One of the best articles I have seen all year.

The Pussification of the American Fire Service


I freely admit that this post is coming from a place of anger and frustration. If you don’t like it, tough. It’s my blog, my opinion and this is not a professional, journalistic media. Get over it.

This all started yesterday when a good friend of mine, also a firefighter, posted a link to an article on his Facebook page. This link led you to an article on Fire Chief Magazine’s on-line blog that was written by a Mr. Robert Avsec. This particular blog post dealt with the recent deaths of two Chicago firefighters in a structural collapse at a  vacant laundromat located at 1744 East 75th Street. The basic premise of his post, in my opinion, was that the CFD killed Brothers Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer by conducting an offensive, interior operation for the fire located within this building. Click here to read the article and form your own opinion. I’ll wait here.

So. Whaddya think? Did you come to the same conclusion I did or am I totally off-base? If you think I’m off-base, screw-off. You’re one of the people this post is talking about. Told you I was pissed.

Turns out Mr. Avsec is a retired Battalion Chief from the Chesterfield (VA.) Fire and EMS Department. Looking up Chesterfield on the net I find that it is a county-wide, combination department that protects approximately 466 square miles and an approximate population of 311,000. Not a bad size district and a decent population. I’m sure they, and Mr. Avsec, have seen a couple fires. His article, however, leads me to question both his understanding and commitment to the job of firefighter.

Mister (I’m not even going to give him the courtesy of using his retired rank) Avsec bases much of his argument on the International Association of Fire Chief’s “10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting.” If you have not read this particular document you can click here to view it directly from the IAFC’s website. Again, I’ll be here stewing until you get back.

Interesting reading huh? What I find particularly interesting is that in the introduction of the document the IAFC authors state:

  • A basic level of risk is recognized and accepted, in a measured and controlled manner, in efforts that are routinely employed to save lives and property. These risks are not acceptable in situations where there is no potential to save lives or property.
  • A higher level of risk is acceptable only in situations where there is arealistic potential to save known endangered lives. This elevated risk must be limited to operations that are specifically directed toward rescue and where there is a realistic potential to save the person(s) known to be in danger.

Huh! A certain level of risk is accepted when life could be in danger. Kinda like when there is an abandoned laundromat on fire that has had the gas and electric shut off for years (hence no chance for an accidental ignition), previous fire and EMS runs have made the first-due companies aware that homeless people use this area, and this building in-particular, for shelter, the companies find board-up materials removed in the rear and a door standing open. The only possible argument is the last line in the second bullet point, “where there is a realistic potential to save the person(s) known to be in danger.” But that is only an argument that would be made by those of you on the no-risk bandwagon. The rest of us, those that signed up for the job of firefighter and not that of fire chief/risk manager, would say, in a Chicago accent here, “Ay, if ‘dere ain’t anyone out front pointin’ and yellin’ ‘den I guess we godda go in and make sure ‘dere ain’t anyone in ‘dere.” That’s our job, you bunch of pansie-ass fuck-sticks! You do not simply pull up on a structural fire and automatically write-off the building and any life that may or may not be present simply because the building is abandoned! Period. You pack of assholes. <Exhale>

Rather than keep writing as I get more and more irritated all over again, I am going to post something that was a reply to Mr. Avsec’s article. I think the author of this comment summed it up pretty well. Have at it:

