organization.

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.