THE LOSS OF SKILL By: Ray McCormack

THE LOSS OF SKILL-By Ray McCormack

Many in today’s fire service feel that there is resistance to change in regard to extinguishment techniques and other tactics, and they are correct. While resistance is what is felt, the reality is that changes need to be peer-reviewed–not just by a select few, but by departments, as well. Resistance toward change is one thing; resistance to changes is another. However, all of this is a good thing, because changes, especially ones that may go against department policy and extinguishment culture, are critically important and typically require measured acquisition.

The silent component of pushback on many changes is that they reduce the skill levels of firefighters. Some of the biggest centers of resistance to new extinguishment decrees are places where fires occur frequently. This makes sense because those that have developed the skills necessary to attack fires from the interior see little need to change. This is especially true since little science has been produced to prove that they are incorrect in their approach.

The training of firefighters is about skill development. Firefighters are taught how to put out fires from the interior by using the nozzle a certain way and how to advance through a structure while dragging a hoseline behind them. This is not a two-minute lesson even for a rookie; the basics of even the basics takes time. Firefighters who have advanced into the real world and have battled fires from inside learn from experience and repetition how to do it better and more effectively. Hence we have firefighters with skill levels that allow them to extinguish fires from inside the building.
When a firefighter is instructed to shoot the stream into a window opening for several seconds, the lesson is over. If we are to believe that there is a skill level to this action, then that is your prerogative, but I do not see it. While this tactic can darken down a room for firefighters, there is no experience gain. We have decreed a fire tactic that only lowers skill levels.
Using this tactic as a standard approach to any and all fires is an option departments are choosing and touting as being progressive.

While the modern fire environment took at least 30 years to be recognized, it is our new normal. For firefighters to be told over and over that the risks involved with challenging this new fire is something best handled from outside is a slippery slope to when they eventually go inside without the pre-washdown.  Firefighters understand modern hydraulic forcible entry tools and how they can force a door just by pumping a handle and inserting the expandable jaws between the jam and the door. The other thing they understand is that their irons skill level diminishes every time they use the hydraulic tool. Can the hydraulic tool work faster? Yes it can, but not on every door. The firefighter that has forced a door with their hand tools, with their mind engaged in the steps required, is a skilled firefighter. A firefighter who takes every door with the hydraulic opener is less skilled. They can start with equal skill levels, but when one uses a tool that requires little instruction beyond a one-minute demonstration, we will have firefighters with fewer skills.

The thermal imaging camera (TIC) is another example of a tool that is fantastic until the battery dies. Firefighters are always cautioned against searching without a constant landmark while using the TIC. For many, the TIC is just a better flashlight. While the TIC can be much more, it also obviously allows firefighters to move quicker than before and can and has led to the omission of solid search skills.

If you do not think that the fire service is up on its game and firefighters do not train enough, does any of this work against training? Some will say, on the contrary, these things just need to be incorporated into the training. I agree, we must always incorporate all new tools into training, but it seems like moving forward can also put us two steps back.
The reduction of firefighter skill sets–especially physical ones that engage the thinking firefighter–is on an upswing. If you keep firefighters outside a building while you look for a window to shoot water into, but then preach that your department will do it differently when their is no window, you must ask who has prepared your people. Because you probably have not. Over-reliance upon tools and tactics that reduce a firefighter’s ability to be a firefighter even in the modern fire environment is a steep price to pay for avoidance.

Keep Fire in Your Life
Lt. Ray McCormackRAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine. For more on Urban Firefighter, visit http://www.fireengineering.com/urbanfirefighter.html.

MORE RAY McCORMACK
Interpretive Dance: Hose Stream Comparison Test
Back to the Future
A Prevention Message
Short Cuts – Long Heals
Risk a Lot, Save a Lot
Another Fire Station Burns Down
DICERS-VO: Protecting the Egress
A High Level of Risk

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2 comments

  1. Ray is correct that modern devices have left the fire community vulnerable to what if’s.
    What if the TIC dies? The Hydra-Ram croaks? What if you go too deep into the fire apartment without knowing the winds effect on the fire floor? Training on just those possibilities (no matter how remote) will keep today’s firefighter alive. All members should be able to search in complete darkness. They should know what part of the building they are in FROM THEIR KNEES or BELLY!

  2. Chief Gary Bowker (Ret)

    I couldn’t agree more that the skills required for entry, search, and fire attack, etc., have to be continually emphasized and honed by our firefighters to stay proficient. However to discount the transitional attack method simply because less skill is required to implement this tactic to me isn’t a good enough reason to not consider its use in certain fire situations. Its just another tool to have in our toolbox along with many others. Most of my 40+ years of experience as a firefighter and chief officer has been in departments where we arrive on scene of a working structure fire w/ perhaps only 5 to 7 personnel for the first fifteen minutes. The transitional has proven itself very effective and useful in certain situations while crews are preparing to make entry. Ray presents thought provoking article much of which I agree with. I think the peer review process is a great point. The over reliance on anything is never a good idea, and will reduce a firefighters skills and abilities. However, I do not consider the use of newer tools & tactics, if used properly, and at the right time and place, will reduce a firefighter’s ability to be a good firefighter. I want my firefighters to be smart (well trained) and aggressive. 21st century fires require 21st century tactical thinking. Just my two cents worth. Thanks for a good article.

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