From Wildland Firefighting to Structural Firefighting: Applying LCES

By Daniel P. Sheridan and Gary Nelson

Imagine that you are conducting a hasty search plan expecting that, as a last resort, if needed, you can exit through a window. You see a flashover developing, so you head for the window, only to find it blocked by iron bars. This happened to a very close friend of mine back in 1995. He was killed tragically in a fire because he got caught behind one at a top-floor fire after the cockloft exploded down on him.

The fire industry has adopted very stringent rules for live fire training in National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. This protocol evolved out of some very tragic training exercises that have occurred over the years. Like most standard operating procedures (SOPs), they appear as a result of some horrific event. The fire service takes great care and goes to extreme measures when it comes to live fire training. For example, something that everyone by now has probably experienced in his own personal fire training is the flashover container (photo 1); this type of training can go south very quickly if certain measures aren’t taken. Even when taking precautions, I have still seen firefighters and even instructors get hurt. If, by chance, you have any skin exposed, you will get burned. In one instance, a friend of mine had the straps on his self-contained breathing apparatus too tight and wound up with some very nasty second-degree burns to his shoulder.

(1) Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.


Think about your experience in the container; at first, you were probably given a walkthrough to familiarize yourself with its layout. Someone probably explained to you a rotation system and how to signal if you are in trouble. Then, you were shown the two exits that lead to safety. If you take such extreme measures in training, why don’t (or can’t) you do the same when it comes to the real thing? Granted, you may not have the luxury of a walkthrough, but you should have done a good size-up prior to entering any immediately dangerous to life and health environment (IDLH). You actually do have the chance to apply these same measures to the real world; you may not have realized it exists.

 “In the wildland fire environment, Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones (LCES) are the keys to safe procedures for firefighters at wildfire incidents. The elements of LCES form a safety system used by firefighters to protect themselves and work as a team with others. This system is put in place before fighting the fire:

  • Select a lookout or lookouts.
  • Set up a dependable communication system.
  • Choose escape routes.
  • Select a safety zone or safe area.

LCES is a self-triggering mechanism; lookouts assess and reassess the fire environment and communicate threats of safety to firefighters. Firefighters use escape routes to move to safety zones.”1

LCES is built on the following four basic guidelines:

  • Before safety is threatened. Each firefighter must be informed how the LCES system will be used.
  • The lookout and communication components must be focused on rapid recognition of threats and absolute communication to the company officer(s).
  • The LCES system must be continuously evaluated as conditions change.
  • Escape time must be evaluated and be appropriate for the worst case plausible fire or structure failure conditions.

LCES has been a firefighter safety system for wildland firefighters for more than 10 years. Most aggressive leaders are very diligent about including LCES in their company briefings for every assignment and when time or position changes. The veteran leaders who have been diligent about following these safety guidelines have reported that they can be more aggressive and stay with the "advance" strategy (DRAW-D) longer because they and their members are confident about reaching a safe area before any plausible fire behavior reaches their location.

So, how can these successful safety measures improve risk management on all-hazard incidents? The goal of having a strong escape plan for each company is to ensure that an imminent threat to the company will be recognized quickly so the company can make a rapid retreat to a safe area before any injuries occur.

Following are explanations of the intent of each component.

Lookouts. The intent of having a lookout for each company is to have someone other than the company officer (CO) focused on getting an early awareness of a hazard that causes an immediate threat to the company. When you take your firefighters into a danger zone, you can experience sudden changes in fire behavior or structural integrity that can cause serious injury or death. With this knowledge, the company must have a plan for a rapid escape from the imminent hazard. A company officer (CO) with strong situational awareness (SA) has the ability to supervise tactics and be aware of every hazard in the immediate area of tactical operation. Three situations can degrade this level of SA, which follow:

  1. Some hazards are near the area of operations, but not in the CO’s field of view. This situation requires posting a lookout in a position to see the remote hazard and the company.
  2. Company officers can be distracted or overfocused on a tactical problem. This degrades the CO's SA. In high-risk situations, a temporary loss of SA can lead to a serious accident. The experienced lookout has the ability to stay focused on hazards while ignoring tactical problems.
  3. COs with limited experience have a hard time maintaining continuous SA. The lookout is an extra measure of safety for this situation.

Also consider that one lookout in a good position can provide early warning for several companies working in close proximity. This kind of group lookout can reduce the impact on company staffing. When it is used, the planning should be clear to all of the related COs and the lookout.

