Are You "Four" or Against Strategy? Part 3: The Transitional Strategy

Are You "Four" or Against Strategy? Part 3: The Transitional Strategy

By Richard Mueller

Last month I discussed the value of starting with a defensive mindset rather than an offensive. This allows firefighters to start the incident in control, stay in control, and never lose control. A defensive outlook ensures our arrival without creating new customers along the way and ensures that defensive fire companies are operating outside of the collapse zone. Arriving with a defensive mindset requires us to make a conscious and deliberate decision to maintain this line of thinking and get out the large lines and master streams when there is nothing to gain. Otherwise it lets us transition deeper into the incident when there are lives and property that can be saved.

When the decision is made to assume more risk because there is more reward than just saving the exposures, it's appropriate to leave the defensive strategy for a transitional strategy. This "transitional strategy" starts literally with your first step into the collapse zone and ends when you enter the structure (figure 1). This area between the outer collapse zone and the plane of the structure defines the geographical boundaries of the transitional zone. A transitional strategy is not a path directly to the front door like an "aggressive offensive attack," but is instead a pathway around the structure (360) where game-changing intelligence is gathered and game-changing actions are performed before entry. This outside combination of transitional thoughts and actions can and will have a significant impact on your future success once inside the structure.

Tragedies of Strategies

On August 13, 2006, an engineer and a firefighter made entry through the front door of a single-family residence without performing a 360 and ended up in the basement after their first couple of steps. The lightweight floor joists failed because of the fire below them1. One of them died and his partner never returned to work. On April 12, 2009, a captain and a firefighter from Texas repeated this aggressive offensive entry without fully evaluating the incident from the exterior and were killed when the kitchen patio doors failed and a wind driven fire overtook them2. There are numerous firefighter tragedies documented as a result of rushing into situations (i.e., aggressive offensive attack) where the only thing we know (or want to know) is that there is a fire. There are many factors that should be addressed before entry to ensure a safer and more effective firefight.

So the first question that needs to be asked and more importantly answered is, why? Why don't firefighters perform a 360 before entry? I believe the answer lies in our traditional strategic decision-making process. No part of our standard offensive/defensive strategy includes the "360" concept or even the suggestion of one. So why should we be surprised when a fire company performs a defensive or offensive attack and does not perform a 360 when it is not part of our directions for attack? This fact is the first reason why a transitional strategy should be part of our strategic planning. The second is because there are many critical on-scene factors that need to be identified, evaluated, and addressed before entry. A hot lap around the structure is meaningless without specific criteria about what to look for and do during the 360.

Merriam-Webster defines transitional as "to change from one place to another or a change from one state to another." The transitional zone (collapse zone) is where fire companies take steps from the outside to change (transition) the inside from a high-risk environment to a lower-risk one before they go in. Fire Company 4 defines a transitional strategy as "exterior tactics/attack performed in the collapse zone to rescue occupants and the structure from fire." The transitional strategy gives a 360 a legitimate place in our thinking and our actions.

What you see and what you do about what you see during the 360 can be a huge determining factor if your trip to the interior will be one-way or round trip. I call these critical outside factors "transitional targets." These six targets are:

(1) visible rescue

(2) exterior attack opportunities

(3) assessing the structural profile

(4) locating the seat of the fire

(5) establishing effective ventilation entrance and exit points, and

(6) always considering wind direction and speed into your attack plan.

However, simply looking for these targets is not enough. The fire company must be more than just knowledgeable about these targets; they must hit or impact these targets with actions. These actions include things like throwing a ladder for the visible rescue or slowing fire extension from the outside before entry to more quickly reduce the heat release rate and the production of the other products of combustion.

The transitional pathway is not without risk. Many firefighters readily acknowledge the dangers of working inside of burning buildings but many underestimate just how dangerous outside operations really are. The U.S. Fire Administration has reported3 that 50.4 percent of firefighter injuries occur outside of structures, compared to 44.6 percent while operating inside of them. Additionally, not gaining critical information and performing critical tasks (remember the six targets) on the outside before going in--ventilating, determining the fire origin, slowing fire extension, and evaluating wind--makes inside operations more hazardous. So let's take a closer look at each of the six targets and the impact of not addressing them before entry.

