In a recent discussion about fire ground effectiveness I asked my peers if it was possible to follow all the rules and still come up with the wrong answer. After the briefest of pauses they answered, “Of course.” My follow up argument was that if the strict following of rules cannot promise success the rule following metric cannot be the sole measurement of individual effectiveness.
Rule following as the primary methodology for fire ground success exists for two basic reasons: it is easy, and it is clean. Either you laid a supply line into the fire or you did not. Either you went to the front door or you went to the rear. Simple and clean.
But what happens when you are faced with a moment-I will choose one that enjoys rampant discussion on the blogs these days. Let’s say you find yourself in front of an obviously vacant structure in the neighborhood of urban blight. There is fire coming from three windows in the front of this two-story house and smoke showing from everywhere else. Just to make things easier, the house is modern lightweight construction and was occupied by the world’s premier pack-rat before going into foreclosure and being abandoned. You know all this, you know the place is vacant, you know the departmental rules about vacant structures. But then you also think that you saw someone in the window when you arrived. You are not sure but you think so.
So you decide to be a rule follower because that is what is easiest. You cannot confirm that someone is trapped in that house. You think you saw something but you were moving, you are breathing heavily, it could have been a shadow. Follow the rules and don’t climb in that window to search.
So you decide to keep your mind focused on the stated fire ground priorities of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. You order you nozzleman to darken down the fire on the first floor through the windows while you and your other firefighter climb a ladder to the window, sound the floor, close the interior door, and search for the shadow. You broke the rules.
Standard operating procedures were designed, as the name implies, for standard situations. It is not everyday you find people in the windows of vacant structures. Some days the rules don’t apply.
This is not to mean that the rules can be disregarded willy-nilly. Most of the situations that we face on a daily basis are standard, the rules do apply, and we are remiss if we don’t follow them. If we make a habit of not following the rules the organizational system, the framework for action, begins to disintegrate into chaos. So, we follow the rules, every single time, unless they don’t apply. I can teach any idiot to follow the rules but the really smart officer knows when it’s the right time to break one.
After the fire is out and the smoke has cleared and the team is full of sports drinks and snacks from the canteen unit we will be asked to account for our actions. Some Chief, some peer, some subordinate will look at what we did and question why we did it that way, or question why we did not follow the rules. Unfortunately that cannot be avoided. Hindsight is a wonderfully clear lens through which to view the world despite its inaccuracies.
I can’t tell you what to do every time unless we are canning peaches on factory assembly line. I can tell you however, that most times, under standard temperatures and pressures, this is how the world behaves and this is how I expect you to react to it.
There has been a great deal of chatter, some intelligent, most not, about the relative merits of the safety culture vs. the aggressive at all costs culture. I tend to resist such simple and reductionist thought processes. What I would like to see is some balance. There is a time to rush headlong into the proverbial battle and a time to squirt water from the street. There is a time to risk everything that ever mattered to you, just make sure it counts when you do.
Sometimes the people who work for me ask about scenarios, “what if.” It is hard to answer those questions but I try. I try to refer the person back to himself or herself and back to the basic premise of why we exist as firefighters. We exist to save stuff, be it people or their belongings, from fire. It cannot be any simpler than that. And because we exist to save stuff we have to know a few things: what stuff is and what it means to save it.
It is quite likely that I will come to you, that you that works for me, one day and ask you, “what did you save.” By way of an answer I would like to hear that you saved something, something meaningful. If it turns out God forbid, that the trade-off for what you saved is you I would hope that in hindsight I could make that meaningful without stretching the truth one bit.
In the end though it is all about balance. We move through organizational and cultural phases. First smooth nozzles and bigger fans, then fog nozzles and no fans. Everyday something changes and soon enough, if we can survive long enough, I am convinced that we will find ourselves right back where we started. But only if we can survive that long.