Richard Mueller: Are You “Four” Strategy?

BY Richard Mueller


Strategy and tactics are favorite topics of discussion in the fire service. However, when the fire service talks about strategy, it is usually a pretty short discussion because the conversation quickly turns to the discussion of tactics. In fact, when firefighters reference the two, many say “tactics and strategy” instead of “strategy and tactics,” even though we should first think about what we are going to do before we do it. Unfortunately, this is also the case at incidents: Many give too little thought to strategy and automatically default to an offensive strategy, or they skip it altogether when deciding and announcing how they will fight the fire. 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 to do about the problem at the other end of the 911 call. Strategy occupies the top spot in this decision-making process because it not only starts us off on the right (or wrong) foot but it also influences all of other decisions that follow.  No other fireground decision has a greater effect on the outcome! Many fire companies have been taught 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, but it also identifies the level of risk we are going to take when we get there. The risk level can vary widely depending how close you are to the structure (in the collapse zone or out), the interior visibility, and fire’s duration. 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 illnesses. If our understanding of strategy (thinking) is flawed, so will be our application of the tactics (doing).

I, like many others, learned strategy based on the pictorial in Figure 1, which I call “strategy street.” The series of pictures from the book Fire Ground 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 is the remnants of a house. The pictorial is a visual model that shows that an offensive strategy is appropriate toward the left side of the model and a defensive strategy becomes more appropriate toward the right.

Figure 1

While the pictorial is somewhat helpful in determining simple strategy, the reality of this pictorial is that it no longer accurately identifies how fire affects today’s structures built with engineered lightweight materials and filled with high-heat-release-rate comforts.  Today, occupants die and buildings can come apart on the inside long before large amounts of fire are visible from the outside. Strategy decisions need to be driven more by what is actually happening on the inside and less on what is visible from the outside (windshield size-up). Without a clear understanding and appreciation of building construction, the advantage of a multiple-vantage point assessment (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, aggressive offensive attacks are slowed to a crawl and many blind spots are created by insulation, obstructions, and interpretation. Incident commanders who make strategic decisions based on exterior visible fire volume do not understand lightweight building materials and how and where firefighters are killed and injured today. Firefighters today are increasingly damaged and killed as a result of where the fire is located and the level of interior visibility (situational awareness) 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 of defensive as we scramble to stop or turn around and try to get out of whatever we got ourselves into. This type of thinking is seriously flawed. Too many of us think that we are being offensive as we blindly and slowly search for fire and fire victims or are unable to make the switch from offensive to defensive without sustaining unnecessary damage or death when offensive thinking and actions meet defensive conditions. The greatest opportunity to reduce firefighter injury, illness, and death is to start where they begin.  We have to change how we think. A change from our simple two-part “all or nothing” offensive/defensive mindset to a more comprehensive and linear four-part (defensive, transitional, marginal and offensive) strategic decision-making process may be a good place to start.  


The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)2 defines a defensive strategy as “actions that are intended to control a fire by limiting its spread to a defined area, avoiding commitment of personnel and equipment to dangerous areas” and an offensive strategy as “actions generally performed in the interior of involved structures that involve a direct attack on a fire to directly control and extinguish the fire.”

Fire Command defines strategy as “determining and mobilizing the basic

operating position of the hazard zone workers and the overall inside/outside

operational objective of the entire incident response. The overall strategy

determines whether inside or outside operations will be conducted.” Chief Alan

Brunacini also narrows the definitions for strategy, as the NFPA, into the two basic

modes of offensive and defensive. “Offensive operations are conducted inside the

hazard zone; defensive operations stay outside of the hazard zone.”

The Blue Card System3 takes strategy to the simplest level by defining strategy with one-word definitions, “Offensive is inside, and defensive is outside.”

The fire service’s daily understanding and application of strategy is as follows: Defensive, “surround and drown,” applying water from outside of the collapse zone to protect exposures. Offensive, “an aggressive interior attack.”

When you attempt to apply these definitions, simple strategy can become anything but simple when you try to figure out if an offensive strategy includes applying water from the outside but from inside the collapse zone, interior with or without visibility, fire companies who do not make it to the scene because of aggressive offensive driving and defensive firefighters who die in collapse zones. Simple strategy looks more like senseless strategy when preventable injuries and deaths are the result of ambiguous defined strategy and misapplied and misunderstood thinking as a result.

