House Fire 101

By Demetrius A. Kastros

“I have just one expectation: Everyone goes home safe in the morning, with no injuries or dangerous exposures …..”

I used to say this to my company officers every morning. To ensure the most important priority in any fire department—the safe return of all personnel—even a room and contents fire requires multiple companies on scene and the use of an effective management tool such as the incident command system (ICS).

A house fire, whether confined to a room and contents, or one that is more extended, may be one of our more common emergencies, yet it is anything but routine. The various tasks of fire attack, search, rapid intervention team, and exterior operations require multiple companies on scene. A company assigned to each of these tasks, plus additional crews in staging for emergencies and district coverage is the minimum an incident commander (IC) should consider.

Tactical and Strategic Perspectives of Residential Fires

Hoseline Operations for Residential Fires

Surviving “Routine” Residential Fires

Structural Collapse: The Hidden Dangers of Residential Fires

Obtaining multiple resources quickly is certainly a challenge for many departments. These agencies need to create automatic aid agreements with surrounding departments that bring resources on the initial dispatch for a suspected working structure fire.

To establish a clear command system early in the response, the first company officer on scene assumes one of three command modes, beginning the initial pattern of the fire suppression action. These modes include Investigating, Fast Attack, or Command. Investigating, or “smells and bells” is when the extent of the incident is unknown. Alarms sounding and/or a report of an odor of smoke fit this category. Fast Attack involves a working incident in which the initially arriving company officer and crew will typically be directly involved in interior fire suppression and/or search. Command mode is called when the first-due company encounters a working incident of such magnitude that an immediate strong “command presence” is required such as a large working fire or multiple rescue emergency.

Even with the Investigation mode, the first arriving makes its initial radio report of “On Scene, investigating, nothing showing, establishing Elm Street Command.” The immediate establishment of incident command allows the next due to effectively expand the emergency should the situation, or “magnify.”

Fast Attack is called when the first due arrives at a working incident, such as smoke and fire showing, and the officer will be directly involved in tactical operations such as an interior attack and/or search. In this environment, there is no practical way for the first-due officer to maintain the command function if the crew will be making an interior attack. First due should immediately “pass command” to the next arriving unit when in Fast Attack mode. A common radio report would be, “Engine 1 on scene at 1 Elm Street with a two-story, single-family detached structure, smoke and fire showing from one upstairs window. Engine 1 is ‘Fast Attack 1’ entering at the front door. Engine 1 did not lay-in, passing command.” 

(1) Fast Attack is called when there is a reasonable expectation that immediate interior operations will be effective and the first-arriving company officer will be directly involved in the initial attack/search. In this environment, passing command is appropriate. (Photos by author.)


This radio report paints a clear picture of the first-due operations in the minds of the subsequently arriving companies. Since the first-due company officer will be making an interior attack/search with his firefighter, it is impractical that, in this confusing, physically challenging, zero visibility environment, the first-due officer can also command and direct subsequent arriving units. Second on scene has had command “passed” to him. Because of the clear, concise radio report, second-due also knows he needs to secure a water supply. After laying a line to the first-due engine, second-due officer can assign his personnel to the rapid intervention team (RIT) and continue in the Command mode.

There is certainly an argument for not passing command to a unit not yet on scene. However, in my experience, first-due on interior attack is simply too busy to provide “command presence.” On more than one occasion, I have made command decisions prior to arriving on the scene, i.e., upgrading to a second alarm when smoke or fire is visible from one mile out. A temporary alternative is to pass command to the first-due engineer outside until another unit arrives. From the time command is passed, second-due (or temporarily the engineer) has that command until he passes it or it is assumed by a ranking authority on scene. An exterior source should be making and answering radio transmissions to and from other units and dispatch. An officer inside the burning structure wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) simply cannot effectively do this. This approach quickly establishes initial interior operations, secures a water supply, sets-up the RIT, and keeps command outside the structure, where he will have full visibility of the developing fire conditions and can make effective radio communications.

After establishing RIT, command can now assign a subsequent (third-due) company to “Fire Attack 2” for interior backup and/or search. Another company can be assigned exterior operations to secure utilities, conduct ventilation, provide exposure protection, and so on. The exterior operations officer should make regular 360° trips around the structure and report the developing conditions to command. This common ICS nomenclature identifies responsibilities assigned to each company. As necessary, assign separate companies to ventilation crew, exposure group, and so on.

