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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Applying Lessons from the Battlefield to the Fireground

It’s been said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it; in other words, if we don’t learn from past mistakes, we’ll probably repeat them.

With that said, we should remember that history isn’t a collection of mistakes, but rather a wealth of demonstrated knowledge on how to succeed and how to overcome the largest obstacles imagined. In previous columns, we’ve looked at the role preparation plays in firefighter safety and survival. With the notion that the simplest ideas are often the best ones, we’ll continue to look at preparation as a way to keep our people safe and our organizations successful.

In the book Omar Bradley: General at War by Jim DeFelice, we’re introduced to a very soft-spoken and unassuming man who spent the better part of his military career in school as both teacher and student. Throughout his career, he continued to be a student of his profession and found value in spending time in the classroom and on the drill ground.

Bradley’s success as a battlefield commander can be directly attributed to his study of war and his never-ending desire to learn. While there are many lessons we can learn from General Bradley, our focus will be on logistics, empowerment and study.

One of General Bradley’s greatest strengths, and what propelled him as a battlefield commander, was his understanding of logistics: an army on the move is only as good as the support it receives. General Bradley balanced his advances with what he could supply and never placed his people in an unsupported position.

On the fireground, this example can guide our decisions on how deep we go and how far we commit our people. Too often, we hear of incident commanders who commit their people but refuse to request assistance to provide them with support. The attitude that we can do it all alone has long ago left the modern fire service, or at least it should have.

Chiefs in command are also limited by the relationship they have with their subordinates. General Bradley empowered his commanders to make their own decisions based on his objectives and he provided them the tools to do so. Long before we step foot on the fireground, we must make our expectations clear to our company officers and create an environment where they can easily achieve the goals set for them.

This relationship must come with the assurances that success and failure both have consequences. Accountability is a key part of this relationship and one that General Bradley didn’t shy away from. When his commanders did well, General Bradley made sure they were rewarded. Conversely, when his commanders performed poorly, he made no excuses and relieved them quickly. While we aren’t able to replace our officers so quickly, we owe it to them and our people to make sure those officers who underperform are retrained and reeducated.

One of the biggest lessons we can learn is that General Bradley’s years of training and education prepared him for the most difficult job a battlefield commander has to do: commit people to battle.

In our profession, the chief officers make these same decisions and commit their folks into one of the most difficult and dangerous environments on the planet. To be able to do that with confidence and resolve takes not only a seasoned chief, but also one who thoroughly understands the environment and has taken into account the many variables that exist on the modern fireground.

General Bradley studied his enemy and learned all that he could about them. While he was not very fond of his enemy, he never underestimated them and never took their abilities for granted. General Bradley also teaches us the value of having options in battle and demonstrated that not all fights have to be head-to-head. On many occasions, he took advantage of an exposed flank and used it to advance and conquer.

We must do the same as we move toward taking full advantage of the information that UL and NIST have provided. Not all fire-attack operations need to or should be a full frontal attack; and we must embrace that outflanking a fire is a viable option.

Using General Bradley as an example and with continued training and education, we can outperform our enemy and excel in our service. On the fireground, we get one chance to get it right; if we fail, the consequences can be catastrophic.

In the words of General Bradley, "In war, there is no second prize for the runner-up."

Albert W. Schlick III is a division chief with the Wauconda (Ill.) Fire District, currently serving as the Director of Training, and a Safety, Health and Survival Section member. He is currently the president of the Illinois Society of Fire Service Instructors and co-chair of the Illinois Firefighter Life Safety Task Force.

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