“Bob, I don’t know why your post doesn’t show up here but I feel compelled to comment. I don’t know you, your rank, your department or your experience so I could be commenting on someone who is a chief of a large metropolitan department with 30 years experience, I don’t know. BUT, your article in “support” of the Chicago brothers showed this support by questioning every action of the CFD and, in my opinion, blaming the CFD as a whole for their deaths based upon their operating procedures or your misinformed, lack-thereof.
Firstly, CFD does have SOG’s regarding both abandoned buildings and bow string trusses. I am not a member of CFD but do have friends and other contacts in the CFD. According to both them and published reports, SOG’s for both these types of buildings were followed.
Secondly, as you eluded to in your comment that does not show up here, the first-due companies did find a door propped open and board-up materials displaced. This lead them to believe there was a life-safety issue.
Thirdly, the first-due companies had knowledge due to previous EMS and fire runs that homeless people used the buildings in this area, and this building in particular, for shelter.
Fourth, and I will argue this to the day I die (hopefully not in a fire event in an abandoned building), abandoned buildings do not set themselves on fire. Especially those with electric and gas services shut off.
Fifth and in conjunction with the above point, our job is entirely based upon life safety followed by property conservation. I am in 100% agreement that property conservation is in no way worth anyone’s life or well-being. Especially a building such as the one on East 75th. However, life safety, in my own opinion, is. As you pointed out in your article, we risk ourselves when people or callers are telling us someone is still in the building. In the absence of those bystanders or callers it is up to US, the firefighters who willingly take on a dangerous job, to ensure that everyone is out. This responsibility is not predicated upon what type of building the event is taking place in.
Sixth, the “accepted risk/benefit practices, such as the IAFC’s 10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting” is great for “writing off” buildings and even lives in buildings involved in fire to the point where no reasonable expectation of viable life exists or that the fire is so far advanced that it is not worth the risk of offensive operations. Neither of these conditions existed at this scene. In case you missed it this was a one-line fire that was extinguished and overhaul begun in under 20 minutes. 
The last point I would like to make is a personal one and it also is in regards to the “accepted risk/benefit practices, such as the IAFC’s 10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting”. This is a dangerous profession. I will not risk my life unnecessarily for a life or a building that is lost. However, the problem with these “rules of decision making” is that they use static flow-charts to try and control a dynamic and unique environment. You need only look at the annual Firehouse Magazine Hero’s edition for proof. If you read those snippets of actions taken by firefighters from around the country the ones that are recognized the highest are usually for those involving great personal risk that resulted in the saving of a life or, at the least, giving that life the greatest chance at being saved i.e. the rescue was effected but the person succumbed anyway. How many of those simply would have added to another fire fatality statistic had the “model” been employed?”

Damn, wish I would have said that <wink>.

Over the last few years it seems to me that the American Fire Service has suddenly lost any form of balls it once had. Our fire chiefs came up, pulled down our zippers, yanked off our junk and threw them in their collective purses. Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again, fire chiefs. In general you won’t find too many firefighters who think they should not encounter any risk in the performance of their jobs. Evidently our chiefs do. Do not get me wrong. I will not risk my own life or safety for a life that is already lost or a building that has nothing left to save (sounds kinda familiar, almost like that was written somewhere else). I will, however, gladly and to the best of my ability and last of my strength risk my life in an attempt to save another human being’s life. And yes, even if I don’t even know if that human being is even in there or not.

Another good friend of mine spent nearly a month in the burn unit after he was caught in a “rapid progression fire event.” He and his partner were searching the top floor of a Chicago brownstone for kids that were reported trapped. The fire had originated on the rear porch, a “Chicago lumberyard” as they are known. While my buddy and his partner were in the front room the rear door failed due to the fire, the fire rushed down the common front-to-back hall, into the living room where they were located and out the front, large, picture window that had been ventilated during their search. My buddy’s partner was able to roll behind a couch and pull it on top of him and suffered only a couple minor burns. My buddy, on the other hand, was directly underneath the picture window when the “freight-train of fire”, to use his words, blew over the top of him and briefly enveloped him. Pain, disability, skin grafts, infections, rehab and 9 months later he was back to work. Oh, and those kids they were looking for? Not there. They were down the block at a relative’s house and the other occupants of the building didn’t know. Does that mean that my buddy and his partner should not have been there? Does that mean that they essentially burned themselves? If you answered “yes” to either of those, fuck-off. Do I make myself clear?

The job of firefighter is inherently dangerous and may require us at any moment to put ourselves at great risk. Not carelessly, not recklessly, not without a real justification. What I think has happened in recent years is that those situations that are truly justified have been narrowed to such a fine focus that many in today’s fire service, such as Mr. Avsec, would only advocate the risk of a firefighter when there is stone-sober, MENSA member standing in the front of the fire building, pointing to a specific window, with a blueprint of the building and a personal guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Bullshit.

