The Five Rules Of Firefighting That Can Improve Your Life

Rules of the fireground can help you back at the firehouse and at home (even if you’re not a firefighter).


These five rules are short and simple, on the verge of obvious but they’re crucial to the survival of every working firefighter. They aren’t meant to be read out of a handbook while in the heat of combat, but rather  to be learned and reflected upon in times of calm. They aren’t meant to be consulted only when you’re going to make a decision. They’re meant to be a natural part of your decision-making process.

As I reflected upon how these rules of firefighting should be applied to the different kinds of situations I encounter as an officer I began to consider how they apply in a broader sense to other different parts of my life, and to life as a whole. On the surface these rules are certainly the keys to safe and successful performance as a firefighter, but when applied in a broader context they can also contribute to a happy and fulfilling life.

Fire Ground

Rule Number One: Expect Fire

This rule of firefighting is the one that reminds us to always be ready for action. This doesn’t mean always expect the worst, but it does mean that if the worst happens, we’re always prepared.

In emergency services we must work to avoid complacency. Ironically, the more experienced you get, the more vulnerable you become to complacency and the harder you must work to avoid it. At work we may have already been to nine automatic alarms in any given day (or nine nursing facility runs, or nine traffic stops), all of which turned out to be nothing, but to expect fire is to be ready to do our best each and every time we step off the rig.

In life to “Expect Fire” is a reminder not to take things for granted. It is a prompt to keep perspective. I’m reminded not just to “Always be ready for the worst.” but also to “Appreciate when things work out just fine.”

Rule Number Two: Never Pass Fire.

In firefighting, this rule reminds us never to pass one fire in pursuit of another. When you pass by fire you give it the opportunity to come up behind you, cut off your escape route, and cause big problems. When on an attack team if you encounter fire you had better address it. Either put it out yourself right now, or make sure someone else is going to do something about it.

In life this is a reminder that when I see something wrong, I need to do something about it, even if I don’t really feel like it. The easy thing can be to see a problem and pass on by, but that’s hardly ever the best thing, and it’s never the right thing. At work or at home, when you encounter an issue that you know is a problem, don’t leave for someone else. Fix it yourself or get help so that it doesn’t get the chance to come up behind you and bite you, you know where.

Rule Number Three: Try Before You Pry

In firefighting when we need to get in somewhere (to fight fire), or get someone out (to move them to safety) we have plenty of tools to help us. Yet before we go breaking in windows or busting down doors we all always follow one simple rule. Try before you pry. In other words before you do anything else, see if that door is unlocked. There isn’t a firefighter out there who doesn’t remember at least one call where the young gun was anxious to break down the front door while an experienced firefighter was going around back to open an unlocked window.

In life this reminds me to always do first things first. I may be ready to go into a situation busting down doors, guns blazing, but this rule reminds me to always take a moment to assess the situation and give it an appropriate response. Sometimes we need to apply full force, but most times we just need to apply the right effort the right way.

Rule Number Four: Never Let Fire Get Above Or Below You

In firefighting one of the most dangerous situations you can find yourself in is operating directly above or directly below a fire. As with rule number two, this may be okay if someone else is attacking that fire, but what you don’t want to do is be so focused on the task at hand that you become ignorant of dangers around you. You need to keep a high degree of personal situational awareness and be in communication with someone who understands the big picture.

In life this rule reminds me that I don’t want to keep my head down dealing with day-to-day issues so much so that I never stop to lift my head up and look around. This isn’t just a matter of stopping and smelling the roses. This is a matter of making sure that that I don’t just know HOW to do something, but that I also know WHY I’m doing it and that I know WHERE I’m doing it and WHAT the implications are. Unlike in firefighting, in life these implications might not always be life safety but they may still be critical. This is important in individual projects, relationships, your career, and your life in general. You may not be in a position to see the big picture yourself, but you always want to know how that picture applies to you and where you fit in.

Rule Number Five: Everyone Goes Home

Simple. Self-explanatory. Common sense. And yet firefighters continue to get injured and killed in preventable accidents.

Firefighting is inherently dangerous. It says that right inside our gear. And yet what is there to explain the preventable injuries and accidents that continue to occur across all of emergency services?

The phrase “everyone goes home” contains a hidden word at the end, and that word is “safely”.

There are a lot of things that we have to keep in mind on each and every call as emergency responders. The rule that everyone goes home serves as a reminder to never become complacent with our own safety or the safety of those with whom we serve. Despite the fact that we’re constantly confronted with the consequences of people neglecting their own health and safety, as emergency responders we can become very lax with our own.

In life this rule serves as a reminder to eat well, buckle up, exercise, and generally take care of ourselves. Sure, it may be easier said than done. But that’s why there’s a rule for it.

 These Five Rules…

These five rules guide how I work as a firefighter and as an officer.  As a leader I reflect often on these rules to help me be a more effective fire officer and keep my people safe. Like the rules of chess, these rules of firefighting are simple and I know them well, yet it will take a lifetime of working every day to truly understand and use them properly in order to hone what I do and who I am both on the job and at home.


About The Author

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Editorial Director of RescueDigest, Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder and award-winning educator with more than twenty years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, public and private emergency services and hospital based healthcare systems. Rom is a frequent speaker at national conferences and a regular contributor to research programs, magazines, textbooks and new media on topics of field operations, leadership, education and career development in emergency services.

Founder of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine, Rom is currently a career Fire Lieutenant / Paramedic and EMS Coordinator.



About romduck

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author, and educator with more than thirty years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private emergency medical services. Rom is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS Coordinator for the Ridgefield (CT) Fire Department and director of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Rom holds a master’s degree in public administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, and is the recipient of the NAEMT Presidential Award, American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award. Rom is the author of "Duckworth on Education," as well as chapters in more than a dozen EMS, fire, rescue, and medical textbooks and over 100 published articles in fire and EMS magazines. A member of the NAEMT Board of Directors, as well as other national and international advocacy and advisory boards, Rom continues to work for the advancement of emergency services professions. Contact Rom via