The Importance of Low Expectations

By Eric. G. Bachman

Expectations are a part of everyday life. You expect your alarm clock to work so you can get ready for work. You expect the shower to flow water when you turn on the faucet. And you expect your car to start so you can travel to work. When system expectations fail, its catches you off guard and creates setbacks and inconveniences that take time to overcome. And usually those set backs are temporary.



The public has expectations of the fire department. They expect prompt, effective, and competent service. When a fire truck is expected, the public does not expect a circus car to arrive with a bunch of clowns running around it. They expect the firefighters to know and do their job and the equipment that the public helped purchase (whether through a fire tax or contributions) to work. When that does not happen or service is rendered which is not up to their anticipated expectations, their support for the fire department is reduced, and its reputation tarnished.



The above also holds true for the entire fire service. Firefighters have certain expectations of their fellow firefighters and certain expectations of the equipment they use. They have certain expectations when supporting mutual-aid systems and dispatch processes. And, each firefighter expects to go home from every call. When fire service systems expectations fails, its catches us off guard and creates difficult issues. Usually, those issues have long-term or permanent effects.

The expectations and confidence of the fire department, in its readiness, is higher when it maintains a consistent and efficient equipment maintenance program and enlists a structured and effectively reinforced training program. Expectations are high when department policies and procedures are adhered to and enforced throughout all levels of the organization. However, with most all expectations, they are influenced by many factors of which are usually out of the fire departments control.



Fire departments preplan to better understand the elements and challenges a venue presents and realize what to expect. When certain features are identified, the fire department expects those facets, processes, and systems to work. However, anything can happen, and the age-old adage of “what happens when you assume?” can come to fruition and cause operational setbacks and inconveniences. Regardless of how comprehensive, organized, and applied a fire department preparedness program is, it is reliant on things outside of the fire departments control.

Relying too heavily on things not in your control is challenging and unpredictable. Maintaining low expectations for those aspects should be a part of the response mindset. I certainly am not suggesting throwing out the white flag and surrendering at every incident; just expect the unexpected.

Even the most annoying of incidents such as the proverbial smells and bells calls should be cause for concentrated investigation and verification, even at facilities with frequent alarm activations. Expectations often depend on conditions and operations of another system, process, or person. In the fire service, its workload is a result of system failures, process malfunctions, and individual actions (accidental and intentional). Murphy’s Law—what can go wrong will go wrong—often appears and makes the job harder, incidents longer, and affects public and personnel safety.



Many elements and variables affect how the fire department operates and influences the outcome of an incident. When things do not go according to plan, it can be attributed to an unrealized expectation. These elements are influenced by the condition and status of internal facets which are within the confines of the venue. There also are external circumstances inclusive of the fire department’s actions and state of readiness that contribute to the incident outcome.



Many external variables will influence expectations. Although it is impossible to develop an all-inclusive list, this article will focus on common internal facility elements that affect fire department expectations and influence initial operational strategies and tactics. Each aspect can and should be obtained, studied, and reviewed as part of a fire department’s preincident preparedness program. The elements that commonly do not live up to expectations when things go awry include systems, policies, people, structures, and practices.



The reference to systems is wide-ranging. For the purposes of this article, it refers to detection and suppression systems, backup power, hazardous processes, and other systems critical to the operations and protection of the site. Local situations, of course, will expand on this list, but that is the goal of preplanning.

Some systems are considered standalone, mute, and always in a state of readiness. Occupants may be oblivious to these systems especially when no event occurs that reveals its critical dependency or weakness. All systems are dependent on proper design and installation as well as consistent and proper maintenance. Also, most are dependent on a human factor.

The expectations of occupants and the fire department are that facility systems will work effectively and efficiently. However, virtually all systems are dependent on other factors that can render them ineffective or useless. Unmaintained systems will deteriorate, resulting in the inability for the system to work as intended or up to its capability. Systems not properly designed or installed will not be effective; many will even hamper mitigation efforts.

In 1996, a fire occurred at a Chicago records storage facility. The facility was equipped with a ceiling-only automatic sprinkler system. However, it was “not adequate for the tall storage racks.”1 The total dollar loss from the fire was more than $50 million. The report also theorized that the sprinkler system to the area of origin may have been disabled because a control valve was found closed. Even if all elements worked as designed, the system may still have been ineffective. The facility was previously a large printing facility for which ceiling only sprinklers were appropriate.

The human factor, too, is always a concern. Direct or indirect actions of people can handicap a system resulting in compromised safety of the facility occupant. Protection system valves can be manipulated, intentionally or inadvertently reducing its capability. In 2011, a 217,000-square-foot mill building in Rhode Island was destroyed in a fire. It was equipped with a sprinkler system, but the system was turned off while the facility was undergoing renovations (photo 1).

(1) Shut PIV. (Photos by author.)