Ok, I need to go have a snort of something and calm down. While I’m doing that why don’t you go over to Chris Brennan’s page at “Fire Service Warrior” here and read his post entitled, “Quit Telling Me to Change My Culture.” He writes a good article and you won’t have to be subjected to all the profanity and negativity I just bombarded you with.

Until the next thing pisses me off,

Stay Safe!

Hallway Sledge

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FETC, Don't insult the "left" by saying "Some fire chief's have gone so far left to the safety side". ;)
Thanks to EngineLadder and Hallway Sledge for this discussion. It has been a good read. These types of discussions are why I read this web site. The information from all contributors has been thoughtful and well presented without a lot of attacking the senders. Keep it up, I will use this for a drill at the firehouse. I hope Paul and Chief Reason are reading, I know they would enjoy this type of use of the site.
Be thoughtful and aggressive!
Ok, Ben. You keep drawing me back in. Do you just want me to capitulate and declare you the winner? You are not going to change my mind and I am not going to change yours.

My statement that the first-due knew of the potential life-hazard from "previous fire and EMS" runs is not from direct knowledge. It is from news reports and statements made by CFD personnel. Do I know for certain that the personnel that responded on that morning had been to that building previously, taken a good look around on those runs and made mental notes? No, I don't. Just like you don't know that they had that knowledge and decided to do their jobs anyway based upon the information they were given. I simply used that statement to iterate the fact that they had previous knowledge of a potential life safety issue. Nothing more.

As for what tasks were being performed at the time of the collapse. I don't know. Both members killed were from Engine companies. This would lead me to believe that they were involved in the fire attack and were either performing mop-up or support for overhaul. Now, both members could have been detailed to Truck companies for the day, I don't know. But your argument that if they were not involved in search then this whole thing doesn't matter isn't accurate either. A well planned search is done in conjunction with a coordinated fire attack i.e. line advancement and ventilation as well as other support operations. I'm a little confused by that statement. In your mind if a search was being conducted, risky as it may be, should ONLY a search crew have been committed and that's it? That's taking a risky endeavor and making it more so if you ask me.

I guess what I'm really confused about, beside the fact that you just want to argue and pick on minutiae, is what you advocate. "A better way", doesn't cut it. I used the Heroes edition as an example of fire situations that had a risk management model been employed probably would not have resulted in a save or removal being made. But what I think you are saying, throughout all these threads, is that based upon statistics and type of building we should not risk injury or death in an attempt to either rescue a known life in danger or the attempt to verify that there is no life in danger in buildings that are not obviously inhabited on a regular basis and that there needs to be a better way to confirm those inferences prior to committing anyone to the inside. I think that is what I'm gathering, anyway. So here is my question, what type of evidence is needed to support your statement, "we need to find ways to improve our decision-making in these situations and to kill fewer firefighters, especially if the structure is obviously completely boarded up or if there is evidence that the occupants have self-evacuated, as apparently happend in the case under discussion, the W6 fire, and many others." I don't understand what the "evidence" of someone leaving is? Wouldn't it be the same as someone potentially being in there, an open door perhaps? Again, back to the absence of hard, reliable information leading you to believe the information giver that no one is inside it is still up to us to ensure that to be the case. Then, if you want to pull out and have a s'more roasting party, great, I guess.

I would challenge your statement of,"The obvious question there is that if we rarely change the outcome, shouldn't we re-think when and why we search?." Why? Because life-safety is our top priority. When? Any time there is evidence that there is or may be someone in trouble and it is realistic to do so. To put another spin on this argument, if we used the statistic model of why and when and applied it to CPR what do you think would happen? Every time First Responders, EMT's or Medics showed up to a full-arrest we wouldn't do it. I also do not have hard and fast numbers but I'd be willing to bet an entire 4 quarters of watching that horrible football team of yours that the number of full-arrests that wind up dying on a daily basis versus those that are saved with CPR being performed in both cases is pretty lopsided on the end of those patients dying. In my 17 years I've had 8 saves, only 4 of which walked out of the hospital later on. But we still do CPR on every code, right? Why? Because it gives the best shot at survival for the patient. Now I know, no one is going to get killed doing CPR. Don't twist this, I'm using it as an example to compare.

