FIREGROUND INTELLIGENCE

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

Business success and surviVAL are closely connected to effective planning and information management. Being able to know (and do) a lot about the current and future environment creates the ability to produce effective, profitable action. It is very difficult to make good decisions on bad information. Young managers get to be old managers if they do not short-circuit the planning process. They must build sufficient situation evaluation time into the front end of the regular decision-making process. Standard planning becomes even more critical in a high-hazard decision activity where a wrong decision will have severe negative consequences (safety/profit). Such consequences cause smart bosses to slow down the action; step up the planning process; and base action-oriented tactical operations on overly processed, refined information. Fire officers must make planning-based fireground decisions just like any other manager. The big difference is that they must quickly set up an office in front of a burning building. The fireground is a very special place to manage tactical intelligence because of the following challenging incident conditions.

Severe consequences. The basic firefighting deal is pretty simple, always serious, and very severe. It’s about who murders whom first. The fire shows up to kill everything and everybody (including us). We show up to kill the fire. This mutual murder contest creates a highly dangerous situation. Firefighting is basically a natural law tactically-based battle between thermal/toxic and water/ventilation. The incident commander (IC) must create a bigger, faster, better placed, conservation-directed firefighting response (find the fire, cut it off, put it out) than the fire’s consumption rate (death, damage, destruction). In most businesses, if there is a planning mistake with a piece of critical information, someone might get fired. In our business, that same mistake could cause someone to get a big funeral. We are effective if we can outplan and outperform a really tough, unforgiving competitor.

Compressed time. The fireground condition most consistently challenging to doing regular information management (and just about everything else) is how fast a fire event moves. On the fireground, the present can become the future in seconds. The window of offensive attack opportunity is very narrow and is moving quickly. The IC must evaluate and develop decisions faster than the burn rate, or the fire simply outruns the attack. This is where the regular planning model no longer applies. No other manager would make life-and-death decisions (literally) in the unforgiving compressed time frame within which we routinely operate. Our duty is to intervene while the fire is actively underway. Based on that reality, our scarcest resource is time.

High confusion. Fires create fear, panic, and surprise because no one (but us) expects to or is really ready to confront a fire. Confusion can be overwhelming (and disabling), so the initial IC must quickly evaluate and then “look past” all the jumbled-up people, places, and things affected by the fire. Making this disconnect from the confusion creates the ability to triage (sort and prioritize) initial conditions, focus on critical incident factors, and develop a starting incident action plan that will begin to create order out of chaos. The most effective response to fireground confusion is, first, to expect those confusing conditions to be waiting for us at the scene and then to execute cool headedly appropriate tactical standard operating procedures (SOPs). These standard procedures become a tactical security blanket for the entire firefighting team when they are confronted with high levels of unsorted, mushed-together, dangerous conditions.

Lousy information. Playing firefighting roller derby with out-of-control thermodynamics (hot/fast/dirty) will generally create a situation with a huge lack of information-particularly in the beginning. What you see on the outside many times is not what you get on the inside. What you find on the back side can be a lot different than how it looked from the front side. This goofed-up information package creates the need to start operations on a creative mixture of a limited amount of verified information along with a set of “educated assumptions” and then to improve the amount and accuracy of tactical information as operations continue. This approach involves developing and using better and better information as the incident evolves to support the action that has already occurred (based on evaluating the effect of that action) and then expanding our attack plan based on the next most critical position/function. The IC must continually struggle to be in an improving information mode. Be very careful of any situation where you don’t know any more at 20 minutes than you did at 20 seconds. Such no-information-input situations are ridden with exciting and painful sucker punches. Those who require complete, verified, sanitized information before taking action should avoid fire command and seek a less dynamic management area.

Obligation to act. When we become a firefighter, we make Mrs. Smith a promise to put our bodies between her and the fire. For the past 300 years, keeping that promise has been our highest and finest tradition. When Mrs. Smith is threatened by a fire, our role is to respond and make the hot cold. We are effective to the extent we can produce a fast, effective tactical response. Intervening in an escalating, violent event like a structural fire requires a rough-and-tumble, up-close tactical response system that separates the humans, oxygen, and Btus from the fire. Our strength is that we can deliver teams of very smart manual laborers organized in a street-oriented command system to the customers quickly. We are effective if we can quickly evaluate, decide, and act-that management and operational approach must be based on a practical understanding and healthy respect for the speed and meanness of our enemy.

ALAN BRUNACINI recently retired as the chief of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where he 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.

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