Does the end justify the means?

CarolinaFireJournal - David Greene
David Greene
07/25/2010 -

While we hear the term “back to the basics” frequently, we don’t always take the time to truly recognize its significance. It is certainly possible that our responsibilities, tactics and tasks that we perform in the fire service are advancing so quickly that we are having a harder time seeing the basics. I am frequently enraged while reading another publication that offers annual heroism awards. They usually come in the form of a single firefighter, acting in a manner that is not within the Incident Action Plan (IAP), sometimes without the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and usually results in the saving of a civilian, and the firefighter receiving the award being injured.


If you flip several pages in front or behind these heroism awards in the other publication to which I am referring, you will find a number of articles that emphasize the importance of working in teams, wearing all of your PPE and never freelancing. Many of these heroism incidents seem to paint the picture of an incident that resulted in a save, but could have gone either way.

I realize this is a hotly debated issue and I mean no disrespect to the firefighters involved; however, it leaves me wondering what we would do if the incident did “go the other way.” What if the firefighter, instead of just receiving thermal burns and smoke inhalation, did not survive? In such a case, in lieu of reading a celebratory summary of the incident in a fire service magazine, we would all be reading about the many recommendations for improvement offered in a Line of Duty Death report offered by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

This presents an interesting dichotomy. Is the success of our operations solely evaluated on the fact that everyone goes home? If so, does that give us the right to violate “the basics” as long as we survive the event?

Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian philosopher and writer. He is most remembered by his quotation of “the ends justify the means.” In particular, Machiavelli wrote that where the ends justified it, “cruel actions” by government should be “swift, effective, and short-lived” to decrease the harmful impact on their citizens. Many interpret acting in a Machiavellian manner as one who is evil, unethical, or immoral in order to achieve an end goal.

In the fire service, it appears that justifying the means by using the ends is a slippery slope.  To what end do we exist?

According to the IFSTA Essentials manual, the mission of the fire service is to save lives and protect property. Using Machiavellian tactics, we would be permitted to ride in apparatus without the use of seat belts or on the outside of the apparatus and operate at scenes without the use of PPE or an incident management system all because our end (or intention) is to save lives. However, the essentials manual also acknowledges the importance of protecting the lives of the firefighters involved in the incident.

Through the years the fire service has found that riding on the outside of apparatus, not using our seat belts, and operating without PPE and an incident management system must be paid for in firefighters’ lives. Although it is virtually impossible to write procedures for every type of situation we may face, let’s take a look back at the basics so that we know, regardless of what end we are trying to achieve, what we should always do. According to the Essentials manual, we can minimize risks by adhering to the following fundamental rules:

Work within the incident action plan

In other words, don’t freelance or perform any task which is not ordered by the incident commander or your immediate supervisor in the incident management system.

Adequately assess the situation and maintain situational awareness

Don’t be afraid to call the IC and tell them about how you’re getting your butt kicked inside. They’re probably thinking you ought to come out anyway.

Wear appropriate PPE

This means your ENTIRE PPE ensemble: boots, pants, coat, flash hood, gloves, helmet, SCBA with PASS device, and ideally a portable radio and light also. Without wearing appropriate PPE, we stand a much greater risk for injury.

Follow all departmental SOP’s

These are rules that are custom tailored to our jurisdiction and take into account our specific capabilities and resources.

Maintain communication

Maintain communications with team members and Command. This is virtually impossible without the use of a portable radio. It is reassuring and advantageous to both your team members and the IC to periodically hear how things are going, even if they are going well and especially if they aren’t.

Do a risk/benefit analysis for every action

Although we routinely perform this analysis at the front end of every incident (i.e. Level II staging until law enforcement secures the scene of a shooting), this can also be done on actions already in progress. From an IC’s standpoint, it is essential to always re-evaluate the fire conditions during an interior attack. Captain/Training Officer Joseph Knitter from South Milwaukee Fire Department says, “It is far easier to explain to a property owner why you went defensive than to explain to a grieving widow why you didn’t.”

Employ safe and effective tactics

Learning how to perform tasks and tactics safely can only be practiced in training. None of us want to learn about how badly a tactic works during an actual call. Train on safe tactics and employ those safe tactics during “game time”.

RICs on standby

Have one or more rapid intervention crews (RICs) standing by. Regardless of what you call these teams, having dedicated crews solely available for rescuing firefighters will provide for a safer working environment.

Set up rehab

Mandate the use of rehab for every firefighter operating at the scene during extended operations. Remember, it’s “no longer just for quitters” (Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal – Winter 2010).

Train on escape techniques

Use appropriate emergency escape techniques when needed. Again, no one wants to learn appropriate emergency escape techniques when your survival depends on whether they work or not. Train on the safe and appropriate use of these techniques and the training will pay dividends if ever it is needed.

Maintain discipline/integrity

Maintain company discipline and team integrity while working in the hazard zone. I once heard of a firefighter when questioned about why he left the hose line replying, “I was searching for fire extension.” The next question was related to what he was going to do if he found some, voodoo perhaps? Insuring that the personnel assembled into a company stay together is greatly beneficial for accountability. Moreover, as we have seen in the recently published National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments, that cohesive company is going to accomplish tasks much faster than if they are busy searching for each other.

Keep everyone safe

The most important safety rule is that everyone looks out for everyone else. Many times we get tunnel vision while working on a critical patient at a motor vehicle collision or while operating a nozzle at a fire. It is essential that we all look out for each other and insure that we make others aware of hazards they may not see. 

These fundamental safety rules should always be adhered to and never deviated from regardless of the end we are trying to achieve. We need to recognize the danger of entering the slippery slope where it is acceptable to take exception to one of these rules as long as we are trying to save someone and survive. This will lead to taking exception to two of these rules, then three, and so on.

Although I am thankful for the work the firefighters listed in the other publication’s heroism awards performed, I am even more grateful that they are alive today to be recognized. The fundamental safety rules listed above are usually taught in the first or second firefighting class that our recruit ever attends. Stop reading for a second and think back to how many class days you have been through since the first or second class of your fire service career. The fact that we recognize with fondness, acts which violate the fundamental rules on which our fire service training is based, pushes us further away from them. Perhaps it is time we take a look back to the basics.

David Greene has over 19 years experience in the fi re service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire- Rescue. He can be reached at [email protected]
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