A better definition, understanding, and application of strategy are needed to ensure more fire companies make it to the scene without creating new customers, there is faster water application than waiting for the “aggressive interior attack,” and there are fewer firefighters who are disorientated, lost, and damaged from extended operations in interior low/no-visibility environments.


Four strategy is a logical, practical, and honest solution to our simple strategy shortcomings. “Four” strategy 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 defines our hazard zones (zones not zone) more completely and more accurately than simply deciding if you are going to “go in or stay out.”  It provides for some space to gather, think, and act on important (if not critical) fireground factors. Important factors include arriving without creating new customers, performing a 360˚ size-up looking for an opportunity for a visible rescue, fire location, the building profile, wind direction and speed, where and if/how you can ventilate to quickly create a forced air flow path (PPA) and the opportunity to make the fire behave sooner rather than later. This increased hazard zone awareness and understanding allow for more intelligent risk-based decision making and safer and more effective fireground attacks.


The first “Four” strategic option of defensive should start not when you arrive at strategy street but wherever you receive the call. The defensive strategy is thought and acted out in the defensive zone that starts at call notification and ends when you arrive at the scene and make a conscious decision to assume a greater risk because of savable lives and property, a decision that can and should be made only after arrival and thoughtful analysis.  Figure 2 provides a clear picture of the defensive hazard zone (fire station to the collapse zone) and the defensive behaviors that accompany defensive thinking.

Figure 2

On July 26, 2010, two firefighters were killed4 when the fire apparatus in which they were riding failed to stop on red, resulting in a collision that ejected both occupants who 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 firefighter line-of-duty deaths5 and more than six percent of our injuries.6 When you factor in the collateral damage to civilians, the numbers are even more staggering, embarrassing, and humbling.  

On December 4, 2009,7 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 injuries. Every year, approximately 200 civilians are killed and more than 16,000 are injured as a result of collisions with emergency vehicles.8 To put this into perspective, more civilians are injured and killed more often than firefighters every year as result of being involved in a collision with emergency vehicles than in structure fires! Our risk-vs.-reward balance sheet is in the red with the blood of those who unexpectedly become part 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 incidents like these, the first change to our strategic thinking should be in our response. The tactical errors of driving too fast, failing to stop on red, and not wearing seat belts result from our routinely applied automatic “aggressive offensive attack” mindset (strategy) whenever the tones go off. We need to start driving with a defensive strategy (mindset) and tactics that include wearing seat belts, traveling at a reasonable speed, and stopping on red to ensure arrival and reduce unnecessary injuries and deaths.  On arrival, a conscious, logical, and deliberate risk-vs.-reward analysis should be done before shifting from the defensive strategy to a transitional strategy.


The transitional strategy is conducted in the transitional zone that starts when we step into the collapse zone and ends when we enter the structure (Figure 3).  The transitional strategy includes thinking and corresponding actions to locate and “soften” the fire target from outside the structure.

Figure 3

When we arrive at the incident, we need to make a conscious strategic decision to either increase our 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 from a safe distance (outside of the collapse zone). Many choose to continue with their “aggressive offensive attack” strategy and make a beeline to the front door. Too often, this front door tunnel vision sprint provides an express route into the basement or an exercise in disorientation when we are overcome by the by-products of combustion. Without the benefit of a round trip around the building to better determine the extent and location of the fire before entry and actions to “soften the target” from the outside, we will find ourselves at the receiving end instead of at the forefront of an aggressive offensive attack. This happened on August 13, 2006,9 in my backyard and resulted in the death of one firefighter and a duty disability for his partner.

A more thoughtful method (thinking and analyzing) or transitional step, if you will, between the arrival and entry process is needed. You begin this “transitional strategy” with the first step into the collapse zone to initiate a 360˚ walk-around to assess the opportunity for a visible rescue, an aggressive exterior attack, positive-pressure attack (PPA) 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˚ walk-around provide better information to make more intelligent decisions about where and how to fight than simply busting through the front door with a charged, uncharged, or no hoseline at all. 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 (softening the target). The transitional strategy provides a legitimate and logical place for its corresponding (and matching) transitional attack rather than trying to make it fit into the offensive strategy/offensive attack or defensive strategy/defensive attack sequence.  An aggressive exterior attack coupled with a coordinated ventilation plan can reduce firefighter and civilian damage, disease, and death. When we enter the structure, the transitional strategy ends and a marginal or an offensive strategy begins.


