Initial Company Operations and Considerations for Defensive Attacks


It is a widely accepted fact that initial engine company operations–defensive or offensive–help set the tone for the entire incident. Granted, every fire and every situation is different, but the first 10 minutes can make the difference in all of them. We are taught that our primary objectives for every fire are life safety, property conservation, and incident stabilization, not necessarily in that order. When fighting defensive operations, with the understanding that every situation is different, those objectives, in that order, seem to apply.


Prefire Planning

Prefire planning is paramount when making these decisions. Companies should be familiar with the buildings and special hazards in their district and how these buildings will react to fire. Everyone is responsible for ensuring that we know these buildings and which tactics we will use when working with them. We should have already determined prior to an incident’s occurring into which buildings we will not put our firefighters.

The Building

Buildings today are not like they used to be. Old structures were constructed with more heavy-duty building products than today’s lightweight structures. When fighting fires in today’s lightweight structures, commercial or residential, we need to treat them differently. Tactics that worked years ago might not work on some of today’s buildings. In either case, any type of construction can fail without notice, and we need to be prepared for it.

Look carefully at any building, new or old, that has been damaged or weakened. What type of building is it? What are the exposures? What is inside? How long has it been burning? All of these things come into play when making the decision. Heavily weighted truss floors and roofs will react differently than truss floors and roofs with no load on them. You need to consider the building’s fire load. Is the building housing fertilizer? Is it a typical residence, or is it a vacant structure?

(1) Using handlines can be an effective way to apply water defensively before a water supply has been established. [Photos courtesy of the Myrtle Beach (VA) Fire Department.]
(1) Using handlines can be an effective way to apply water defensively before a water supply has been established. [Photos courtesy of the Myrtle Beach (VA) Fire Department.]

When defensively fighting fires where one structure has adjoining structures, you need to decide where you want to stop the fire. This can be particularly difficult in structures with a common cockloft or multiple open chases. You need to take into account finding where the fire is, accounting for the time it takes to get there to stop it, and actually stopping the fire. Sometimes, you will have to write off an additional building or floor before you can gain control of the fire.

The roof and floor construction can also play a part in the decision to write off a building. Truss construction fails quickly, and you should evaluate for defensive operation any fire in a truss-constructed building that is more than a small or room-and-contents fire, at least until the fire is knocked down, so crews can safely evaluate the structure and figure out how to finish the job. With the increased heat being given off from the contents of the structure because of the increase in petroleum-based fuels and plastics, structural members can fail quickly. When you arrive on scene, you have no real idea of how long the building has been burning. You need to constantly be aware of how the fire is affecting the building. Once the structural members become involved, you are on borrowed time.


During defensive operations, do your absolute best to keep track of personnel. Whatever system is in place in your department, use it! There is absolutely no reason you should be risking firefighter lives for a building.


Apparatus placement is critical on any scene. When performing defensive operations, you want to make sure everything is set. Don’t park so close to the building so that if the fire extends through the structure an apparatus will be damaged; however, you want to be close enough to ensure you can efficiently use the apparatus. Make sure hoselines and supply lines are left on the side of the road, allowing other key apparatus (such as ladder trucks) to be properly positioned.


When dealing with defensive operations, ask yourself, “Are the conditions of the structure able to sustain life? If so, is the structure able to support rescue efforts? Never put yourself at risk for property. The initial company on scene will have to make this call. We all know that time counts and we usually have small windows of time with which to work.

Many commercial buildings today also have sprinkler systems in place to help control the fire. Sometimes the best thing the first-arriving engine company can do is to tie into the fire department connection to supplement or provide it with a water supply. Sprinklers can buy you some time in old and new construction.

(2) A firefighter is used as a spotter to assist with water application.
(2) A firefighter is used as a spotter to assist with water application.

Initial companies can face a wide array of challenges, from weather to building construction to personnel. If it has been determined that the building is a loss, your initial engine company can elect to perform a “quick attack” using a master stream or ground monitor, or it could stretch a few handlines. Our department recently learned that just because you have the big water doesn’t mean you need to use it right away. While talking about a recent fire, the discussion of pulling off handlines first came up. The point was made that handlines are more versatile and can deliver good quantities of water. You can use 1¾-inch handlines to manipulate around and up to structures to help ensure that your tank water on your engine is properly placed and used effectively so it will put out as much fire as possible while your water supply is being established. There are always situations where 2½-inch lines are needed. Initially, with the right number of personnel, they can be used effectively, as long as flow is considered.

When you decide that the building is beyond saving and rescue efforts are not being made, exposures then become your priority. Look at what’s around your structure and what’s in between that. Consider wind speed and direction, as well as the time of day and proximity to the burning structure for evacuation purposes, when marking your priorities. Is there a large grass field or a driveway between exposures? Is there a fence or trees? All of these things can make a difference when it comes to protecting what’s not already on fire.

Once help is at the scene and your water supply has been established, you can start to work with master streams. If you started with an aggressive offensive attack but were pushed to defensive or if the building was written off from the start, nobody should be in the building, so it’s time for your big water. Any stream that hinders the upward or outward release of heat can adversely affect your attack. If the fire is already vented, do you want to push it back though the hole? Improperly placed master streams can have a huge effect on this. You don’t want to force the fire into unburned areas because you are not letting it out; however, during defensive operations, vent holes are an option for extinguishment. If you’re on a ground monitor or an elevated master stream or even just sitting on a 2½-inch line, your team is important. One thing we learned was that most of the time, firefighters could not see past the stream from behind the nozzle. Using a partner to help direct you to where water needs to be applied is tremendously helpful.

We have found through doing some testing at the station that today’s combination and smooth bore nozzles have approximately the same reach, with the combination nozzle breaking up a little earlier than the smooth bore, which could hurt or benefit your efforts depending on your goal. On streams such as ground monitors, a combination nozzle can benefit you by widening the stream so it absorbs some heat, keeping it off the firefighter.

Knowing the reach of your nozzle or master stream can help you get a better idea of exactly how far back you can be from a building or how close you can be and still be able to use your streams effectively. The hydraulic pressure of master streams can also aid in ventilation if needed, aerial platforms can be used to perform hydraulic trench cuts, and ground monitors or handlines can be used to take out some types of windows from a distance away from the building. Make sure when you operate in the defensive mode that you do so from outside the collapse zones and the building corners. Knowing your stream’s reach can help you operate in a safe area.

MICHAEL IGLESIAS is a firefighter with the Myrtle Beach (SC) Fire Department. He formerly served with the Clinton (NJ) Fire Department. He is a certified fire instructor and a member of SC-TF1, SC-RRT II, and the City of Myrtle Beach Weapons of Mass Destruction response team.

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