Are You "Four" or Against Strategy? Part 1: Strategies and Tragedies

By Richard Mueller

Strategy and tactics are one of the fire service's favorite topics of discussion. No other subject gets more ink in our books and trade magazines or debate time around the kitchen table. However, when firefighters talk about strategy, it is usually a pretty short discussion because the conversation usually shifts quickly to tactics. In fact, when firefighters reference the two, many actually say "tactics and strategy" rather than "strategy and tactics"--even though thinking about what we are going to do comes before doing it. Unfortunately, this is also repeated at incidents by too many who give little thought to strategy and automatically default to the usual mode (offensive, of course), quickly passing over the decision-making step, or simply skipping it altogether. I believe this occurs because our understanding and application of strategy may be too simplistic. Although I am a supporter of the "keep it simple stupid" (KISS) principle, when simple strategy results in misunderstanding that causes needless injuries and deaths, maybe it's time to revisit "simple" strategy.

Strategy is the first step in determining what you are going do about the problem at the other end of the 911 call. Strategy occupies the top spot in the decision-making process because it not only starts us off on the right foot, it influences all of other decisions that follow. No other fireground decision has a greater effect on the outcome! Many fire companies have been taught and/or believe that strategy is simply deciding whether to go in (offensive) or stay outside (defensive). The truth is strategy is much more than just a real-estate decision. Strategy not only determines where we go, it identifies the level of risk we are going to take when we get there. The outside risk level can vary depending how close you are to the structure (in the collapse zone or out) and the interior risk level is certainly different based on visibility and exposure (duration). I believe that simply deciding if you are going in or staying out without fully applying risk analysis is responsible for flawed decision making that is directly responsible for the lion's share of firefighter deaths, injuries, and disease. If our understanding of strategy (thinking) is flawed, then so will our application of the tactics (doing).

I, like many others, learned strategy based on a graphic that I call "strategy street." This series of pictures from the book Fire Command1 starts with a structure that has minimal smoke showing and transcends to the right with ever more fire involvement until all that is left are the remnants of a house. This is a visual representation of how an offensive strategy is appropriate toward the left side of the model whereas a defensive strategy becomes more appropriate towards the right. Although the pictorial is somewhat helpful in determining the strategy during the initial size-up, the reality of this pictorial is that it no longer accurately identifies how fire affects today's structures, which are built with engineered lightweight materials and filled with contents that have high heat-release rates. Today, occupants die and buildings may come apart on the inside long before a large volume of fire is visible from the outside. Strategic decisions need to be driven more by what is actually happening on the inside and less on what is visible from the outside (your typical windshield size-up). Without a clear understanding and appreciation of building construction, the advantage of a multiple vantage point assessment (the 360) and interior visibility (ventilation), firefighters cannot see (or fully understand) what is going on around them to make achievable, lifesaving decisions. When fire companies have to rely on thermal imaging cameras to see, it slows aggressive offensive attacks to a crawl and insulation, obstructions, and interpretation may create many blind spots. Incident commanders who make strategic decisions based on visible exterior fire volume do not understand lightweight building materials and how and where firefighters are killed and injured today. Firefighters today are increasingly injured and killed as a result of where (quality) the fire is located and the level of interior visibility (quantity), rather than how much fire is visible from the outside.

The fire service's daily understanding and practice of strategy is a one-part "aggressive offensive interior attack"--until offensive no longer works. When the tones go off, we mentally shift into offensive gear and put the pedal to the metal (literally) until offensive no longer works. Then and only then do we honestly consider the second strategic option (going defensive) as we scramble to turn around and try to get out of whatever we got ourselves into. The problem with this type of thinking is that it is seriously flawed. Too many of us are unable to make the switch from offensive to defensive without sustaining unnecessary damage or death. I believe that the greatest opportunity to reduce firefighter damage, disease, and deaths is start where they begin. We have to change how we think. We must start by graduating from the simplistic, all-or-nothing dualism of offensive/defensive to a more comprehensive, four-part linear (defensive, transitional, marginal, and offensive) strategic decision-making process.

Defensive Strategy

The first strategic option of defensive should start not when we arrive at "strategy street," but rather wherever the call is received. On July 26, 2010, two firefighters were killed2 when the fire apparatus they are riding in failed to stop on red, resulting in a collision that ejected both occupants (they were not wearing seat belts). If emergency vehicle accidents were few and far between, an offensive strategy out of the gate wouldn't be a problem. However, it doesn't take a whole lot of time or research to see that responding and returning from incidents account for nearly 25 percent of our annual deaths3 and more than six percent of our injuries.4 When you factor in the collateral damage to civilians, the numbers are even more staggering, embarrassing, and humbling.

On December 4, 2009,5 a responding engine failed to stop on red and collided with a van carrying nine special-needs adults. One occupant was killed and 12 others (including six firefighters) were transported to the hospital for their injuries. Every year, approximately 200 civilians are killed and more than 16,000 are injured as a result of collisions with emergency vehicles.6 To put this into perspective, more civilians are injured and killed every year as result of collisions with emergency vehicles than firefighters are killed in the place that all of us are in such a hurry to get to, structure fires! Our risk-versus-reward balance sheet is in the red with the blood of those who unexpectedly encounter our aggressive, offensive driving mindset. It does not benefit anyone when we do not make it to the scene or create causalities along the way. We should not be in the business of creating new customers!

