Inside Versus Outside: Picking Sides in the Fire Dynamics Research

By Eddie Buchanan

Ever since we started to pay attention to the fire dynamic research over a decade ago, there has been a battle brewing between those who think firefighting should be done from the inside versus the outside. Thousands of website clicks, Facebook page likes and retweets are generated daily over this debate. Social media would have you believe that you have to pick one side or the other – the “hit it hard from the yard,” or the “push down the hot hallway” team.

My personal opinion is that you would be short-sighted to pick either one as an absolute. What the research has taught me is the fastest water often wins, from wherever you can get it. Th is concept is very similar to what I first learned about firefighting as a kid in the very early ‘80s. Get water on the fire – now! When you make the fire go away, everything on the fireground improves.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the honor to present around the state with John Salka, retired Battalion Chief from the FDNY, as part of FASNY’s Training and Education series. Our mission has been to discuss the different viewpoints on the research and how fire departments can interpret the information. One thing in our discussions has remained consistent: The context and situation at hand dictate which tactic may be best at a moment in time.

Chief Salka and I typically discuss the wide number of variables that are unknown at most our fires. We don’t always know where the fire is, what fuels are involved, and the status of potential victims. Add to that variable staffing levels, extended response times and other “wild cards” and you have a dynamic, complicated mess.

So, how do you choose the right tactic for any particular fire?

Some seem to be on a search for the “magic tactic” that will fit every situation. You hear things like, “We always attack from the inside,” or “Always attack from the outside first.” Unfortunately, neither of these tactics are always the best choice. For example, even if you could arrange for two identical fires, different staffing levels could cause you to make different tactical choices. As firefighters, we realize that we have to master a very complex craft that is based on many variables. We have to be able to make split-second decisions that are based on our mission priorities. I doubt you will hear military units say they always use the front door. They will likely say something like, “It depends on the location of the enemy,” plus a bunch of other variables. Sure, there are great tactical advantages to the front door for firefighting, but there are situations that could cause that to not be the best choice at that moment.

The first arriving officer must develop the ability to recognize the type of construction they are working with, any potential rescues that may exist and the fire conditions present during their initial size-up.

They have to observe what the pressure in the building is saying about the interior conditions. These conditions could be obvious via a clear flow path visible from the exterior. Or it could be more ambiguous with a fire that has recently gone vent-limited. The conditions on arrival will set the pace and priority for particular tactics. Rescue has been a constant concern since the research began.

Make no mistake: Rescue of building occupants was, is, and always will be the fire department’s highest priority. The fire department is technically always in rescue mode! There is no off switch or checkbox where we can no longer consider rescue. You never know when you might encounter an occupant, but hopefully not after the secondary search!

Staffing and conditions also play a major role in how you may attempt a rescue. Optimally, enough resources will arrive on scene in a sequence that allows multiple tasks to occur simultaneously.

Water can be applied as the building is vented and rescue efforts get underway. Th is becomes more complicated when sufficient resources are not available in time to support simultaneous operations. First arriving officers are often forced to make hard choices that are sometimes unfair for the occupants and firefighters on scene. Yet, the situation is what it is, and that first fire officer will have to do the best they can with what they have at that moment.

The officer, in essence, has to decide whether is it better to remove the victim from the threat or the threat from the victim with the resources they have at that moment. Obviously, doing both at the same time is best, but that may not be an option with limited staffing. In limited staffing situations, it is not uncommon to see search operations initiated through a vent-enter-search (or now vent-enter-isolate-search) method when conducted ahead of the initial water. This would likely be the call if a truck company arrived ahead of the engine company. This stems from understanding that opening a vent-limited fire prior to water application can lead to significantly worse conditions for anyone inside. Should the engine arrive solo for more than a few minutes, the engine may attempt to search from the line as they advance inside. The engine may also have elected to cool from an exterior position if that got water on or near the fire faster.

As practitioners of our craft, firefighters must be able to recognize the situation at hand, the physics behind it all, and call on the best technique to address that particular problem. This is a complex task, but it is also the essence of what we do. Rather than seeking a magic bullet to solve all your problems, master all of the tactical options so that you can call on them and execute the effectively when they are needed. Does that make your job as a firefighter more complicated? Probably so. But, that’s our mission.

I think of it as a return to the thinking of the pre-automatic nozzle and cross lay days. We used to carry a variety of nozzles on the rig. We had fog nozzles, smooth bore nozzles, distributor nozzles, piercing nozzles, etc. We would choose the best nozzle for the situation at hand. With modern fire dynamics research, we compounded that decision-making to add the “why” to what we are doing and when we choose to do it. Context matters a great deal in choosing the proper tactics. So, rather than joining the “inside” or “outside” team, learn to play both sides! It’s the only way to consistently win for both the potential victims and the firefighters on-scene.

Eddie Buchanan began his fire service career in 1982 and is an Assistant Chief with Hanover Fire & EMS in Richmond, Virginia. He is a Past President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is the 2015 recipient of the George D. Post Instructor of the Year Award from the ISFSI. He serves on the Executive Advisory Board of Fire Engineering Magazine and FDIC and is the author of the Volunteer Training Officer’s Handbook from Pennwell Publishing. He serves on the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training and the newly formed NFPA 1700 Committee. He is a past board member of the Volunteer/Combination Officer’s Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and serves on a variety of advisory boards and committees for the fire service industry. Chief Buchanan is known for the creation of the SLICE-RS concept that is part of the ISFSI Principles of Modern Fire Attack Program.