1. Visible Rescue

Visible rescue supersedes all other tactical tasks on the fireground. A person at a window accompanied by heavy smoke or fire who is unable to escape through the interior is in serious trouble. Their short and long-term survival is dependent on how quickly we can remove them from the life-taking environment. A ladder rescue from the outside is almost always faster than an interior search (finding your way to them) and rescue. Not performing a 360 to look for people at windows can result in a delay getting to them, which may cause them to jump. Secondly, if you use positive pressure ventilation (PPV) in your attack plan, the open window that they are occupying will most likely become one of the ventilation exit points. Even if you do not use PPV in attack, the wind direction/speed and ventilation profile (ventilation limited fire) may cause the same unsurvivable conditions (in a very short period of time) when you open the front door for your entry. Visible rescue should be performed ahead of entry. However, not all persons at windows are in need of immediate rescue (think of large buildings, with many people at windows and few fire resources). But all immediate rescues are in need of a 360 to be identified when they do not present from the front of the structure.

2. Exterior Attack Target

Attacking the fire from the exterior is the fastest way to slow exterior and interior fire extension. An aggressive attack means faster water application. Fast is the word that describes an honest definition of an aggressive attack. The fire does not care if you have 16-inch biceps and a 20-inch neck. Aggressive attacks have less to do with firefighters and more to do with how quickly we get water on the fire. A properly placed line from the exterior quickly slows exterior and interior fire extension and dramatically lowers the heat-release rate as well as all of the other negative effects of fire. This is especially critical when you are first-in and operating by yourself. Priority is not just a decision-making process but rather a matter of life and death because you cannot be in two places at once (where the fire is and where it will be shortly). Remember, the fire you saw at size-up will not be the same fire you encounter after entry! Aggressively applying a brief, straight stream attack from the exterior slows fire growth more quickly than waiting until you are inside. This quickly increases the likelihood of keeping the fire in its room of origin and reducing the need of having to fight the fire in more than one location (second floor and attic rather than just a room-and-contents fire on the second floor).

This is critical for occupant safety as well as our own. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has reported4 that fires that extend out of the room of origin increase the occupant death rate by 780 percent. When fire extends beyond the floor of origin, the occupant death rate increases to a staggering 1,100 percent. As you can see, getting water on the fire faster is not just for firefighter safety--it is critical for occupant survival. Fast water is aggressive/smart water.

Others have weighed in on the exterior firefight, including the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department and Underwriters Laboratory (UL). An article titled "Transitional Fire Attack"5 published by Fire Engineering describes the process and effectiveness of using a handline to knock down visible fire from the transitional zone before entry. Their field research demonstrated that by directing a straight stream off the ceiling for five seconds onto visible fire reduced interior ceiling temperatures from 1050º F to 150º F and floor temperatures from 387º F to 115º F in less than 30 seconds. This is an 86-percent and 70-percent reduction in temperature without negatively disrupting the thermal balance or pushing fire into uninvolved areas of the structure. Similar results were reported in wind driven fire research6 by Daniel Madrzykowski and Stephen Kerber that showed at least 40-percent temperature reductions within 60 seconds of exterior applied solid streams.

In another study, UL7 found that there were no temperature spikes in any rooms, especially the rooms adjacent to the fire room when water was applied from the outside. The study says that"…in most cases the fire was slowed down by the water application and that external water application had no negative impacts to occupant survivability." My own use of the transitional attack most often results in the visible "free-burning" fire on arrival looking more like an "incipient stage" fire when the engine company reaches the room of origin in the interior. Admittedly, this is not very exciting, but more importantly, it leads to less damage, disease, and deaths.

An often-unacknowledged reality to reinforce the effectiveness of a transitional attack is that of untrained civilians. How many times have you arrived to find that the fire was extinguished by the homeowner or neighbor with a garden hose through a window or door before your arrival? If untrained and unprotected civilians using a 20-gpm garden hoseline can successfully use a transitional attack to slow fire spread and even extinguish fire, consider the impact of a fully protected fire company with a 100-gpm (or more) handline.

A transitional attack eliminates a fire company operating defensively in the collapse zone (often time without self-contained breathing apparatus) and faster "under control" times because water was applied to the fire faster. The transitional strategy gives legitimacy to a true "aggressive attack" by way of an "aggressive exterior attack."

3. Structural Profile Target

The structural profile targets have the fire company looking at the structure in its entirety. Is it small, medium, or large? Is it residential, multi-family, commercial, industrial, or a combination of some or all of these types? Although more firefighters die annually at residential fires, two to three times more die (per 100,000 fires8) at non-residential fires. Information like this is critical in determining what strategy and the associated level of risk that should be taken rather than what level can be taken. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Some of the points that should be factored into our decision to continue the fight from the outside or to take it inside include design factors like how big the structure is, the presence of overhangs, porches, and facades, the age and type of construction (lightweight vs. legacy), and exposed basements.

