Mastering Fireground Command: Firefighting in Commercial Occupancies


In the first two articles, we discussed the need to integrate strategy/tactics, standard operating guidelines (SOGs)/standard operating procedures (SOPs), and the Incident Command System (ICS) into a street-smart, simple, firefighter-friendly system. The top five National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty death (LODD) causal factors surround command are as follows:

  • Inadequate or improper risk assessment.
  • Lack of incident command.
  • Lack of accountability.
  • Inadequate communications.
  • Lack of established SOPs or failure to follow them.

A user-friendly system must go “beyond checking the boxes.” The March 2011 article in this series discussed the “NIOSH 5” in detail and how to integrate the ICS with your SOGs to maximize safety, effectiveness, and efficiency on the fireground. The August 2011 article discussed the incident power curve, the ICS formula, the 10 Commandments of Fire Command, and the use of preloaded command/tactical templates for known rescues in homes, duplex/fourplex, garden/center hall apartments, condominiums, and hotels/motels. This article will address command in the commercial arena, with emphasis on command/tactical templates for single occupancies, big boxes, strip malls, and taxpayers. I will break down the command topics into the NIOSH 5 LODD factors as they relate to commercial fires.

The NIOSH 5 are not just about LODD. Look at close calls and injuries at your fires; chances are that one or more of the NIOSH 5 were factors. In addition, preventing the NIOSH 5 from aligning will yield more effective operations, thus helping us save more lives and property.


The number 1 factor in firefighter LODDs is improper or inadequate risk assessment. Commercial fires demand an entirely different set of command and tactical tools than fires in dwellings. By integrating strategy/tactics, ICS, and SOGs, departments can attack the NIOSH 5 while attacking the fire, thereby minimizing risk to our troops and maximizing our ability to accomplish the mission.

The difference between commercial and dwelling fires would seem obvious, yet the American fire service continually applies residential tactics in the commercial arena. First, we often take the same level of risk. We need not look further than the Charleston (SC) Sofa Superstore fire in June 2007, where nine firefighters died. One civilian was rescued by personnel breaching an exterior wall, which could have been accomplished without any firefighters entering the building. Another notorious fire is the Worcester (MA) Cold Storage Fire of December 1999, where six firefighters died.

The greatest life hazard at most commercial fires is what we bring to the fire: our firefighters. Alarm systems, multiple exits, extinguishers, and sprinkler systems all serve to ensure that civilians become aware of and escape from these fires early.

These are not dwellings. People do not typically sleep in commercial structures. In addition, they do not reenter for pictures, pills, and pets. Obviously, there are exceptions, such as homeless people finding shelter and occupants who may become trapped. By and large, however, commercial building fires do not warrant the same level of life risk to our troops.

Size-Up and Recon

First, we must look at size-up and reconnaissance (recon) of a commercial fire with a much broader perspective than that of a dwelling. One of the first priorities is to determine if any occupants are still in the building. Question business managers, employees, and bystanders. Obviously, no building is deemed “all clear” until we search appropriately; however, the risk assessment begins with the bystanders and reporting party.

If a manager says that everyone is out, that should be communicated to all companies on the alarm. Again, this does not preclude a search, but fire conditions may warrant going to a defensive operation with this information. Contrast this with a report of an employee inside. We may be willing to engage in more risk. All too often, firefighters develop tunnel vision on the fire without knowing what occupant status has been reported.

Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire responded to a multialarm fire in a nail salon with hundreds of gallons of acetone-based product illegally stored inside. The reporting party/manager reported that the building had been evacuated. Dispatch never relayed that information to the responding units. Within 10 minutes of arrival, a catastrophic roof collapse trapped three firefighters straddling a parapet, and many others were inside (photo 1). The situational awareness of the captain on the roof and the captain inside prevented multiple funerals. Had the crews known that the occupancy was evacuated with everyone accounted for (as was stated on the dispatch phone recording), the crews would have been able to make more educated decisions regarding risk and tactics.

(1) This building and its fire condition are similar to the salon. [Photos courtesy of Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire unless otherwise noted.]

