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Successful Fire Response: What Should Be the Benchmark?

By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Lately, I have noted a debate on what constitutes a successful fire response. Some people state that we have a successful fire response if no firefighters are hurt and even use this benchmark as their track record. Others become irate, stating that the fact no firefighters are hurt in an incident is a given, not a measure of success.

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But which way of thinking is correct? Are both of them correct?

The Safety Culture in the Fire Service

The safety culture in the fire service is a trend that began to emerge in the 1990s and has continued to evolve, even today. Many great leaders in the fire service have partaken in the shaping of this culture and the research and standards that built it.

In the not-too-distant past, it was a badge of honor to push towards the seat of the fire until you received first-degree burns and to have a helmet with a melted shield and a coating of soot. Now we have taken gear to a high protection level to prevent any burns. Firefighters decontaminate after each fire, and we ensure that our personnel have regular physicals to catch health issues and disease as early as possible.

Possibly, no one in the fire service feels any of these safety enhancements are a detriment to our profession. But as with any group of people, there will always be individuals in any profession who have a differing opinion on what a successful fire response is.

Some firefighters believe that today’s safety culture has placed the safety of the firefighters ahead of the public. This group believes in aggressive interior attacks and pushing into the fire as far as possible in an effort to search for victims, even at the risk of firefighter safety.

At the same time, this group often does not agree with the new Underwriters Laboratory (UL) scientific studies that show firefighters can extinguish the bulk of the fire from any point of opportunity, including an exterior position. These actions are counter to what many of us learned when we entered the fire service, especially those that have entered prior to the late 1990s.

The Culture of Performance Excellence

The other side of the argument is that the basis of firefighting success should be measured by the efficiency and speed of the search or the deployment speed of the initial attack line. These firefighters take much pride in the actual tactics of the event and become upset when incident success is only measured in firefighter safety.

I believe the excellence culture is something different, and it should focus on ensuring that each call meets certain benchmarks, regardless of the fire response tactics used. This strategy involves ensuring the first company arriving at a scene uses the correct hose line, deploys it flawlessly to the proper location and acts in a timely manner. While aggression is often associated with the culture of excellence, the truth is that this group wants perfection rather than recklessness.

What if the Excellence Culture Supports the Fire Safety Culture?

If we step back and examine Line of Duty Death (LODD) reports, it is evident that small errors add up to a LODD. We often read such reports in the hope of gleaning information and prevent those firefighter deaths from occurring again.

No fire department sets out to have small errors that result in a LODD. But by using the knowledge acquired from these incidents, we can perfect our firefighting tactics and support a safer fire scene.

Being equipped with a thorough knowledge of building construction and the latest science related to firefighting can all support increased firefighter safety. While each type of culture may have a different perspective on what constitutes successful firefighting, both cultures support firefighter safety. Despite our difference in opinions, we are not far apart.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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