Communication. The goal of the communication component is to ensure that the recognition of a threat will be rapidly communicated to the CO and the members so they know about the threat and whether they need to retreat immediately or be ready if conditions worsen. There are many potential barriers to this level of communication; the communication plan for LCES must have contingencies planned to mitigate the barriers. The most frequent barrier is excessive radio traffic, so a separate frequency might be required. Another frequent barrier is the normal noise associated with any incident scene.

For example, if you are operating on a structure’s roof with excessive saw noise, would this noise be a barrier to rapid notification of the crew? How would you correct this barrier? Wildland firefighters plan to overcome chain saw noise with an audible alert like a whistle or a portable air horn.

Escape Routes. The goal of having well-known and effective escape routes is to ensure that all members know the planned primary and secondary route to a safe refuge area. These routes must be well planned, cleared of obstructions, and checked regularly to ensure they remain clear. In some large buildings, the company could move to a position where the escape route is too long for a timely escape. This would require finding a new route or abandoning the mission.

Safety Zones (Safe Area). Firefighters should always stay oriented to a safe place to retreat when the operational area becomes untenable. Wildland firefighters usually call this the safety zone. A similar safe area is required at structure fires, hazmat incidents, confined space, and other high-risk hazardous areas. Many COs discuss this location in their initial briefing prior to entering the structure or hazardous area. Moreover, they also hold the briefing in a position where the members can see the safe area. This provides a strong mental tie to the area they are headed when they are under the stress of a hasty escape. Similar to the escape route problem, safe areas can become inadequate when the company has moved too far from the safe area. This implies that a new location must be found and briefed. In these situations, the safe area will not have a strong visual connection, so interior landmarks must be identified and briefed.

It is important to remember that LCES is a system. If any component is missing or not fully implemented, the entire system can fail. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the world of wildland firefighting, there have been several close calls and even a few fatalities in situations where the firefighters believed they had established an effective escape plan, but that plan failed because they underestimated the fire behavior, which was faster and/or more intense than they had planned. In many of these cases, the safety zone was too small. In many others, the escape route was too long.

The structure fire dynamics are different; leaders and firefighters should consider a different set of worst-case predictions that could render a structure fire LCES inadequate. From my experience, it seems like the most likely failures would come from a communication failure caused by excessive radio traffic or from an inadequate escape route that was too long or obstructed. Patrick Shreffler, a retired Kern County (CA) Fire Department firefighter, uses a powerful phrase to capture the most prevalent weaknesses: "Too late, too far, too small."

I will now discuss operating at two risk levels: ordinary risk, seen in virtually any fire attack situation, and extraordinary risk, seen in high-risk assignments. 

The CO should always brief the company on an escape plan any time it is operating in any level of danger. For example, when you are operating on a roof, verify a second way off the roof in the event of a collapse or if your primary means of egress is blocked by fire. Generally, when you are operating on a roof, it is prudent to place an aerial ladder on both ends of the building. This briefing would necessarily include a way to get to a safe area and would probably include one person other than the CO, who has the responsibility to watch for threats. Communication at this level is simple because there is no need for a lookout to observe from a remote location. You can see in this example of how we can include the components of LCES for the level of risk seen in ordinary assignments.

When the assignment includes high-risk tactics or requires working near an active hazard, a complete LCES system is a necessity.

Some examples of high-risk assignments include:

  • Basement fires.
  • Working above uncontrolled fire.
  • Roof operations.
  • Working above or below the fire in lightweight construction.
  • Confined space rescues.

So, how does this relate to LCES and structural firefighting? The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has this protocol in place, and yet it is not readily apparent that they are applying this concept of LCES in their SOPs. In the FDNY, the second-due engine officer actually fills this bill by taking a pivotal role in ensuring the safety of the firefighters working on the fire floor and the floor above. Besides his duties as the water resource officer and a communication link between the first-due engine and the IC, the second-due engine officer is also responsible for controlling the amount of firefighters operating on the fire floor and keeping track of members going above that floor. Every firefighter operating on scene needs to take ownership for his own safety, but you still need someone to actually oversee the safety of everyone. If your department doesn’t have the staffing to provide a specific person to wear this hat, the IC must designate someone to do this.