The captain inside the building used his thermal imaging camera (TIC) to assess fire conditions in the attic space. Once he saw heavy fire above, he slowed the progress of the interior attack crews just before the roof cave-in. A several-hundred-pound air-conditioner landed just a few feet in front of them. A few minutes later, the unsupported mansard on the A side also collapsed, pinning hoselines after crews evacuated.

In the August 2011 article (Part 2) in this series, we discussed the “FPODP” size-up system by Lloyd Layman: Facts, Probabilities, Own Situation, Decision, Plan of Operation. This is still an excellent technique for response and arrival outside the commercial structure. Inside, however, we must perform a recon of the situation prior to overcommitting personnel and resources.

First, confirm with dispatch en route whether everyone is reported as evacuated. Check to see if you have a preplan of the facility, and scan the horizon for smoke to indicate the stage of involvement (photo 2). Preplanning with your crews prior to the event will pay huge dividends. Call additional alarms early.

(2) En route, check preplans, ask dispatch for updates, and scan the horizon. (Photo courtesy of Wes Schultz.)

As you arrive, note any built-in fire suppression systems like fire department connections (FDCs) or sprinkler connections. Note if the system appears shut down at the post indicator valve or the outside stem and yoke. Make one of your first priorities to contact any bystanders; employees; or, ideally, the manager.

With light smoke visible, remember that it may look light in volume and color, but smoke changes dramatically as it travels long distances through commercial buildings. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by “light smoke” reported or seen from a large commercial building.

Unless the fire location and access points are obvious (photo 3), have one of the initial companies perform recon, without the intent of putting hose on the ground. Recon is intended to be swift and light and to provide valuable information back to the attack companies regarding the best means of entry, weapon of choice, and length of stretch for the attack. The recon company should carry the following as a minimum:

(3) Note the obvious location of the fire and access points. (Photo courtesy of Don Carroll.)
  • Personal protective equipment with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
  • Portable radios.
  • Lights.
  • Irons (halligan and ax; two sets would be nice to have).
  • TIC.
  • Water can (2½-gallon water extinguisher. (You can make it more effective by adding one-half cup of Class A foam.)
  • Drop bag rope (often the recon company can remove a window and begin raising lines up to the fire floor, saving the engine companies a long lay up a stairwell).
  • One long-handled tool (rubbish hook, pike pole, or plaster hook, for example). Many commercial buildings use the space above the T-bar ceiling as a return air plenum for the heating-ventilation-air-conditioning system. A long tool is necessary to ensure the recon team is not moving into an area with fire traveling over their heads above the T-bar. The TIC is also an excellent tool for this.

Locate the Fire

After determining as much as possible about occupants and the fire location from the outside of the structure, the recon crew’s first priority is to find the fire. Ask occupants if they know where the fire is, what is burning, and the best means to gain access quickly. Whenever possible, get a lap around the structure prior to entry. This may mean driving around the structure or having another company report to the rear for a condition report. Try to see as much of the outside before going in.

The recon company must have the discipline and experience to safely recon the fire without hoseline protection and must be able to safely and accurately predict the fire’s behavior and estimate the resources necessary to control it.

Once inside, do not pass floors, rooms, doors, and so on without checking for fire. Fire can move through a commercial structure at an alarming rate. Utility chases, laundry chutes, crawl spaces, elevator shafts, stairs, cocklofts, and air-handling systems are just some of the means that the enemy will use to outflank you. Look for heat with your TIC, use tools to access hidden spaces, and note smoke conditions as you advance.

As you make your way through the building, count your paces. Seasoned firefighters should know how many paces it takes to reach 50 feet, the standard length of hose. That way, you can report to attack crews how long a stretch may be.

Determine size, avenue, and direction of fire spread. Remember, recon is light and fast. Close doors and windows as necessary to confine the fire. Do not overcommit. You should not be in a position where visibility is zero in recon mode. If you are, then you have gone far enough. Cold smoke can lull you farther into the building. Retreat to safety and prepare for attack crews.