In other instances, system components were compromised. Sprinkler heads can be blocked (photo 2), painted over, or have dust and other debris collect on them (photo 3). Each of these conditions will affect the system regardless if it is properly designed and installed.

(2) Storage shelves piled high to reduce the effectiveness of sprinkler activation.


(3) Sprinkler head will build-up of dust and debris can affect it working properly.


Also consider sprinkler system coverage. In too many cases, preplans report that the facility is “‘fully sprinklered.” However, certain interstitial spaces such as above ceiling tiles or attic spaces may not be protected. So, there is an expectation that a fire will be controlled by the sprinkler.



The reference to policies is inclusive of tasks, protocols, and steps outlined in a fixed facilities employee manual. Some establish these expected actions when an emergency is discovered or when subsequent tasks may include process shutdown procedures and accountability.

In some industrial settings, there are precise steps necessary to “cool down” a process to prevent chemical instability or damage to equipment. Haphazard manipulation of valves could be counterproductive and catastrophic.

In personal care establishments such as a hospital or a nursing home, the staff may be required to initiate certain actions to protect patients. However, in the heat of the moment and in the haste of initiating protective actions, certain steps may be missed, overlooked, or not performed completely. In 1994, a fire occurred in a Virginia medical center in which four patients were killed. According to the postincident technical report, hospital policy was to “contain the fire by closing the door to the room of origin and to other rooms and areas.”2 It continued, “The door to the fire room was left open, which allowed the smoke and heat to enter the corridor.”(2) The report suggested that, had the door been closed, smoke and heat would have been contained.

It is important to review, as part of the fire department preincident preparedness program, facility emergency plans to understand what actions the facility is supposed to initiate for an emergency. (See my article “Preplanning Facility Emergency Plans,” Fire Engineering, January 2007.) Remember that no matter how well they are written or how much training employees receive, these plans are only as effective to the degree they are executed.



One of the most unpredictable incident factors is people. This is debatable; some contend that people are predictable. People are predictable in predictable situations. But when challenged, faced with adversity, and put into a foreign situation, one never knows what his reaction will be.

There are preincident expectations of people within a building. In many venues, those expectations are practices. Schools often conduct fire drills that usually commence uneventfully, while subsequent drills result predictably.

In the workplace, employers often reinforce training for emergencies. They have certain expectations of their employees, and the drills they conduct typically are low-stress events. In public places with transient occupants, training is impossible, and management expects patrons to know where the exits are located.

As outlined above in the “Systems” section, there are many influences on individual responses to an emergency situation. Not everyone reacts the same or has similar situational awareness, recognition, or understanding of the significance of certain situations. Other conditions, such as age, mobility, and other impairments affect individual self-preservation abilities.

For all of those circumstances including practiced fire drills, reviewed policies and procedures, and posted exit signs, behavioral expectations change when presented with an emergency situations. Take someone out of their comfort zone by adding smoke or heat or blocking a means of egress, and many adverse reactions can occur. Panic and the self-preservation instinct may supersede previous training and rational thinking.

In Florida in 1990, an early morning fire occurred at a three-story residential hotel with an estimated 140 occupants. Nine people died; the youngest was 75 years-old. “One fatality, whose room was located across the hall from an exit, was discovered fully dressed, with coat and shoes, and had a purse containing valuables. Apparently, she took time to get dressed and collect valuables before leaving. She was found on the floor of her room carrying a flashlight, which was still on when she was removed.”3

Another example of this is the 2003 Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island. An on-site cameraman captured the start of the fire, its rapid spread, and the egress actions of the patrons. One hundred patrons died. A report conducted by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) used the video as well as preincident information and found that there were numerous other marked egress points. People are creatures of habit, and most of the patrons vacated toward the way in which they came.

What are your situational awareness habits when you go to a new facility? My wife shakes her head when we go out to a public place and I scan the facility for fire protection mediums and alternate means of egress. However, you just never know when you’ll need to use that information.



All firefighters should have knowledge of the pitfalls of certain constructions types. They, too, should realize the dangers of lightweight truss and bow string roof assemblies. Structural, in this article, regards modifications or alterations that change structural integrity, change the spread of smoke and fire, and change the expected performance that keeps the building from collapsing.

Occupant modifications to interior spaces occur frequently. Sometimes, those modifications change the floor plan layout, reduce or eliminate personnel flow throughout the structure, or otherwise change structural elements that can yield void spaces or penetrations fostering smoke and fire spread (photo 4).

(4) Void space created by pipe chase through ceiling can foster smoke and flame spread.


It doesn’t matter what stage of construction the building is in; things can change, and with no notice to the fire department. From the ground-up phase to post-occupancy through its life cycle, the structural integrity—intentionally or unintentionally—can be compromised. Builders may take shortcuts to get the job done or to prevent additional work or added expense. Contractors may make alterations to allow piping, wiring, or duct work fit. After the fact, a renovation novice may make changes to improve the aesthetics or functionality of the facility without recognizing its effect on the building such as load bearing walls. With each of these changes, the integrity may be compromised or voids created to facilitate smoke and fire spread.

