BY JAMES SILVERNAIL
The tactics and strategies of the first-arriving apparatus in structure fires are greatly emphasized in today’s trade magazines and lectures—and rightfully so. The initial actions taken at a structure fire are critical and can determine the outcome of the incident. However, what if these actions are not adequately supported by incoming apparatus? Can a single company effectively implement all critical actions on the fireground? In a structure fire, the answer is emphatically no, and if the initial actions are not supported, catastrophic failure will occur.
For agencies that operate with adequate staffing and dedicated truck companies (predominantly urban), the issue is often cut-and-dried. Engine companies deploy initial attack lines, secure water sources, protect exposures, and deploy additional attack lines while truck companies complete all necessary functions that assist with line placement and fire attack operations, including rescue. Unfortunately, all operations are not blessed with dedicated truck companies or adequate staffing, and these support functions must be prioritized and assigned to engines detailed to the alarm. This is generally the norm for most suburban-based fire agencies. Often, second-due decision making can be considered more challenging in this situation because it requires a heightened situational awareness and the ability to make critical decisions quickly. The first-arriving company officers understand that the majority of the time they will conduct a size-up, implement a strategy, and deploy some type of fire stream. Second-due officers must assess which functions need to be implemented for the greatest impact on the initial actions.
The second-arriving apparatus facilitates the tactical strategy initiated by the first-arriving apparatus. This apparatus is responsible for coordinating and completing numerous functions on the fireground. A single company, especially with substandard staffing, cannot be expected to complete more than a few functions alone and will often require assistance from supporting companies. Many times, these initial actions are fruitless and unsuccessful without the supporting actions from other companies. The actions of a second-arriving company represent the true purpose and concept behind my textbook Suburban Fire Tactics and the need for a systematic action plan, or Preferred Operating Methods.
|(1) In limited or truck-free systems, apparatus functions are not “clear cut” or defined by apparatus type. Often, their purpose on a fireground is dictated by arrival order. Aerial apparatus with pumps may have to function as engines. (Photo by Mike Thiemann, Metro West Fire Protection District, St. Louis County, Missouri.)|
DEFINING THE CHALLENGE
Two years ago, I was assigned to reevaluate my agency’s Preferred Operating Methods for structure fires, which I have written about in previous articles. My agency was doing many things right in terms of structural firefighting, yet we realized that there was room for improvement. We responded to numerous fires, and everything went very well for the majority of incidents. However, every once in a while, a fire slipped through the cracks and operations did not go exactly as planned. This is not acceptable in the fire service. We realize that every outcome to every fire cannot always go as desired; however, we still want to strive for consistency. After having analyzed numerous fires, my colleagues and I were able to pinpoint one of the major problems that detracted from consistent operations. The majority of issues all pointed to the use of our second-arriving apparatus.
Before our latest revision, the second-arriving apparatus, which for my agency always has a pump, was always detailed to deploy a secondary or backup line. A secondary or backup line is essential on all structure fires; however, we were missing many other functions that should have been prioritized ahead of this action. For example, we analyzed the structure fires that were not controlled in the desired timely manner or not controlled at all. We found the same recurring theme: The first line was not effectively placed in the proper position in time. What caused this? We found many reasons:
- There weren’t enough personnel to effectively make the stretch.
- Crews could not locate the fire in a timely manner.
- There wasn’t adequate ventilation to support the movement of the attack line.
- Crews were not able to stretch the line and open up the walls and ceilings to fully extinguish the hidden body of fire.
- Crews were distracted, attempting to complete too many functions, such as search and rescue.
- Adequate water supply was not established.
The placement of an initial attack line is the most critical function in the control and mitigation of a fire and makes the greatest impact on the fire scene. Many subsequent and simultaneous actions must happen for this to occur. These actions must be accounted for and take precedence over functions that are less time sensitive and have a smaller impact. Therefore, it can be established that all initiative and effort should be made toward placing the initial attack line before considering deploying additional lines. Successful deployment of the primary line is essential and takes priority over other tactics such as stretching the second line.
After careful observation, we realized that these support functions were not being completed in a timely manner. More often than not, the first attack line was taking a beating and not meeting its objective, while the second attack line was behind it doing absolutely nothing. Many times, we would find numerous lines on the ground, yet none could reach the seat of the fire. In one basement fire, three lines were deployed, yet none of the crews were able to make the push down the stairs and meet the seat of the fire because of heat, inadequate ventilation, a difficult stretch (numerous bends), and an overcrowding effect (numerous lines in one place and firefighters stepping all over each other).
Each agency has different needs. There is no doubt of what the first-arriving company should accomplish. The responsibilities of the second-arriving company completely depend on what still needs to be accomplished to place the initial line. If you are certain that your individual companies can place the line and complete all facilitating functions without excess burden, then maybe it is in your best interest to have the second-arriving unit deploy the second line. However, for most suburban agencies, this is highly doubtful.