Always keep in mind the amount of risk vs. what you are trying to gain. In the commercial arena, a report of known victims will require the most risk. Therefore, a report of evacuation confirmed should be continually reiterated so that companies do not expose themselves to unnecessary risk. Buildings can be rebuilt; dead firefighters cannot.

The best means of entry for the attack team may be different from your route of travel. You may find another door or window that leads to the outside and, hence, to the fire area much more quickly and with less hose. Other crews may have intelligence that has been relayed advising you that the fire has been located elsewhere. Keep your eyes and ears open.


As with size-up and risk assessment, the command habits we develop in the residential arena are often repeated in the commercial arena. Some departments do not use ICS or any formalized command structure during “routine” house fires. They have all companies report to command. Then, when a large, more complex incident arises, they repeat the same process and get behind the power curve. Incident commanders (ICs) and tactical channels become overwhelmed.

Some residential alarms in the country get as many as 10 single resources responding. Truck companies often split into two crews, and battalion chiefs arrive later in the incident. When you compound this with the dynamic nature of structure fires, it’s no wonder we are still dying and getting injured in house fires.

Never mind us; we signed up for this job. How many children have been missed by crews because of poor incident command or poor tactical priorities? Civilians get missed when the IC is inundated, tactical channels are overwhelmed, and crews are unclear about what has/has not been searched because of redundant or conflicting effort on the fireground. Then, the old punch line “They were dead before we got here” is used. That should not be a punch line but a punch in the face. How dare we use that as an excuse for poor tactics, training, and command?

As was discussed in Part 2, we must remain ahead of the power curve on all incidents so that when we are faced with the unexpected, we are ready. The commercial structure fire is not the only time we should be setting up groups or divisions to organize the incident. We must do so on all fires because it works on all fires (see Part 1 again).

The first company inside the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) hazard zone should remain at the task level. That company is task-saturated with stretching line or searching, for example. In addition, the zero-visibility, high-heat environment taxes situational awareness. This company officer is not in a position to supervise multiple companies in a group or division.

In contrast, the company officer should not have to compete with several other companies to talk to command through an SCBA in zero visibility with five other members’ radios producing feedback each time the microphone is keyed. There’s nothing like trying to advance down a hallway with heavy fire while command keeps asking for a status report.

The tactical level division/group supervisor stands in the gap between the task level company officer and the strategic level IC. This role is critical to keeping the NIOSH 5 from aligning and resulting in a sentinel event.

This officer is in a much better position to see the bigger picture than the task level officer in a zero-visibility environment. Factors like fire overhead, turbulent smoke conditions; compromised stairwells; and compromised building integrity often elude the company officer in zero visibility with intense task saturation.

As a Division C supervisor on a five-alarm fire at a piano store, I noticed that the walls of the tilt-up structure were out of plumb. The seams of the wall were separating. I notified the companies in my division to back out because of the potential for collapse. The company officers didn’t see the conditions because they were busy with their crews on hoselines.

The job of the division/group supervisor is to continuously size up the fire, relay conditions-actions-needs (CAN) reports to command, account for crews with active hands-on accountability, make tactical decisions, and ensure that the tactical objectives of the incident are being accomplished in the division/group. In addition, the supervisor acts as the safety officer, accounting for factors such as building conditions, air management, and so on (photos 4-6).

(4-6) Note the division supervisor coming out of the IDLH environment to look at conditions and return back to his crews for face-to-face communication.

An ideal candidate for the tactical group/division supervisor role is often the second or third officer to an area. For example, if Engine 1 and Engine 2 arrive simultaneously to a commercial fire and begin an attack on the A side with a 2½-inch line, Engine 3 captain should become the Division A supervisor while command is established by the first-arriving chief.

The Engine 3 crew could perform non-IDLH tasks like water supply, controlling the hoseline going into the door, or deploying a two-out line. By the time the two-out line is established, a second chief officer is likely on scene.

(7) Note the company officer in the Division supervisor role. He is relaying CAN report information to the IC while accounting for crews and controlling the doorway.
(8) Note that the Division supervisor is not on air or in the IDLH area, which makes communications clearer. He is ready to go in full personal protective equipment when necessary. (Photo courtesy of Don Carroll.)

