By Mark Cotter
In the introduction to this series of columns, we explored the importance of having sufficient numbers of firefighters at the scene of a structure fire to maximize firefighter safety and efficiency, not to mention to meet the 14-firefighter requirement of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments. We also looked at those circumstances that can lead to shortfalls in reaching the ideal staffing levels, both institutional (e.g., few daytime responders in volunteer companies or minimal staffing of career stations located far apart) and circumstantial (e.g., a crew arriving far in advance of backup companies because of multiple calls or a fire near the edge of the response district). Although statistical evidence of the frequency of such occurrences is lacking, we know that they occur–routinely for some departments, rarely for others–and that planning and preparation are needed to minimize their impact. (Of note, the NFPA standard that addresses staffing for volunteer fire departments  does not even list a minimum total response level, indicating recognition of this problem by the many fire service representatives who assisted in the creation of that document.)
Our next step in discussing a plan for addressing structure fires with a less-than-ideal number of firefighters, then, is to look at strategies that are available to guide us in such circumstances. Unfortunately, few exist. Most authors who address the subject of being on the location of a structure fire prior to the arrival of a full contingent of firefighters merely focus on doing a good size-up and developing a sound plan. Others recommend the on-scene company just prepare for its anticipated tasks pending the arrival of additional companies. The underlying assumption, of course, is that help is coming. For the small volunteer department that I once commanded, usually it was not.
Limited staffing was common for my previous department and departments in the surrounding communities. We knew what we had to do, but the “standard” method for accomplishing those tasks–by dividing them among different companies–was not workable. Most times, we were lucky if we had the equivalent of one company on a fire scene, at least during the crucial early minutes. What was needed was a strategy for maximizing the efficiency of the resources we actually had available, though the available fire training curriculums and textbooks uniformly promoted approaches that relied on the presence of multiple personnel and apparatus to manage a structure fire. If necessity is the mother of invention, it was this disconnect between emergency mitigation theory and our limited personnel reality that inspired the development of the approach I describe.
Still, even though no fireground strategy specifically addressed the plight of the staffing-deficient, it did not mean that we needed to develop a plan totally from scratch. Although we could not rely on the availability of a dozen personnel or more than one or two apparatus, we also did not wish to abandon proven methods that could, and should, still be followed by a small team. We wanted to do the right thing, at least as well as we were able. Therefore, the best fireground organization practices were looked at with an eye toward discerning universal themes that might be applicable to incident management using any number of responders. The intention was to use these successful approaches for guidance in crafting a plan that maximized both efficiency and safety.
In fact, there are many facets of the “traditional” approach that bear imitation. A review of the various organizational methods used in managing a structure fire attack or other complex emergency incidents, as described in textbooks and practiced in the more progressive fire departments, discovered many shared qualities that are applicable to emergency incident management on any scale. These common features were distilled into the following components:
- Preparing to carry out the wide variety of tactics that might be required for incident control;
- Equipping personnel so that they can carry out those tactics;
- Assigning standardized general roles and responsibilities; and
- Knowing your team’s capabilities and limitations.
Although the details of putting these concepts into operation vary among fire departments and communities, these four elements can be viewed as universal components of any effective strategy. They are also interdependent, with none sufficient in itself, and each complementing the other three. Here is what these organizational requirements represent and how they are applied in this setting.
Preparing to best accomplish emergency incident mitigation includes such processes as risk analysis, identifying resource needs and availability, and the development (and constant refining of) standard operating procedures (SOPs). It is the process by which the entire department is readied to carry out its mission. Much of the groundwork for guiding organizations through this preincident portion of emergency management has already been accomplished. Extensive lists and descriptions of the various components of comprehensive fire or other emergency incident control can be found in training curriculums and texts, as well as in standards promulgated by such organizations as the Insurance Services Office (ISO), the NFPA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and state agencies. The specifics of local hazards and challenges determine what additional steps must be taken to address those requirements unique to every jurisdiction. The result is an organization that knows what needs to be done and is ready to do it.
1 Incident Commander
1 Pump Operator
4 Firefighters on hoselines (attack and backup)
2 Firefighters for forcible entry, utility control, and to assist with hoseline deployment/supply
2 Firefighters for search and rescue
2 Firefighters for ventilation
2 Firefighters for Rapid Intervention Crew
1 Aerial Operator (if such an apparatus is used)
It would be easy, though insufficient, to have a strategy that was merely able to meet one or two fireground needs and ignored the many others. For instance, any fire company can throw water at a fire in an impressive fashion, but some cannot accomplish much more. A comprehensive and coordinated fire attack goes way beyond mere water transport and application, and includes and supports such tactics as forcible entry, search and rescue, ventilation, salvage, and overhaul. Although every department should be able to do any of those things, always being prepared to do so in a proactive coordinated manner is crucial to a successful outcome.
Equipping personnel refers to providing them with the tools, mental and physical, to do their jobs most effectively. An operational outgrowth of the preparation process, its focus is on acquiring and maintaining the knowledge and equipment that have been identified as necessary to provide comprehensive and coordinated incident mitigation in your community. Training comes under this umbrella, as well as specification of everything from apparatus to hand tools. Fire departments address this component of an incident mitigation strategy routinely–such as when rural agencies use water tenders vs. urban departments focusing more on aerial apparatus–based on their unique situations.
