I recently had a situational awareness conversation with a firefighter who shared the details of an incident that made him both proud and disappointed. His company officer decided to do an exterior attack at a residential dwelling fire because the conditions had deteriorated to the point where an interior attack would not be warranted.
This decision was made even though neighbors were reporting there might be someone inside. Based on what I was told, the officer made the right call.
As it turns out, no one was inside and, if they were, the conditions were not compatible with life. This made the firefighter proud. But what happened next left him terribly disappointed.
Apparently, the officer on the second-in engine did not share the same assessment of the conditions and had his crew pull a line and initiated an interior attack. That crew made no progress on putting the fire out or conducing anything close to an effective search. Within thirty seconds of entry they were “bailing out” of the house. The bailout crew commented about how quickly conditions deteriorated around them. These comments left the defensive crew absolutely stunned. The exterior crew saw the conditions as being untenable well before the aggressive crew even entered the structure.
The firefighter I interviewed described the interior crew as “hot dogs” who are always pushing the envelope of safety to the very limits and this time had a consequence as two members on the hot dog crew got burned… needlessly. So why did they enter an environment they should not have been in to begin with? Here are ten possible explanations to ponder:
- The officer on the crew that went interior suffers from low self-esteem and felt the need to justify their value to the organization and their fellow crew members by being overly aggressive.
- The officer on the crew that went interior has an over inflated ego and is of the mindset that “real” firefighters “always” conduct interior attacks, regardless of conditions.
- The officer on the crew that went interior arrived with a predisposed action in mind (aggressive offensive). With that mindset, no amount of clues or cues indicating that it would be a poor action choice is going to change their mind.
- The officer on the crew that went interior suffered from tunnel vision and did not complete a size-up that included the development of strong situational awareness.
- The other members on the crew that went interior were too afraid to speak up to their officer, even if they felt an aggressive interior attack was not appropriate.
- The other members on the crew that went interior did not know how to speak up to express their concerns to a superior officer.
- The officer on the crew that went interior had developed a habit of “always” conducting an aggressive interior attack. Habits are hard to break.
- The officer on the crew that went interior suffers from the “duty to die” syndrome and believes that it is one’s “sworn duty” to be in those conditions and if they dies while doing their job, that is a noble way to die.
- The officer on the crew that went interior has fought many interior fires that they believe were as bad as this one, or worse, and it always turned out okay (ie: no injuries).
- The officer on the crew that was defensive – who was the first arriving officer and designated incident commander – did not stand up to the rogue officer and forbid the interior attack. The officer on the exterior stood by and let it happen. They lacked a strong command presence.
Dr. Gasaway’s Advice:
When you have an event similar to the one described above it is important to learn from it. Oftentimes nothing is said. Sometimes the aggressive interior crew is lauded for their heroic actions. That results in positive reinforcement for undesirable behaviors. Sometimes the crew who chooses to be defensive may be admonished for not being aggressive enough. That results in negative reinforcement of desired behaviors. (I’ll write a separate article about behavior reinforcement soon.)
While these are ten possible explanations, without being at the scene or knowing any of the members of this department, it is virtually impossible for me to know for sure why this happened. But tough questions need to be asked and the core issue for unsafe behaviors needs to be addressed.
NOTE: The sad part of this story is the officer who made the decision to conduct an aggressive interior attack was not among the injured firefighters.
1. Have you ever been in a situation where your officer made a decision to be aggressive offensive under conditions that were untenable? How did you handle it?
2. Why do you think it made sense to the interior officer to conduct aggressive interior operations under such rapidly deteriorating conditions?
3. What are your thoughts about the strength of the situational awareness of the two officers in this story? Why was there such a difference?
4. What can you do to reduce the possibility that you’ll ever be in this situation?
About the Author
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.
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