Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’

2,500 year old suggestions for MODERN DAY FIRE FIGHTING

CarolinaFireJournal - David Greene
David Greene
08/07/2015 -

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, philosopher, and strategist who wrote “The Art of War,” an extremely influential book on military strategy. Although the book was written around 500 B.C., there are a number of military strategists, business management professors, and public administration theorists that utilize its teachings still today.


In this article, we will take a sample of the text’s recommendations and apply it to modern day fire fighting. Our enemy, fire, is not capable of conscious decisions, and although we rely on the science of Fire Dynamics to understand our enemy, there is also an art to fire fighting. Let’s begin with that distinguishment.

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.

As firefighters, we have been trained to know the types of construction. Type I – fire resistive construction is what we want to have a fire in because it will burn and/or fail much slower than a Type V – wood frame construction. Science tells us that concrete and protected steel will not burn when compared to a structure made entirely of wooden components. What the science does not tell us is when it is safe to engage in interior fire attack in one Type V structure versus another. Even if you have been trained as an incident manager or as the leader of a company, you have likely developed a sense of what is tenable and what is not from your experience and perhaps the latest interactive incident management training. In any case, smoke color, volume, turbulent versus laminar, roof dead loads, access, forcible entry durations, water supply, and occupant load all affect our risk versus reward decision to engage in interior fire fights. We would love for this decision to be scientific, but ask any seasoned incident commander and they will tell you, it’s more of an art.

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him...

Although somewhat related to the building, fire and smoke conditions, we must also evaluate our own capabilities. Those of us that are fortunate enough to have apparatus arrive with four people on them may be quicker to engage in interior fire fights than those of us who have to wait for multiple apparatus or others in their personal vehicles to arrive. It may be as simple as having a heavy rescue arriving first at a structure fire. The heavy rescue may have been returning from another incident and is only equipped with a 2.5 gallon water extinguisher. If, on arrival, the building is a 2,000 square foot Type V (wood frame) structure that is 50 percent involved, the decision to fight that with the “PW” or “Can” is likely very easy. In that case, we are not ready.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be
in peril.

I’m fascinated by the research that NIST is producing regarding fire spread, compartmentalization of the building, the importance of door control, etc. Pay attention to the data coming from this research. This science is telling us tons of information about our enemy that we’ve never had before — and our war has been going on for thousands of years. Knowing ourselves is a little more difficult. We may not be willing to admit that “that” company is first-in and they are known to be too aggressive or not aggressive enough.

Maybe it’s a training gap or a confidence failure, but in either case, we have to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves. We have to know what we are capable of and more importantly, what we are not capable of, in order to operate safely and effectively against our enemy.

He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.

We all have either been or know someone like this. This firefighter is not scared of fire and will never be run out of a building by a fire. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a fire that they cannot extinguish, single-handedly if necessary. Make no mistake; this firefighter is dangerous. In our war, we have won all of the battles. That is, there are no fires that started five years ago that are still burning today. They all eventually go out. What we want to avoid, at all costs, are firefighter casualties. You place the individual described above in an unfamiliar position with heavy fire in a building that has its trusses glued together, and you have a recipe for disaster. Remember, being captured is not a concern of ours, as our enemy does not take prisoners.

There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.

Adapt this to long-term fire fighting operations. I heard a firefighter once reply to an Incident Commander (IC) after being ordered to evacuate the building, “Give us just another minute chief, we’ve almost got it.” Several revisions of the basic fire fighting curriculum ago, the fire tetrahedron had Chemical Chain Reaction (making the fire self-sustaining), Heat, Oxygen (or the oxidizing agent), and fuel (or the reducing agent). I miss that terminology for fuel. The fuel, the contents of the building and more importantly the building itself, is the reducing agent. The longer the fire burns, the more it is reducing. In today’s world of glued trusses and lightweight construction, we should remember that you would not benefit from a protracted or prolonged fire fight. Sometimes, all you can do, is get out from under and away from anything that will fall on you and pump water on the fire until the reducing agent is removed. Remember, they all go out and the ones God doesn’t want to burn have sprinklers in them.

The enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution.