A crew working at the task level (Engine 5 attacking the fire or Truck 7 searching) within a division (Division C on the rear) must know their boss and their objective. For example, Engine 5 is assigned to Division C, who is Battalion 2. Their objective is to attack the fire with Engine 6 on a 2½-inch line.

The key is to not wait for a chief officer to set up a group/division. The tactical channel will become overwhelmed, and too many companies will be attempting to talk directly to command without any support at the point of entry. Investing just one company officer in the division/group supervisor role until relieved by a chief officer pays the same dividends that setting up command with a company officer does until the arrival of a chief officer. The incident is more safe, effective, and efficient and the NIOSH 5 are directly impacted.

There may be exceptions to not using the first company officer as a group/division supervisor. For example, roof operations are unique. They often allow for greater visibility than inside a zero-visibility IDLH atmosphere. Although all members should be on SCBA, the first truck captain to the roof often puts together a plan for vertical ventilation or other roof operations. This captain is then a good candidate to assume the role of Roof Division supervisor. Other examples would be rapid intervention crew (RIC) or medical group. These are non-IDLH assignments at first and are often limited to one company.


The sheer number of firefighters on the scene of a commercial fire makes accountability a daunting task, at best. The idea that one safety officer, accountability officer, or the IC will be able to have an accurate accounting of crews is ludicrous. One safety officer can only be one place at a time, especially on a commercial fire. Accountability officers arrive way too late, and the IC is solely relying on fragmented radio traffic.

A Fireground Accountability Tracking System (FATS) board that is put together late in the incident does nothing for crews trapped in the first 30 minutes of the fire. Even if the FATS board was accurate for a moment, the lag time in the constant rotation of crews in and out of the building makes active accountability at the command post virtually impossible. I have seen all too many FATS boards, T-cards, and other means of “accountability” grossly inaccurate. At a recent multialarm fire, the companies represented were not even on scene.

Division/group supervisors set up early in the incident are the real accountability officers. They have an eyes-on/hands-on active accounting of who is inside, where they should be, what they are doing, and when they should come out. They are at the point of entry and act like bouncers at a night club. They control who gets in and when they come out.

Again, waiting for chief officers is usually too late. There are generally fewer chiefs, and they respond from farther away. The lag time in which it takes them to get in position to properly supervise a division/group is anywhere from 10-30 minutes after crews enter the building. This is a critical time in fireground operations. Having your company officers trained and empowered to supervise groups/divisions until the arrival of a chief will pay you huge dividends in increased accountability and risk assessment.


Communication is almost always cited as the biggest problem on the fireground. Go to any informal tailboard hot wash or formal postincident analysis, and communication is the prime topic of concern and area of needed improvement.

The best means of communication is face-to-face. Background noise, apparatus, tools, SCBA, radio problems, feedback, low volume, wrong channels, overtaxed channels, and a host of other factors contribute to the fireground communication problem.

At a multialarm apartment fire, crews were working on the top floor with heavy fire overhead. The call was made to go defensive, but they were not acknowledging on the tactical channel. I went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled up to them to evacuate. They did so since they did not hear the previous transmissions over the radio.

Even if face-to-face communication is not possible for part of the operation, fewer individuals will be on the tactical channel if groups/divisions are set up early. The beginning of the incident is the most critical because the fire location, size, and other critical factors are unknown. Meanwhile, multiple companies arrive on scene simultaneously or in short order. The result is a bottleneck of communication.

Some departments attempt to counter this problem by using multiple tactical channels. Although this is a good tool, it is usually best established later in the incident when proper overhead arrives and multiple alarms are on scene. On the last apartment fire I had, we had four tactical channels. They were established after the second alarm was called.

The problem is that the first-alarm companies are overloading the first tactical channel as they all are attempting to contact command. By establishing divisions early, using company officers, communication can be consolidated. For example, on the three-alarm apartment fire mentioned above, I set up Roof Division and Division 3 during the first alarm. The first truck captain to the roof assumed Roof Division supervisor, with the second truck captain working for him. I no longer needed to talk to the second captain to the roof.

