Making Tactical Decisions for Personal and Crew Safety

Making Tactical Decisions for Personal and Crew Safety

On January 3, 2011, at 0342 hours, the East Haven (CT) Fire Department (EHFD) was dispatched to the report of smoke coming from the roof of a commercial structure. As the safety officer, I responded from home; by chance, I lived in the first-due district. While we were responding, police officers advised us of the working fire prior to our arrival.

First-Due Arrivals

The first-due engine company and rescue (a total of four firefighters) reported a single-story, wood-frame strip mall with smoke showing from the eaves and the roof. I arrived within one minute of their arrival. As I completed my windshield size-up, I observed a light brown smoke slowly emanating from the roof while the crew was forcing the door of a pizzeria (at the A and D corners). The pizzeria was the first occupancy in this strip mall; the exposure store was a self-service laundry. I went to the front of the building and met the on-duty battalion chief (BC), who was the shift commander. We briefly discussed the conditions and current tactical decisions that were in motion. The engine company members had stretched a 1¾-inch attack line to the door (photo 1), called for water, and began their entrance.

(1) The first-due engine company stretches the first line with minimal smoke from the eaves on the A side near the D corner. <i>(Photos 1-3 by Joe Ciscone.) </i>
(1) The first-due engine company stretches the first line with minimal smoke from the eaves on the A side near the D corner. (Photos 1-3 by Joe Ciscone.)

Tactical lesson: The first-due officer made a judgment call to stretch a 1¾-inch attack line based on knowledge of the occupancy and the structure, which was compartmented. This decision worked. However, in a commercial occupancy fire, it is preferred that you stretch a 2½-inch attack line. You cannot go wrong pulling the “big line”; you can always gate it down for overhaul or if fire is only in the walls. In smaller departments, it may be necessary to combine companies and have mutual aid summoned early based on dispatch information.

Securing a Water Source and Laddering the Roof

The BC notified the second-due engine company to secure a water source and the third-due unit, a 75-foot quint, to ladder the roof and prepare to open it up. The BC and I decided it was imperative to get an officer inside to evaluate conditions (photo 2). We also decided that I would assume command of the interior division. As I masked up, I observed the ladder crew getting ready to go to the roof and establish a positive water source while the BC ordered the pizzeria’s rear door forced as well as the adjacent occupancy forced to check for extension.

(2) The incident commander and I discuss the tactics that are underway before I join the interior companies.
(2) The incident commander and I discuss the tactics that are underway before I join the interior companies.

Tactical lesson: Establishing a water source; immediate, coordinated ventilation (photo 3); and forcing the rear doors are musts at commercial occupancy incidents. These three tactical decisions must be done early and must be coordinated for a safe and successful operation.

Entering the Structure

On my entry, there was minimal smoke four feet from the floor, good visibility, and minimal heat. I followed the hoseline through the dining area and located the crew and observed them extinguishing fire above and to their left. They were pulling a wall apart to access fire in the wall. I determined that the fire was not in the wall but in an adjoining room. I made my way into the kitchen to find an additional area of fire and heard a crew forcing the rear steel door in the same area.

(3) The ladder company begins coordinated ventilation at the front of the building.
(3) The ladder company begins coordinated ventilation at the front of the building.

The interior conditions remained favorable, with minimal heat and smoke four feet off the floor. I notified the engine crew in person to reposition the line into the kitchen area. I returned to this area and observed fire to my right at the ceiling. I heard the roof crew working the saw and the forcible entry team opening up the rear. I monitored the radio closely, waiting for the roof team to better control any fire above us.

Tactical lesson: As the interior officer, you must maintain situational awareness of the entire incident and avoid tactical drift. You must also monitor the radio and listen to the operations unfolding around you to ensure all tactics are being completed. Additionally, consider pulling the drop ceiling early; this will allow you to verify roof construction. This can be done in the fire occupancy or the exposure. Don’t pull the frame; it will create an entanglement hazard.

Surviving a Fall

I made my way toward the B/C corner of the kitchen and observed two closed doors; one was the rear door being forced and appeared to be a storage area. I stepped forward toward the two doors. Immediately, I began to fall through the floor into the basement. Although my hand tool fell 10 feet to the basement floor, I was able to twist to my left, stop the downward motion, and stop myself from completely falling into the basement. I was able to pull myself up and out of the hole and crawl back to an area of safety. Command was advised that we had minimal fire above us, but we had a hole burned through the floor in the B/C corner and we needed a crew to access the basement.

Tactical lesson: It was not a conscious tactical decision but, as noted, I was standing and not crawling. There was good visibility and minimal heat. This decision proved to have serious, negative consequences.

Communicating the Situation

I advised the hose team of the situation and told them to stay put and not to advance. However, it was imperative to observe the conditions below us. Without a thermal imaging camera (TIC), we needed to observe the conditions in the basement. We cautiously approached the hole (photo 4) and observed that this was a burn-through hole, not a framed hole used for moving product from the basement to the kitchen. We observed no heat or smoke pushing from this hole. The fire attack crew indicated that all visible fire was extinguished. The crew began to pull the ceilings and open them up; the roof team was also indicating that the ventilation hole was complete and no visible fire was in the attic space.

