Mike Mason: Surviving the Battleground in Structural Firefighting


Based on repetitive behaviors in aggressive structural firefighting, we need to start adjusting our thinking regarding our decision-making process and our actions at structural fires to help eradicate and reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities. That being said, we should be paying closer attention to the hard lessons learned and begin preparing our firefighters, officers, and commanders relative to operational aggressiveness that may result in the injury or death of one of our own. We all understand, of course, that injury or deaths is sometimes the price we pay because of the nature of the unpredictable fireground and our willingness to give our lives to save others. In short, however, we must refine our strategic and tactical operations on the modern day fireground and increase our awareness of the structural fire behaviors lightweight construction and the contents inside modern structures produce, including ever-increasing heat release rates.

Sheer determination and an aggressive attitude are among the known attributes of the American firefighter. Tradition has paved the way for our aggressive operations; now we must begin to modify and adjust our strategies and tactics into a better model of the initial risks, safety, and survivability for civilian and firefighter alike. This initial risk assessment and profiling must be ingrained in all ranks so the dynamic fireground can be integrated with sound tactical operations along with a safety-conscious proactive strategic process.


The initial considerations and questions when engaging in firefighting at structural fires are the following:

            • How are you basing your rules of engagement at fires?

            • How effective are the tasks and strategies being performed minute by minute?

            • Are your operating guidelines driven by aggressive actions, or is there some measured     control integrated within them?

            • Are first-arriving companies performing accurate size-ups?

            • Do all ranks account for risks and adjustments to the risks presented in a given moment?

            • Are company officers in true control of the tactical actions?

            • Are the fireground strategies correlating with the occupancy type?

            • Is there a sufficient force to overcome the demands?

In essence, we must learn to provide an understanding of predictable performance when applying our tactical and strategic actions to a building and its occupancy type. We curb our instinct to be aggressive and perform something immediately; we need to exercise tactical and strategic patience. Each fire, building type, and occupancy proposes unique challenges, which reveal certain degrees of risk that should be factors in establishing the right tactical and strategic choices. Many times, we hedge our bets on past performances of basic tactical and strategic principles which we continually perform from one structure fire to the next. This is a recipe for disaster. The reality is that structures, their fuel loads, and their construction are no longer predictable because of lightweight construction technologies and their ability to hold in heat. These elements many times exceed our ability to perform under conventional past practices, which can result in unsafe practices. Usually, the unsafe practice is revealed down at the company level, but it has also been seen at the command level. That unsafe practice usually is that we do not recognize or react to the dynamic risks present on a fast-paced, dynamic fireground.


Being accountable for your actions on the fireground can help to dramatically reduce unsafe practices:

·                     Avoid engaging in any known practice or tactic that supports personal risk.

·                     Avoid being distracted or diverted from an assignment unless you are told to do so by those who understand the tactical model and its consequences.

·                     Avoid disregarding or making light of the overall action plan or strategy.

Today’s firefighter must understand the relationship of building types, occupancy types, construction features to fire behavior and also to be able to analyze the risk of their actions at the tactical and the strategic levels. Firefighters must be able to respond to changing conditions and adjust operational tasks to enhance safety, especially at the company level.


When engaging in and conducting firefights in the modern-day built environment, fire behavior consistently threatens our ability to succeed. Many times, fire departments and their ability to win and prevail are caught short when they think they can arrive on the scene and implant an offensive attack with little resources when, in fact,  more is needed. This is a common mistake. At any given firefight, the fire only responds in our favor when sufficient staffing and force are applied to it. Showing up with four firefighters and one or two pieces of apparatus when 10 or 15 are needed ends in unsafe practices and pushes the envelope into sustained injuries and possibly the death to one of our own. Firefighters, especially those arriving as first-in, should be aware of what they are confronting in relation to the resources immediately available.