When the battalion chief (BC) or other officer arrives on scene in a command vehicle, that officer can quickly assume the command role. Since Command was established early in the incident, the BC easily assumes the role of IC with a minimum of radio traffic. A face-to-face between the officer in the Command mode and the BC is ideal, but to transfer important information such as a situation status report (Appendix 1) over the radio can suffice. A company or other chief officer can be directed to establish staging in a safe location near the fire. I suggest assigning trained prevention personnel as staging officers to save engine and truck companies for the fire. Staffing staging keeps companies in reserve to handle unforeseen emergencies, such as an exploding propane tank that injures firefighters and keeps units available to provide a level of jurisdiction coverage should another incident occur. A well maintained staging area also allows companies to assist in relief and provides resources if the incident “magnifies” (I hate the term deteriorates!). Additional companies should be requested as necessary. I also suggest having at least two engine companies in staging at all times during any working house fire. If you pull an engine out of staging, request another one to replace it. An ambulance should also be kept in staging during any significant incident. I have never been shy about requesting additional resources, mutual aid, or whatever might be necessary. Fire scene safety dictates that the IC maintain sufficient resources on scene for unanticipated events and/or when the situation magnifies. STAY AHEAD OF THE INCIDENT!

Appendix 1. Situation Status Report

  • Description of what happened.
  • Whether anyone has been injured.
  • Operations so far.
  • Whether the problem appears stable or it is magnifying.
  • Resources en route and on scene.
  • Resource status, i.e., “we need more” or “sufficient on scene.”


With exterior operations overseeing the immediate firefighting functions, the BC who assumed command is free to remain at the command post to handle fireground communications; plan overall strategy; and make requests for more resources, staffing stations, jurisdiction coverage, and notifying the department chiefs that the agency has a working incident. Command should conduct regular personnel accountability reports (PARs) to verify personnel are safe and their location at the incident is known.

I am a strong proponent of using tactical radio channels at any working fire. This should be well drilled during training and policies established to make the procedures clear. Tactical radio channel use must be established early in the incident. Also, it should be a commandment in every fire department that all personnel on scene—even in staging—have a portable radio with them at all times during the incident. It is very clumsy for interior crews wearing full turnouts, SCBA, and gloves to switch to another radio channel after they have entered a zero visibility, structure fire environment where they’re dragging a hoseline, so do it early! To make tactical radio channel use second nature for personnel, I immediately switch crews to a tactical channel at all incidents; even investigations with nothing showing.

As in many counties across the nation, Santa Clara County in the South San Francisco Bay Area has designated countywide tactical radio channels to promote smooth mutual-aid communications. Every fire service radio in the county, whether in a vehicle or in a handheld unit, has a full array of county tactical radio channels in addition to its department-specific frequencies. In California, where mutual aid from departments hundreds of miles away is common, every fire unit can access statewide tactical radio channels.

Every fire department needs to establish clear procedures for emergency evacuation of a structure. Radio calls, combined with blasts from engine air-horns are common. Procedures should be well drilled and ideally, one procedure should be established County-Wide or across whatever mutual-aid response area format is used. It is imperative that everyone, Department of jurisdiction and mutual-aid units, knows the emergency evacuation policy. That policy should require an immediate roll call of all units on scene after evacuation is initiated.

When the first-due unit arrives on scene at an incident of such magnitude that initial operations will be defensive/exterior and a strong command presence is required, the officer assumes Command mode. First-due can lay a supply line and start exterior/defensive operations with heavy streams. The company officer immediately establishes command and begins to assign operational priorities and tasks. The early request for additional resources, establishment of a staging location, and assigning incoming units are high priorities. The company officer should let his crew handle the initial functions of defensive water streams and not become involved in tactical operations.

(2) Command mode is appropriate for the first-arriving company when the initial actions will be exterior/defensive and it is clear more resources and a strong command presence are needed immediately. In this environment, stand out front and command!

The ICS provides a well-tested method for effective control of the emergency scene. Division assignments should be made for each physical side of the fire, such as Division A for the front of the fire, B for the left side, C for the rear, and D for the right side. Groups are established for functions such as the “exposure group” to handle downwind roof fires. Incoming units are assigned to the divisions and groups based on command’s judgment as to where to place incoming units first. In the fully involved fire situation, each division should secure its own water supply where possible to provide an effective flow to each side of the fire. As always, command should request additional resources and establish tactical radio channel(s) early in the incident. Establish staging in an area easy to locate, such as a parking lot at the intersection of two major streets. Keep staging well stocked with engines, ladders, food units, an ambulance, and so on.

Establishing a command system early on with plenty of resources, tracking personnel, tactical channels, and training are just some of the essential elements to ensure “Everyone Goes Home Safe.” This is not just important; it is the ONLY central priority…all the rest is just part of the job.


Demetrius A. Kastros is a 42-year fire service veteran and a semiretired shift battalion chief from the Milpitas (CA) Fire Department. In 1974, he was among the first group of firefighters in the State of California to be certified as an emergency medical Technician (EMT). Kastros has a college degree in fire science and is a state certified chief officer and master instructor. He continues to work in fire service-related activities. He is the lead instructor for the City of Monterey (CA) Community Emergency Response Team program. He has been published previously in digital editions of Fire Engineering.

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