Firefighting and the Great War
Ninety-seven years ago this month Europe’s leading nations clashed in what came to be known as "The Great War." Germany, Russia, England and France tumbled into a brawling maelstrom that would decimate an entire generation and re-define the tactics of warfare.
Though World War II would be deadlier, the Great War shattered the concept of innocence as slaughter was introduced onto the battlefield with a scope and regularity previously unknown. As comparison, the US fought the Vietnam War during which 58,212 Americans were killed. At the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916, 19,240 British soldiers were killed–on the first day. A number equaling 1/3 of all the deaths in the 17-year Vietnam War was tallied in a single day on the fields of France, most of them before lunch. The scale of the carnage was astonishing.
While the politics of royalty may have started the war, the killing was fueled by technology and tactics which were famously mismatched. 20th century technology collided with stodgy 19th century battlefield tactics and the results were horrific. High explosive artillery shells, artillery with hydraulic recoil capability, Vickers and Maxim machine guns, flamethrowers and chemical weapons in tandem with stalemated, immobile troops engaged in trench warfare created a recipe for battlefield hell.
Much of this was made possible because leaders who led the Allies were steeped in the philosophy of offensive war making and tactics. Used to the moving battle complete with cavalry charges and quick marching advances they were utterly unprepared for the puzzles posed by static warfare where you could sing to, or along with, your enemies in the trenches across the way. Tens of thousands would die before commanders adjusted to the tactical reality of defensive war against a new generation of lethal weaponry.
Firefighting leadership, though on a much lesser scale, suffers a similar tactical conundrum but with a twist. The tools of "modern" firefighting allow for the placement of troops in extremely exposed positions. The combination of protective clothing, self-contained breathing apparatus, forced-air ventilation and even aerial apparatus allow firefighters to be placed rapidly into fire areas that are not under control and which represent marginal environments where any change in the equation can result in disastrous and irreversible consequences.
The professional "excuse" for placing firefighters into these exposed positions (and often the cause of their deaths) is for largely futile and mechanistic search and rescue activities. It is the Great War equivalent of the whistle blow ordering troops over the top of the trench and directly onto the barbed wire. It makes no sense but it was how the battle was (is) conducted. You can, with almost complete certainty, write the news story following the death of one or more firefighters and it will inevitably contain two sentences related to a catastrophic search effort:
"He had one thing in mind—find anyone left inside."
"Everyone made it out unharmed…"
(Those two sentences are quoted from the Asheville, NC, Citizen-Times story on the recent death of Jeff Bowen.)
At least two factors militate in favor of the ever increasing unpredictability of interior fire environments in non-sprinkled occupancies. The first is the use of composite and light weight building materials which decrease the ability for the structure to withstand fire damage making early, catastrophic or partial collapses possible. The second is the improvement in window fixtures that are vastly more robust and much less likely to fail early and which can be very difficult to open for controlled ventilation, escape or rescue. These are just two of the "poison gas" and "high explosive shells" we now face.
The tools of modern firefighting will continue to improve thus allowing troops to continue to enter unprotected forward environments for purposes often best classed as specious and absurd. It will ultimately be up to experienced firefighters and officers to change our tactics or risk being categorized in the manner of the man who led British Forces during World War 1. Field Marshal Douglas Haig was ever referred to as "the butcher."
………. Eric Lamar
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