So, 10 or 20 years from now when we have some sort of electric gizmo that kinda looks like a TIC but that can see through walls and let us look inside the building from the outside to see if anyone is in there or not will I be making the same argument? No. Unless the batteries go out ;)

Evidence of someone leaving - could it be that open door you're talking about? It could be having someone ask bystenders "Do you know if anyone was inside and did you see them leave?" Or, it could simply having a good idea of the abandoned/derelict/decaying structures in your area and pre-planning ones that require defensive-only strategies to prevent well-intentioned suicide missions.

Life Safety includes ours as well as the civilians.

And once again, I don't know what the CFD members who died were doing. I asked and apparently that information has not been made public. However, if they were overhauling, that tends to indicate that the search had been completed. If the search was complete, then once again, the "why do we search" question probably does not apply to that specific incident.

There's another way to look at hoseline support for searches, too. It is a fact that exposing fewer firefighters to a collapse hazard reduces the possible number of firefighters that can be injured by a possible collapse. You tell me that searching supported by a hoseline can can increase firefighter safety, and situationally, it can. However, I have yet to see a hoseline keep a structure from falling down on firefighters. I also have yet to see an overhaul situation where a hoseline was needed to protect a search team, but if someone can demonstrate that possibility, I'm open to it. I doubt that it involves "coordinated fire attack" of the kind required to attack a free-burning fire, though.

I want firefighters to survive in the kind of situations that have killed us in the past and that are still killing us.
If that's "minutiae", then how high is your bar set to get to "important".

You're still putting words into my mouth on when and why we search and on the number of variables that are involved upon determining when to search, too. I seems that you're still trying to oversimplify this into a binary choice searching everything that firefighters can physically enter and don't search only if fire conditions keep you out.

However you slice it, structural conditions are important, and life safety includes FIREFIGHTER life safety.

Those vacant buildings may or may not be occupied when we pull up, but they definately become occupied as soon as the first firefighter enters.

Your CPR anology is actually a better one than you may have intended. The Utstein Template shows us what inteventions work and which ones do not. The places that use it tend to dramatically improve their cardiac arrest survival rates, because they use a system that indicates which interventions do and do not work.

The other thing about the new CPR standards is that there is a new emphasis on either not starting CPR or in terminating it in the field based upon the Principle of Futility.
Ben, I hope we have been friends long enough now that you did not take offense to my football jab, I was chiding you. You can put that helmet icon back up if you want to.

Your entire first paragraph of your latest response was what I have said at some point or another during this entire thing. Thank you for finally agreeing with me. What you have not done, is answer any of the scenarios I have proposed. I don't really mind. This is fun to me and if you just want me to keep answering points while you do not that is fine too. Again, don't take that personally.

I still remain confused. I think I have done a pretty good job throughout of making it clear I am also on the side of firefighter life safety, yet you continue to hammer me on it. You also continue to pick on things like my use of "first-due companies had knowledge from previous fire and EMS runs" and my example of the Firehouse edition. That is what I mean by "minutiae", you are looking at small points and picking on them trying to make them larger issues of the overall argument while not answering the larger, tougher questions like what do you do when you pull up on the marked firefighter life safety hazard building and see someone disappear into the smoke? I also tried to ask you a question to explain your position better by stating what I thought was your argument to when and when not to search but you did not expound on it or make your case any more clear. I am still just as confused as before. It seems you are reading my responses and picking them apart for any perceived weakness and then hounding on those rather than answering questions or offering solutions. Let me make it clear, I do not believe there is one clear-cut solution to this issue, hence the on-going rhetoric.

As for the hoseline discussion. I have to completely disagree. Properly placed and operated hoselines have definitely prevented structural collapse by stopping fire progression and further weakening of the structure, even during overhaul. Overhaul, by my definition, is the period of time after the initial fire attack when the bulk of active fire has been extinguished and companies are looking for hidden, active fire that could become, if left unchecked, free-burning and significantly larger in volume thereby weakening the structure and increasing the risk of collapse. So yes, a manned hoseline needs to be in place both for support of the search (put the fire out and the problem goes away), direct fire attack and for overhaul. A primary and secondary search may very well still be under way depending on the size and complexity of the building after the initial firefight is over. While I numerically agree with your statement that placing a manned line inside a building definitely exposes more firefighters to risk I do not agree with not having one in there at all if you plan on committing a team to search. There are certainly times when search is conducted in advance of the line but a line is still deployed. Again, you did not answer my question to you in my previous reply regarding if you advocate ONLY sending in a search team if you do commit to a search, thereby not placing any additional firefighters at risk? I'm not trying to put words into your mouth, I'm trying to understand exactly what you are saying because thus far I do not.

