Always and Never

Issue 1 and Volume 15.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

Nothing is perhaps any more traditional in the fire service than debate. Over the decades everything about us has changed. Everything, from our clothing to our apparatus, from our firehouses to our tactics, has changed. Except debate. But should we have expected debate to change? Would we notice it if it did? I reason with you that debate in the fire service never changes not because we simply engage one another over the same topics repeatedly but because of our own perceptions and beliefs in absolutes, in ‘always’ and ‘never’. You are doing something that I consider to be a great fault, and vice versa, and we debate one another because like all debates, we must force the other to concede that we are right.

The truth is we are all ignorant.

One example of this debate over an absolute last month came out of a Buffalo rescue story and a related FireRescue Magazine article. In Buffalo, firefighters rescued a teenager in her burning home. The bulk of the story and interview with the division chief was about the crew of Ladder 7 doing the rescue without having the protection of a charged hoseline. Related to the news we shared Mike Kirby and Tom Lakamp’s article about uncharged and charged hoseline stretches. The responses about when to charge the hoseline ranged from the easily understandable view of ‘it depends on where the fire is,’ to ‘always charge it before entering the structure,’ and ‘you should never enter a burning structure with an uncharged hoseline.’ Readers and followers dogged each other over who was right and who was wrong. What was left out was the why and that highlights our ignorance.

In my experience, the hoseline was charged when you were at the entrance to the fire area. That may have been the room on fire, or it may have been while you were in the apartment hallway. But if someone were to tell me that we were doing it wrong, I’d have to ask why would they say that? I don’t mean the rote fire science, flowpath answers, but the personal answer. What happened in your own experience to have you follow the absolute of the hoseline must be charged before you enter the building? What bad event hurt you or your department to lead to a firm rule that you must impress upon others? My guess is one of two answers. You were either on the injury end of not having water or that was the rule when you started out and so you just go along with it. Regardless of which it is, I’m now better informed of why you do what you do and why you shared your opinion. We haven’t berated and belittled one another but instead now see clearer where the other stands. And we both move on from that. Maybe one of us will change, maybe not. The bigger issue is that we’re both better informed about what the other does.  Better informed leads to better understanding and a lot less judging you as a coward and me as a cowboy.

Read any FDNY Medal Day book and you’ll see countless examples of firefighters assigned to truck companies making a rescue “without the protection of a charged hoseline.” Read stories of rescues from my county and they’ll mostly involve the crew of the first-due engine company, or the first-due special service while that hoseline is being stretched. Is one better than the other? Of course not; it’s simply differences in how we operate. Once we question someone about why they do it differently, we begin to understand them better. We may not change each other’s views, but we can respect one another better because of that understanding.