Making “The Decision”: Transitioning to an Exterior Attack


Of all the strategic decisions that must be made in firefighting, the decision to transition from an interior to an exterior attack ranks among the most basic yet most vital. Firefighters must be able to interpret various signs indicating that an interior attack is dangerously overextending them in the risk/benefit analysis. Often, the incident commander (IC) must make this decision quickly and decisively under difficult fire conditions. Recently, Fire Department of New York (FDNY) units were placed in this position at a very challenging fire on a very cold night.

January 3, 2012, was the coldest night of the winter in New York City, with temperatures hovering around 12°F. At 2307 hours, an alarm was received for a fire in a Chinese restaurant on the first floor of a building on the corner of Broadway and 207th Street in Manhattan.

The first units arrived at the scene in three minutes and transmitted a “10-75” radio signal for a fire on the first floor of a two-story, 100- × 100-foot “taxpayer” of ordinary construction. Four engines, two trucks, a FAST truck (the rapid intervention crew), two battalion chiefs, a deputy chief, along with a rescue and a squad unit were dispatched to the incident. Figure 1 shows the building layout and the positioning of the three ladder apparatus: tower ladder (TL) 46 and aerial ladders (ALs) 36 and 59.

Figure 1. Building Layout and Ladder Positioning

The initial IC (Battalion 19) placed two hoselines in position and attacked the fire inside the Chinese restaurant on the first floor of the exposure 1 side. At the same time, truck members proceeded to the floor above to search for fire extension, and units were assigned to the roof to perform vertical ventilation. It was quickly determined that fire had already extended into both the second floor and the cockloft. Battalion 19 rapidly transmitted a second alarm to obtain the additional resources needed for what was becoming an expanding fire challenge.

I arrived at the scene five minutes after the transmission of the second alarm and assumed command. The chief of Battalion 19 passed on information on fire conditions, strategy, and locations of operating personnel. At this time, the visible fire on the first floor of the restaurant had been extinguished, but there was heavy fire on the second floor. I assigned the second-arriving battalion chief (Battalion 27) to take command of the units operating on that floor.

Just a few minutes later, personnel operating on the roof reported that there was heavy machinery on top of the building and that the roof surface was starting to show some signs of weakening. Although the roof was held up by solid wood joists, you must treat any type of roof support system as suspect once the roofing material shows signs of being affected by fire below.


We now faced heavy fire on the second floor of a commercial building that had been closed for several hours with fire rapidly extending into the cockloft and a roof that was already showing signs of deterioration. I ordered all personnel out of the building and prepared for an outside operation.

Such a strategy change actually involves a two-part process. First, you must base the decision itself on your gut reaction to various size-up factors. Second, and equally important, you need to quickly account for all of your personnel.


We used two roll call methods. First, we immediately conducted a verbal roll call to contact each of the units that had been operating inside the building or on the roof. I then ordered the battalion chief assigned on the second alarm as the Resources Unit leader to use the electronic fireground accountability system (EFAS) to ensure that we had accounted for all firefighters at the scene.

All FDNY personnel are equipped with a fireground radio. The EFAS system automatically records the presence of each firefighter when they press the transmit button on their radio. As the button is pushed, each individual’s name is recorded on a computer screen that is in all of our chiefs’ cars. The system allows for a rapid, visual listing of all personnel at the scene of an operation.


After I made the decision to withdraw from the building and with all members accounted for, we implemented strategies and tactics for the outside attack. It is at this stage that the IC must make vital decisions to prioritize the life and property hazards. Basically, you have to consider just how much you can limit a fire and how much property you can protect given your personnel, apparatus, and water supply.

We determined that the attached one-story taxpayer on the exposure 4 side of the fire building was not threatened by the fire. However, the six-story apartment house in the rear presented an exposure issue as well as the only life hazard. Clearly, the number-one priority was to protect that rear building from the large body of fire that was now burning through and above the roof.

I reassigned the chief of Battalion 27 to supervise the rear building sector. Members stretched 21/2-inch handlines to that location. The first TL (46) assigned to the incident was already in a position on the exposure 2 side of the building that allowed it to both extinguish fire and protect the apartment house (photo 1). I requested additional tower ladders to respond to supplement the fire attack and exposure protection.

(1)Photos by Bill Tompkins.


As previously mentioned, two of the initial truck companies assigned to the fire were aerial ladders (36 and 59). They were repositioned to allow room for the incoming TLs to set up and operate. When performing street management at an outside operation, it is best to think “from the outside in.” In other words, determine where your most serious exposure problems are, and position large-caliber streams to protect those exposures first before focusing exclusively on attacking the main body of fire.

With this strategy in mind, TL 22 was placed on the exposure 2 side to assist TL 46 in protecting the apartment house (photo 2). TLs 14 and 33 were set up to operate in the spaces made available when Ladder 36 and Ladder 59 were repositioned (photo 3). All of the incoming TLs were advised by radio exactly where they were to operate so that they could choose appropriate response routes to the scene.


It is always a good idea to preestablish a water supply when awaiting the arrival of a TL. We assigned individual engine companies already at the scene to supply 3½-inch hoselines for specific TLs before the ladder units arrived to hasten their setup time. Figure 2 illustrates the fire attack in place when all units were finally operating.