The fireground and the firefight present formidable resistance to many of our actions and tasks at structural fires. This resistance is created many times by indecision or poor decision making by first-in companies and first-in commanders. The firefight can present itself with further obstacles such as poor operating procedures, uncoordinated efforts, and poor communications, not to mention weather and the terrain around many structures. Other resistive problems, such as forcible entry, below-grade fires, high-rise structures, and lightweight construction, all create resistance to our efforts. The resistive factors can affect any given firefight on any given day, making for far greater difficulties to be overcome.

The only way we can prevail many times is through our collective training, which should approximate the way we play at the real deal. We must also keep in mind that our training can never duplicate the true realities that present themselves at any given firefight. Training should be taken seriously and should be approached with a life-and-death mentality. We still see and hear of serious injuries and deaths from urban to suburban departments that are responding with less than adequate staffing and, more importantly, less than adequate training coupled with increased response times in many areas of the country. Training should approximate the true nature of the battleground we engage in. Many departments throughout the country, because of low-frequency events, are pulled into a sense of complacency resulting from long periods of being disengaged from actual structural fires. Departments should create the mentality that when you step into the firehouse, the engagement with the enemy could be just around the corner and has life-and-death consequences. Being mentally and physically prepared to do battle at all times is paramount.

When we arrive at a structural fire, there is uncertainty and initial disorder which, many times, imposes uncontrolled events even with the best of plans to control it. Our standard operating guidelines (SOGs) should account for this by being flexible to help direct the course of actions that should help create something manageable from the initial disorder. Through sound and applicable firefighting training, we can avoid commanders getting caught up in the trap of micromanaging members and trying to control every disorder that may occur at a structural fire. The goal of the incident commander (IC) should be looking at the big picture and its outcome, and every member should be supporting it.

ICs need to be able to trust and delegate authority to execute what needs to be done. The only way to provide that trust is through repeated and consistent training. It requires that a department ensure that everyone, from the first-due engine to the first-due truck and so on, are on the same page and understand all the principles. Freeing the IC to manage incidents more efficiently through well-trained troops is the end goal, as is the IC’s being able to issue orders that clearly define his intent through the use of flexible SOGs.

On the other end of the spectrum is the ability to change direction when the battleground dictates change; therefore, flexibility is even more crucial in this fast-paced fireground dynamic. Again, training to execute the tactics and strategies intended will provide most of what may be needed in controlling disorder on the fireground.

Another very important thing ICs should consider is that micromanaging a fireground can allow the fire to grow, delay rescue efforts, delay ventilation-enter-search (VES) or ventilation, which degrades our ability to overcome and adapt. Your members should know their job from the tools used and their applications down to their assignments well before the response. Firefighters and their officers need experience gained through real-life response and training. A solid foundation of both produces courage on the battlefield. This along with the will to win and strong leadership by company officers will transform the unknown, which is fear, into what is known and how to deal with it.


Firefighters need actual experience along with realistic training. Some departments respond to only a few fires and have little actual experience and, therefore, may have to turn to outside sources for professional, realistic training. The science and understanding of fire behavior is essential, but so is the human behavior that surrounds surrounding the actions taken at firefights, which can make the difference in winning and losing. Firefighting is an art, believe it or not, and a human activity with many variables and factors that affect the outcome on the fireground. Fireground decisions, especially those made by first-in companies and their officers at structural fires, many times are made without their knowing all the facts. This will always be the case because of the nature of the battle. Whether these decisions can be carried out by those crawling the hallways, so to speak, is not known at first. Often, we are left to chance on the fireground in hopes that a well-trained firefighter or company of firefighters can accomplish a given task at any given time under what are unpredictable, severe conditions.

Fire departments must have the means and flexibility to deal with whatever may be thrown at them, large or small. A department needs to be able to manage fire whether it is in a high-rise structure or a 900-foot ranch home. Departments and their members must understand and know their limitations, effectiveness, and preparedness. If departments are ill-equipped, poorly trained, or understaffed, certain threats will be beyond their capabilities to control. Firefighters lose their lives every year whether the battles are small or large and whether incidents are controlled or uncontrolled; therefore, we should make sure that we are prepared up to our capabilities–no excuses.

