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Risk dominance relies on knowing the difference between aggression and intention

We should not let the nobility of what we must do be corrupted by the excitement of what we want to do


“I am a believer in the value of the interior attack and an equal believer in not sacrificing lives for smoking foundations, vacant lots and other lost causes,” writes Tippett.

AP Photo/Wayne Parry

Firefighting is tough work – tough, gritty, sometimes harrowing, sometimes exhilarating, work. Those elements are what attract people to the work in the first place and a significant part of what drives many people to return every day.

In my first article on risk dominance, “Risk dominance: A better approach to firefighter safety,” I offered that “there are no happy endings when a firefighter dies,” as the cascade of life alterations lasts for generations. And this sentiment, based on my experience working on the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Service to PSOB claim filing to my own observations of people in the aftermath of horrific LODD events, forms the basis of the push to go beyond managing risk to dominating risk.

In this segment, we’ll consider:

  • Our penchant for corrupting concepts and the ramifications;
  • How an “aura of aggression” has created environments of irreversible but predictable paths to disaster; and
  • How shifting to an “intentional” mindset creates better outcomes.

Corrupting concepts

Let’s face it, we have a penchant for corrupting concepts. It is an innate human trait that has a particularly harmful evolution in firefighting. There are some significant corruptions in our profession that have occurred through the generations. The evolution of PPE versus the application of PPE is a classic example to illustrate the concept in practical terms.

Foundational firefighter PPE (helmet, coat and boots) was created to do two jobs – shed water and identify the company with which the firefighter was affiliated. PPE improvements through the generations were the result of a mounting number of firefighters being critically injured or killed by thermal insult and toxic gases while wearing protection designed primarily to shed water. Some of these injurious incidents were high profile, but thousands were lesser known yet no less impactful to those experiencing the pain and suffering. Accounts from the early 1900s include chief officers using the number of firefighters knocked out by smoke inhalation and laid out on the sidewalk as the determining factor on when to call an additional alarm (e.g., one chief might be “9-man chief,” while another was an “11-man chief,” etc.). The development of new heat-resistant fabrics for garments, improved impact resistance in helmets, and the introduction and evolution of SCBA were all aimed at saving the firefighter’s life while engaged in an interior attack and reducing severe injuries in the event of a flashover.

However, as more generations passed and fires became more dangerous, the fire service called for more protection. The interior attack was well established as the preeminent method for saving lives and property. But an increasing number of firefighters in traditional PPE were getting burned more severely, and when they fell through floors and roofs, or were caught in a flashover, the results were catastrophic.

A newer generation of materials was developed with higher resistance to terminal thermal insult so firefighters had more time to escape flashover. But firefighters mistook this improved protection as a green light to go deeper into the fire environment because their PPE withstood the heat better, therefore corrupting the concept. Unfortunately, when interior conditions deteriorated “without warning,” firefighters found themselves deeper in the building (or the forest in the case of our wildland brothers and sisters) than their PPE could withstand, and a new wave of injuries and death resulted.

(Note: The concept of “without warning” is itself a corruption of concept. The late Frank Brannigan and late Chief Alan Brunacini said it best when they observed that buildings on fire by their very nature are “under destruction.” It should come as no surprise that backdraft, flashover and/or collapse occur. For the wildland, weather is a predominate factor that often gives sufficient warning.)

The aura of aggression

An aura is a distinctive atmosphere that seems to surround a body and in some cases is considered an essential part of its existence. Over time, the American fire service has surrounded itself with an “aura” that can best be described as an atmosphere wrapped in the expressive “aggressive interior attack” mantra and mindset. That phrase, born out of a commitment to make a difference, can become a double-edged sword when it is not fully vetted.

Aura has a second meaning as well. In medicine, an aura is a warning sensation that precipitates a seizure or migraine. In our zeal to “slay the dragon,” “dance with the devil” or whatever other flippant bravado is uttered in conjunction with the “aggressive interior attack,” we may have embraced the atmospheric aura so tightly that we overlooked the precipitating warning sign – and are paying a high price in irreplaceable friends and coworkers.

