By Richard Mueller
An “aggressive offensive attack” is the holy grail of the fire service, the “dream we all dream of.” There are few other things in the fire service that we talk and write about more, take as much pride in, or get as much satisfaction from as going in and quickly putting out the fire. However, this dream can quickly turn into a nightmare if we find ourselves with our eyes wide open and unable to find the fire or our way out because of low/no visibility. In such cases, our words (“aggressive offensive attack”) do not match our actions as we fight for our lives rather than the fighting fire. The “FOUR Strategy” component of the Fire Company 4 system1 shares this goal but acknowledges that being able to quickly go in and safely and effectively put out the fire is not a given and that it must be earned. A legitimate “aggressive offensive attack” requires more than just a sprint to the front door and a crawl down a dark, hot hallway. An honest “aggressive offensive attack” requires clearly considered plans and actions to create visibility quickly so that we can see our opponent and our workspace.
The Fire Company 4 system defines the offensive strategy (figure 1) as an interior attack with standing visibility. An offensive attack is performed on your feet because you can see them and the temperature is tolerable. The combination of good visibility and low heat makes it possible for fire companies to move quickly, with little or no confusion, directly to the seat of the fire and/or occupants who were unable to escape on their own. The offensive strategy can only be declared by the interior company because the interior company is the only one in a position to see and verify when standing visibility is present or when it has been obtained. Calling for an offensive attack from the exterior is more of a wish, hope, and fallible, ego-driven announcement than an intelligently applied, data-driven, risk-based decision and understanding from the inside. The risks in the offensive zone (interior with standing visibility) are moderate because the interior company can stand and see what is going on around them (moderate includes the risk of wearing the hazard and the structure). Wearing the hazard refers to getting smoke, heat, and toxic gases on you and wearing the structure implies being caught, trapped, or crushed by structural failure.
An offensive strategy is realized more often by fire companies who progress into an offensive strategy rather than by those who just declare one. This offensive progression is started by being defensive. A successful arrival requires defensive thinking and defensive actions such as wearing seat belts, maintaining a reasonable speed, and stopping on red. If we do not arrive, there is no need to have a discussion about offensive inside work. Upon arrival, the defensive strategy can then be transitioned into a transitional strategy that starts with a 360 into the transitional zone (collapse zone to the plane of the structure). Here firefighters will determine if
- there is a higher priority present (visible rescue) than an interior fire attack
- where the seat of the fire is
- the building profile
- wind direction and speed
- where and how can we ventilate to quickly create an air flow path (PPV) to the fire
- if there’s an opportunity to make the fire behave sooner from the outside (an aggressive transitional attack) rather than later from the inside.
These pre-entry thoughts and actions benefit anyone already inside (victims) and those getting ready to enter (us) by quickly reducing fire growth and extension and creating visibility and a more survivable interior atmosphere.
When a transitional strategy and tactics are performed “before entry,” they typically result in offensive conditions (visibility and low heat) upon entry, allowing firefighters to proceed directly to the seat of the fire to finish the job and rescue those encountered on the way. When we skip these transitional steps “transitioning” from the outside to the inside, often we encounter conditions that force us to our knees and slow our search (marginal strategy). Firefighting in low/no visibility too often results in a “too-little-too-late” strategy in which firefighters can end up having to fight for their lives rather than fighting the fire.
Tragedies of Strategies
On January 20, 2005, a captain died after he became disoriented, ran out of air, and collapsed while searching for a fire in low/no visibility2. The incident occurred in as a garage fire. Upon arrival, the captain met the homeowner, who told him that the he thought that the fire was in the garage and that no one was in the home. After opening the garage door, the captain and his firefighter found only light gray smoke inside the garage. The victim then opened a door leading to the home’s interior, where thick black smoke banked down to the floor as the smoke pushed out and into the garage. After donning their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), they entered to search for the fire. Twenty-four minutes later, the captain was unable to find his way out of the marginal conditions, despite his best efforts and his partner’s help. He did not die from structural collapse or from being overrun by the fire, which is a likely outcome in extended low/no visibility attacks; he died because he couldn’t see and he got lost. He died from an overdose of smoke while performing a “perceived” aggressive offensive attack. In reality it was marginal (could have went either way) from the start all the way to his demise. He died on the second floor searching for a fire that was in the basement.
