Photo courtesy of Atomic Taco.
By Thomas N. Warren
Once fire companies are dispatched to a structure fire, the size-up process begins for all responders. Often, we can glean some information from the dispatcher’s voice or background noise in the dispatch center. Many times, additional information will be transmitted as we are responding. Most seasoned firefighters can tell from the dispatch the seriousness of the situation they will find in a few short minutes.
Most fire departments across the country have standard operating procedures (SOPs) that will assign fireground responsibilities to each fire company responding. A typical structure fire response may include three engines, two ladders, and a chief officer. On receiving a report of a working fire, the dispatcher may fill in the response with a heavy rescue and an emergency medical services unit. When the dispatch center is receiving a large volume of calls, theses extra companies may be sent before the first-due company arrives on scene.
SOPs are essential for fireground accountability as well as fireground command and control. The “division of labor” concept employed on the fireground ensures that every fire company has a responsibility in fireground operations. For example, the SOP may require the first engine to respond to the front of the building, make an initial report, and stretch an attack line into the building. The second engine will find the closest hydrant and establish a water supply. The third engine will stretch a line into the building and either provide a backup line for the first engine or go to the floor above the fire floor. The first-in ladder will raise their aerial device and begin vertical ventilation as well as provide forcible entry as required. The second ladder will then work on a primary search. This procedure may be altered if there is a visible life hazard or if the fire is too far advanced to enter the building.
SOPs recognize these potential variables and provide guidance for these situations. All fireground operations are based on the three incident priorities—life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation; the SOPs simply provide the guidelines to meet these priorities.
During the response, there is always a great deal of activity in the cabs of all the responding fire companies. In the second-due engine, the firefighters are discussing where the closest hydrant is located while at the same time listening to the radio for the first-in fire company’s initial report; their operations may be altered depending on this first in fire report. The second-due company may have to lay in a feeder line or they might get lucky and hear a report from the first in company that they are sitting on a hydrant. Similar discussions are taking place in every fire company responding to this incident. This is where the value of SOPs is realized. Every firefighter responding knows exactly what their mission is when they arrive and equally as important, they know what the mission of every other fire company is as well. This provides great clarity for each fire company and, most importantly, the responding chief. Every firefighter, especially the chief officer, knows that all the vital tasks will be accomplished in a coordinated manor.
At this point in the response, every responding fire company is listening to their radios for the initial report of the first in fire company. They know what they are responsible for when they arrive, they begin to develop a mental picture of the fire scene, and they can anticipate how they will accomplish their assigned mission as outlined in the SOPs. They will also look for any visible life hazard that may alter every responding company’s responsibilities.
The next course of action for all responding fire companies will be dictated completely by the radio report of the first-in fire company. The first-in fire company’s initial report will set in motion a series of actions that, for the most part, has been developed through many years of experience and study. The fire officer responsible for providing this report may be a seasoned fire officer or a newly promoted fire officer with little experience. In every case, we can expect that every firefighter responding will be listening intently to what is transmitted by the first-in fire officer.
The time to think about how to transmit the first-in report is not when you are arriving at the scene of a fire but rather to when you are honing your skills before you are charged with this responsibility. Listening to other fire officers is a good place to start. As firefighters, we have all heard radio transmissions that were extraordinarily clear and concise and transmitted in a calm and unemotional manner while the officer was facing an unimaginable catastrophe. We have also heard fire officers transmitting an initial report in a very loud and panicked way that almost makes it impossible to understand. The tone of the initial report is extremely important to master and is infectious to everyone else responding to the fire. If an initial report is panicked and exhibits signs of being out of control, it is likely the incident will be panicked and out of control. Clear, calm, and deliberate initial reports convey a sense of purpose and, just like a panicked report, a clear, calm, and deliberate initial report will also be infectious. Young firefighters should listen to the initial reports of officers in their departments carefully; it will soon become apparent which officers project the sense of being in control at fires and emergencies.