Figure 2. Fire Attack


Eventually, four TLs were placed in operation along with handlines directed from the roof of the apartment house in the rear. Even with this massive amount of water being applied, it took several hours to darken down the fire, which had rapidly spread throughout the structure. When possible, the TL streams were directed from a low position up into the cockloft area for maximum water penetration (photo 4). However, as fire burned through large areas of the roof, streams had to be directed from elevated angles (photo 5).


A collapse zone was established, and the TL buckets were kept a sufficient distance from the building to ensure their safety if the side wall collapsed. The parapet in particular was monitored by the safety chief to spot any cracks or bulging.

Given the extreme temperatures, icing on sidewalks and street surfaces became an issue. Absorbent material was immediately spread on slick areas, and the Department of Sanitation sanding trucks were requested.

A command post (CP) was established on the exposure 1 side in a position that provided light and room for managing chiefs and representatives of other agencies to meet without interfering with apparatus movement (photo 6). Being removed from the noise of the fireground was also of great help in maintaining communications.


Once a CP is properly staffed and operating, it is beneficial for the IC to move away a reasonable distance to view other perspectives of the fire. Maintaining radio contact with personnel at the CP, I went to the exposure 2 side of the building to get a first-hand view of the fire conditions and to evaluate the exposure concerns in the rear (photo 7).


The operation continued throughout the night and, given the severe weather, a third alarm was transmitted to provide fresh units for relief. The fire was placed “under control” at 0247 hours, although units remained at the scene the following day to extinguish pockets of fire and maintain a watch line.


Any long-term exterior attack, particularly one conducted under extreme weather conditions, will eventually tax your personnel. Fresh units were assigned to this incident throughout the night and the following day. Most departments do not have anywhere near the resources of the FDNY. Therefore, it is incumbent on ICs to view a multiple-alarm or mutual-aid request in severe weather not only as a means of addressing expanding fire tactics but also as a necessity just to maintain your current strategy. A firefighter’s work time when it is 12°F will be radically different than it is when it is 65°F. As always, weather is a part of the size-up equation.

If you have limited personnel and must rehab firefighters at the scene of an operation, request a few heated municipal buses to provide a safe and comfortable environment in which personnel can recover. Note that rapid intervention crews will also require relief. A truck company was assigned to this fire to replace the original FAST unit. A rapid intervention crew that is not put to work will, over a period of time, become fatigued and perhaps tend to lose the sense of readiness it should ideally maintain.

In addition, when several TLs are in operation, personnel relief should be accomplished one unit at a time. By shutting down only one TL, you will still have other heavy-caliber streams in operation to prevent any sudden fire flareup.


Changing Strategy. The decision to discontinue an aggressive interior attack and switch to an outside operation must be made in a timely and effective manner. All fireground personnel must be controlled and accounted for. You must make a quick assessment of the limits of how much property you can protect given your available resources.

Command System. Any large-scale fire will have to be carved up into manageable sectors to safely control the operation. At this incident, we used battalion chiefs to supervise the various exposures, address safety issues, and provide for firefighter accountability. When hydrant systems are inadequate or unavailable, designate a water resource officer to perform that function exclusively.

Collapse Zones. Establish and clearly define these areas when deciding to transition to an exterior attack. Enforcing collapse zone compliance is a prime function of the safety officer. Mark off dangerous areas with yellow tape or other obvious signs. TL buckets, when operating, must also respect these areas.

Relief. The greatest strategy is useless if your firefighters are not physically capable of performing the tactics required. When operating under extreme weather conditions, an IC must be sure that his goals take this into account. A firefighter’s work time will be limited in very cold weather. Relief and rehab must be part of the overall plan.

“Pulling the Trigger.” There are standard expressions regarding risk/benefit analysis (risk little to save little; risk nothing to save nothing, for example). Without translating these ideas into actual decisions on the fireground, they remain little more than academic concepts. At times, you must make an active decision to withdraw from a building and initiate a defensive fire attack. This is not a decision reserved exclusively for a chief. On occasion, a company officer or a senior firefighter may be faced with the need to make and enforce a vital strategic decision before any chief arrives.

The decision to transition to an exterior attack at this fire was relatively obvious given the fire volume and structural concerns. This is not always going to be the case. Firefighting often involves gray areas with uncertain risk/benefit factors. Keep in mind that, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, between 1970 and 2002, more than 180 firefighter fatalities resulted from structural collapse (excluding those lost in the World Trade Center).

Given the conditions encountered at our incident, it is likely that the building was lost before the first units arrived at the scene. This was, however, a successful operation. The fire was extinguished, and the exposures were protected with no serious injuries incurred. Our firefighters worked under brutal conditions for an extended time. Their determined efforts made the difference in overcoming the weather and fire challenges. Of all the factors to consider when making “the decision,” their safety certainly is at the top of the list.

THOMAS DUNNE is a deputy chief and 31-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and has extensive experience in Mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. He has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and has lectured at conventions, colleges, and fire academies throughout the country. He also serves as an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy. A Fordham University graduate, he writes and lectures on a variety of fire service topics through “Third Alarm Fire Training” seminars.

Thomas Dunne will present “Think Like an Incident Commander” on Tuesday, April 17, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at the FDIC in Indianapolis.

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  • Thomas Dunne is a retired deputy chief and a 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) with extensive experience working in midtown Manhattan and the Bronx. He has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and lectures on a variety of fire service topics through his “Third Alarm Fire Training” seminars. He has also published Notes From the Fireground, a memoir of his experiences in the FDNY, and is currently working on a novel.

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