(4) The hole during the investigation after debris was shoveled out by the marshal’s office. Note the stairs that are seen out the exterior concrete stairs entering the basement. <i>(Photos 4-5 by author.</i>)
(4) The hole during the investigation after debris was shoveled out by the marshal’s office. Note the stairs that are seen out the exterior concrete stairs entering the basement. (Photos 4-5 by author.)

Tactical lesson: My decision to crawl back toward the hole was necessary to evaluate the situation completely. As the interior officer, I immediately needed to know if there was fire below us. There was no heat or smoke pushing from the hole. If conditions indicated that fire was below us, companies would have had to relocate immediately. If conditions dictated, we would have had to move from offensive to defensive. Remember, do not overrely on your TIC; tile and wet carpet can mask basement fires. Officers must continually perform size-up and risk assessment. These assessments are not done just once; they must be fluid and must be done continuously during the incident.

Conferring with the IC

At this point, many things were circling in my head. We had fire above us, a burn-through hole in the floor with no heat coming from it (photo 5), the roof was opened, the rear door was forced, the engine crew felt it had extinguished the fire, and I noticed that I had severe pain in my left knee. I indicated to the crew that I would return; I needed to discuss the tactics and findings with the incident commander (IC) face to face. After I exited the building, I met the IC to discuss the progress. He told me that the basement had been accessed and there was no fire. It was just filled with smoke.

(5) A view of the hole as seen from the basement, looking up into the fire area. Note the heavy charring and damage to the two- × six-inch joist.
(5) A view of the hole as seen from the basement, looking up into the fire area. Note the heavy charring and damage to the two- × six-inch joist.

Tactical lesson: It’s the IC’s job to consider all radio transmissions and progress reports and compare them with what he is seeing. The IC must then adjust tactical decisions accordingly. The IC needs to have a global view of the entire incident. During this time, I observed the IC had the adjoining store fronts opened up, additional lines pulled, and ground ladders thrown for secondary egress from the roof. I returned to the fire area and met the crew, who did a great job opening up and extinguishing small pockets of fire. The rest of the incident progressed smoothly and appropriately.

Learn to Crawl!

When we are children and we try to become mobile, we start by crawling; only gradually do we stand and begin to walk around. Why? Because it’s safer! On day one of our firefighting careers, we are taught to crawl when entering fires. Why? Because it’s safer! No matter how many incidents or training evolutions I attend, we are always telling firefighters to get down and crawl. This is a nationwide problem within the fire service that we must address. I believe today’s firefighters are standing up for multiple reasons.

Today, we wear protective clothing. When it’s worn completely and properly, it encapsulates us and we can’t feel the extreme heat to which we are being exposed. When I see firefighters standing when entering fires, I can hear them thinking, “There’s no heat! Crawling is going to take me longer, and standing doesn’t hurt my knees. So, I’m not going to crawl.” We have become complacent in our business, proven year after year as we analyze firefighter line-of-duty deaths. In 2014, we buried 64 of our brother and sister firefighters. Yes, we have seen a decrease, but that is still too many! We all should agree this number is way too high.

Some great fire service professionals are helping us learn from others so we do not repeat mistakes made. However, we are not “getting it”; we are still putting ourselves in positions to become a statistic, myself included. In the above incident, I nearly fell 10 feet with my tool into a smoke-filled basement. Why? Because I was complacent and made a tactical decision to stand, not crawl.

We must not place ourselves in situations like the one I was in. We must begin looking deeper into how we train. Do we train as we fight, or is that just a fancy catchphrase we like to say? We must start using the new training techniques created by today’s instructors who train us to battle today’s fires.

So, Where Do We Start?

Start with the basics. Do you wear your protective clothing properly? Do you fasten your chinstrap? Do you put your earflaps down, or is that not “cool”? Do you wash and maintain your protective clothing? Do you carry two tools? If you have two hands, why wouldn’t you carry two tools? Are you familiar with proper safety and survival techniques? Do you know how and when to call a Mayday? Do you know how to “swim” through an entanglement or perform the Detroit Dive or Denver Drill? Do you exercise regularly or just belly up to the kitchen table way too often?

Begin by looking at yourself and your knowledge base. Look to the many resources available to you today such as Fire Engineering, Training Minutes videos, and other online content on Learn from current fire service leaders.

Today’s fires have changed, so we must begin treating them differently. If you are still fighting fire the same way you did 20 years ago, you need to rethink your tactics. If you can see your feet and still make the decision to walk-not crawl-you MUST look down and sound the floor on every step. You and I know that this isn’t always possible. So, GET DOWN AND CRAWL!

Crawling doesn’t mean be on all fours with your head down and not look in front, above, and around as you move. It also does not mean crawling with your partner as if you are in a “conga line.” Look at Fire Engineering’s June 2015 article “Searching in the Flow Path” for detailed information on efficient and effective search procedures. This way, you can return to the firehouse and to your family after the run.

P.J. NORWOOD is the deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department and has served four years with the Connecticut Army National Guard. Norwood is a Fire Engineering DVD author, editorial contributor, and advisory board member and an FDIC instructor. He hosts a monthly Fire Engineering Blog talk radio show and Google Hangout. He is a UL-FSRI technical panel member for the study of Residential Attic Fire Mitigation Tactics and Exterior Fire Spread. He has lectured across the United States as well as overseas. He is certified to the instructor I, officer III, and paramedic levels.

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