Marginal strategy thinking and corresponding actions are performed in the marginal zone that starts when we enter the structure and encounter crawling visibility (Figure 4).  Low/no visibility environments (marginal conditions) are unforgiving, error-producing environments. They slow us down and create blind spots that can hide fire extension, weakened structural components, and firefighter disorientation. Because of these realities along with a low/no-victim survivability profile, the marginal strategy is the only strategy with a maximum allowable time limit. The marginal strategy terminates after a 10-minute interior duration or when marginal conditions are diluted to the point that we can see (offensive strategy). Fire companies should be pulled from the interior after 10 minutes of low/no-visibility because the risk-vs.-reward reality is severely risk heavy. The marginal strategy includes thinking and corresponding actions for an environment in which we might not win (or survive).

Figure 4

Although most fires will have some low/no-visibility parameters, too many fire companies think that crawling around in low/no-visibility conditions for extended periods of time is normal and acceptable. The truth is that low/no-visibility environments shift the odds toward low/no-survivability by the minute or even seconds. Research by UL Laboratories10 has shown that fire companies can have as little as 90 seconds after entry (ventilation limited fire) before the environment is no longer tolerable and that flashover can occur in as little as 10 more seconds. The outlook for civilians who were unable to self-escape is worse.11 Incident commanders and company officers must consider the time duration to life-taking conditions into their thinking (strategy) and actions (tactics).

Crawling visibility may be deliberate or nondeliberate. Deliberately maintaining low/no visibility is achieved two ways. The first is by naturally ventilating the structure before entry by breaking windows or opening the entry door. Both of these actions provide ventilation and create a slow ventilation flow path for the fire, resulting in a quick increase of heat and the products of combustion inside the structure. Natural ventilation does not equal cooling.

The second deliberate method for maintaining low/no visibility is to control the entry door (closing it behind us) and stopping/slowing the creation of a ventilation flow path.  This method may be appropriate when we cannot locate the fire. Research by UL has shown that closing the entry door behind us can significantly extend the time before flashover occurs.   

Nondeliberate low/no visibility is realized when we are unable to establish visibility in a short period of time after mechanically and forcibly creating a flow path [positive-pressure ventilation (PPV)] when we do know where the fire is. PPV creates a fast and forced ventilation flow path. While this fast and forced flow path will increase the fire and its products of combustion as naturally ventilated structures, the majority of the additional heat energy will be ventilated to the outside of the structure and away from the advancing fire company,12 unlike in natural ventilation, where most of the heat energy stays inside. In a typical 2,000-square-foot structure, an 18-inch PPV blower can create an entire interior air exchange in one minute. If standing/crouching visibility cannot be gained after 10 air exchanges (10 minutes), the fire problem is bigger than you are, and you should exit the structure and reevaluate your strategy (thinking).

Either way (deliberate or nondeliberate, low/no visibility), it is critical to acknowledge and understand that low/no visibility cannot/will not be tolerated for more than 10 minutes. Fire companies that understand that extended operations in low/no visibility will not be tolerated may give more thought (thinking) and time to actions that create visibility and/or slow fire growth before entry (transitional strategy).

Marginal strategy is an appropriate and necessary strategy for better understanding and making more appropriate decisions when we really don’t know if we are going to win or even survive because of the unforgiving crawling visibility hazards. Marginal strategy includes thinking and matching behaviors that maintain rock-solid company integrity (within touching and communicating distance), high situational awareness (TICs and search patterns), use of a charged hoseline (and not working ahead of it), sounding floors, maintaining communications integrity with the outside (first time every time communications), and the willingness to leave the structure when there is little to nothing to save.


The fourth and everybody’s favorite strategic option, offensive, is honestly and legitimately realized by interior fire companies that can see the fire and their surroundings. An offensive strategy is thought and acted out in the offensive zone that starts with standing/crouching interior visibility and ends with the “loss stopped” benchmark (Figure 5).

Figure 5