There are some instances where designating someone involved in the tactical operation may leave you short of your goal of having an officer as a dedicated lookout. Those instances are as follows:

  • An important principle of an effective lookout is that he be in a position to see the plausible threat, the crew(s), and at least one escape route. Because of the second engine officer’s position, it may not be possible to fill the role of lookout to its fullest capacity. For interior firefighting, in most cases, it seems like we might need two lookouts; one to keep an eye on the fire relative to the crew and one to ensure the stairway remains clear at all times.
  • The second problem is that the second engine officer has several jobs. If there are water problems or members missing, he might lose sight of his lookout duties. In a high-risk assignment, the lookout must have a single purpose. 

Another person(s) who we may consider filling this role are the Firefighter Assistance Search Team (FAST) [(rapid intervention team (RIT)] members. In the FDNY, one member is assigned to monitor the handi-talkie channel to listen for Mayday transmissions while he monitors the electronic fire ground assist system (EFAS) screen. The officer and the rest of his team will remain at arm’s length at the command post waiting to respond to any calls for a firefighter in distress. The officer can also serve as a lookout, constantly observing conditions and relaying those to the IC. He is continuously observing the operation to find the best means of access for any firefighters that may get into trouble. These are drastic measures; if we deploy FAST (RIT), someone is in trouble. So, how do we prevent these situations?

When I was a probationary firefighter, one of the first lessons I learned from my officers was that when we—the second-due interior ladder company consisting of the officer, forcible entry firefighter, and the extinguisher firefighter—go above the fire, we must notify the engine company on the fire floor of our intentions. This establishes an indelible bond between the firefighters operating the hoseline and the officer and firefighters operating on the precarious position above the fire. This contact reinforces the commitment that if, in the event of a water loss, the engine company needs to apprise the firefighters operating on the floor above of the situation and that they will do everything they can to get the firefighters working above to safety. When you arrive on the floor above, the first thing that you need to do is establish a second means of egress. This is usually accomplished by forcing an apartment door opposite the apartment directly above the fire apartment.

After forcing off this door and making entry into the apartment above the fire, constantly keep in the forefront of your mind your second means of egress. As the fire progresses, this may change; a door that was viable five minutes ago may now be compromised. Normally, in a nonfireproof multiple dwelling (Type 3), there would be a fire escape (photo 2).

(2) Photos 2-5 by authors.


During a situation early in my career when I was operating on the floor above in a tenement building, we forced the opposite apartment above the fire floor and then made entry. The building had two apartments per floor; what we call a “railroad flat,” i.e., the rooms were laid out one after the other, similar to a train. There was already extension to the floor above the fire through the floor. I had made my way to the back of the apartment near the kitchen and was thinking that this was proper because there would be a rear fire escape. When I reached the rear windows, I discovered that there was no rear fire escape. This was a very poor size-up on my part, one that I hope to never repeat. My inexperience at the time could have resulted in tragedy. This is the dangerous exception in New York City, which features tenements with railroad apartments and no rear fire escapes.

Another impediment to a viable second means of egress at an operation (most likely to occur in a private dwelling) is window bars (photo 3). These should be addressed very early in the operation and, if found, communicated to everyone on the fireground. If they are found by FDNY, we request an extra ladder company to deal with them exclusively.



Window bars, for the most part, are visible to most firefighters. However, window gates can be much more dangerous because they are not apparently visible from outside. Window gates (or scissor gates), by law, are supposed to be able to be opened from the interior. They are normally attached to the inside of window and will slide open. Normally, they are found on the fire escape windows. They are required by law to have an opening latch, but many times people put padlocks on them (photo 4).



Instances where there is only one apartment per floor in a building can create a potentially dangerous situation as well. It is extremely critical that the firefighters on the fire floor are notified that you will be going above. This may also be where risk vs. reward comes into play. Does this situation present a known or suspected life hazard? If there is a known life hazard such as a relative or another person who knows of missing or trapped victim, you must take measures to rescue him. If you don’t have confirmation of a life hazard, it may be prudent to wait until there is a positive water source and a charged hoseline stretched and operating before attempting to go above the fire floor.