CRITICAL DECISION MAKING
Critical decision making begins with situational awareness. In the fire service, this entails a thorough size-up. The size-up should begin at the time the alarm is sounded (technically prior to, with preplanning), and the first-arriving apparatus should communicate initial findings. Are there any rules against a secondary size-up? Any decent urban department truck company officer will tell you the value of a secondary truck size-up. A truck size-up is in addition to the first-arriving engine company’s findings and report. The engine company (or, for our situation, the first-arriving apparatus) completed a size-up to determine the building type, occupancy, circumstances, and fire conditions to initiate tactical strategies. The company facilitating the operation should conduct a size-up to determine which actions his crew will initiate in support of the engine or first-arriving unit.
The second-arriving apparatus can facilitate or support the initial-arriving apparatus through many functions. The officer should select the actions that will make the largest, immediate impact on the operation and that are needed to facilitate initial tactical decisions. For the majority of incidents, this initial action will be the deployment of the primary attack line.
Factors that could influence this decision making include the following:
- Has an adequate, permanent water supply been established for the operation?
- Entry/egress challenges: Is forcible entry/egress needed initially? Is ladder placement essential?
- Occupancy: Is rescue a possibility? Is there a possibility for multiple occupants?
- Building type: Is there a possibility for fire spread through hidden voids? Do you need to open up walls/ceilings immediately? Are there any specific construction features that could complicate fire spread and concealment, including balloon-frame construction or 11/2-story knee walls (creating hidden voids)?
- Fire location: Do interior crews need immediate assistance with locating the fire? Is it hidden? Is it a difficult stretch above or below grade, which will require additional staffing for the stretch? Is it above grade, requiring immediate ladder egress for interior crews?
- Ventilation: Has the fire vented? What are the interior heat conditions for operating crews? Is immediate ventilation required for life or fire?
- Safety: Is the interior crew operating under safe procedures and conditions? Can crew members get out if conditions worsen?
- Does the current strategy need to be continued, or did the initial crew misread or not know factors that are now evident? Changing strategy and tactics may be the most critical decision you make.
- Do you need to assume command?
|(2) Essential truck company functions necessitate the use of the appropriate forcible entry and hand tools. In a truck-free or limited truck system, each apparatus should be properly equipped and tools should be adequately assigned according to riding assignment. (Photo by Steven Heidbreder, Metro West Fire Protection District, St. Louis County, Missouri.)|
Simply stated, the second-arriving company’s sole purpose is to support all tactical actions taken by the initial-arriving company. Typically, the initial truck (facilitating) company functions are categorized as “fire floor functions.” These functions occur directly on the fire floor and directly affect life safety (search and rescue) and extinguishment operations.
What actions are necessary to support the attack line—
- water supply;
- complete forcible entry;
- assistance with the hose stretch;
- assistance with locating the fire;
- overhaul during fire attack, such as opening walls and ceilings to find hidden fires;
- search and rescue; and
- egress (ladders)?
|(3) Fireground success is dependent on situational awareness and communication. Company officers should communicate among themselves and their command structure to verify progress and to indicate which functions are needed to support/facilitate the initiated attack plan. (Photo by Mike Thiemann, Metro West Fire Protection District, St. Louis County, Missouri.)|
Besides conducting a secondary size-up, how does the second-arriving company know which function to prioritize and initiate to help facilitate operations? The answer is communication. Do not play the guessing game. On arrival, the second-arriving officer should immediately communicate with the first-arriving officer or chief officer face-to-face or by radio.
Important facts to know include the following:
- Has a water supply been established?
- Have you made entry or gained access?
- Do you know the location of the fire?
- Have you made progress with deploying the attack line? Are you at the seat of the fire, or will you need assistance?
- Are there any reports of occupants trapped? If so, what are their possible locations?
- What are interior conditions like? Is ventilation needed, or has it been initiated?
- Is the initial implemented tactic working?
Another important aspect in relation to Preferred Operating Methods is to communicate completed tasks to command or the later-arriving company that will also assume facilitating (truck) functions. It is important to indicate which functions still need to be completed, such as the following:
- vertical ventilation,
- additional forcible entry,
- salvage, and
Making decisions as the second-arriving officer in a “truck-free” operation can be as challenging and as critical as for the first-arriving apparatus. Many actions initiated by the first-arriving apparatus will require assistance and further facilitation. Remember, in suburbia, you do not have the luxury of an overabundance of staff. You have to make your operation effective within the circumstances you are given. The second-arriving unit’s decision making reflects this concept and is a prime example of the resourcefulness required for suburban operational success.
● JAMES SILVERNAIL is a battalion chief with the Metro West Fire Protection District of St. Louis County, Missouri. He is the author of Suburban Fire Tactics (Fire Engineering, 2013). He has more than 15 years of operational experience and is a lead instructor at the St. Louis County Fire Academy, specializing in truck company operations. He is also a member of MO-TF1 (a FEMA Urban Search & Rescue team) and was deployed to Hurricane Sandy in New York (2012) as a planning team manager. Silvernail has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering. He is a workshop instructor at the Fire Department Instructors Conference and presents at various regional conferences.
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