Up three flights of stairs, two firefighters lugged their heavy hose.
But before they could open the nozzle on the apartment blaze, they were stopped short.
A herd of nearly 20 other firefighters had clambered up the stairs behind them in a race to see who could put out the fire, and now they were standing on the two firefighters’ hose.
As they tugged, the two were crowded into the fire room, where they had to shield their faces from scalding steam that billowed as others sprayed the flames.
“Should something have gone wrong, we would have been killed or injured,” one of the endangered firefighters wrote anonymously on firefighternearmiss.com. “The piling of firefighters into small buildings/rooms/apartments seems to be a very common problem, particularly in aggressive major city fire departments such as mine.”
Debacles like that are exactly what’s wrong with America’s aggressive firefighting culture, leaders in the nation’s fire service say. In an occupation that puts so much emphasis on quickly addressing potentially life-or-death situations, there’s too little focus in those moments on firefighter safety.
“There is a fine line between an aggressive firefighting community and a risk-taking community,” said Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Firefighters are put in danger unnecessarily every day in the United States, fire service leaders say.
A 2015 U.S. Fire Administration report attributed many on-duty deaths and injuries to a tradition-bound firefighting culture that too often celebrates heroism at the expense of safety.
“Despite improvements in personal protective equipment, apparatus safety devices, more availability of training, greater emphasis on firefighter health and wellness, and decreases in the number of fires and dollar loss due to fires,” the report said, “the rate of on-duty firefighter death and injury has remained relatively unchanged in the past four decades.”
In light of recent developments, the fallen firefighters foundation, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the federal government, among others, are calling for a “national safety culture change initiative.”
The fire chiefs, union leaders and others say they are not asking firefighters not to be firefighters. Aggressive action can save lives and property, fire service leaders say. It’s when that aggression isn’t tempered with discipline and a fire department’s strict adherence to safety guidelines that firefighters can and do get killed.
Yet this call for changing the culture has exposed deep divisions within the fire service, pitting fire service leaders and safety advocates against average firefighters who see their safety becoming a higher priority than preserving civilian lives and property.
“The fire service at this point in time is just so polarized,” said Larry Schultz, who retired from the fire department in Washington, D.C., after 26 years and is now a captain with a volunteer department in Prince George’s County, Md.
For every fire chief promoting the new safety culture, there’s a rank-and-file firefighter who questions whether the pendulum has already swung too far.
“There seems to be this push in the fire service that no risk is acceptable,” said Chris Sterricker, a suburban Chicago firefighter. “I don’t believe that’s what any of us took an oath for.”
Change comes slowly to America’s fire service. When air masks became standard-issue equipment 40-plus years ago, many firefighters were reluctant to wear them in smoke-filled buildings because they interfered with sight and sound.
Sometimes, the industry won’t part with tradition even when better technology comes along. American firefighters still wear helmets resembling the ones developed before the American Revolution — some are even still made of leather — rather than the more practical modern headgear resembling motorcycle helmets worn in many other developed countries.
A sign posted in the fictional Chicago firehouse in the 1991 action drama “Backdraft” sums it up well, said Brian Kazmierzak, a deputy chief for a department outside South Bend, Ind., who helps edit the website, firefighterclosecalls.com.
“150 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress,” the sign read.
“There’s a lot of truth to that quote in that movie when you look at us,” Kazmierzak said.
Why do firefighters take unnecessary chances that could get themselves killed?
Often it’s more a matter of confusion than foolish acts.
“I don’t want to say they intentionally disregard this stuff,” said Frank Baker, a former chairman of the American Society of Safety Engineers who consults for fire departments. “I think it somewhat has to do with the fact that they’re caught up in the moment....It’s a very hectic and chaotic environment.”
But the U.S. Fire Administration report also blames society for imposing a set of expectations that encourages firefighters to put themselves in peril when it might be wiser to exercise caution.
And since 343 New York City firefighters died at the twin towers on 9/11, that pressure has only grown, with Americans in a recent survey ranking firefighter as the third most prestigious profession, behind doctors and military officers.
“Firefighters who are questioned in relation to their high-risk behaviors often refer to either public or organizational expectations of selfless heroism,” the report said. “Such perceptions are consistent with the popular image of the firefighter as a daring individual who is willing to risk life and limb to save the life of a total stranger and who is lauded for doing so.”
For some firefighters, it feels like a heavy weight. Others not only buy into that role, they get the T-shirt to go with it.
“I fight what you fear,” reads one of the many versions sold online. “Real heroes don’t wear capes,” says another.
Hero firefighters don’t fret about safety, or so some claim.
“I do not see another fireman and say, ‘Be safe!’ I say ‘Be BRAVE!!’ instead,” an Atlanta firefighter commented on firefighternation.com last spring.
