Directives on My Watch, Part 2

By Frank L. Frievalt

For Part 1 of this series, click HERE

Operational Matters

The window to improve outcomes closes quickly; be decisive. Fire service operations require four prerequisites to intentionally improve the outcome of an incident: sufficient personnel, proper training, the right equipment, and a short response time. Indecision, even when meeting prerequisites, will squander precious time while the window of opportunity closes.

Two concepts have helped me reach operational decisions more quickly. First, every incident is unique, but we respond with a finite set of resources. Most command decisions fall into just two categories: what we’ll do and what we won’t do. By knowing the limits of your people and your resources, you can quickly size-up what’s not going to work (which is half the battle). Second, have a tactical template for your basic operational scenarios (e.g., single-family dwelling, high-rise, vehicle fire, extrication, wildland urban interface, hazmat, swiftwater rescue, and so on), and then make adjustments from that on the actual calls. It’s much easier to make small adjustments to a good basic plan than it is to conjure up “Plan A” from scratch on every call.

If you cannot improve an outcome, don’t commit resources. Here, roof operations come to mind. Honestly, how many houses in which you have cut ventilation holes and “saved,” only to see the roof or house rebuilt shortly thereafter? The outcome of a fire significant enough to require vertical ventilation is usually a new roof or a new house (don’t trust me; ask the insurance agents and the building contractors).

Another example is wildland hoselays. Terrain steep enough to require a hoselay demands water, hose packs, fresh legs, and pump capacity to overcome head pressure. Without a plan to anchor the lay or to realistically extend it, you simply run out of water, hose, legs, and pump pressure; the outcome will be a narrow strip of unburned fuel about 600 feet long in the middle of a burnt hillside. There are times when vertical ventilation and hoselays can improve outcomes, and other times when they can’t. Don’t commit the resources or take the personnel risks with no real chance to improve outcomes, whatever the evolutions.

I do have one exception: I did my best to make sure an infant or child never died in his own home. Get them to the ambulance or to the hospital; anywhere but home. The parents should have the peace of mind knowing every possible effort was made and not have the memory of the loss imprinted on their home.

Never trade lives for property. We never make this decision intentionally, yet when we look in retrospect at fireground responder deaths and injuries they are rarely accompanied by a saved life in trade. As a company or chief officer, you cannot let yourself or your crews operate as the tactical counterbalance against property loss. If any part of my primary plan fails and it exposes my crew to an immediate risk, then I’m tactically operating in a way that trades life for property. This is one of those situations that become painfully clear in hindsight.

As a young firefighter, I responded to a large lumber yard fire. A liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tank in the middle of the lumber yard had started venting. We were supposed to get some cooling water on the tank and had to advance some 2½-inch lines through the lumberyard; the route there was like a maze. It took a lot longer than we planned to get the line in position, and when we came around the corner of some lumber, two things made a big impression. First, we were directly in line with the end of the tank. Second was a terribly loud roar and huge fire surge. The tank did not succumb to a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, but the metal around the metering device failed and tore a hole in the tank, dumping the contents in about 30 seconds.

No one intentionally placed us at the business end of an LPG tank when it partially failed, but there we were nevertheless, essentially trading life for property. We got there through a series of incremental decisions/indecisions; with every passing minute, the distance between perceived threat and real threat got progressively wider. Ongoing size-up during the incident and running your tactics against failure scenarios will keep you from putting you and your crews in a position where you are trading lives for property, despite your best of intentions.

Focus early to make good command decisions. “If your first three command decisions are good enough, you can recover from anything that follows. If they are bad enough, you’ll never catch up.” This saying was passed along to me from a salty California Division of Forestry captain who was not so much word for word but by observation. Although the first three decisions can vary, I believe they are: knowing what mode you’re in (i.e., offensive, defensive, combination), communications, and placing your first three pieces of equipment intentionally. I could go over the endless number of “what-ifs” or decide which of the first three command decisions should come first, but that is your call. These have proven faithful for me.

Knowing the right mode is based on a good size-up; it is tough to do the right thing when you are not seeing the thing right. The need for effective communication is obvious, so I won’t expound on it further, but I would say that more communication is not necessarily better communication; face-to-face beats the radio where feasible.

Also, rather than “first-come, first-serve” placement of apparatus, try to place them in your mind’s eye, especially aerials. If you didn’t get them right where you wanted them, show crews during a debriefing as well as, perhaps most importantly, tell them why you wanted them where you did. If they understand your “why” or “intent,” there’s a good chance they’ll anticipate it in the future, which makes your job much easier.

Define your intended incident “box” for 15 minutes and 60 minutes into the incident. This is about getting ahead of the command curve. The “tactical urgency” of an incident will take every bit of attention you give it, which can crowd out the “strategically important.” What does resolution of the incident look like within the scope of your mission? Although there are month-long campaign fires, extended rescues, agonizing Hazmat calls, and so on, many of our emergencies are either wrapped up in about an hour, or you’ll have a really good idea what remains to be done after about an hour. Within the first 15 minutes, you should know if the incident is on pace to be resolved as you intended or not. The times identified here are my arbitrary choice; I adjust as needed. But regardless of the time frames, you’ll have to occasionally get up above the details to see if the incident is heading in the right direction.

Strive to be competent. Your command confidence or insecurity will spread through the incident without your permission. We can usually sniff out confidence or the lack thereof in others if we can observe them in enough command situations. Let’s be neither so ignorant nor so arrogant to think it will be different when “they” are observing you. What’s your command weakness?  I have at least two: I tend to speak too softly on the radio and I can mix up an address. Those are things I need to work on so they don’t become a distraction during the incident.

What do you need to work on?  If you’re not sure, ask your captain for his weaknesses. I’ll bet he will have some; none of us are perfect or so good that we can’t get better. Lean into the call, embrace the opportunity of command, do your best at the time, and be brutally honest about your performance afterward. Our people really are not looking for perfection in us; they are looking for competence, confidence, and honesty in their leaders, especially during emergencies. Whatever we project is what they’ll receive and retransmit to their people, so let’s make it something good.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of SAC Graham Taylor


Frank L. Frievalt is the assistant fire chief for the Mammoth Lakes (CA) Fire Protection District. He has 35 years experience in city, county, state, and federal fire services from the ranks of firefighter to assistant chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in fire and emergency management, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in political science.

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