Applying LCES to All-Hazard Incidents


The wildland firefighting community relies on a simple safety slogan to remind its firefighters about dangerous situations when they are in a hazard area. The Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones (LCES) concept is a widely accepted and required safety program used at every wildland fire. If we can use this safety concept without hesitation on every wildland incident, we can use the same concept on every emergency incident scene, regardless of its nature. Additionally, since our firefighters have already learned the LCES concept in wildland training, minimal additional training will be required.

From Day One of wildland firefighter training, recruits are taught the LCES concept, which everyone uses daily and in every operation. It is the accepted means of establishing a safer operation—operations do not proceed without it. Below, we’ll take a closer look at LCES and how to apply its components to nonwildfire incidents.

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(1) How much can one safety officer see on a structure fire scene? LCES should be required at the company level to enhance safe operations in dangerous environments. (Photos by author.)

Zig Zag Hotshot Superintendent Paul Gleason first introduced LCES to the wildfire community in 1991 when his input was requested on firefighter safety. Gleason wrote a paper, “LCES and Other Thoughts,” to introduce the systematic approach to safety he called “Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones.”1 The driving force behind writing the paper was the death of a Perryville firefighter and Gleason’s promise to “help end the needless fatalities, and alleviate the near misses, by focusing on training and operations pertinent to these goals.”

In this initial paper, Gleason described LCES as “just a re-focusing on the essential elements of the FIRE ORDERS. The systems view stresses the importance of the components working together. The LCES system is a result of analyzing fatalities and near misses for over 20 years of active fireline suppression duties. I believe that all firefighters should be given an interconnecting view of Lookout(s), Communications(s), Escape routes and Safety zone(s).” This systems approach gained national attention, and the wildland fire service quickly adopted it as a primary safety principle.

Wildland agencies typically require that all personnel on the fireground ensure that the LCES points are covered before beginning operations. Lookouts should be in place, watching for fire behavior changes, fire progression, weather status, and crew locations. Communications, visual and verbal, should be checked and established. Escape routes allowing safe evacuation of all firefighters and equipment at any moment should be established and communicated to all personnel. Safety zones, large enough to protect and contain all personnel and equipment without shelter deployment, should be identified and communicated.




Lookouts, one of the most important functions on the fireground, should be assigned to people to whom the crew boss or other supervisor entrusts with the crew’s safety. Like rapid intervention team (RIT) crew assignments, lookouts are the people on the fireground who are specifically assigned to maintain the safety of the crew when conditions deteriorate.




Communications are listed on nearly every National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health line-of-duty-death report as a contributing factor. Establishing effective communications is a critical requirement on every emergency scene. Preplanned communications and frequencies are not always an option for wildland fire crews. Without paying specific attention to communications, crews and resources can end up in very serious situations unable to call for help. Communications must be checked at the start of every operation to ensure adequate safety.




Escape routes should be wide enough and easy to maneuver through so that the firefighters can get out of harm’s way in an emergency. Routes should not be obstructed by vehicles, trees, creeks, or other hazards and should allow the firefighters easy navigation when their adrenaline level is skyrocketing and their legs are working faster than their minds! The crew boss, supervisor, or assigned lookout should update and potentially change escape routes as the fireline progresses or conditions change.




Finally, safety zones are places where all crew members and equipment can gather to ride out extreme fire conditions. The safety zone radius should be at least four times the potential flame length of the oncoming flame front. It should also be large enough so no personnel have to deploy fire shelters. This doesn’t mean conditions will be nice; it just states that firefighters should be completely safe in this area.

Now, let’s apply the concepts to all-hazard incidents. Although we will discuss only structure fires and roadway emergencies in this article, you can apply the LCES principles to technical rescues, hazardous materials scenes, emergency medical incidents, marine emergencies, and aircraft firefighting.




Lookouts. Some aspects of LCES are typically covered on structure fire emergencies. The lookout position is similar to that of the safety officer. However, since the safety officer cannot monitor rapidly changing interior conditions, each crew operating on the scene should assign someone such as the backup member on the hoseline, the company officer on the vent crew, or a firefighter during overhaul operations to serve as a lookout. People assigned to that role are responsible for monitoring fire building conditions while their crew is operating. On small crews, this position may also be operational, but members need to understand their additional duties. In the interior of a fire building, the people assigned should be competent in building construction; fire behavior; reading smoke conditions; and the effects of other operations, such as ventilation, on their assigned task. On the fireground, each firefighter should consider himself a safety officer. When more eyes and ears are watching for unsafe acts, the occurrence of injuries and mishaps decreases. Look out for signs of building collapse, crew fatigue, unsafe behavior, and other potential safety problems.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation hosted the first National Firefighter Life Safety Summit in November 2004. The “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives”2 were formulated at this gathering of more than 200 fire service leaders. According to Initiative 4, “All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.” Adopting the LCES system helps achieve that objective.

Communications are regularly assigned and expected to flow smoothly on fire scenes. However, in reality, communication problems are common. You must communicate the hazards identified in your lookout to others on-scene; otherwise, the LCES system fails. Implementing the following practices could reduce communication problems:

  • Conduct radio checks when putting apparatus in service for the day so that individual members do not need to tie up channels for radio checks while on the incident.
  • Confirm interior crew members are on the proper channel and are using a functional radio prior to entering the building. The company officer can do this in as little as 30 seconds.
  • Provide your supervisor with ongoing updates on conditions, actions, and needs.