On March 30, 2010, an “aggressive offensive attack” was taken to the next level, resulting in the death of a 28-year-old firefighter/paramedic and injury to another3. With heavy fire conditions showing at the rear of a 950 sq. ft. structure and a report of a trapped victim, firefighters advanced a charged 2 ½-inch hose into the interior from the front door. Once inside, black rolling smoke banked down on top of them, followed quickly by rollover and then flashover. If fire volume dictates the necessity to use a 2 ½-inch line, a faster and more aggressive approach could have been used to deploy it from the outside (transitional attack) before entry to reduce the fire volume and smoke propagation before entry. Then a more manageable size hoseline could have been deployed faster and safer in lower heat and less smoke. This incident, like the first one, highlights the fact that the lack of visibility (smoke) is an “Error Producing Condition4” (EPC) that slows us down and can cause confusion, disorientation, fatigue, and the loss of situational awareness. Many errors that we may get away with under “offensive” conditions are much less likely under an unforgiving “marginal” one.
Although fire companies can and do “win” in low/no visibility, sometimes they lose everything. Incidents like these illustrate that working harder (personal aggressiveness) is not nearly as “aggressive” as working smarter (aggressive applied water). The fire does not care if you have 17-inch inch biceps or a 20-inch neck. When you are unable to see and make your way to the fire quickly, there exists the real possibility that the fire will find you rather than the other way around. Sometimes when we can’t find the fire, we also can’t find our way out. As I discussed in my previous article (Part 4: The Marginal Strategy), disorientation is one of the three leading causes of firefighter fatalities, yet most of us call the actions of “blindly searching” an offensive attack. How can you be offensive when you can’t see your opponent? A blindfolded boxer, batter, or quarterback would be a ridiculous and even humorous example of being on the offense, yet in the fire service we routinely perform similar behaviors without being able to see and describe them as an “aggressive offensive interior attack” in their NIOSH report (like the previous examples). In reality, the only thing that ended up being aggressive were the fire conditions.
Some years ago when I was a new training officer I set up a search experiment to evaluate my fire department’s search capabilities when some were questioning the validity of taking a hoseline with them for search assignments. I performed the experiment in our training room, a room that all of them visit a hundred times each year. I turned the tables over on their sides to simulate walls and scattered the chairs throughout the 21 x 35 foot room. After blackening out their face pieces, I sent them in two at a time (without a hoseline) with the goal to search the room and find and remove a victim. Almost 50 percent of the companies were unable to complete the search before their low-air alarm sounded. Fifty percent of those whose low air alarm sounded never made it out of the room before they ran out of air. Why were 12 companies unable to find their way out of a 700 sq. ft. room that they knew like the back of their hand?
A few years later, I repeated the experiment at one of the technical schools that I teach for. Same parameters, but this time only five companies participated. Out of the five companies, one completed the search before their low-air alarms sounded, two with their SCBA low air alarms sounding, and two never made it out of the room before getting lost and running out of air. Again, almost 50 percent became disorientated and never made it out of a familiar and safe environment. Afterward, I asked the students if during the search they had given any thought to how long they were in there and if they considered getting out at any time before they completed their search or the activation of their SCBA low-air alarm. They all said no. None of them recognized that they had been crawling around in zero visibility for an extended period of time before they became the next “simulated” National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report. What all of them were thinking and doing was focusing on completing their “offensive” mission– search (just like the captain in the above NIOSH report). Their all-or-nothing (offensive/defensive) strategically approach resulted in some of them losing everything when they could not find their way out of the low/no visibility environment. Creating and maintaining a visible work environment is synonymous with aggressive offensive actions. Without visibility, “aggressive offensive” behaviors are an oxymoron.