Because of this, the first needed change to our strategic thinking is for our response. The tactical errors of driving too fast, failing to stop on red, and not wearing seat belts is the result of our routinely applied, automatic "aggressive offensive attack" mindset (strategy) whenever the tones go off. We need to quit drooling (see Pavlov's dog) and start out driving with a defensive strategy and tactics that includes wearing seat belts, traveling at a reasonable speed, and stopping on red. This will ensure arrival and reduce unnecessary injuries and deaths.

Transitional Strategy

When we arrive at the incident, a conscious strategic decision needs to be made to either increase our defensive risk tolerance because of the potential to save savable lives and property or to maintain our defensive strategy and protect what has not yet burned. Many choose to continue with their "aggressive offensive attack" strategy and make a beeline to the front door. However, too often this front-door tunnel vision only provides an express route into the basement without the benefit of a trip around the building to better determine the extent and location of the fire before entry. This happened on August 13, 2006,7 in my backyard, resulting in the death of one firefighter and a duty disability for his partner.

A more thoughtful method (thinking and analyzing--a transitional step if you will) between the arrival and entry process is needed. This "transitional strategy" (second strategy) is literally begun with the first step into the collapse zone to initiate a 360 to assess the opportunity for visible rescue, an aggressive exterior attack, ventilation entry and exit points, the seat of the fire, the building profile, and wind speed and direction. Looking for and seeing these transitional "targets" during a 360 provides better information to make more intelligent decisions about where and how to fight than simply busting through the front door with a charged (or sometimes uncharged or nonexistent) hoseline. A transitional strategy keeps defensive firefighters out of the collapse zone and creates a more survivable interior environment by making the fire smaller, reducing heat and toxic smoke, and increasing the interior visibility from the outside before entry. An aggressive exterior attack coupled with a coordinated ventilation plan can and will reduce firefighter and civilian damage, disease, and death.

Marginal Strategy

On July 22, 2008, one firefighter died8 and three others barely made it out after entering with an offensive mindset when they could not see their enemy because of low/no visibility. How do we expect to win when we can't even see the fire? A third strategy (marginal) is appropriate and necessary to better understand when we really don't know if we are going to win or even survive. Low/no visibility environments slow us down, create blind spots that hide fire extension and weakened structural components, and cause firefighter disorientation. Although all fires eventually go out, at the end of the day, a firefight that results in unnecessary firefighter damage, disease, and deaths can hardly be classified as a win. Too many fire companies think that crawling around in low/no visibility environments for extended periods of time is normal and acceptable. The truth is that low/no visibility environments shift the odds towards low/no survivability by the minute. Research by Underwriters Laboratories9 has shown that fire companies may have as little as 90 seconds after an offensive entry (front door-only attack) before the environment is no longer tolerable. These studies also show that flashover can occur in as little as 10 seconds. The outlook for civilians who are unable to escape is not any better. Incident commanders must consider the time duration to life-taking conditions into their thinking (strategy) and actions (tactics). Fire companies that understand that extended operations in low/no visibility will not be allowed may give more thought (thinking) and time (actions) to creating visibility before entry (transitional strategy).

Offensive Strategy

The fourth and my favorite strategic option of offensive is realized and enjoyed by fire companies that can see the fire and their surroundings. Visible interior environments create an even playing field where fire companies can fight a visible enemy in less heat without getting lost. These firefights result in legitimate wins: the fire goes out quickly, more people survive, and more property is saved. Fire companies that fail to acknowledge the negative results of an overly aggressive offensive mindset that include vehicle crashes, the inability to make the fire behave before entry, and extended attacks in low/no visibility will continue to get what we have always gotten--too much firefighter damage, disease, and death.

In coming articles, I will break down each strategic step to better show you how to change our fire service tragedies of strategies into fire service math that makes sense. A change of strategy (thinking) from a 1 + 1 (offensive plus defensive) = too many fire service deaths and injuries to a 2 + 2 (defensive/transitional plus marginal/offensive) = FORE, fire companies that are Focused on Reducing Errors.


1. Brunacini, Alan. Fire Command (second ed., 2002), National Fire Protection Association.

2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, "Volunteer Chief and Firefighter Die after Being Ejected During a Rollover Crash," NIOSH Report F2011-15,

3. National Fire Protection Association. "Firefighter Fatalities in the United States – 2010,"

4. National Fire Protection Association. "U.S. Fire Service Firefighter Injuries by Type of Duty," percent20statistics/The percent20U.S. percent20fire percent20service&cookie percent5Ftest=11 dead, 2 Seriously hurt in NYC Fire Truck Crash,

5. International Association of Fire Chiefs. "IAFC Informational Paper on Technology for Citizen Notification of Responding Emergency Vehicles," July 21, 2011,

6. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Career Engineer Dies and Firefighter Injured after falling through Floor While Conducting a Primary Search at a Residential Structure Fire – Wisconsin," NIOSH Report F2006-26,

7. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "A Volunteer Mutual Aid Firefighter Dies in a Floor Collapse in a Residential Basement Fire – Illinois," NIOSH Report F2008-26,

8. Underwriters Laboratories. "Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction,"

Richard Mueller is a battalion chief for the West Allis (WI) Fire Department. He is a fire instructor for Waukesha and Gateway Technical College and a technical rescue instructor for the WI REACT Center. He is a member of the Federal DMORT V and WI Task Force 1 Team and a Partner with the WI FLAME Group. He is the author of the firefighting textbook Fire Company 4and can be reached at

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