A room-and-contents fire that occurs four to five times in a large municipality has risks but not as many risks as are faced by the rural departments that respond to these fires once or twice a year. It is ultimately important for every member and those commanding that we can identify when we should be on offence or defense. Do first-arriving forces recognize that, reasonably, there are lives to save or property worth saving that does not risk civilian or firefighter lives? This decision process will always expose us in carrying out actions that may be increasing our risk whether recognized or unrecognized. Departments should ensure that well-trained firefighters and their officers are capable of recognizing risks when making quick decisions in undertaking offensive actions. Making offensive commitments when defensive strategies are more appropriate will lose lives.


It is well-known that Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has examined ventilation practices at structural fires. Fire behavior in today’s structures has been affected by new construction methods and home-building layouts. Open-floor plans along with larger homes and increased fuel loads have impacted fire behavior, and thus ventilation practices and tactics. UL has conducted numerous tests and scenarios incorporating the various techniques that are shaping current strategies and tactics.

            • Fire development. It is increasingly apparent that fire development approaches faster decay periods prior to the arrival of firefighters, which is just before flashover conditions occur. This emphasizes the need for ventilation.

            • The front door. All forcible entry should be thought of as ventilation-induced actions. Air is being forced inward as time is becoming a factor regarding getting to and extinguishing fire, or the situation grows to untenable conditions that exposes firefighters anywhere within the structure to possible flashover conditions.

            • Reading smoke: Fires that are ventilation limited on arrival may reveal themselves as size-ups with no smoke or diminished smoke showing. Firefighters should be aware that the potential conditions inside could become untenable if ventilation is introduced. They should allow the structure to breathe before they consider entry.

            • Coordinated fire attack. Providing air to the fire without timely application of water will produce larger fires quickly while decreasing the safety to those preparing for an offensive procedure. Many times, it was only seconds between the onset of firefighting or the advancing of hoselines and flashover. Vent locations already exist in distant areas; creating additional vent openings may increase temperatures within the structure.   

            • Rapid air movements through the front door.  Observe the type of flow through the front door when using offensive procedures; rapid, inward smoke movements indicate ventilation-limited fires.

            • Vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS). In all VES movements, place high importance on controlling/closing the door to the room being searched. This eliminates any unwanted open venting within the structure and the room being searched, lifting the smoke out of the contained room.          

            • Ventilation flow paths. In a ventilation-limited fire, any additional ventilation openings created provide new ventilation flow paths for fire spread.

            • Creating multiple ventilation openings. An open ventilation location may still create a ventilation-limited fire. Creating additional ventilation openings may still increase faster and hotter fires that allow the fire to maintain a higher temperature than if the ventilated area were closed.

            • Occupant and firefighter tenability. Closing the door provides tenability relating to oxygen and temperature thresholds. Closing the door between an occupant or a firefighter and the fire can increase the chance of survivability. Closing a door if you meet with hostile conditions while advancing a hoseline, engaging in VES, or searching will increase protection and survivability.

            • Existing open vent. An already existing ventilation opening will provide air to the fire and allow it to grow faster and hotter. Flashover conditions can still exist.

            • Water application/pushing fire. Applying water does not necessarily produce increased temperatures or fire to adjacent rooms. In most cases, the fire was slowed and release heat rates were lowered whether the water was applied outside or inside.  Applying water in these methods had no negative impact on occupant survivability.

            The above considerations are just a few when it comes to surviving the battleground at structural fires. Surviving the fireground is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of rank. We are all students of the game and our profession throughout our entire careers.


MIKE MASON is a retired lieutenant and a 31-year veteran of the fire service. As an officer with the Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department, he was assigned to Truck 2/Squad 2. He is a certified instructor III and fire officer II and a staff instructor for and the director and founder of the not-for-profit RICOFIRERESCUE INC. He is the author of Rapid Intervention Company Operations (R.I.C.O.), In the Realm of Risk: Surviving the Fireground, and Fireground Search: That Others May Live. He has an A.S. degree in fire science and a master’s degree in strategic and tactical leadership. He is an adjunct instructor with several fire academies.