Crew integrity is a subject we hear about quite often. It is impressed upon us that we need to maintain crew integrity in everything that we do on the fireground. The idea of crew integrity is not necessarily bad, but there comes a point when it can do more harm than good.
What is the reason we give for maintaining crew integrity? Safety, right? A crew that stays together is less likely to get in trouble. So what then is our definition of crew integrity? Does it mean that we are never more than an arm’s length away from one another? Often times this is the manner of crew integrity that we see being enforced. Unfortunately, this level of crew integrity can lead to more harm than good.
Let’s first examine this model of crew integrity applied to the advancing of an attack line. For most of us, this process is going to be involving two firefighters on the line. Typically the firefighters are stacked up on top of each other as they advance. The question here is, how effectively can these two firefighters advance the line if they are both basically on the nozzle? What happens as the line goes around corners and through doors? Pinch points occur which put kinks in the lines. These kinks drastically cut down on the water flow through the line. Also, the line becomes much harder to advance, thereby slowing the movement of the line towards the fire.
Would it not be better if the two firefighters split up to make things move easier? If the second firefighter falls back and assists in getting the line around corners, the firefighter on the nozzle will be able to reach the seat of the fire quicker. Sound like a safer situation? I would argue that the hoseline is providing the crew integrity. Obviously the firefighters need to stay on the line, or near it, but they should be doing that anyways.
How about search operations? Go back to recruit school and think about how you were taught to perform a search. Two firefighters crawling along a wall, with the second firefighter clutching the pant leg of the lead firefighter. They do this to maintain crew integrity, to not get separated from each other. In reality is this an effective use of manpower? If the two firefighters move along the wall one behind the other, they are searching no more space than one firefighter alone.
What if the two firefighters put some distance between themselves to cover more ground? Still have one firefighter maintain contact with a wall, but let the other firefighter spread out and cover additional ground. As long as the two firefighters maintain communication and know what each other is doing they are maintaining crew integrity. If the firefighters can perform their search quicker and get out of the hostile environment sooner, is that not safer?
This is a touchy subject because so often we view two firefighters apart from each other in a fire as being in an unsafe position. We have to realize that attaching firefighters to the hip actually puts them at greater risk. This is not to say that we should be reckless in our approach to crew integrity. I would argue that crew integrity should mean that each team member knows what the other is doing. This takes practice, and lots of it. It would be completely irresponsible to attempt these expanded operations without spending adequate time preparing for them. My examples are brief and incomplete, but they illustrate the reasoning behind getting away from the tightly coupled approach.
Like I said before, crew integrity is not in of itself a bad thing. We just need to be careful in its application and how we define it. Do not allow the “safety” of crew integrity to put you or your people in an unsafe position. As always, stay smart, and stay combat ready!