What I absolutely understand is that you are whole-heartedly on the side of firefighter advocacy and safety. So in that regard we are on the same side. What I do not understand or agree with is your seeming position on when or why we search, because you have not answered any of my scenarios. I think you advocate not searching if there is no hard, direct evidence or information that there is definitely a life in danger. That is not putting words into your mouth, that is what I think you are saying by what you have written. To use a line from one of my favorite movies, "your intellect is truly dizzying." I also think I understand that you believe that it is unreasonable to search a building that is decayed either by nature, failure to perform maintenance or by impact of fire. What I have asked on a couple of occasions is what you would do in the absence of an obvious indicator of structural instability, such as a partially crumbling wall or an obvious hole in the roof. Using video and still pictures available on the net I have to say that the building in question looked like thousands of others in that area of the city from the ground elevations visible. I do not know what the roof looked like at the time of the fire or what Truck crews observed when they got to the roof. As I stated in a previous reply, if the Truck had made observations indicating structural compromise and had reported them to command then perhaps a withdrawal of the troops was warranted. I have no idea if those conditions existed, were observed and were subsequently reported to command.

As for the CPR stuff. I am familiar with Utstein and also advocate the recommendations it contains. We agree on something. Anyway, if something existed that was scientifically and practice based that was applicable to search I would, probably, embrace it. The IAFC's "10 Rules for Structural Firefighting" and other models like it, are not, in my opinion. Are they a start? Perhaps. But for them to be receiving the accolades that they are as some sort of absolute answer, again in my opinion, is not accurate. So if you are advocating looking for that absolute, and I believe you are, then that is fine. I support you. Until that is in place however, I personally believe we need to be doing it the old fashioned way and do it in as safe a fashion as possible while not being paralyzed into inaction under the auspices of safety.

Be safe!

Crap! Don't know why all that is in BOLD. I'm not yelling at you Ben. Honest.
I thought that I'd made it pretty clear that I the decision to search or not search is situational.

You want an answer to a hypothetical with unknown variables. It sounds to me that you're trying to paint me as anti-search unless there's essentially no risk. That's simply not the case.

I do advocate for knowing as much about the structure as possible in advance and including structural condition in my go/no go decision. I also advocate for using a strategy that commits the minimum number of firefighters necessary to do the job if conditions are iffy.

As for searching without a line, once again, that is situational. I've searched while dragging a hoseline in short-handed situations, I've searched off the line while an engine protected me, and I've searched without a line, without a search rope, and without a TIC in what was definately the "old fashioned way".

I don't advocate the old-fashioned way by itself, though. Current technology like TICs means that we should no longer be groping through the smoke, which was the only way to do it back in the day.

I've also buried a close friend who was killed in a collapse searching for two reported children in a house fire, at night, in 1989. (I didn't work the fire, but did work the investigation the next day.) The kids had escaped on their own, but that wasn't known at the time. That house was a solid-appearing Type III and the collapse was completely without warning. If I had what was known about that situation today, I'd do the search again, but I'd do my best to see that the structure was more completely assessed and that if necessary, the searchers were withdrawn in order to save their lives.

As for how I respond to you, I'm just looking at things that you said that seem to be inconsistent from one post to the next. That's why I ask questions and that's why I point out specific points.

I still think that you want an oversimplified way to make a go/no go decision, and that you think that the default should be to search for possible life unless the structure is obviously not tenable.

I essentially want the same thing, but I want to do a more in-depth job of making sure that the building really is more tenable and that any offensive operation passes a risk-benefit test based both upon pre-emergency planning and upon a well-done size-up.

Once again, the answer to each of your questions is "It's situational".
No problem.