Consistent rapport and periodic visits will help reinforce cooperative preparedness. It may enable the occupant to recognize the changes that impact the fire department. Periodic visits may enable the fire department to recognize changes, whether drastic or subtle, that occurred since the previous engagements. Even buildings that have not been altered have inherent characteristics that can facilitate incident escalation. Balloon frame construction will facilitate rapid vertical spread. Structures with common attic spaces may not be equipped with fire walls, thus facilitating rapid horizontal spread (photo 5). Having low expectations of compartmentalized buildings and fires should foster contingencies when things do not go according to plan or as expected.

(5) Fire spread horizontally in the common attic space in these row homes.



Practices include a broad spectrum of issues. From basic housekeeping to extraordinary storage of (sometimes illegal) materials such as hoarding (photo 6). Facilities may endorse—on paper—proper storage and housekeeping practices. However, like some of the other systems mentions above, they are dependent on the human factor.

(6) High pallet storage can make material unstable.


While gathering preincident information at a department store near the Christmas holiday shopping season, an exit door in the rear stock room was blocked above the panic hardware level by folded empty boxes. Typically, after employees stock display shelves and racks, they bring the empty boxes to the baler. But in the haste of preparing for the holiday season, it was more convenient to discard the boxes, reload carts to fill the shelves, and then later bale the boxes. While I was still on site, employees moved the debris from the exit door. But, most likely, this practice is conducted frequently. So, the expectation of the fire department for prompt occupant egress or initiating operations from this rear access door is dependent on the housekeeping practices of the facility. Blocking egress points occurs frequently (photo 7).


(7) Blocked means of egress.


Egress points may not just be blocked, but locked. During college, I worked nights at a local grocery store stocking shelves. It was not a 24-hour facility, and after the store closed, its seven employees, me included, were partially locked in by the automatic sliding doors at the main entrance, which were locked in place. There was also a main door along the front of the store that was used as an emergency exit during the day. These doorways were the only egress points located along the front of the store.

The main door was equipped with an alarm that would sound when opened. At night, however, it was locked, even though it was equipped with panic hardware. We questioned the logic and legality of this practice, but management said that “there are other exits in the back of the building.”  Today, the store is open 24 hours, and the local municipality has an aggressive code compliance division.

In some facilities, storage practices for hazardous materials are haphazard such as compressed gas cylinders, which may not be properly secured (photo 8). Some materials may not be well segregated. For others, spill prevention countermeasures may not be maintained or observed.

(8) Unchained compressed gas cylinders can fall over like dominos compromising the cylinders.


Some facilities may inadvertently present temporary system impairment actions daily. For example, at a local home improvement store, an employee was maneuvering new stock using a lift unit. To rotate the stock, the older stock was moved and placed in front of an egress door. When mentioning this to the employee, his response was “I will just be a minute.” Famous last words—a customer soon came up to the employee and asked for assistance. The employee left to assist him, and the employee did not return for another 25 minutes. This occurs frequently at many venues; the fire department expectation at these sites is that egress will be open and uninterrupted, allowing occupants quick egress.

People not affiliated with a facility may not realize they are creating a system debilitating condition. Sanitation workers collecting trash from a dumpster may inadvertently block an egress point, a fire department connection, or other element (photo 9).

(9) Recently emptied dumpsters place next to egress doors behind this strip mall.


Sometimes, a windshield survey will identify practices that reduce the expected systems performance. (See my article “Preplanning Through the Windshield,” Fire Engineering, March 2004.) Other variables and aspects not mentioned in this article exist which are specific to other jurisdictions that influence incident outcomes. The key here is to recognize system operations influences. Like the examples mentioned above, do not become too dependent on those systems operating as expected. Expect the unexpected!

Everyone has expectations. The author has expectations that the reader will learn and apply the objectives of this article. The reader has expectations that this will be an interesting, credible, and thought-provoking article that will enhance his personal and professional causes. Don’t take things for granted or make assumptions, especially regarding elements outside of a fire department’s control. I cannot overstress that preplanned information is only as accurate as the day it was collected or observed. Consistent review of information such as periodic facility visits is necessary. Considering infrequent site visits, the fluidity of unpermitted and haphazard changes, and the human factor, having low expectations should heighten size-up and operational initiatives.



  1. Federal Emergency Management Agency, United State Fire Administration, Sprinklered Records Storage Facility, Chicago, Illinois, October 29, 1996.
  2. Federal Emergency Management Agency, United State Fire Administration, Hospital Fire Kills Four Patients Southside Regional Medical Center, Petersburg, Virginia. December 31, 1994.
  3. Federal Emergency Management Agency, United State Fire Administration National Fire Data Center, Nine Elderly Fire Victims in Residential Hotel; Miami, Florida. April 6, 1990.


Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 29-year fire service veteran and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the local emergency planning committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associates degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Co.


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