Fireground Strategies: Additional Alarm Considerations

BY ANTHONY AVILLO

What thoughts influence the incident commander (IC) in considering additional alarm requests? The magnitude of the incident or the size of the building? Exposure issues? The weather? The number of responding personnel or lack thereof? Or is it something else: a gut feeling or experience?

It is all of these things and more. As an IC, it’s your job to ensure enough personnel are on scene to mitigate the incident safely. The best guide I can offer is this: If you think you will need additional alarms, you probably will, so you had better call for them early. Everybody wants to respond to a fire, and it’s better to be looking at your resources than looking for them. Let’s examine some considerations that help guide the decision to “ramp up the response.”

WEATHER

Weather is one of the most important reasons to strike additional alarms. This is apparent if you consider how much firefighting and weather extremes are at odds. As the IC, the best action you can take is to make sure your personnel have proper relief. This is only possible if you make a timely request for an additional alarm. You can best prevent heat- and cold-related injuries by limiting personnel exposure to the elements, which translates to more frequent relief and rotation of the troops. In addition, consider wind conditions and what further concerns this can create on the fireground, especially in congested urban areas or in areas with wildland-interface issues. Don’t wait until exposure buildings are lighting up or there is a rapidly spreading brush fire to call for help. Losing one building is somewhat acceptable. Losing more than one when you could have avoided it through proactive resource requests is not (photos 1, 2).

(1) This wind-driven fire in a lightweight wood-frame townhouse complex on the Hudson River waterfront went to five alarms. (Photo by Tom Foster.)

(2) The results of a great stop, which could only be accomplished through proper control and a sufficient personnel response. (Photo by author.)

EXPOSURES

Exposures can devour your tactical reserve before you have a chance to assemble it. Incidents involving attached exposures or large buildings (e.g., townhouse complexes) are personnel sponges that will not allow you to establish and maintain a tactical reserve for very long. There is no situation in which the need for additional personnel and especially additional command officers is more crucial than when conducting multiple-area operations. Although striking additional alarms at these incidents is a proper action, if you have not provided for managing those additional companies and personnel, you might as well not even call for them. When additional alarms and especially mutual-aid companies respond, command officers should respond with them. Establishing and practicing a command officer mutual-aid response policy provide the proper coverage automatically. Almost no departments except the really big ones fight big fires by themselves anymore (photo 3).

(3) Congested urban areas make for an exciting fireground. A fire in such an area will almost always present an exposure concern. Conflagration-prone areas require striking additional alarms early to address not only the fire building but also the areas that you want to keep from involvement. (Photo by author.)

TACTICAL RESERVE AND OPERATIONAL EQUILIBRIUM

Your tactical reserve is the extra personnel you have staged at the command post (CP) when you have reached operational equilibrium, which is not to be confused with incident stabilization. Incident stabilization is when you have the incident under control or stabilized to the point where severe extension and damage are no longer threats. Operational equilibrium is when you have not only sufficient personnel working in all areas of concern (and supervisory personnel to manage them) but also an adequate number of personnel waiting to go into the game—i.e., your tactical reserve. Tactical reserve personnel are at the IC’s disposal; they are not yet in the game. They can be used for relief, for reinforcement (stretching an additional hoseline), for additional support operations (pulling ceilings), or for when the unexpected occurs (unplanned-for fire extension or a bigger tactical area of operation than first surmised). The tactical reserve does not include the rapid intervention company (RIC), although personnel in your tactical reserve can and certainly will be useful for support should the need for a RIC operation arise.

Regarding fireground personnel requirements, you are always striving for an operational equilibrium. If you are constantly behind the eight ball on this one, you are either responding to and finding too many big fires on arrival or you are not striking additional alarms quickly enough.

Consider the fire in photo 4. You arrive to find your first-alarm companies going to work. You have no personnel at the CP to which to give an additional assignment should something pop up (and from the looks of things, something already has!). So you strike your second alarm. As you wait for additional resources, even a few minutes seems like forever. In that time, you know that you have to begin addressing your exposures, so you must assume that your second-alarm companies will also be eaten up quickly. In fact, you must assign them as soon as they arrive (and sometimes by radio before they arrive—e.g., to secure additional water supplies). You still have no tactical reserve. At this fire, exposure issues and the need to cover adjacent threatened areas might also eat up your third alarm quickly. The fire in photo 4 escalated to four alarms.