Escape routes. Crew members rarely identify escape routes at structure fires. RITs evaluate the exterior of a building to determine where the exits and openings are, but initial attack, overhaul, and ventilation crews rarely address this issue. Most interior firefighters consider their hoseline as their escape route, but what if a collapse occurs behind you on your hoseline? This is where an experienced lookout will provide assistance. Lookouts should keep their eyes open for additional escape routes such as windows, hallways to unburned areas of the structure that could be shielded by a door, and others. Also, the exterior crews, including Command, Operations, and Safety, are responsible for providing interior members with secondary egress by placing ladders to windows if applicable. This escape route then must be communicated to the interior crews. Vent crews on the roof should have access to more than one way off the roof. Depending on the situation, this could include ground ladders or aerial apparatus. Each crew is responsible for ensuring its members’ escape routes.

Safety zones are typically staged outside the structure and collapse zone if personnel can reach them. However, interior crews working in large commercial buildings or at deep-seated fires should identify safe refuge areas if conditions worsen and they are cut off from the exterior. Such areas could be locations that are not involved in the fire and that could be isolated by closing a door. Also, in the event of collapse, consider safe areas that have stronger structural stability. Awareness of safety zones will help firefighters survive if there is a sudden change of conditions. Establish them and communicate their locations.




Roadway emergency operations present significant hazards. Many people blame inattentive drivers for running into emergency scenes. However, their attentiveness to flashing emergency lights actually attracts drivers to emergency workers like moths to a flame. I’m not advocating turning off our emergency lights, but I do believe we are responsible to help the public safely pass the roadway emergency. LCES will help us to accomplish that goal.

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(2) What kind of LCES do you have in place at roadway emergencies? Icy conditions and fast-moving vehicles can combine to create a deadly situation for responders.

Lookouts posted at roadway emergencies must watch out for our personnel and the other citizens on the road. The lookout should not fill the scene safety role, watching for extrication and personnel safety. Lookouts are solely responsible for watching traffic and its approach to the scene. Lookout could be assigned to a single resource or to an entire engine company. The apparatus operator could fill this role if he is not involved in supplying water to the scene. An engine company could establish a string of lookouts from the farthest upstream diversion to the immediate accident area; all lookouts must be responsible for their own personal safety.

Communications. A lookout without proper communications is useless. Roadway emergencies, especially on interstates and highways, are spread out over long distances. The first blocking engine may be a mile ahead of the actual incident site. You must establish and use communications on these incidents. Protect tactical channels from the chatter that occurs on traffic direction channels. Establish traffic control on a separate channel so the two members with the traffic signs can communicate without interfering with scene operations. However, the lookouts must monitor the traffic control frequency to follow traffic flow. If an outside agency such as law enforcement or a road department is providing traffic control, a lookout should be assigned to either monitor their frequency or to directly communicate with their personnel.

Escape routes are rarely considered during roadway emergencies, until the fully loaded semi-truck is sliding sideways toward the incident scene! Then it’s too late! Numerous stories and videos show firefighters jumping over concrete median barriers to avoid impact with an out-of-control vehicle. Escape routes should be established early on in the incident and communicated to all personnel to eliminate the delay in escaping the dangerous vehicle while the brain processes the problem event. Incidents have been documented describing people who have jumped over concrete barriers to escape oncoming traffic, only to be hit by oncoming traffic or falling many feet down an embankment, overpass, or river crossing, resulting in death.

Safety zones must be established early in the incident. Create these zones using well-known methods of positioning apparatus on roadways. Multiple engines, parked at an angle, provide a good safety shadow that creates a safety zone. However, using our fully loaded semi-truck example, the fire apparatus will still move on impact, potentially minimizing or eliminating the safety shadow. If possible, establish a second area of refuge. Jumping a barrier is acceptable only if oncoming traffic has been diverted or controlled. However, jumping the barrier into the oncoming fast lane is not an acceptable escape route or safety zone. Safety officers should be creative and consider ways to establish these safety zones and then communicate them to their crews.

For additional information on setting up highway safety zones and highway traffic safety, go to The Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association established this site as an informal advisory panel of the nation’s leading public safety officials dedicated to safety on streets, roads, and highways.




Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones can and should be established on every emergency response. Although their job is inherently dangerous, firefighters desire to be safe. The LCES concept has been around for many years and is a widely accepted safety standard. Applying its principles to all-hazard incidents will breathe fresh air into your safety program and help emergency responders stay safe during responses. Expanding its use to other emergencies helps to provide greater safety for all of our scenes.




1. Gleason, Paul. “LCES and Other Thoughts.” June 1991, Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Web site,

2. “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.” Everyone Goes Home Web site,

DEVON J. WELLS, ISFSI, is chief of the Hood River (OR) Fire Department. An 18-year veteran of the fire service, he is a western regional director of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). He is active on the Northwest Oregon Type 2 Incident Management Team and is a team leader and search commander for the Crag Rat Mountain Rescue team based on Mount Hood.


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