Problem Solving on the Fireground


Virtually all of the problems we have discussed in this column over the past few years have not been related to the core responsibilities of the fire department—fixing problems on the emergency scene. Every call received by the fire department is a request to solve a problem. Some problems are minor, and some require an incredible amount of resources. Regardless, the problem affects someone, and the fire department is expected to find a solution.

All of the problems presented are eventually fixed. The fires go out, the injured are treated and transported, and the hazardous material is neutralized and cleaned up. So the question is not whether or not we can find a solution but whether we can find the best one in the shortest amount of time. Obviously, the calls that are most frequent have the best chance of being resolved quickly and efficiently. Those that happen less often present more of a challenge. There will be a solution, but will it be to the level that is expected by your community and your organization?

(1) Photo by author.
(1) Photo by author.

I have had the chance to conduct many interview panels for communities looking for help in selecting promotional candidates from the levels of company officer to fire chief. Depending on the position and the job description, fireground command often is a consideration. Departments want individuals who can make good decisions on the emergency scene. One way to try to assess a candidate’s knowledge is to create a role-playing scenario that asks the candidate how best to “fix a problem” on the emergency scene. The variety of answers is huge. It is amazing that candidates for officer positions that require fireground experience are very often unprepared to answer seemingly simple job-related questions. They are “fixing the problem” on the fly, many times making up answers that they think the interview panel is looking for.

Problem solving on the fireground can be practiced. As with most everything we do, repetition is important for refining critical thinking skills that will allow for better decision making when placed under the stress of an emergency situation. Computer simulation has helped in this area. There are many options, from elaborate command training centers to programs on personal computers. The good news is that it does not have to be expensive or complicated. Take the photo below, for example.

Anyone can look at this photo and begin to formulate a strategy. Even if you don’t have the real deal with smoke and fire from actual incidents, you can take photos of the buildings in your community and simulate various fires in those structures. Through discussion and repetition, you can get relatively comfortable so you can make decisions when the conditions are far from ideal.

So now the problem: What are you going to do when you first arrive to find this 6,000-square-foot structure with the conditions presented? When this type of problem is presented in a promotional process, most candidates go back to their basic fire attack strategy, and that most often is RECEO—rescue, exposures, confinement, extinguish, and overhaul (with ventilation and salvage considerations). Others may take a simpler approach—rescue, confine, extinguish. Regardless, to solve the problem, you need to put some realistic actions into place based on the resources you have and are likely to have.

In spite of the implied strategies listed above, I would guess that the vast majority of first-arriving companies would initially stretch a line to the appropriate entry point. Do rescue considerations really come first? If there are witnesses, probably. In this case, there may be strong indications that the building is not occupied—time of day, lack of vehicles, or information from the 911 call or neighbors. This information is not always 100-percent correct, but experience can help make that decision. You may take a calculated risk to extinguish the fire as soon as possible to minimize damage and simultaneously make the necessary search for possible victims, even if the chance of being occupied is remote.

Assuming no occupants, what is your next step? You need to decide if you will proceed with an offensive or a defensive attack. The considerations that affect your decision are staffing, building construction, size and location of the fire, and water supply. You also need to evaluate the risk factors to personnel (safety), bearing in mind that there are no apparent civilian lives at risk. Firefighters will place themselves in harm’s way to help others. If the emergency does not involve the threat to human life, fire command officers and firefighters need to consciously choose the method of extinguishment that minimizes the risk to firefighters. This does not mean that you should not be aggressive in your approach. It means that you need to be under control and make decisions based on the information presented.

First and foremost, you need to know what you can realistically do with the staffing you have on the initial alarm. For example, during interviews I have had, candidates have told me they would establish a water supply, stretch an attack line, lay a backup line, comply with two-in/two out, initiate a search, and place a ladder—all necessary functions. Then I ask how many people their department typically gets on a first alarm, and there are not enough hands to do all of that. To do all of the things necessary, it takes adequate staffing. If you don’t have it on the first alarm, you need to call for help and then perform the functions that can realistically be accomplished, bearing in mind the safety of your personnel and the magnitude of the fire. For example, if you do not have an adequate number of firefighters on the scene initially and the fire is significant, you may wish to consider a blast with a master stream device. This may seem counter to some teachings in that it may potentially spread the fire and other products of combustion, but it may also provide a quick knockdown. Your training, study of fire behavior, and experience will help you make the best decision.

What is the building construction? In this photo, it is relatively new construction. This should indicate that the use of lightweight structural members is a real possibility. Study after study and experience have shown that buildings with this type of construction are prone to early collapse. This does not mean that your choice will be a defensive attack. It means that you need to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible according to the fire’s location and intensity. Can you place personnel in the building in areas offering relative safety? A good rule is to never place firefighters over the fire if you suspect lightweight construction. This would mean the first floor in the case of a basement fire or on the roof if the attic is involved. Remind personnel of the basics regarding entry—crawl, sound the floor, and so on. Although nothing is guaranteed regarding construction and fire behavior, the location of the fire and its severity should allow you to make a good choice.

Water supply is obviously critical to a fire of any magnitude. Besides the personnel and the equipment required, there must be an adequate volume of water for the fire presented. Experience, training, and knowledge of fire science should help you determine the amount of water needed to knock down the fire. Particularly in single-family dwellings, the amount of water needed to control the fire, when properly applied, is often less than what might initially appear to be required. One- and two-room fires in single-family dwellings are frequently controlled with tank water from engines carrying 500 to 1,000 gallons. This is not to imply that hydrant hookups should not be part of the process. You always need a backup plan.

Fire departments exist to rescue people and extinguish fire (among other things). Rescues should involve the most risk. You must extinguish fires after rescues have been cleared. This should be done while minimizing the risk to firefighters. Solving this problem takes practice. Not many departments have enough fires to generate the amount of practice needed to make sound decisions every time. Therefore, simulations and discussions must be used to create the confidence that will be needed. Play the “what if” game regularly—both as part of your formal training and informally around the kitchen table. Practice with any type of decision making will make problem solving easier.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been a fire chief for more than 27 years and has been chief in Northville Township, Michigan, since January 2009. Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills (1984–2008), president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He is a speaker at FDIC, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazines, and editor of the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.

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