Last month we discussed the importance of always taking the time to “take in” and mentally process closely related sets of critical fireground information into decision-making intelligence. Doing this initial and ongoing mental routine as a regular practice leads to safer and more effective “thinking action,” as opposed to the painful surprises that sometimes occur when we skip the thinking and go right for the action. This critical factor-processing routine becomes the foundation for a very basic three-step system of logic that tactically connects incident conditions, operational action, and the incremental and ultimate outcomes (C/A/O).
The system quickly and simply hooks up an evaluation of what is going on (conditions) with a related operational response to those conditions (action) and a prediction and then an evaluation of the effect of that action (the outcome). The three standard parts of the model support how we realistically initiate and continue individual and collective tactical activities. Calling the action part of the model the incident action plan (IAP) tactically hooks the center of the three-part approach up to the current hazard zone command and control management system (Blue Card local Type 4 and 5 Incident Command System). In fact, we use the C/A/O approach to structure most of the tactical activity in which we engage. The C/A/O is another example of a really simple set of steps that can create a complicated problem when we flub it up.
Standard Stages. Structural fires burn through a series of standard stages. The stages have a set of nonmysterious characteristics that are identifiable and well known. As we become familiar with this process, we can identify, understand, and predict/expect fire progression to occur along a standard scale that connects the beginning/middle/end of a fire event. Developing the capability to evaluate a fireground condition and then placing that condition on a scale with 10 standard stages of severity is a huge help, particularly in the compressed and confusing front end of fire operations.
The scale is simple. The first stage (1) is nothing showing, and the last stage (10) is a burned-down fire area ready for the parking lot pavers. The eight stages in between simply show the regular progression of how a building burns down. This standard (1-10) scale gives us the ability to identify and mark current conditions and to predict the future within a very practical outcome-oriented framework with a progression of regular elements that considers the entire event.
This approach supports (and improves) assessment in the beginning and reduces surprises in the middle and the end-and it works against the fragmented (and somewhat deranged) reaction that “every fire is different”; therefore, it is impossible to create any sort of fireground management system. In fact, be very careful operating around these folks because they are telling the truth. To them, every fire is different, so they approach every successive fire as if it were their first, and we all can remember how exciting (!) that first experience was.
This standard evaluation/decision/prediction/operation scale applies to structural fire behavior in single and multiple fire areas (inside and outside buildings). Building fires generally start within a room and then burn out of that room of origin and extend throughout the structure of origin. When the original building (i.e., fire area) gets full of the products of combustion, neighboring places become exposed and, if not protected, become involved and then pass the fire on (to their unprotected ) neighbors. How buildings and fuel are separated and arranged and how horizontal and vertical openings are protected will determine the basic fire area profile. If not interrupted, the fire conducts, radiates, and convects itself onto all exposed people and fuel, kills those unprotected souls, consumes that fuel, and then self-extinguishes when all the fuel is burned up. All fires go out eventually.
Command/Action System. The command/action system must operate along a parallel action track that runs alongside the standard fire prediction scale. The IC must match a standard firefighting response (force) to the corresponding stage of fire development (energy). This approach attempts to create action that matches (hopefully overpowers) fire conditions and effectively cuts off and stops the fire. Using the standard (1-10) fire scale to describe the damage the fire has already done, where the fire is now, and what will happen in the future creates a very practical, dynamic “power curve” that always exists between incident energy and firefighting force. How this relationship is balanced becomes the essence of effective fire control intervention. When we are ahead of the firefighting power curve, we hold the fire’s head under water; when we are behind, the fire passes gas and burns on. “Pushing the envelope” firefighting occurs when our attack is on the exciting, dangerous (just barely big enough) outer edge of the power curve. When we develop the habit of extending fire operations that are barely large enough to control the fire, we are cruising for a bruising. The fire stage/action balance is absolutely unforgiving and requires experience and skill to execute effectively. This is the operations playing field where opposing superiority between fire energy and firefighting force gets acted out. It is always better to attack too big than too small. Sometimes when we almost put the fire out, we almost survive.
ALAN BRUNACINI recently retired as the chief of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where he has served since 1958. He was promoted to chief in 1978. He formerly was chairman of the NFPA board of directors and headed the NFPA’s Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Committee, which developed Standard 1500. He is chairman of the NFPA’s Career Deployment Committee. He is the author of Fire Command and Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service.