If you are charged with the responsibility of deciding whether to engage in an interior fire fight, caution should be your middle name. I’ve often written how much easier it was to run into burning buildings than it is to command operations at them. In fact, I’ve likely been in a few places that I should never have been in. Running into a burning building is easy by comparison to being responsible for those who are running into a burning building. When our risk-benefit analysis yields that our risk is low and our benefit is high, our staffing is adequate, our water supply sufficient, etc., we should still be cautious when placing firefighters in harm’s way. We have to be prepared for the unexpected and be quick to protect our troops.

The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.

Most of us only have a select few people that we desire recognition from, but we all want to avoid disgrace. Have you ever seen a company of firefighters after they’ve been evacuated from a building and have abandoned an interior fire fight? They look confused, sad, angry and disgraced. They are confused and angry because they don’t know why they weren’t left alone to extinguish the fire inside the building. They look sad because they wished someone else was serving as the I.C. Above all, they look disgraced because they are worried other firefighters and the public will look down on them for abandoning their interior positions, whether they were ordered to or not. If you are the I.C., do not feel disgraced. Evacuations sometimes save firefighter lives. Chief Alan Brunacini once said that his son Nick practiced “stress-free command.” When questioned how commanding a fire, something that is typically highly stressful, can be “stress free,” Nick replied, “As a division chief (in Phoenix), I usually arrive kind of late into the fire. I get out of my car, put my gear on, and then I stare at the fire for about 30 to 45 seconds. If things don’t look better in those 30 or 45 seconds, I order everyone out.” Remember, when it comes to our enemy, he always gets beaten. The interior attacks are pretty quick and the exterior ones take longer, sometimes a lot longer. But they all go out.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Our incident priorities often become our strategies — life safety, incident stabilization, property conservation. The tactics we use to achieve these strategies are different at each fire, but all the pieces must be there. To have strategies without tactics would be like having building plans without construction workers. While we could rely on the engineer that drew up the plans to build the building, my guess is it would take significantly longer. Having tactics without a strategy is even worse. The strategy insures that everyone is operating on the same page. Without a strategy, freelancing is likely to happen. Add to that a lack of accountability and you will be lucky to survive that battle unscathed.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Prevention gets a bad rep. A lot of firefighters are disinterested in what could be the most important function in our war. It’s difficult to quantify or measure the number of fires our prevention folks have saved us from. That one ignition hazard that was eliminated at the one inspection may have prevented that one fire in that one building where our department suffers that one line of duty death. The more effort we put into prevention, the less effort we have to put into burying firefighters. Period.

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys...

If you manage people in the fire service, you know that leading is not easy. Sometimes your people disagree with you. Sometimes your people take advantage of you. Sometimes your people lie to and manipulate you. Anyone that has children and supervises firefighters knows that the two are not much different. We want to teach our children, we want our children to behave — particularly in public — and above all, we want our children to be safe. We don’t want our children to get hurt and many of us would be hollowed out soulless human shells if one of our children died. So, we try to train them how to be careful, we talk with them when they disagree with us to show them what’s right, and even after they lie to us or manipulate us, we still care about them more than anything in this world.

In peace prepare for war, in war prepare for peace. The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected.

Many of us have superstitions about calls. When we don’t have a fire for a while, we suspect that something big is coming. When it is — I don’t want to use the “Q” word here, so I’ll write — “uneventful,” we know that things are going to get busy soon. We must constantly train to prepare for war. In those times of war, we need to seek opportunities to prepare for peace. When we go to the pot on the stove that is out on our arrival, we should insure the occupant’s smoke detectors are fully functioning before we leave. If they are not, we need to restore them to working order. After we leave — and the peace is restored — there may be another battle the next time the occupant cooks and that fire may not be confined to the container.

By my estimation, our battle record in the war against fire is impressive. Since 1977, we are 17,397,000 and zero. Our no loss record reflects that none of the fires we’ve been to are still burning. Tragically, these battles have not been bloodless. In that time we’ve experienced 4,283 firefighter deaths in the line of duty. There is no acceptable loss of life in the fire service, unlike what “The Art of War” assumes. Think on these recommendations and pay very close attention to the science that is being generated as a result of the ongoing study of fires. The other part of our war is an art. Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].
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