“Under the right circumstances, nonsense, said with enough confidence, can become dogma”

I wouldn’t say I’m your typical firefighter. For one thing, I’m female. For another, I also operate in the seemingly completely unrelated field of strength and conditioning. And oh, by the way, I have a master’s degree not in fire science management or engineering, but in biochemistry. I think we can all agree that when I walked onto my job in 2004 with those credentials most people didn’t think “Yep. That’s a good fit. We could have totally predicted that employee on our roster!”

I’m happy to report that I have not only succeeded in my job, I’ve prospered. I’ve been promoted and I think that I do a great job of leading my crew. I think critically and quickly and do an excellent job of keeping them safe and sound.

I’d like to revisit my hiring though. At that time, we had a chief that preached a couple of things that never sat well with me. Let’s hit some bullets:

  • We were never to attack fire from outside of a structure. Even if a window had blown out and the fire was visible, we were not to hit that fire from the outside unless we were executing a defensive attack, otherwise we’d “kill any viable victims inside”.

  • We were not to ever shoot water at smoke. If no flames were visible, we were not to open our nozzle. Ever.

  • We had to always attack the fire from the unburned area. For example, if we had an attached garage fire instead of going through the garage man door, we were to attack the fire by going in the front door of the house and humping the line all the way through the house (no matter how long or difficult of a stretch). Otherwise we would “chase the fire” into unburned areas of the house.

None of those rules made sense to me. They didn’t make sense from a safety standpoint; they didn’t make sense from a physics standpoint and they certainly didn’t make sense from a fire behavior standpoint*. But as a probationary firefighter, you don’t question what you are ordered to do—you just do it. So, I fell into line and just did it.

After probation, I started asking a few questions. I never pressed the issue very hard, but I questioned multiple old-timers and officers and always got the same answers about the directions from the chief. We do X because of Y (which were never scientifically sound reasons, by the way).

After a while, I stopped thinking for myself and just internalized the completely bogus tactics and strategies. I even found myself repeating the dogma to newer employees.

In approximately 2013 I attended a fire service training hosted by the UL testing laboratories in Northbrook, IL. The three procedures outlined above were completely debunked (amongst a plethora of others that we were utilizing) and yet we continued with the procedures. Why? Because our chief stated completely unfactual information with enough confidence that it became dogma. Under the right circumstances, nonsense, stated with enough confidence, can become dogma.

We didn’t completely cease and desist on the ridiculous and dangerous practices until after that chief retired. Luckily, we’ve seen the light now and use evidence-based practices in our firefighting tactics and strategies. I’d even venture to say we’ve become progressive in our health and safety measures.

“Under the right circumstances, nonsense, said with enough confidence, can become dogma.”

Now I’d like to complete the circle back to firefighter health and wellness. Be careful of the gurus you listen to. Question sources of information and people’s reason for spreading it. If it sounds too good to be true, it IS. There is no magic elixir, skinny tea, 10-minute training program or shot in the a** that will fix your wellness issues. But if you’re seeking an answer and a so-called expert states nonsense with enough confidence, you are at risk of believing it unless you keep an open and critical mind. Your health and wellness rely on you being able to analyze information for yourself OR find a coach that can sift through the crap for you.

Your best source of information isn’t Instagram models with an affiliate code, Men’s Health or even CNN. Your best source of information is peer-reviewed scientific research. No time to comb through mountains of research? Understood. Look for position stands from organizations such as the International Society of Sports Nutrition or the American College of Sports Medicine. I’ve linked a couple here for you: ISSN Position Stand on Diets and Body Compositionor ACSM Exercise and Fluid Replacement

Meta-analyses are another great source of scientific information. A meta-analysis groups similar research studies together and summarizes the findings so you don’t have to read 45 different studies yourself. Look at this one: Firefighter Cancer Meta-analysis

While you’re at it, do yourself a favor. Stop using google. If you’re looking for peer-reviewed quality research, you need to look on PubMed or Google Scholar. Many of the articles will be fee-based (totally bogus and another point of contention for me). But your local library can often help you procure those resources.

In summary, don’t allow dogma to dictate your actions. Think critically in both your firefighting tasks as well as your health and wellness. Your life depends on it!

Coach AZ

*For my non-fire service readers:

  • Fire doubles in size approximately every minute. It can be 1000 degrees at the ceiling and asphyxiating fire gases are present in rooms which are on fire. Everything gets better when the fire goes out or gets smaller. Our job of fire attack gets easier if the fire is smaller. Potential victims in the house have more of a chance to live if the fire gets smaller. Therefore, it is imperative (when possible) that we hit the fire from the outside and darken it down before we make entry.

  • Regarding hitting smoke with water when flames aren’t present: fire is represented by 4 points—what we call the fire tetrahedron. It requires heat, fuel, oxygen and a self-sustaining chemical reaction. In order to extinguish the fire, you need to “knock out” one of the points. Smoke is super-heated products of incomplete combustion (FUEL and HEAT). Therefore, it is IMPERATIVE to cool down smoke. Not only does it decrease the chances of rollover and flameover, it makes the environment much more tenable for potential victims and firefighters. So not cooling smoke with water almost guarantees that flames will be licking above our heads. That’s like saying “oh, I see that you’re clutching your chest. I’ll wait until you collapse and go unconscious before I administer potentially life-saving interventions. Let me wait until you DIE before I try to save you.”

  • Regarding chasing fire: I challenge you to do this experiment next time you have a campfire. Hold your garden hose not above the fire, but in line with the fire. Open your nozzle. Watch the fire scurry across your lawn. That was a joke. That doesn’t happen and UL has proven it.