Two of America’s most influential fire service leaders, Chief Edward Croker (FDNY, 1884-1911) and Chief Alan Brunacini (Phoenix FD, 1958-2006), offered oft-quoted views on firefighting. One quote points to a corruption of concept, while the second clearly defines every officer’s obligation:

  • Chief Croker, speaking at a service for five firefighters killed in the line of duty, said, in part, “... our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.”
  • Chief Brunacini observed in the NFFF’s training program, Attributes of Leading, “The first thing you oughta do is not kill the people who do the work.”

Taken at face value, the two quotes may sound divergent. Firefighters take Chief Croker’s statement and point to it as a beacon to define our highest purpose. But the deeper meaning of one phrase in Chief Croker’s message is overlooked because it is often invoked to help make sense of a loss that we have a hard time explaining (i.e., firefighters killed in a collapse and within days or weeks, the sacred place where they gave their lives is an empty lot).

The chief’s key idea is right at the beginning of the quote, “... our proudest moment is to save lives.” There is no more exhilarating feeling than pulling someone out of a fire; restoring a lifeless cardiac arrest patient to a living, breathing human being; handing off a critically ill patient to a trauma center and finding out the patient walked out of the hospital under their own power. Saving a life is the catalyst to action that does drive us to put our lives at risk for another. And that drive is noble, stimulating, daring and thrilling.

By the same token, there is no more soul-crushing, demoralizing, discouraging, wearying and life-altering event than the loss of a coworker … and no lives were saved. And that is where Chief Brunacini’s observation, “The first thing you oughta do is not kill the people who do the work,” punctuates Chief Croker’s poignant proudest moment observation. We should not let the nobility of what we must do be corrupted by the excitement of what we want to do. The irreversible consequences of the job demand that we lean toward Chief Brunacini’s statement.

A progressive solution

I am a believer in the value of the interior attack and an equal believer in not sacrificing lives for smoking foundations, vacant lots and other lost causes. The reconciliation of those beliefs lies in a mindset of intentional interior firefighting versus aggressive.

Several years ago, as I was looking for a way to visually describe the contrast between aggressive and intentional, I came across some old footage of a big game hunt in which a lion emerges from the bush at full speed toward a hunter in the party. The hunter coolly aims his rifle and fires twice at the charging beast. The lion comes sliding to stop at the hunter’s feet, dead beyond a reasonable doubt. That piece of footage has become a standard when I’m talking to firefighters and fire officers about dominating risk. The lion was aggressive. The hunter was intentional. The hunt was no less risky than fighting a fire in a couple of ways. Both endeavors involve high, potentially fatal risk to the participants. Armed with overpowering weaponry, a steady hand and deadly aim, the hunter dominated the risk. Better that we be the hunter, otherwise we end up like the lion.

Fire Chief (ret.) John B. Tippett, Jr. is the director of fire service programs for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). Tippett began his career as a volunteer and later career firefighter in Montgomery County, Maryland, and served as a firefighter, company officer, battalion chief, adjunct instructor, member and ultimately task force leader of Maryland Task Force 1, one of FEMA’s urban search and rescue teams. He retired from Montgomery County as the department’s safety battalion chief after 33 years to take a position as the first deputy chief of operations with the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department following the Sofa Super Store fire, where he assisted in the department’s recovery from the fire. He served one year as interim fire chief. Tippett continues to be an active firefighter with the North Beach (Maryland) Volunteer Fire Department. Tippett holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science and a master’s degree in emergency services management from Columbia Southern University. He has worked extensively on firefighter safety initiatives throughout his career, including introducing Crew Resource Management to the fire service and the Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Tippett earned his chief fire officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2012 and was re-certified in 2015. He currently serves as an at-large board member of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section, and is a certified health and safety officer through the FDSOA. Tippett was the ISFSI Instructor of the Year in 2006.