4. Fire Origin Target

The location of the fire is critical for determining proper line placement and effective ventilation decisions. The 360 provides a greater opportunity to determine not just where the fire is showing from but where the fire's origin is. When the fire has self-vented, this task may be rather simple (but not always). At nonself-vented fires, though, it can be considerably more difficult. With only a limited perspective (windshield size-up), a visible first- or second-floor fire may just be a mirage of the fire's origin. You don't want to make entry only to not be able to find the fire and realize it's above or below you. This reality occurs far too often when below-grade fires are not identified early and the attack is made from above them, with fatal results. This occurred on April 4, 2008,9 when two fire company members lost their lives in a basement fire. A lack of a transitional strategy and the corresponding missed transitional target of the structural profile resulted in a fatal decision to make an aggressive offensive attack from the first floor. If their offensive strategy was superseded by a transitional one, it might have caused them to alter their decision to enter above the fire and coordinate their attack with ventilation from the rear exposed basement. A simple 360, looking for the seat of the fire, might very well have saved their lives.

5. Ventilation Target

Ventilation is critical to the short-, medium-, and long-term survival of interior occupants. This includes firefighters! We cannot enter a structure without ventilating (opening the front door is ventilation). During the 360, ventilation entrance and exit points are assessed and then made to create a ventilation flow path away from the entering fire company and out of the structure before entry. The use of PPV in the attack mode before entry will increase the effectiveness of the flow path10. Initiating ventilation before entry can reduce the interior risk by making the interior look more like the exterior (good visibility and less heat). Research by UL7 has shown that when the front door is your only ventilation point, the entering fire company can have as little as 90 seconds to either extinguish the fire or find the occupant before conditions are untenable. Flashover can occur less than 10 seconds later (UL considered these times to be conservative). The time to untenability for unprotected occupants is obviously less. Transitional thinking is necessary to coordinate effective ventilation with fire attack.

6. Wind Speed and Direction Target

Wind speed and direction is a critical fireground factor that is too often overlooked. Wind-driven fires have resulted in some of our fastest and most horrific firefighter death and injuries. Two examples include the death of a captain and a firefighter on April 12, 2009,2 and severe burn injuries to two others on April 3, 2011,11 when an exterior, wind-driven fire caused patio doors to fail, resulting in rapid interior fire spread. As discussed in the ventilation target, it is impossible to fight a fire without ventilating. Air paths are created whenever we (or the fire) open a door, window, or roof. Respect and consideration should be granted to Mother Nature by always considering wind speed and wind direction into your attack plan and trying to work with her rather than against.


A transitional strategy starting with a 360 and accompanied by appropriate corresponding thinking and actions ensures a safer and more effective firefight on the inside. Looking for, seeing, and hitting the six transitional targets discussed earlier enhances the quality of our attacks and the sustainability of lives inside the structure.


1. 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,

2. Career Probationary Firefighter and Captain Die as a Result of Rapid Fire Progression in a Wind-Driven Residential Structure Fire -- Texas, NIOSH Report F2009-11,

3. Fire-related Firefighter Injuries Reported to NIFRS, Topical Fire Report Series, Volume 11, Issue 7, February 2011. U.S. Fire Administration.

4. NFPA Standard 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, Annex A, Explanatory Material, Table A., Fire Extension in Residential Structures 1994-1998.

5. Transitional Fire Attack, Fire Engineering, November, 2009.

6. "Wind-Driven Fire Research: Hazards and Tactics," Daniel Madrzykowski and Stephen Kerber, Fire Engineering, March 2010.

7. Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction: Steve Kerber, PE. Underwriters Laboratory's, December 14, 2010.

8. Firefighter Fatalities in the United States -- 2006, June 2007, NFPA

9. Investigation Analysis of the Squirrelsnest Lane Firefighter Line of Duty Deaths, April 4, 2008, Colerain Township Department of Fire & EMS,

10. Effect of Positive Pressure Ventilation on a room fire, FEMA NISTIR 7213, March 2005, Stephen Kerber and William D Walton.

11. "How We Got Burned: Lessons Learned from a Wind-Driven Dwelling Fire," Mike Piper, Fire Engineering, November 1, 2011.


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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