Nothing is “forever” in this work

I spend a lot of time observing, that is, observing people. Anywhere, anytime – stores, malls, beach, neighborhood pool, streets, whatever. I think most of us do, although my wife, Teri, says I should be a lot less obvious about it. I do not agree. If I want to watch, I will watch; that’s why I have sunglasses.

I also enjoy watching (with intentional self-restraint) what people “put out there” online, and lately there’s been a lot of chatter related to firefighting and searching buildings vacant.

One example: Someone reacted negatively on social media to a post from retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vinny Dunn, a world-renowned author, instructor and subject matter expert, who said that “as Commander of incidents for over 25 years in New York City, which has battled many vacant building fires, I have never found a dead squatter in a vacant building after a fire.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been other fires where searches were made and rescues were made, whether in New York or elsewhere. That means it’s what Chief Dunn has been through as a seasoned boss and something we need to keep in mind when making fire decisions. Why? Because as we should know by now, nothing is “forever” in this work, and that is absolutely not black or white when responding to fires. Really, the only things all fire departments have in common are size, determining your requirements, and applying immediately available resources.

Everything else depends.


“The most important thing – and something we need to keep in mind when making decisions about fires – is that nothing is ‘always’ in this work,” writes Goldfeder. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Decisional divergence

Let me break it down so you can understand why there really is no “always” in fire decision making. Consider these factors:

  • 911 call processing time: Are your dispatchers spending 3-4 minutes wasting time asking unnecessary questions before your alarm is activated? IMO, that’s all we need: where is it? What is that? What’s your phone number? So activate the damn fire department, then keep asking all the questions. Races can be upgraded or downgraded by the responding boss as needed.
  • Delivery time : How long does it take from when basic questions are asked to when your department is alerted? You would be surprised. Forget CAD prints; they are only as good as the one hitting the keyboard at all times. Go listen to the raw audio tapes at your local center to determine exactly the time it takes for a dispatcher to answer the 911 call until your service is activated.
  • Exit time: Are you a staffed service? Are your members taking way too long to get on the platforms? Do your members respond quarterly? There is a huge Cost of life difference when your fire station is unstaffed.
  • Make the endowment: How many interior firefighters are on the rigs when your first alarm occurs – 3, 4, 12, 25, 30? When you look at the tasks needed on a small residential fire (1200 square feet), you need 20-25 members quickly to do what we are doing simultaneously. Think water supply, pumping, minimum three line stretch, ladder throws, forced entry and search and rescue – you know, everything we do. The fire doesn’t care if you take a minute or 30 minutes to arrive. But people in the car from home a plot.
  • Response time and time and distance of your first alarm: How far are you from the fire? In cities, it’s a few blocks away. In the suburbs, a few kilometers. In rural areas, a while – a long time. Wherever your employees live, they need to be well informed of when they can expect your fire department to arrive with a team and bosses who have a clue.
  • Early warning resources: What are you sending? Do you really use automatic mutual aid or do you expect to arrive at the fire. do you use “personalized support” – you know, IOW you call the FDs you like instead of the ones you don’t like. I’m not talking about calling the nearest and most appropriate FD when you need special equipment. I’m talking about calling “those bastards” in the nearby community because they can deliver firefighters quickly, even if their leader is married to your ex-wife, husband, or both. Move on.
  • Training of members at the first alert: What are the qualifications, training and attitude of the sponsoring members? Do the rigs arrive with people who barely have a pulse or firefighters who follow instructions, take training seriously and are happy to be there?

My point: In North America, if you’ve seen ONE fire department, you’ve only seen ONE fire department. Like it or not, that’s how it is. Nothing is the same from one community to another and nothing is “always”.

Go/no go decisions

Let’s go back to where we started – the recent discussions of Abandoned, Vacant, and Abandoned Building (AVD) fires and whether members should search. To me, it’s simple: based on your department’s policies and training, and clear expectations from the department head, you do what you’re trained and directed to do. It depends on your size, on-site conditions and immediately available resources. More specifically, every fire requires an assessment, but this action can only be applied according to the conditions and in particular the immediately available resources. Everything else, including our ability to meet occupant needs, depends on these factors.

So, who makes the decision to go/not to go? The first company officer to arrive or the chief on site. It starts there, and they are held accountable for their own decisions. The good ones understand it and do it. I have found that the most experienced, trained and “in the job” firefighters – those who have had critical incident command – will consider all aspects of the go/no go decision. throughout the incidentalways depending – say it with me – on size, conditions and resources.

Keep in mind that we spend a lot of time making it clear to firefighters that there are no straight answers. This can be difficult to understand when the IC can be anyone from a strong and experienced veteran member to a brand new company officer or even a “rising” firefighter with no command related experience. Either way, all of these fire scene decisions are up to them and they have a lot to consider.

If your first alarm has 20-30 good people, they can do more, often simultaneously – far more than if they had 4-6 people. It’s a simple calculation. Remember tasks, prioritized by size. Often, water on the heat quickly is the best solution. It’s not something new, it’s been around forever. But no still, as there are occasions where we may need to do something else first, perhaps search and rescue a visible victim. But again, it depends on the size of the boss and what the boss decides – even if you are the boss. And then we do as ordered.

A friend of mine (a veteran gray-haired subway conductor) recently pointed out to me that somewhere along the way we developed the feeling that we had to be in bed with fire before turning it off. I remember when I was taught that. It was in the early 70’s at the Fire Academy in Nassau County (NY) where a head instructor put it very clearly: “DO NOT open this nozzle until you have seen the fire” – and it was cutting-edge training at the time. We didn’t want to upset the “thermal balance”. Fast forward to 2022, and the team at UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute has taught us that water quickly with the right technique won’t disrupt the thermal layer as much as we thought and will be improve conditions.

Nothing is forever.

Search mentality

Like all of you, I’ve watched firefighters “go in there” with seemingly no command structure. One free for all. You know it, I know it. Playground versus fire pit. It’s the “we do what we want at Engine Co. 12345” attitude because you suck and we don’t.

Look, I to like spirited companies – those that do what they are trained, orderly and expected to do. It is those who do what they want that hurt and kill the members. Read the reports. Read accounts. Listen to “I’ve been there / I’ve done that” podcasts like the NFFF “IC to IC” Programs. Talk to ICs who have lost firefighters under their command – a position no one wants to be in. And the results? More often than not, they would do it differently. These are not my words, these are their words. Time and again.

But all of those lessons seem to disappear when we operate in an environment or culture that promotes mindsets such as “beat the other company”, “get in there no matter what”, “we do whatever we want in this company of trucks” and “over there”. there could always be people in there” – the “playground” in relation to the environment and culture of the highly directed and disciplined shooting range. If the size indicates someone might be in there , and the conditions allow for a risky decision calculated quickly by a seasoned, experienced and disciplined IC, then sending members is the decision.

It’s not ‘social media firefighting’

When browsing social media, beware of those who comment on something they know little about, which is to be truly, legally and proven responsible for the outcome of a fire. Civilians. The members. All. Have they done or lived what they teach or preach?

What Vinny Dunn and many others have gone through as seasoned CIs is a real experience, not kitchen table bravado, social media firefighting, or repeated bouts of luck. The most important thing – and something we need to keep in mind when making fire decisions – is that nothing is “forever” on this job. There are ever-changing situations, and it all depends on your size, the conditions of the scene, and your immediate available resources, all directed by the IC, who ultimately holds the decision.

[Read next: Who is REALLY training your firefighters?]