(4) Many issues must be addressed on arrival here. Attached buildings, closely spaced exposures, a cockloft fire that appears to be spreading (and the likelihood of a light/air shaft), and a nighttime life hazard must all be addressed almost at once. On the fireground, it is often fourth down and long. You can’t punt and you are always out of time-outs. (Photo by Ron Jeffers.)

As the IC, you are striving for some friends at the CP—i.e., operational equilibrium. You reach that when you have struck enough alarms such that the latest arrivals at the party can be held at the CP for a future use. Your goal is to be able to continue operations and still have several companies (preferably two engines and a ladder) standing by waiting to go into the game. That is your tactical reserve. How long it takes you to establish this depends on the issues discussed above (the fire; the exposures; weather, especially wind; and so forth).

So how do we pull this off? What can we use to guide our decisions to bring in more troops and artillery?

AUTOMATIC AID

Automatic aid is an excellent practice used by many departments, both career and volunteer, with insufficient staff and apparatus response. One word of advice: Do not forget span-of-control issues. You must include command officers in the formula. When you forecast lots of personnel working the scene, you need enough chiefs to keep control of the operation. Without a proper supervisor-to-worker ratio, your ability to manage the incident will be compromised. The next thing to be compromised is safety.

THE BULL’S EYE THEORY

Think of the incident like a bull’s eye. The fire incident is in the center of the bull’s eye. Each ring outside the eye is an additional alarm. With each successive alarm, you get farther away from the eye; each alarm comes from farther away and takes longer to get there. Keeping this simple concept in mind illustrates the need to strike alarms in a timely manner. As I said, it always seems like it takes additional alarm companies forever to get there, so don’t compound that by delaying the calls for additional help.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

The ripple effect created by such urgent situations as an immediate rescue on scene arrival often makes a mess of the assignments that the first-alarm companies were supposed to conduct. Think about the situation that occurs if your first-due ladder (or even worse, your first-due engine) has to conduct a ladder rescue because the victim is a potential jumper or endangered by fire. This often consumes the whole company at the expense of other tasks for which they are normally responsible. Who does forcible entry? What about other victims inside who can’t get to the windows? What about ventilation of the structure? If the first-due engine must perform an immediate rescue, who will put water on the fire and place a line between the fire and other victims and their paths of escape? This rescue operation’s ripple effect impacts all other operations. Immediate additional alarms will be required here to address the standard operating procedural tasks that the first-alarm companies are not carrying out.

As an IC, don’t get so sucked into this situation that you neglect to call for and then manage help. Instill in your subordinates who happen to be the those first-arrivers that in their haste to conduct a rescue, if they forget to establish command and request an additional alarm, their efforts will be further endangered and more difficult. The actions of the first-arriving officer (who is the initial IC) can help or hinder the operation.

PERSONNEL REQUIREMENTS: THE 3X FACTOR

When calculating the personnel needs for the entire incident, I often use this little rule of thumb: I estimate the approximate number of people I need in the fire building and in the exposures to fight the fire to be X. Since these people will get tired at some point and I will have to replace them, I double that number to 2X. While the first group is in rehab and the second group is fighting the fire, I still need a tactical reserve, so I triple the first number to 3X.

For example, if I need 20 personnel (including chief officers) to take care of the fireground, I will eventually have those 20 in rehab, which means I will need another 20 to be available at the CP because I can’t pull the personnel out of rehab if an issue arises. Thus, I would look to have approximately 60 personnel on that fireground, which is usually the high number for an estimate. That number can be lower (or higher) based on incident status (doubtful, probable, under control, and so forth). Again, this is not an exact science, but it is a starting point.

