Transitional Attack: When to Use It


To make an argument for using transitional attack as a tactic, it is first important to understand what it is. Textbooks, Internet articles, publications, and fire service leaders give different definitions and opinions for this strategy, but the tactics for this strategy have always been around.

Harold Richman explains it in Engine Company Fireground Operations–Second Edition (1986):

The normal quick interior attack should be made on those buildings which are in use and especially those that are occupied at the time of the fire. However, even in this case, if a large intense fire is encountered, it may be necessary to knock down or control [it] from the outside, if possible, using solid streams, before total interior attack can be made.1

William E. Clark states the following in Firefighting Principles & Practices-Second Edition (1991):

When a fire has extended to the next building before arrival of the first engine company, a complex problem confronts the officer in charge. If personnel are sufficient, lines should be advanced into both buildings simultaneously, but it might be well to use one of those lines to knock down the exterior fire before moving inside. When there are not sufficient personnel to stretch two lines at once, a decision will have to be made as to where to put the first line. It might be well to use it initially between the two buildings in order to extinguish as much fire as possible from one point before moving inside.2

John Norman states the following in Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics (1991):

When the officer in command recognizes he may be forced to withdraw from the offensive interior attack, he must immediately begin preparing his defensive positions. This may require calling additional resources, even though pumping capacity and apparatus at the scene are not overtaxed. Sufficient personnel must be available to get the outside streams into position and charged while allowing an orderly withdrawal of interior lines.3

All of these quotes carry the common theme of changing, or transitioning, between the firefighting strategies of offensive, or interior, attack and defensive, or exterior, attack. With this said, Fire Officer Principles and Practices-Second Edition (2010) [International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)] provides this definition of transitional attack:

A transitional attack refers to a situation in which an operation is changing or preparing to change. Transitional applies where an offensive attack is initiated, with the recognition that it could be unsuccessful or the situation could deteriorate quickly. The offensive attack is conducted cautiously and in a manner that allows interior attack crews to be withdrawn quickly. At the same time, back-up resources are positioned in defensive positions in case they are needed. This strategy could also be used to quickly conduct a search and rescue operation ahead of a fire, knowing there is only a limited time for crews to get in and out.

A transitional attack could also apply to a situation in which an initial attack is made with an exterior master stream to knock down a large body of fire while crews prepare to conduct an offensive interior attack. The switch to offensive attack should only occur if there are still lives or property to be saved after the heavy streams have been shut down.4

From this definition, it is clear that transitional attack is linked to strategy in the following ways: (1) Transitional attack refers to an interior operation that may be unsuccessful; (2) transitional attack refers to going interior, but only to attempt a rescue, and then getting back out to begin exterior operations; and (3) transitional attack refers to knocking down heavy fire from the exterior with a master stream and then heading inside for an interior attack. How does this apply to an on-scene report when strategy is first selected?

EXAMPLE: Engine 5 on location with heavy fire showing from sides A and B of a two-story, wood-frame. We have a hydrant and will pass command. This will be a transitional attack, and we are going to lead off with a 2½-inch handline.

What is Engine 5 really saying? Would a command officer, or other units, know what Engine 5’s initial action plan is? Engine 5 gave no indication of immediate rescue, so the quick in and out for rescue can be ruled out. Yet, when others arrive on scene and find Engine 5 outside, would they think that Engine 5 is still knocking down the heavy fire and then heading inside or that Engine 5 was inside and was already driven out? What if others arrive on scene and find that the crew from Engine 5 went inside? Would they think this is because they knocked down heavy fire from the exterior and then went in for the kill, or would they think that Engine 5 is inside and is still doubting its success?

The meaning of the term “transitional attack” in an on-scene report can be ambiguous. This on-scene report should be confined to the strategy of an offensive/interior attack because, by definition, a transitional attack is meant to be an offensive/interior attack at some point in the operation. Later-arriving units may be confused relative to the point at which Engine 5 goes interior in this initial action plan. From this communication example, the later-arriving units could interpret the message to mean that the operation started outside and Engine 5 plans to head interior as soon as possible or that Engine 5 is interior and is doubtful about the success of this strategy. To avoid confusion, a better on-scene report would be as follows:

Engine 5 on location with heavy fire showing from sides A and B of a two-story, wood-frame. We have a hydrant and will pass command. This will be a transitional attack after we knock down the fire from the outside with a 2½-inch handline. We will update when we go interior.

Another source of confusion for the fire service is that the term “marginal attack” has been used to mean the same thing as transitional attack. However, marginal attack should refer more to the strategy of a marginal, or doubtful, interior operation or an interior attack for quick rescue and then withdrawal to go defensive.


Let’s look at some of the most recent findings applicable to transitional attack.