On the fire scene, there are certain tasks that need to be done such as stretching hose, raising ladders, searching for victims, and so on to bring the operation to a safe and successful conclusion; this means extinguishing the fire with minimal damage and safety of all members. It is incumbent on the IC to use his resources in the most efficient manner. The problem lies when other firefighters begin to operate outside their scope of responsibility, or simply stated, freelancing. This can become a huge problem for the IC on the fireground in many ways, the first and foremost being accountability. An example of this follows:

When I was a lieutenant, my mutual partner had a fire in a tenement building on the fifth floor. The apartment had a long hallway; when they entered the apartment with a charged hose, they were met with heavy smoke and high heat conditions with no visible fire. As they advanced down the hallway, they reached near its end, still with no sign of fire. It was then that the fire showed itself behind them. They were now in a position where they had passed the fire and needed to turn around or back the line out. There was only one problem: there were so many firefighters in the hallway that they couldn’t move the hose. It took a few chaotic moments before they were able to move some firefighters out of the hallway and back the line up enough to hit the fire.

Herein lies the problem: we have many well-intentioned firefighters that all want to do the job, but there just isn’t enough room for everyone to work safely. This is where someone needs to play “traffic cop” in the structure. Instead of firefighters heading up the interior stairs to get to the fire floor, take a look around and see if there is another means of access. If there isn’t make one. Everyone needs to be cognizant of leaving the escape routes open for the firefighters operating on the fire floor and the floor above. Each firefighter should say to himself, “If I need to escape down the stairway right now, would the flow go smoothly.” If the answer to that thought is “no,” he should take some initiative to correct that problem. A more recent example follows:

A fire in a 2½-story private dwelling was extending to the attic. Crews urgently needed a hoseline up there, but it was impossible because of the overcrowding on the stairs. To compound matters, some firefighters were continuing to open up the ceiling and the walls. It took some doing, but the situation resolved itself after some hectic minutes.

There are very few departments in the World that have the FDNY’s resources, so you may be thinking, how does this apply to my department? Fires are the same anywhere you go; it doesn’t matter if it’s a huge metropolitan city or a rural town. Fire behaves the same way, and the same tactics have to be deployed to have a successful safe operation. How then can you apply this concept to a small department? If you have a response, like in the small town where I live, for example, where we get an engine and a truck for a fire call. If they pull up to a basement fire in a split ranch house, how does the IC implement LCES? Consider the following:

Lookouts. For the time being, the IC may have to be the eyes and ears of the operation until more help arrives. Once the RIT arrives, the RIT officer can then possibly assume the lookout position. If the fire is more involved, he may assign someone inside with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to be the eyes and ears of the operation on the interior. If you have the means, your accountability officer can also provide some assistance as a lookout.

Communications. Establish the functionality of the tactical channel before making entry. Make sure everyone is on the same channel, including mutual-aid companies when they arrive. At some point, radio traffic on the tactical frequency can become overloaded. One way to improve this is to establish a command channel, especially if sectors are going to be set up. If this is still inadequate, and there is an inordinate risk situation, a separate channel for LCES is necessary. By this time in the operation, you would have staging, operations, exposures, and roof sectors, to name a few. There should be a means to communicate with the sectors other than the tactical channel. If there is a tone that the departments use or a horn that signifies evacuation, it needs to be understood and acknowledged by everyone.

Escape Routes. The IC should ensure that adequate hoselines are stretched to protect these routes. If one hoseline is stretched and operating, a second stretch a second hose to back up and protect the first hoseline. The same holds true if two hoselines are stretched and operating; a third hoseline would then have to be stretched, and so on. If the hoseline is operating through a door other than the main staircase, the second hoseline would be placed there to protect firefighters working on the first and second floors.

Also important is to make sure that every side of the building has a ground ladder. You can’t put up too many ground ladders at a private dwelling fire. Not only does this give you access to areas that may be unattainable from the interior, but it also provides a second means of egress for firefighters working inside.

Safety Zones. It is tough to prescribe a safety zone for a split ranch other than on its exterior. In many smaller departments, the makeup of the response area presumably would be residential dwellings. If you are operating in a larger building, you would find areas not in the IDLH as being potential safety zones. In a larger building, it would be a good idea to have a TIC and search rope (photo 5) to help find a way back to safety zones.



Implementing LCES principles for all-hazard incidents will improve your ability to escape from, sudden dangerous changes in incident dynamics. Your experience in working with veteran COs has shown that most officers have an escape plan in mind when they are working in high-risk situations. LCES is an effective SOP for the wildfire world. It might be a good SOP for your fire department.



1. Fireline Handbook. National Wildfire Coordinating Group. March 2004.


Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief assigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for

Gary Nelson is an assistant chief (ret.) in Los Angeles (CA) County.

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