A department practicing this approach must determine both what its needs are as well as what it is capable of using. For example, a projected requirement for a water supply at a target hazard requiring the equivalent capacity of several water tenders may be unrealistic, and planning to use the amount available to at least initiate exposure protection may be the best that can be done. Depending on the anticipated personnel and apparatus response, a department may be limited to just the amount of equipment that can be carried on one vehicle. By necessity, a company with minimal staffing must carefully choose what tools it has available, and even specify which of those each responder is expected to carry, so that necessary tactics can best be initiated.
Assigningfireground roles and responsibilities in this country typically follows the “company” designations of engine and truck/ladder, with local variations or additions including rescue, salvage, squad, and other labels. Using the traditional engine and truck assignments, though, is by far the most universal method of organizing activities, with the former responsible for water supply and extinguishment and the latter for performing such “support” functions as forcible entry, ventilation, and search. The primary reason for this consistency in the approach to organizing fire attacks in the “mainstream” fire service is, simply put, that it works very well.
One of the strengths of the engine/truck separation of duties is that it allows firefighters to prepare, mentally and equip-mentally, for the tasks they are expected to perform. Well-trained personnel in such a system will have the necessary tools in hand and be well-versed in their use even prior to receiving an order to address a particular fireground objective. Another advantage is that it is harder for a busy incident commander to overlook the performance of a particular tactic (ventilation, search, and so on) when there are several teams on location preparing for the accomplishment of just those few tactics in their repertoire.
Unfortunately, I have observed many fire departments with limited staffing that attempt the same narrow focus, usually performing only “engine” duties, despite the fact that there may be no team to address the “truck” tasks that also must be accomplished more or less immediately. This typically results in less than efficient fire control performances. Ideally, engine and truck activities are closely synchronized, some occurring only after others (e.g., interior fire attack after forcible entry) and some at the same time (e.g., interior fire attack and ventilation). Having all necessary companies on location almost simultaneously is vital to this successful coordination, or the first-arriving company, and the overall operation, will be significantly limited in its effectiveness.
In this approach to firefighting, assignments are determined individually, for each responder, as early in the incident as possible. Every member has a limited, though still substantial, list of fireground responsibilities and must be equipped with the necessary tools to carry them out. As much as possible, designate the specific role of each firefighter prior to their arrival at the emergency scene, perhaps by apparatus riding position. If well-planned, this will provide some of the benefits of the engine/truck approach, including the ability for firefighters to anticipate and prepare for a specific fireground role, and best ensuring all required tactics are covered.
Knowing capabilities and limitations is preferably accomplished through the preparation process or drills and simulations, but often relies on experience. This latter method involves making decisions at an emergency scene and learning from the consequences, whether the choices were brilliant or ill-conceived. Of course, it is better for you, your company, and your department to learn from the mistakes of others.
Fire departments institutionalize such lessons in the form of SOPs and similar policies, with certain circumstances calling for certain responses. This can be as routine as predetermining which apparatus to dispatch to a particular type of incident–the best example is the “box alarm” method used by many agencies with multiple resources. A specific type of call or a particular location will bring a certain number and types of equipment and personnel. Guidelines are also commonly promulgated for when to dispatch additional resources because of such circumstances as incident complexity, escalation, or duration (i.e., for specialty units, additional alarms, and relief crews). This provides a standardized, predictable, and orderly method for determining and summoning whatever assistance is required for incident stabilization.
The approach I am describing is, by default, used when resources are limited, so requesting additional apparatus or personnel is generally not a viable option, at least in the short run. (When available, mutual aid or other assistance should certainly be summoned as soon as possible, but the intent of these columns is to discuss techniques to use when timely backup is not forthcoming.) Knowing the capabilities and limitations of a small team involves determining what can be accomplished safely and efficiently, and setting and adhering to boundaries for company activities.
For instance, if only three firefighters are on location, interior firefighting cannot be allowed, except in a true rescue situation, because of the lack of a backup team. Similarly, ventilating a peaked roof might be feasible using the personnel available, but the time required to ladder, cut, and open the roof may delay water application sufficiently so that there will be other, more serious, consequences on the effectiveness of the operation. Rather than approaching this strategic component as indicating when to call for more resources, knowing what the team can accomplish, and how quickly, determines what tactics should be attempted, and when, and helps to keep personnel safe.
So the universal lessons that we endeavor to carry over from traditional, proven fireground approaches include taking a comprehensive approach to addressing anticipated needs (Preparing), acquiring the knowledge and resources required (Equipping), standardizing and predetermining roles and responsibilities for all personnel (Assigning), and being mindful of our capabilities and limitations (Knowing). Together, these concepts form the acronym “PEAK.” Following these guidelines will allow you to take the qualities of plans designed for multiple companies and scale them down to one a small team can follow. Although we will inevitably sacrifice efficiency, limitations can be minimized through this approach.
This brings us to the subject of our next column, which will specify the accepted and mandated rules for firefighting. Next column: (Fire)Ground Rules – Laws and limitations.
Mark J. Cotter has almost 40 years of experience in emergency services and serves as a volunteer with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.