In the November 2009 Fire Engineering article “Transitional Fire Attack,” Lawrence Schwartz and Derek Wheeler discussed training and testing done by the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department (CSFD). ( They obtained data about the effectiveness of a transitioning attack on second-floor, room-and-contents fires in an acquired structure. From the test fires, after the fire breached the window, a 1¾-inch handline was deployed from the ground using a straight stream into the window and deflecting off the ceiling for five seconds to extinguish the main body of fire. While this was happening, a second 1¾-inch handline was readied and deployed after the first was shut down. The second handline made an interior attack and completely extinguished the fire. The tests showed that this tactic did not negatively disrupt the thermal balance in the room and fire was not pushed into uninvolved areas of the structure as long as the ground-level handline used a straight stream, was deflected off the ceiling, and was shut down when the bulk of the fire was reduced. They called this a transitional attack because the exterior knockdown transitioned to an interior attack.

When comparing the use of the term in this article with the IAFC-NFPA definition, it doesn’t meet any of the three points. It comes close to the third point about knocking down fire from the exterior and then heading interior, but the definition addresses using a master stream to knock down “a large body of fire.” These tests used a 1¾-inch handline, which is not considered a master stream. Also, although this may be open to interpretation, from these tests, fire breaching out of a window may not be considered “a large body of fire.” The authors explain that they use the term transitional attack because the fire is knocked down from the exterior and transitions into an interior attack.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) completed research relative to transitional attack. UL conducted experiments in two houses built specifically for testing. In another experiment, UL, NIST, and the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) conducted tests in abandoned two-story townhouses. The tests looked at modern fire conditions and the effectiveness of firefighting tactics in room-and-contents fires. One recommendation from these tests was that water should be applied to the fire as quickly as possible whether from the interior or the exterior. In the UL tests done at the constructed houses, a 1¾-inch combination nozzle was used from an exterior opening (window or door). A straight stream was directed up to and deflected off the ceiling into the fire. The results of these tests and experiments have had a major impact on transitional attack because the tests provided scientific data on a number of relevant points.

  • Water applied from the exterior did not push the fire into other areas.
  • This stream should not block the flow path of fire from the exterior opening.
  • Applying water into the fire area is a fast and an effective way to knock down the fire and improve interior conditions for firefighters and occupant survival. This way, an interior attack based on size-up and safety would follow after the exterior line has been shut down, which would lead to a faster and more effective way to extinguish the fire.

These points give a lot of validity to part of the transitional attack definition provided by the IAFC and the NFPA-specifically, knocking down a large body of fire from the outside using a master stream.

There are two big differences when applying the CSFD and UL-NIST test results to the term transitional attack:

  • Transitional attack calls for a master stream to knock down “a heavy body of fire.” The use of the 1¾-inch handline does not constitute a master stream, and these fires were room-and-contents fires, which may not qualify as “a large body of fire” according to the definition.
  • The term transitional attack does not appear in concluding reports or in the UL online study course. UL refers to applying water as fast as possible into the fire area from the exterior as “softening the target.” Although UL does not call this a transitional attack, some consider this to be a transitional attack and view the results of the UL tests as proof of the effectiveness of a transitional attack.

The definition of transitional attack might be a “work in progress” because it addresses many different points. As a result, the term can be ambiguous and misunderstood. Perhaps there should be different terms for each of the three points in the IAFC-NFPA definition such as the following:

  • Marginal attack could refer to the situation where an interior operation is begun and is unsuccessful or deteriorates so that backup resources are placed in defensive positions. This makes sense because, when used as an adjective, marginal refers to being on the edge of something. In this point, the interior attack is marginal because it could go either way-successful interior or unsuccessful-and you have to withdraw to the exterior.
  • The second point of the definition refers to a quick search-and-rescue attempt ahead of the fire for a limited time. This is a serious situation that must not be confused. To call this transitional attack could be confusing. Maybe it would be better to call this “marginal rescue attack.” Because of fire conditions, you would not go interior unless there was a life to save and, once that rescue is completed, you will probably be exterior and using a defensive operation.
  • Regarding the third point, knocking down heavy fire from the exterior with a master stream and then heading inside for interior operations, our goal should always be safe interior operations when lives or property must be saved. If operations have to start on the exterior to achieve this, as soon as safety allows, we should transition to an interior attack. When this is done, most times the operation should be successful based on size-up and solid operations. There may be times when a 1¾-inch handline may be a better choice to knock down fire from the exterior. What if there is not exactly heavy fire but the fire is significant and spreading upward on the exterior or if the fire building is a one-story ranch private dwelling?

Instead of having one term covering three points, the term should point out the difference between strategies. Therefore, transitional attack should refer to an operation that starts exterior and changes to interior. Then, marginal attack should define interior operations that may change to exterior operations. Finally, marginal rescue attack is a quick in-and-out rescue operation ahead of the fire. Using this interpretation of transitional attack, let’s look at when we should use it.

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