The culture change report found all this chest-beating rhetoric worrisome. Firefighters who see themselves as “heroes,” “dragon slayers” and “warriors” are more likely to take chances.
And while the departments they work for might frown on that officially, fire safety advocates say, those same departments are quick to hand out medals for heroism to firefighters whose actions violated safety protocols.
“Most of the awards for valor usually involve … doing things you aren’t supposed to do,” a firefighter told researchers in a 2010 study. “It’s in our nature to want to save someone. If nothing goes wrong despite ignoring the rule, you’ll be praised for saving someone.”
Even the haunting, elaborate funeral services arranged for fallen firefighters emphasize that message, according to the U.S. Fire Administration report.
“We only have one eulogy and it’s a very heroic eulogy,” said retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini. “Sometimes what the cause of the firefighter’s death is that somebody, maybe he or she did something stupid, violated a safety rule, they were someplace they shouldn’t have been within standard good practice.
“Sadly, when something happens to them and somebody has to describe that in this elaborate ceremony, and I’m not critical of that...but a lot of times, it just perpetuates it, right? And the message to the survivors who are firefighters is this is an impressive, heroic kind of experience for us.”
Brian Crawford, a former fire chief who now is the city administrator in Shreveport, La., has a master’s degree in industrial psychology and has studied how firefighters think and behave. He coined the term “firefighter-duty-to-die syndrome” in a 2007 article and thinks that many firefighters’ deaths are culturally based.
“There is a mentality out there,” he said, “that firefighters in some cultures feel an obligation, or a sense that they are to risk their lives unnecessarily.”
Crawford saw that play out in two of the deadliest mass-casualty events in the fire service’s recent history: a sofa store fire that killed nine firefighters in Charleston, S.C., in 2007, and the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 in which 10 firefighters died. He was a member of the teams that investigated both disasters.
In both instances, the emphasis was on aggressive fire suppression over safety.
“You’ve got to be able to teach those firefighters from the first day they are in basic training classes all the way to their last day through continuing education and reinforcement that, hey, we’re firefighters and we don’t have to die,” he said.
The largest and most influential institutions within the firefighting world — representing management, labor and government — are squarely on the side of promoting safety.
“All of us are passionate about reducing line-of-duty deaths and making our jobs safer,” said Rhoda Mae Kerr, the fire chief in Austin, Texas, and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “My number one priority is always taking care of my firefighters and making sure every one of my firefighters goes home.”
But efforts to improve firefighter safety by even the most determined fire chiefs can be sabotaged at the firehouse level, said David DeJoy, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia who has done extensive research on workplace issues, including studies of firefighters.
New recruits hear one thing from their instructors at the fire academy, DeJoy said, and another when they walk into their first station.
“The training they have received can be undone instantaneously,” he said. The message, he said, is “ ‘I know that’s what you learned in the academy, but that’s not how we do it here.’ ”
Some firefighters ignore basic safety requirements, like wearing seat belts to and from emergency scenes. That would reduce deaths and injuries, safety advocates say, as traffic accidents historically are the second leading cause of line-of-duty deaths.
A number of critics challenge the new safety narrative.
Among them is New York City firefighter Ray McCormack, a lieutenant at a firehouse in Harlem who tweets often and travels the country for speaking engagements. McCormack became a folk hero in some quarters and a pariah in others when he questioned the need for a new safety culture in a 2009 speech that called for a “culture of extinguishment, not safety.”
“Nobody wants to lose a firefighter,” McCormack told The Star. “Nobody wants to lose a civilian, either.”
Nick Martin, a battalion chief in Columbia, S.C., is another skeptic. Like McCormack, he teaches firefighting tactics nationwide and questions the safety focus.
He agrees that firefighters need to do a better job sizing up the situation before entering burning buildings. But he bristles at one of firefighting’s trending beliefs, known as survivability profiling, which says firefighters should resist entering burning buildings after a certain point if they decide it’s unlikely anyone inside might still be alive.
What if they’re wrong, Martin and others say, and someone is behind a closed door in a back bedroom?
“If we asked our military to follow the same level-of-safety mantra,” he said, “I don’t know whose flag we’d be flying under, but it wouldn’t be the American flag.”
Much of the debate over firefighting’s aggressive culture centers on the one task that firefighters spend the least time doing, but that is unquestionably the most dangerous part of their jobs: battling structure fires.
Until the 1960s and 1970s, the methods employed hadn’t changed much since horses dragged fire wagons to fire scenes. The first units to arrive typically would begin spraying water from the outside to cool conditions before crews rushed inside to rescue any occupants and put out the fire.
But with the invention of new fire-resistant clothing and breathing masks, firefighters were able to grab a hose and crawl in under the smoke for a primary search and quick attack deep inside a building.