Next, think about how you would transmit an initial report and practice making the quick size-up and initial report. Practicing your reporting skills will help you develop the competency and confidence that leads to clear, calm, and deliberate initial reporting. Fortunately for aspiring fire officers, there are many first arrival fire videos available on the Internet to help you develop your initial reporting skills. By watching these videos, you can develop the ability to pick out pertinent information and formulate it into an initial report. You will learn very quickly what to look for and how to report it. Practicing these reports will also help you develop a command presence and inspire confidence and trust in your judgment by other firefighters.
The first-in fire officer must conduct a size-up of the conditions found on arrival and report that information to all responding fire companies and the dispatcher. In most cases, the initial report is done from the front seat of the truck as the it arrives on scene. Additional information, such as a 360° survey or hydrant locations, will occur shortly after the initial report is transmitted.
The information transmitted in the initial report is vital to all responding companies and will affect how they approach the scene, where they set up their apparatus, where the command post will be located, and if there is a need to modify their assigned responsibilities outlined in an SOP. Following is a list of the information that should be contained in the initial report.
On scene. The first-in fire company must report that they are on scene and announce the correct address. Many times, the address to which fire companies were dispatched is not the scene of the incident.
Life hazards. The first-in fire company must announce if there are any visible life hazards and how the company will address that life hazard. The first-in company may use a portable ladder to execute a rescue and not stretch a handline into the building, or the best course of action may be to stretch a handline to protect a stairwell. This is important information all companies need to know, and it will affect the objectives of every other company responding to the scene.
The building. The first-in company must report the building’s number of stories, construction type, occupancy, and accessibility. Accessibility refers to any obstacles that can affect fireground operations such as fences, abandoned autos, downed electrical wires, or even vicious dogs. Occupancy refers to the use of the building such as residential, mercantile, or educational.
Building status. It can be very difficult to accurately assess the status of any building. Many times, a building appears to be unoccupied by residents, workers, or customers when, in fact, there are many people in the building at the time of a fire. It is possible to make a general assessment by looking at the clues that are presented such as cars in a driveway, children’s toys in the yard, or clothes on a clothesline. Vacant and abandoned buildings may look as though no one is in the building when there actually are people inside the structure. Make your best assessment, report what you see, and remember that a primary search will be performed when all companies are on scene.
Fire location and smoke conditions. If, for example, fire is visible on a side of the building and on a certain floor, you must include this information in your report. There may be smoke coming from a certain area, or the building may be surrounded by smoke. It is important to include smoke conditions in the initial report; many times, smoke conditions indicate the extent of the fire inside the building. If the building appears to be in a normal state, simply report “Nothing showing, investigating.”
Exposures. Exposure information is an important component of the initial report. If there are no threatened buildings, it should be reported, but if buildings are threatened, it will require immediate attention and, most likely, additional alarms. First-in fire companies may have to deviate from SOPs to protect exposure buildings. This change in operational procedures must be communicated with all fire companies. It is important to remember that defensive operations require different fireground tactics than offensive operations.
Operational Intensions. The last sentence of the initial report should include the intentions of the first-in fire company. Are they complying with SOPs, or is it necessary to deviate from the SOP for some valid reason? In any case, it is vital that the first-in company officer reports his intended actions and where he plans to operate.
This may sound like a great deal of information to manage, but it comes easily with a little practice and experience. For example, it could sound like the following:
“Engine 10 is on the scene at 328 Broad Street, we have a three-story, wood-frame, occupied residential building with fire showing on the second floor, side B, no exposures, we are stretching a line to the second floor, and we have a hydrant 50 feet in the rear of our truck.”
This initial report took just 15 seconds to transmit and provided a wealth of information to all responding fire companies. With some practice and study, every fire officer can develop the skill necessary to calmly make this kind of report. Surveying the fireground as you arrive, assessing these important points, and transmitting your initial fire report in a clear, calm manner sets the stage for smooth fireground operations.
It is important to note that once you have gained the confidence with your initial fireground reporting, this skill is easily transferable to every other kind of emergency to which we respond.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
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