TACTICAL RESERVE RULE OF THUMB

I like to work with task forces (two engines and a ladder) plus a chief officer. It is just not practical to dribble companies into the scene one at a time. You will always be playing catch-up. In fact, I like to have a task force in reserve to address any issues that might come up. So my personal rule of thumb is that if I don’t have those three companies in reserve while the incident is still escalating (i.e., not stabilized), I strike another alarm. Although this is not exactly the 3X theory, it is a start. The more personnel you have in the fire building and exposures, the more companies you need at the CP. Again, this is not an exact science, and sometimes you have to go with gut feeling, but it works pretty well for me.

MANAGING THE CROWDS: FREELANCE PREVENTION

Once you have mastered the art of striking additional alarms in a proper and timely manner, you have to master organizing the slew of personnel who will be descending on you and the fireground. The best way to do this is to set expectations beforehand regarding how personnel are to operate on the fireground and in additional alarm responses. This requires setting a policy that establishes a framework by which the IC can keep track of personnel and efficiently manage the incident. To be most effective, the policy should be adopted by an entire mutual-aid group (photo 5). No policy, however genius, will succeed if personnel do not have the discipline to enforce it and adhere to it.

(5) If your additional alarm personnel are not reporting to the CP for assignment, they are freelancing and you have lost control. Be prepared for the consequences. (Photo by Ron Jeffers.)

The CP should be like an organizational manifold. Personnel movement from staging to the fire area to rehab and back must be well orchestrated. If personnel are not going through the CP (or getting orders via radio from the CP), they are freelancing. Nowhere is this more important than when additional alarms are struck and personnel are on the way in. In fact, a good department accountability policy should insist that no personnel other than those who are part of the first-arriving companies with specific SOP-directed assignments should enter the fire area without first checking in with the accountability officer at the CP. From there, they should receive an assignment from the IC and verify that assignment with the accountability officer. Further, no company should move on to an additional assignment without first checking in and verifying that assignment with the IC and the accountability officer.

The Company Accountability Model below explains this.

COMPANY ACCOUNTABILITY MODEL

  • Step 1: Each company reports to the CP as a unit.
  • Step 2: The company is assigned to an operational area and reports to a division supervisor.
  • Step 3: The company operates only in its assigned division.
  • Step 4: When relieved, the company reports as a unit back to the CP.
  • Step 5: If the company is reassigned, go back to Step 2.
  • Step 6: If the company is sent to rehab, when rehab is complete, go back to Step 1.

Note that with each assignment and reassignment, including the order to take up, the company reports to the CP. The company officer must ensure that the accountability officer is aware of each assignment and where that company will be operating. The accountability officer should use a command board to track the location and assignments of resources. This officer should also carry a riding list of all personnel on duty for a career department or of all personnel on scene in a volunteer department. The best way for the accountability officer to do this job is to remain at the CP and not run all over the place. One department had a policy in which one person was assigned to collect the accountability tags and carried them all around the fireground instead of hanging them on a board or some other device. This guy looked like he was in a Mummer’s parade with all the tags hanging off him as he jangled around the fireground. Firefighters reporting in had to chase him down to give him their tags and, when relieved, had to look for him to retrieve the tags. Mobile human command boards do not work on the fireground.

•••

People put out fires. If you do not have enough of them, your ability to apply the proper fix to the situation may be compromised at the wrong time. When you are out of people, you are out of options. If you have called enough personnel, failing to properly manage them by also summoning supervisory personnel can also lead to unintended consequences you might not like.

Anthony Avillo will present the workshop “Fireground Strategies: Control the Fireground to Control the Fire” on Tuesday, March 22, 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., and the classroom session “Safety and Operational Awareness” on Wednesday, March 23, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

ANTHONY AVILLO, a 26-year fire service veteran, is a deputy chief with North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue, assigned as 1st Platoon regional tour commander. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from New Jersey City University. He is an instructor at the Bergen County (NJ) and Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academies. Avillo is a member of the FDIC and Fire Engineering advisory boards. He is the author of Fireground Strategies, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008) and Fireground Strategies Scenarios Workbook, Second Edition (2010). He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and co-author of its Study Guide (Fire Engineering, 2010).

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