“There are a lot of people who believe things have been a certain way a lot longer than they’ve actually been,” said Drew Smith, the fire chief in Prospect Heights, Ill. “This whole concept that you go inside the building to put the fire out is only about 40 years old.”
As the aggressive interior fire attack became the norm within major metropolitan fire departments — they could better afford the equipment and personnel costs than small volunteer departments — it brought new perils. The deeper firefighters ventured into burning buildings, the less time they had to escape if the fire escalated.
Even as the number of fires in this country began to decline, the rate of firefighter deaths per 100,000 structure fires began to inch up.
And lately that safety window has gotten smaller. Fires today burn hotter and faster because so much of the furnishings and other contents in today’s buildings are made of plastics. Lightweight construction methods also play a role in how quickly a building is consumed by fire or collapses.
Where 40 years ago firefighters might have had 20 minutes to search for occupants, find the seat of the fire and put it out, now they often have only four or five minutes before a house becomes engulfed in flames.
Yet fire departments have been slow to change tactics and procedures for this new reality.
“Fires have changed,” New York City fire Capt. Stephen Marsar said. “We really haven’t. We’re just starting to update how we fight fires.”
UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have been conducting experiments in recent years to study the phenomenon and suggesting different tactics for fighting structure fires.
One example is ventilation.
For decades, firefighters broke out windows indiscriminately and automatically cut a hole in the roof at a major house fire with the idea that this would release smoke and cool things off for any trapped occupants.
But researchers now suggest that firefighters limit airflow into a smoldering structure until they are ready to enter; otherwise, an oxygen-starved fire can roar out of control.
“Once you ventilate a window, you better have a hose line ready to put some water in there,” said Colby, Kan., Fire Chief Robert McLemore.
Some fire departments still haven’t caught onto that, but even safety culture critics are now buying into the science on air flow.
But other tactics recommended by UL and the standards institute have met with skepticism. Notably the suggestion that firefighters spray water from the outside like the old timers did to knock down flames before going in.
That tactic is at odds with what today’s veteran firefighters were taught. Spraying water from the outside was done only in defensive situations, after a building was considered too far gone to save.
“We didn’t do it; we were told not to,” said Derek Alkonis, an assistant chief at the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Firefighters, he said, worried “about pushing fire.”
But researchers found that spraying water from the outside does not push fire farther into a building. Moreover, it makes it less likely that a room will flash over when firefighters open the door and go inside looking for anyone awaiting rescue.
“Putting water on the fire buys everybody time,” Marsar said.
Of all his findings, “the most polarizing component has been where do you apply water from,” UL’s lead fire researcher Steve Kerber said. To convince skeptics, he shares his research online and invites firefighters to witness his live-burn experiments.
Since 2013, Los Angeles County’s 2,800 firefighters have been trained to consider using the water-first technique. New York City’s fire department also has water-first in its toolbox.
Kerber has won over some skeptics by stressing that water-first is not always the right approach. Each fire is different.
“There is no one way to fight a fire,” he said.
And there’s also no one way to bring change in a fire department’s culture.
Many departments adopted a safety culture long before it became the trend by insisting that commanders and firefighters alike follow guidelines already on the books. Others are beginning to get the message, as well, which coincides with a decline in deaths at structural fires in recent years.
But sometimes it takes a death in the family before a fire department changes its approach.
Dallas firefighter Greg Wright says his department’s focus on safety sharpened after a friend died on the job 3 1/2 years ago. Federal and state investigators criticized the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department for lax attention to safety.
But since then, the department has tightened its procedures.
“We’re more diligent about making sure that our people are safe,” Wright said. “It’s less comfortable being on the fire scene now than what it was.”
And by less comfortable, he means more disciplined, both among the command staff and average firefighters who no longer depend solely on their captains and chiefs to be looking out for their safety and the safety of others on the fire ground.
But ultimately, it’s a command responsibility, he said, because ultimately someone is responsible for every decision made on the fireground.
“Our job is supposed to be as safe as it’s ever been,” he said. “So we’re not supposed to lose people no matter what.”
The Star’s Matt Campbell contributed to this story.
About this series
The Star set out to examine how and why U.S. firefighters die on the job after Kansas City firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio were killed in October 2015.
Reporters Mike Hendricks and Matt Campbell interviewed scores of experts on fire behavior and firefighter safety. Hendricks and photographer/videographer Joe Ledford visited Texas, Georgia, Alabama, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to speak with firefighters and survivors, visit the National Fire Fighters Memorial and observe a federal rule-writing committee in action.
The reporters analyzed hundreds of federal and state fatality investigative reports, five years’ worth of federal workplace safety inspection records and reams of meeting transcripts of an advisory board that recently proposed the first new federal safety regulations governing the fire service in decades.