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Tactical Aggression and Patience Lessons from Americas Civil War


While at my recent trip to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg Maryland, I took the opportunity to visit Gettysburg National Battlefield located about 15 miles north of Emmitsburg. While the monuments, landscape and the town itself are absolutely breath taking I feel like the lessons learned from this battle (or any battle for that matter) are often the most valuable thing you can take home from a visit to a historical site. Gettysburg is wrought with lessons that can apply to a variety of fields, but I personally feel that the fire service can take significant cues from military commanders on leadership, information gathering (size up), and tactical deployment.

This time while touring the battlefield I found myself focused on a particular debate that has been plaguing and dividing the fire service in a similar manner to that of the Civil War. Much like the war both parties feel not only that their method is correct, they also fight with the same ferociousness of those from the North and South. The differences this is not as easy a divide as North and South , in fact it is not regional, it’s not departmental, and often the definitions of both tend to vary! What am I talking about?

                                                     Tactical Aggression and Tactical Patience

There is a portion of the fire service who feel that aggression is not just a way, it is the only way to accomplish our tasks on the fire ground. If you are not acting aggressively, then you are not upholding the oath and values of the traditional American firefighter. The definition of aggressive even varies however between this set, as some see location on the fire ground the factor between aggressive and non-aggressive, while some still see action defining aggression. These guys buy into the modern fire ground, flow paths, etc. but they think no matter what aggression is success.

The other group seeks a more analytical approach to the fire ground. They perform comprehensive 360’s (or even 380’s) with thermal imaging cameras, they identify flow paths, they read the fire and deploy based on what it is doing and what it will be doing later. They preach patience I developing an action plan. Sometimes they might even delay deploying until they can gain the correct information.

One refers to the other as dinosaurs, the other as “safety sallies” and debates across the country rage in magazines, at conferences, and on blogs about who is right, who is wrong, and who is an is not a firefighter.


While touring the battlefield I saw several examples of aggression, and patience as well as success and failure, and it led me to a personal conclusion….

                                               AGGRESSION AND PATIENCE ARE NOT TACTICS!

They are not strategies either, aggression and patience are tools to accomplish tactics and strategy they are not the tactic or strategy themselves. Using them in the right circumstances with the proper information (size up) can lead to success, using them in the wrong situations can lead to utter failure.

Let’s look at Pickett’s Charge for example. General Lee had very little information about the true strength of the Union Army due to his lack of Calvary reconnaissance. In essence he did not do a 360 before committing to an offensive strategy. He then deployed a group of soldiers aggressively across an open field to attack the enemy. His tactical choice and tool to accomplish it (aggression) failed miserably and the Union repelled the attack. General Meade (commander of the Union Army) responded to this victory in a defensive and patient manner. He was a Pennsylvanian and knew the ground, he knew his resources where completely exhausted, and he knew he could hold his position indefinitely. Additionally he knew the Confederate Army was decimated and could in no way mount any additional offensive. He performed his 360 (and then some) and decided that a defensive posture would be the most successful and executed this very patiently, this in turn forced Lee to retreat, let’s talk about that retreat.

When Lee decided the vacate Gettysburg a defensive maneuver he did so AGGRESIVELY! He ordered troops to be deployed along the wagons in case of attack, he had Calvary patrolling in front and to the rear to warn and repel attacks, he even ordered an aggressive forwarding of a river in order to escape! His defensive maneuver in a highly aggressive fashion and it was for the time being successful.

Lastly the 20th Maine Bayonet charge down little round top, probably one of the most heralded military maneuvers in history. Led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlin, facing continually advancing Confederate forces running low on ammunition, he knew that if his line failed the Confederate Army would roll up the flank and collapse the entire Union force. Looking to his options, knowing the ground, and knowing the force opposing him was at a disadvantage coming up hill over and over again he ordered the 20th Maine to fix bayonets and charge down Little Round Top thus surprising the Confederates and possibly saving the battle. This was a very offensive maneuver and it was executed aggressively, and with great success.

On the fire ground we too can deploy defensively and offensively with aggression and or patience. At my most recent fire we arrived to find an attached garage with fire and smoke coming from all 4 sides and no smoke coming from the living portion of the house. The home owner already outside advised everyone was out. I had the firefighter pull a line to the front and wait. I did my 360 and found no smoke in the interior of the house but black smoke and fire coming from the garage with a pedestrian door to the B side of the garage. This would seem like a great launching point but not if the interior attached garage door was compromised. The Squad Company entered through side A and confirmed no smoke or fire in the residence and the attached door was in-tact. We then entered the B side pedestrian door with a charged hose line and put the fire out in about 5 minutes. We had an offensive posture with ample information, and executed the plan with patience and aggression in order to be successful.

There is room for aggression and patience in our business, aggression without purpose is futile, patience for the sake of patience is just as bad. Aggression is not your location on the fire ground, or even the strategy and tactic you are executing. You can defend aggressively! You can attack aggressively! You can also attack patiently and defend patiently.

Let us as a fire service end these petty debates, and unite once again under the flag of the FIRE SERVICE! United we will stand, but divided we will surely fall! Do not divide the brotherhood any longer! Seek out education, training, and experience to make you a complete firefighter!

As usual thanks for reading, spread the word, and STAY SAFE!


About Danny Owens