Curbside Critiques

By David DeStefano

Holding a postincident analysis or critique following a fire or unusual incident has been an accepted fire service practice for many years. The critique normally occurs within a few days of the incident and draws most, if not all of the responding units to a central location for a detailed explanation of strategy, tactics, problems encountered, and lessons learned. Often, fireground communication is played back for review and to help establish a timeline for achievement of benchmarks. Amateur or professionally recorded video or still pictures may also be obtained to give members a general view of fireground conditions beyond their operating area.

This formal critique in which company or sector officers account for their actions and members participat in the evaluation of the operation is certainly merited in many incidents, particularly in large, long duration, or highly technical emergencies.

However, much can be gained by applying an appropriate lower level of analysis to smaller, more frequent incidents. The mattress fire in the apartment complex, the kitchen fire with extension, and the natural gas emergency at the local high school all provide opportunities to evaluate our SOPs and fine-tune our daily response and actions.

At the conclusion of a small scale incident (one alarm or less) the incident commander (IC) may have the opportunity to gather members at the curbside to quickly review and evaluate the response that has just taken place. A few basic guidelines should be in place and known to all members beforehand to keep the scope of these minicritiques manageable.

Because of the duration and location, points need to be made quickly and professionally. If major strategic or tactical issues are apparent or arise at the curb, the discussion should be curtailed and resumed in a more appropriate venue.

Weather must be suitable so as not to overly punish firefighters after the conclusion of an incident. Our people should be rehabbed and not subjected to extreme conditions that will sap them for the next incident around the corner.

Be sure you conduct your critique in a safe area. Don't pause to reflect in the middle of an interstate highway after a multivehicle extrication or the middle of a construction zone after a fire in a building under construction.

This type of discussion should be brief and concise. The IC needs to set an approximate 15-minute time limit. If a deeper discussion ensues, or major issues are uncovered,the critique should be moved to a fire department location for a more comprehensive discussion at a convenient time.

The IC should have several points in mind to mention at the outset and perhaps reinforce as a conclusion. Each company officer should have a brief opportunity to explain the conditions faced and the tactics employed. The IC, acting as a moderator, keeps the critique moving and reinforces how each company had a role to play as part of the overall incident action plan. Any problems encountered or lessons learned can be constructively reviewed. If a situation merits more study, such as equipment performance or personnel deployment, it can be noted for further consideration or passed up the chain of command to an appropriate level.

The on-scene review has several benefits:

1, All participants are present. With formal critiques that may take place on a subsequent shift, members who were at the incident may off or on vacation, and others who worked the fire on an overtime shift or as part of mutual aid may not be available.

2, Actions are fresh in everyone's mind. Time fades and changes recollections. With the apparatus still in their attack positions, members will be able to accurately recall and illustrate their tactics and their effect on the incident.

3, Because informality is the order of the day, members are more likely to offer input and accept constructive evaluation.

4, The curbside critique offers the IC an opportunity to fine-tune members' skill sets needing improvement at a small incident, where the effect of limited skills may have less of an impact. If these skill limitations are not addressed, at a major incident a resulting setback may prove disastrous. If we can get it right at the small ones, we will get it right at the big ones.

5, Outdated or ineffective SOPs or tactics can be identified and alternates proposed while companies are still in position and the results and benefits of alternative actions can be visualized.

6, While members are on still on an emotional high from the incident, the IC can offer the all-important "good job to all hands."

We recently responded to a fire in a liquor store located in a commercial taxpayer (strip mall). The fire was after hours, but because of a recently installed alarm system, notification was rapid and the fire was contained to a portion of the rear stockroom. This was by all accounts a "bread and butter" job. Operations were quick and efficient; the fire was controlled with one operating line and one back-up line. This was a great fire for a curbside critique. Companies finished taking up and were not overly stressed, the weather was favorable, and we had a parking lot away from traffic to use for our "huddle."

After each company officer and the battalion chief (the IC) gave a brief rundown of their actions, questions were fielded. At these small-scale incidents, we have found that a quick "report and response" format allows for a natural critique flow from start to finish. Having the rigs in place, the building available for reference, and our actions fresh in our minds makes it easy to see each company's actions and impact on the operation.

Although the operation was routine, we used the building, the apparatus, and the fire location to play out several alternate fire scenarios. This can be a great teaching tool for newer members and for even experienced firefighters who have recently transferred from an engine to a truck company, and so forth.

Several possibilities that easily come to mind include the effect of a more developed fire on the lightweight steel truss roof, the effect of premature ventilation of the front display windows, and the potential for propagation of fire to the attached exposures (stores on either side of the fire occupancy). Providing secondary egress for companies operating in the fire occupancy is also relevant at this job, since the only means of egress other than the front doors was a delivery door at the rear, equipped with a steel roll-down door, double padlocked, and a set of scissor gates, also padlocked, affixed to the exterior.

The 15-minute critique resulted in a clarification of SOPs, report and review of company tactics, and an opportunity to plan for the next fire in a similar occupancy.

Using the guidelines outlined here, the IC can get the most in evaluation, education, and participation from his members at the high-frequency, lower-impact incidents that are our "bread and butter." Since it is an informal review, the IC can use his judgment as to which incidents deserve a curbside critique. If your companies had three kitchen fires on this tour, there probably isn't a need for three critiques. However, if you haven't responded to a fire in the storage area of the local public housing complex recently, a curbside critique might reveal important response issues.

Remember, keep it quick, simple, and constructive. Accept feedback with an open mind, and always congratulate the troops on a job well done!

David DeStefano, an 18-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department. is a lieutenant in Ladder 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3, and a firefighter in Ladder 1 for 13 years. He is an instructor for the Rhode Island Fire Academy, where he teaches various topics including FAST company operations and a ladder company program he co-developed.

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