“Always and Never” Principles in Training

Issue 7 and Volume 9.

As fire officers apply changing fire dynamics to the art and science of firefighting, one thing that is stressed above all else is the importance of thinking on the fireground. A script with “always and never” tactics may make for simplified instruction, but the mindless application of such tactical absolutes is ultimately crippling and does nothing to address the dynamic nature of the modern fireground.

On social media and at the firehouse kitchen table, many discussions about tactics and training are rife with opinionated absolutes; some say “We will always do that” or “We will never do this” with regards to new research that challenges longstanding beliefs and procedures. But absolutes in this sense are far from helpful. As our understanding of fire science grows with each experiment and publication, the best instance to use such absolute terms is in the context of knowledge acquisition: We must always remember to never stop learning.

Coming to Terms

This is an exciting time in the fire service, as our leaders strive to change department operations, policies and training to reflect discoveries and validation coming out of the fire research community. Though our knowledge grows exponentially with every article published in our fire service periodicals, it is challenging to apply this new information to fireground operations. A simplistic solution is to develop a one-size-fits-all list of absolutes, that is, the “always and never” list. Yet fire science reminds—and experience reinforces—that every fire is different.

“Never say never” is a cliché our profession uses to proclaim our tenacity and optimism. Taken in the context of the modern fire attack, however, “never say never” also reminds us that things can and do change. The go-to tactic for one type of fire may work against our efforts for another. For example, applying water from an exterior position prior to offensive entry may be a viable tactic in many situations, but not always. On the flipside, fire science has proven that never being offensive from an exterior position limits our options and can make interior attack much more difficult.

Recognition of dynamic circumstances and an increased understanding of fire science drives the evolution of the job. Yet successes of the past—many of which are true and valid—make it difficult to understand how and why alternative and additional tools are needed. Why should new tools be added to our already extensive toolboxes? This is the danger of “always and never” in tactics and operations—they can limit the number of safe and effective processes at our disposal. The fire scene is so dynamic and moves so quickly that what might be appropriate right now may not be effective in a few minutes or even seconds. Because our knowledge of the enemy is ever-expanding, we must likewise continually expand the arsenal of tools at our disposal.

The Historic Context

Throughout our careers, we remember many old maxims from teaching and training sessions:

  • Always attack the fire from the unburned portions
  • Never put a hose stream in a window

While these principles may hold true in certain situations, relying on absolutes limits an officer’s case-by-case decision making. We can easily disqualify attacking from the unburned side in the context of a wind-driven fire. Similarly, our wildland brethren clearly understand the benefits and increased safety of attacking a wildfire from the “black,” which has already burned. Science, research and field applications have also shown us that new fuel packages require a careful size-up to decide if the best alternative may be to offensively attack from an exterior position, such as directing a hose stream through a window. These illustrations remind us that the brain is as important as brawn in our application of tactics.

The New Context

As instructors, we know the importance of learning transfer. What we have today is an instructor corps that acknowledges the importance of thinking firefighters, officers and chiefs. The challenge is that so many clichés are built around “always and never” that we cannot dismiss these words from our vocabulary. The solution is to revamp and use these powerful words for a new purpose, beginning with this proposed top 10 list for each.

The top 10 actions to always do on the fireground:

  1. Always wear your SCBA in immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmospheres, including overhaul
  2. Always wear your PPE appropriately
  3. Always have a positive water supply
  4. Always conduct a risk/consequence assessment
  5. Always perform a 360° evaluation
  6. Always size up every fire
  7. Always consider fire location and flow path
  8. Always establish a two-out and rapid-intervention crew (RIC)
  9. Always communicate your findings and needs
  10. Always wear your seatbelt

Some of the actions to never do on the fireground:

  1. Never freelance tactics
  2. Never operate in a designated collapse zone
  3. Never risk your life for property
  4. Never risk anything to save nothing
  5. Never breathe smoke
  6. Never operate apparatus at unsafe speeds
  7. Never shortcut training
  8. Never operate without a radio
  9. Never wear bunker gear near open water
  10. Never quit learning

In Sum

“Always and never” are powerful words. They can limit our options or save our lives. As a trainer, as a leader, and as a firefighter, you must be aware of how you use these trump cards. When you address the newest recruit class or the oldest chief, it is appropriate to insist on either term to increase your margin of safety. You must also be aware that “always and never” are not an excuse for not thinking. Tactics, action and the after effects of both require a wise and deliberate use of “always and never.” These words are powerful—always use them wisely and never underestimate their power.