Spend just the minimum of hours teaching building construction to a classroom of new firefighter recruits and you'll most likely state the words: The building is your enemy; know your enemy. The late Francis L. Brannigan coined the phrase in his 1971 book Building Construction for the Fire Service and a devote following of fire instructors have echoed it for decades.
Near the start of the next class you instruct on structural fire attack ask your students; “How many of you are hunters?” With luck, most of the hands will go up. Bless your lucky stars as delivering your message just got easier. While the building is still the enemy, the modern firefight takes this enemy territory one step further. The modern firefight is about the prey and the predator. The prey is you and your firefighters, the predator is the fire.
Survival of the prey depends on the ability of the prey to expertly respond to changes in its environment. The keener the prey the sooner it learns and responds to the changes. Ideally, the prey learns to adapt before the predator takes advantage of the changes to help confuse, trap, and kill, the prey.
Fight and flight are survival skills inherited by the best of prey. Fight the fire at its source, but know when its time for flight. Flight is a valuable life saving skill practiced by the most skilled of prey. Flight is never quitting or giving up. It’s a viable conclusion based on a split second summary of knowledge, training, and experience. It is an instinctive reaction that launches a survival based action. Reacting with instinctive flight avoids major injury or death; ignore the warning and fall prey to the expert predator.
Nature does not reason or rationalize, nor can it apply research. The ability to take research and apply reason and rational decision making to its conclusions is an ability unique to humans. As firefighters, company officers, administrators, and instructors, we need to take today's research and apply it not only in the classroom, but to our fire ground command, tactics, and strategies as well.
Study and learn to instantly recognize and react to the signs and signals of the modern fire environment. Beat the predator at the game by making inspection holes above and below immediately upon entry to any building that could harbor lightweight construction (LWC). Look at more than just the surface temperatures noted on your thermal imaging camera; learn to recognize the thermal signatures and clues of LWC and probable compromise of structural materials that will lead to global collapse of the structure.
And most importantly, know your lead out time complete with a command 360 of the building. Make it the first due engines immediate priority to get sufficient suppression water between any possible victims and the fire. Suffice to say “get water on the fire." Beat the predator in the new enemy environment, and live to fight another day.
Vicki Schmidt is a fire services instructor and a geographical information specialist for the state of Maine. She also serves on the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission and is a firefighter and training officer for the Buckfield Fire Department. Schmidt's fire service activities also include Maine's Fire & Life Safety Technical Advisory Group and coordinating the Western Maine Fire Attack School.