(Photo by unknown photographer)
Article by David DeStefano
Usually the old saying “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” is good advice to someone who wants to tamper with a successful course of action. In the fire service, though, plans of action that may work well in one environment can result in the injury or death of firefighters in another scenario.
Many fire departments are accustomed to fighting fires in a particular type of occupancy or construction for which they have developed tactics that have become tried and true over the course of many years. Engine companies may stretch preconnects, ladder companies may perform vertical ventilation and conduct aggressive searches well within the limit of their air supply. Firefighters and chief officers may expect a building to react to fire based on many experiences fighting fires in the past.
These fires become repeat performances of the same show where firefighters begin to expect the same events and outcomes based on past successful operations at previous fires. Instead of going to 100 fires, this mindset becomes that of going to one fire 100 times. Although many communities feature a predominant style of construction, different building types and occupancy hazards can always be found within the jurisdiction.
To lessen the possibility of being a victim of past success, firefighters can review some of the tactics that are employed most often. This will give you a sense of how to adapt them for fires in various types of buildings.
The Preconnect Stretch
Many fire departments handle the vast majority of fires in single-family and small multi-dwellings using a preconnected 1¾-inch hand line stretched in the ground floor entrance door. Preconnected lines may be deployed efficiently by companies operating with less than ideal staffing. When packed to suit the majority of the required stretches in a district, they are an asset on the modern fireground. An experienced attack team operating an 1 ¾ line can knock down a tremendous amount of fire. However, firefighters may become victims of their past success using this equipment when confronted with a different scenario. Firefighters operating at a fire in a commercial building, especially a fire of unknown size and location, should not employ the same tactics that were effective at the residential fire. The square footage and access points of a commercial building may place the location of the fire beyond the reach of a standard preconnect and the reach, penetration, and flow of a 2½-inch line may be required.
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Similar to the preconnect mindset, many fire departments operate primarily at fires in residences. Other than cellar fires, these dwellings usually offer numerous windows and doors by which firefighters may make egress when they are low on air. In addition, these buildings usually feature small compartmented spaces where company integrity can be more easily maintained. Also, other companies can be heard operating in the area and can be quickly called upon for assistance. After working successfully at many incidents in these structures, firefighters may become complacent when confronted with a differing set of circumstances; such as those encountered in a large commercial or industrial occupancy.
Conducting operations deep inside a large structure may leave little margin for error in terms of air management. Often, industrial buildings feature few exterior doors, and many are virtually windowless. Members who have developed sloppy habits in monitoring their air supply relative to means of egress may pay a heavy price in this environment. Simply ducking outside via a convenient door or window may not be an option. Likewise, help from a rapid intervention team may take longer to reach a firefighter in trouble.
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Some departments may be accustomed to initiating roof operations at virtually every working fire. In the majority of structures in a given jurisdiction, this action may be appropriate to facilitate searches and the advance of attack lines. However, the roof (or any position) directly above the fire is arguably the most dangerous place on the fireground. Members committed to this vulnerable location must size up the location, extent, and expected travel of the fire, as well as the building construction and means of access and egress before committing to any operation. While operating in this exposed location, continual size-up is crucial in order to maintain an appropriate level of safety. Firefighters who are accustomed to working on the roof of buildings of substantial construction must realize that modern lightweight wood or steel construction will fail rapidly under considerably less exposure to heat or fire than some older buildings.
Truck company members may have become conditioned to working above active fire based on experiences in older buildings constructed with large dimensional lumber. If those firefighters rely on past experience and fail to consider the variable of lightweight construction, they will likely be at considerable risk.
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The take away from a successful operation should involve not only a review of strategic objectives and tactical initiatives but also the potential for a change in tactics based on the dynamics of the fireground or a different structural component. Firefighters can learn valuable lessons and develop efficient operations based on common fire scenarios. However, firefighters who are truly prepared will know better than to fall into the comfort of their last success at every fire.
David DeStefano is a 26-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of Ladder Co. 1. He was previously assigned as a Lieutenant in Ladder 1 and Engine 3 and a firefighter in Ladder 1. He has a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. He is an instructor/coordinator for the Rhode Island Fire Academy and teaches a variety of fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.