BTW, I changed my avatar photo before I saw your comment and the comment doesn't bother me anyway.
Wait until next season...or the season after that...or the season after that.
Ben, first, let me say how sorry I am for the loss of your friend. The story I relayed in my post about my buddy nearly being killed was horrible for me personally. I can't even imagine actually having lost him. I am truly sorry. I also think that goes a long way in explaining the position that you hold on this topic and why you are so passionate about it. I'm sure it's not the only factor, but it has to be a major one.

Ok, so I think I finally understand your position fully. Whether I just wasn't picking up on it or was getting caught up in the minutiae myself I don't know, but I think I finally get it. And guess what? I think we pretty much agree! Holy crap! All this back and forth to come down to this. I also agree that the go/no go decision is situational, based upon life safety indicators (whatever they may be), the condition of the structure and the progression of the fire. I think that where we may differ is what we individually consider to be legitimate indicators of life safety endangerment and what we would individually consider a "safe" building or situation to enter that building. I'm ok with those differences. Ask a 100 firefighters about a scenario and you'll get 100 different answers, right? I did think you were of the position that if the building was abandoned that search should not be attempted. I apologize for my misinterpretation. Now that I am more clear on your position I see that you do not fit Janet Wilmoth's evident stance that homeless people who may or may not be present in a structure may or may not be worth searching for. At least I hope you do not think that.

I do still think that the default should be search. After all, we still search structures that we have been told by reliable witnesses are empty. I also advocate the use of technology, such as TIC's, in the completion of those searches. I do not preach the reliance on that technology, however, as all technology can and will fail. I also support your position that firefighters should be armed with every piece of information available for the building they are responding to. I am also realistic in that obtaining, compiling and delivering that information to companies on the street may be a painfully slow or even non-existent possibility (due to budgetary constraints, access to technology etc.). That does not mean that I don't think we should move towards that, I do. But in the mean time I think we need to default to our most basic operational abilities, provided it is safe to do so. The "safe" moniker is going to be different from firefighter to firefighter and officer to officer. I think it is "safe" to say that you and I probably have different definitions of "safe" in some situations. And that's ok. I don't consider myself overly reckless or you handcuffed by safety, anymore.

So, I guess with that being said, we don't have anything to debate anymore, huh? Unless there's anything more I have contradicted myself on you'd like me to clarify.

If there isn't, it has certainly been fun and informative. Please continue to be safe and have a great career.

I guess I live and work in East Podunk USA because my MDT flashes red on the address line when the Fire Chief, Fire Officer, Ambulance Attendnant, Inspections Division, Dispatcher or even the City Building Department makes an entry into the system thats lists a hazardous occupancy entry.

Once I click on "Occupancy Information" tab, there are properties for which that are in my district that are DO NOT ENTER dwellings.

Therefore, if I were to make entry, I am going to be afforded a pleasnt sit down with someone in the Ivory Hallway.
Now now now. Don't take offense. I too have similar information on my MDT for some buildings in town. I was merely using an example, perhaps poor, that it may be more feasible and expedient to gather and input that information in a smaller jurisdiction than the city of Chicago. That's all.

I know you may find this shocking, but I'm familiar with the climb to the Ivory Tower too. It sucks.
I just realized the misprint: the year was 1979, not 1989. I didn't let it stop me from searching when I thought it was appropriate, or from ordering searches when I was in command and thought it was appropriate.

In 1979 and for quite some time after, I didn't really put a lot of thought into exactly what kind of building or fire conditions I ran into, unless it was hopeless. Then one day I realized a few things...

1) Usually, being in the hospital HURTS.
2) None of us will live forever.
3) None of us are fireproof.
4) If 4 tons of building falls on me, it's going to kill me, even if we have a 5-ton ass.
5) Some of the old-time chiefs were pretty smart, but not all of them.
6) None of us have a compartment full of good luck on the rig.
7) My wife and kids don't think there's any hopeless situation that's worth my life in trade.
8) Some days, all you can do is to not make things worse.

I have ultimate respect for Chief McNamee, too. He had to make a decision that I fervently hope I'll never have to make.

THAT decision was REAL courage.

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