Thursday, March 29, 2012

Abilene Paradox

Most of you are thinking what the hell is his guy doing?  Why does he think I care about whatever the heck a paradox is?  For those still reading give about five minutes of your time and you will easily relate.  If you haven't figured out by now, I am a Union Fireman, a Union Officer, and a huge advocate of the IAFF.  I don't agree with everything that the organization does, but I know there is no other organization doing as much for the fire service as the IAFF.  I was reviewing the student handbook from the IAFF Fireground Safety and Survival class I took this past year and read an excerpt I had missed the first time around.  It discussed something called the abilene paradox and how it can affect your actions as a firefighter.

Since your attention is waning, I'll give you the cliff notes version........It is where everyone agrees to do something out of fear of being different even though no one in the group agrees with it.  To put it in firefighter terms, its where you assume everyone wants to do something, but in reality no one wants any part of it, but for whatever reason everyone agrees to do it.  When I read this, I thought about many times of being in fires where I was thinking "Why are we in here?" only to find out 5 minutes later my partner was thinking the same thing.  What does this say about us as a fire service?  We continuously tell recruits in the academy or in their basic training "If you ever see a safety issue, you can stop the dangerous action" but really how often does that happen?  I don't think too many of us say anything to draw attention to ourselves when we are new, so we learn a macho culture of type A personalities that sometimes does some really dumb stuff.  I am not saying we need to be a bunch of safety sally's but I think we are at a crossroads in the fire service.  My home state is currently designing/offering a pilot program for exterior firefighting.  this certification will be for those who operate outside the IDLH, and to offer some departments a guideline for those who don't want to be interior firefighters.  Well, I thought that was called being an explorer, or being in the ladies auxiliary, but I guess I'm wrong.  I personally feel if you don't want to be an interior firefighter, then you don't want to be a firefighter at all.  I realize there are some who have done their time and are too old to go inside, but they can pump a truck or fill air cylinders and still be a part, all the while they are still Firefighter I or II certified.  Also, more importantly they have pulled their time inside of fires. 

The old timers in the departments are telling us we are too scared now, but science and experience is telling us we aren't safe enough... So where should an aggressive fireman go then?  In my opinion, we stay aggressive, but begin to side on the safety of our members just a bit more.  I hate to be the one on the fireground who has to call out the punt team and go defensive, but sometimes there is no reason to risk our members lives.  But, our first instinct shouldn't be to stand outside and hit the fire from there.  We all took an oath when we go on the fire department whether formally or just by accepting that pager and gear, to serve and protect the public all the while knowing that what we will do is inherently dangerous.  We are fighting a force of nature after all, and sometimes we actually win. 

I have experienced this paradox many times, but I can remember one specific instance when I actually bucked it and threw in the towel.  I was operating on the second division of a working house fire with the Volly department I run with.  I was backing up a rookie on the nozzle and could feel we weren't making any headway, and in fact things were getting worse.  When we starting breathing hot air in our masks, I tapped him and said hey lets get out of here and make sure they are cutting the roof for us.  When I walked outside this is what I saw:

Obviously something bad is going to happen here unless we get that roof cut.  Soon after they cut the roof, the smoke lifted, and the attack team on the first floor got the fire knocked down and we saved most on the house.  It also helped that the downstairs hose team located the seat of the fire. I think we all know that this could have gone alot differently.  The reason why we were so hot on the 2nd floor was that the floor had burned out in the room we we attempting to enter (directly over the fire).  Then as you can see in the picture, the smoke was thick, turbulent, and hot inside especially on the second floor.  When the rookie and I got out, he told me he was miserable up there too and when we all saw the smoke outside we knew it was the right decision. (BTW I know there are too many folks on the ladder before anyone comments on that)  Call it what you will,I called it a good decision then and I continue to now.  I do want to admit also, that I am not perfect and I do make mistakes....Just ask anyone who knows me.

My point of this whole thing is, we need experiences like this to check us up, to realize we might be too aggressive sometimes.  Guys with experience and officers have to step up and say, wait a second folks this is not a place we need to be.  We need the older folks to speak up and say get in there or get out of there to the new recruits, so they can be leaders when there time comes.  We are not invincible so let's not act like we are.  I am not advocating living by the Garth Brooks creed and "Standing Outside the Fire" but we all need to make sensible decisions on where we position ourselves.  Be aggressive, be smart, and be safe, it is possible to do all three.  We will never eliminate LODD's unfortunately, but we can minimize our chances of having one in our department, company, and region by being sensible.

I know this Abilene paradox happens to us all everyday at work, whether it picking what we are eating and everyone says "I don't care" or at a working fire.  Remember someone has to lead and speak up, be that firefighter, be the leader and not only will you eat what you want, you will have a safer company.

If you're coming to FDIC drop me a line, so we can catch up.  Working the Job and I are traveling together, and arriving early in the week.

 Until the next time.


  1. Good stuff, and alot to consider.

    I do have one comment though. You talked about the "defensive firefighting" class that your state is developing.

    If taught right I think this can be a great Idea. Transitional attack is a valuable tactic IMO, as well as being able to transition from interior ops to defensive ops. yet you rarely see classes on how to direct exterior streams, when to use them, and etc.

    I agree that if you do not want to go in then your in the WRONG job, but as you said sometimes we have to "punt". NFL teams train for the "punt" and "defensive" plan just as much as they train for the "offensive" plan we should do the same.

    You can still be aggressive with exterior streams if the fire dictates it.

    Good write up bro...see ya in INDY be there Tuesday nite.

    1. Agreed Danny O. We have to train for all parts of the job, but this class from what I've heard and read is "a way out" of real firefighting. I think the transitional attack is a great one depending on manpower and fire travel. We can't ever have one type of attack that works at every fire so we must prepare for them all.

  2. Good stuff and I really like what Robbie saif about training for offense, defense and the punt! Love it!!

  3. Good stuff brother! Since you're traveling with Jason to Indy, I'm sure we will be seeing each other there. Look forward to it!

  4. Great thoughts brother and being "b*lls deep" in the books right now, the title caught my eye as it is part of both Company Officer and Chief Officer.

    I think we often fall victim to the "lemming" mentality, and I also cringe at time of the weakest link tapping out when there is no reason to go. The root of all this is our training and experience. Unfortunately experience isn't easily acquired.

    Aggressive gets a bad name, often through our own actions. But if you have been on this job for more than 5 minutes, you should understand that the sooner we put the fire out the sooner all our problems go away. No to say we should blindly go in, but we need to evaluate each fire and then decide if we can go in - and stay in.

    Nice work brother............

  5. Thanks for Reading Dave. I agree some think aggressive is reckless and reckless is aggressive which we both know couldn't be further from the truth. As one of the best officers I have ever worked for said, if you put out the fire everything else including rescues may go away.