Others have written about the dangers and limitations of low/no visibility environments include Captain William Mora5. In his “U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study,” Captain Mora defines the loss of direction because of the lack of vision in a structure fire as one of firefighting’s most serious hazards and one that usually precedes firefighter fatalities. In the firefighter fatalities that he studied, 100 percent of the firefighters initiated a perceived “aggressive interior attack” to locate and extinguish the seat of the fire. Their perception did not match their actions: 100 percent became disoriented, 100 percent became separated from their handline or confused by loops or tangled handlines, and 100 percent lost company integrity. Sixty-five percent exceeded their air supply and 24 percent were caught and trapped because of collapse. Some of the disoriented firefighters died in distances of as little as 10 feet from the point of entry! Again, these errors were the direct result of working in low/no visibility.
Low/no visibility environments are EPCs that need to be recognized as what they are, our most dangerous operating environment. There will be more firefighter catastrophes as a result of “aggressive offensive” thinking and actions in marginal conditions and they will look a lot like the last one and the one before that. If we want to have good outcomes, we have to have good thinking. An honest “aggressive offensive attack” only occurs when you can see where you are going and move quickly. Anything less is a marginal attack where fire companies really don’t know if they are going to win or lose.
The Fire Company 4 “Four Strategy” component provides some middle ground to our traditional all-or-nothing (offensive/defensive) approach to strategy. This progressive and linear four-part strategy consisting of defensive, transitional, marginal, and offensive strategy define our hazard zones more completely and more accurately than simply deciding if you are going to “go in or stay out.” It provides for some space to think and act on important (if not critical) fireground factors. This increased hazard zone awareness and understanding allows for more intelligent risk-based decision making and safer and more effective fireground attacks.
Listening to the Dead
In this “FOUR” strategy series I have repeatedly used the phrase “tragedies of strategies” and cited actual firefighter fatality reports. When I read them, I often wonder what the deceased members would tell us if they were able to. Would they say, “If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it the same way?” Or would they try to help us in a more personal and insightful way than the cold, sterile narratives of the NIOSH reports? I believe that they would tell us to slow down and look outside of our narrow tunnel vision and pay more attention to the big picture of getting there safely (defensive driving strategy) and to what the structure, fire, and environmental conditions have to say about what you are about to get yourself into (transitional strategy). To listen more closely with our eyes to more than just the fire and understand that when you can’t see (especially for an extended period of time) in low/no visibility that you are not being nearly as aggressive as the fire (marginal strategy) and that you are losing. They might say that if you could see yourself in this environment, stumbling and feeling your way slowly around the structure, you would be hard pressed to describe your actions as offensive and aggressive. Some who have disagreed with me have said that they died “just doing what firefighters do,” and others simply say that they were just “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I believe that this is the ultimate disrespect for their sacrifices and our profession. The longer we go without learning from them and correcting our own preventable errors, the more likely we are to join them.
1. Fire Company 4
2. “Career Captain Dies After Running Out of Air at a Residential Structure Fire — Michigan,” http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/pdfs/face200505.pdf
3. “One Career Fire Fighter/Paramedic Dies and a Part-time Fire Fighter/Paramedic is Injured when Caught in a Residential Structure Flashover — Illinois.” http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/pdfs/face201010.pdf
4. The concept of Error Producing Conditions (EPC) comes primarily from the work of J Williams in the late 1980s but is still used in many field to assess the potential impact of errors. This technique is used in the field of human reliability assessment (HRA) for the purpose of evaluating the probability of a human error occurring throughout the completion of a specific task.
5. “U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001,” William R Mora, Captain, San Antonio Fire Department, San Antonio, Texas, July 2003.
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 [email protected]