In addition, I made a company officer on the fire floor Division 3 (there were five engines and a truck on the floor) until the arrival of the second battalion chief. This reduced radio communications dramatically. If a captain is too task-saturated to assume a division, he can tell you. This was the case on this fire. Engine 101 responded that he was at the task level on the end of a hoseline. I then made Engine 105 Division 3 until Battalion 3 could get to the fire floor. Again, radio communications were minimized by consolidating them through one supervisor.

When using multiple tactical channels, consider several key points. First, your system must be able to handle the load. If you have an 800 MHz trunked radio system, you may have many tactical channels to choose from. If not, then know your system’s limitations. Also, know dead areas where transmission is questionable in commercial buildings. Some buildings do not allow certain bands, and alternative plans must be in place.

In addition, the use of a command channel for the IC and the division/group supervisors will provide better coordination and leave tactical channels clear for task-level companies in the hazard zone. Each supervisor would have a tactical channel assigned to his group/division where the task level companies could talk laterally to each other and to the supervisor. Then the supervisor would speak laterally to other groups/divisions and to the IC. Training is critical.

Designators may be used to clarify the location or function of a single company. For example, you may have only one truck company on the roof of a structure, but designating it “Roof Division” clarifies its location.

This aids in fireground communication. Imagine pushing down a hall toward a fire. It’s dark and noisy, and your situational awareness is saturated. The radio traffic blends into the background. You hear the sound of chain saws and firefighters sounding overhead. You never heard who was on the roof and you need a hole closer to your location. Who was that—Truck 1 or Truck 3? It would be nice to simply ask for “Roof Division” every time. The same applies to RIC and medical groups. Rather than to have to track what all the other companies are doing by unit number, using simple designators will streamline operations and communications. Division A would call “Roof” and so on.


SOPs for commercial fires must reflect the nature and danger associated with these occupancies. Recon, water supply, RIC operations, hoseline diameter and length, ventilation, search, utility control, laddering, apparatus placement, and a host of other factors should be established in SOP/SOG format.

In addition, the use of ICS and communications should be outlined. Some fundamental precepts regarding commercial tactics are discussed below. Although these topics are each extremely vast, the IC should consider the following as a minimum.

Line Selection

The other arriving companies must have the discipline to stage and allow the recon company to do its job. They should not begin advancing lines into the building until they are certain of the most direct route to the fire. Examples of other company activities include RIC, command, identifying hydrants, FDCs, driveways, access points, and thinking ahead for apparatus placement.

Think 2½-inch until proven otherwise. Get ahead of the power curve, and estimate lag time to the stretch line and get it in operation. Will the fire grow from a 1¾- to 2½-inch in that time? Estimate the number of companies/hoselines necessary for fire control.

The benefits of a 2½-inch line include greater reach and penetration, thus minimizing the distance where you will need to go inside (photo 9). You can remain closer to the exit for air management and collapse potential. Greater knockdown power will prevent getting behind the power curve and having to call for additional lines. Delay in proper gallons per minute (gpm) will cause the fire to grow. Hit it hard early on. Take a gun to a gun fight. If it’s only a knife fight, you will win faster and minimize your exposure inside.

(9) Two-and-a-half-inch lines offer more reach and penetration. Note that this firefighter is outside the collapse zone. (Photo courtesy of Don Carroll.)

Benefits of 1¾-inch lines include greater maneuverability and fewer personnel to place then into operation. The fire may be contained/extinguished quickly if it is small enough.

Smooth bore nozzles should be standard for the commercial arena. Benefits include less nozzle reaction, greater reach and penetration, and lower nozzle pressures that yield greater maneuverability while providing more gpm. In addition, lower nozzle pressures also become of greater benefit in floors above grade because of increased head pressure and pressure-reducing devices/valves.

Water Supply

Again, many fire departments do not pump from a hydrant back to the fire attack engine on residential fires because of large-diameter hose (LDH). This habit transmits into the commercial arena with bad results.

Obviously, the fact that commercial fires require more volume and pumping hydrants should be part of your SOGs. In addition, aerial master streams require augmentation. Also, multiple water supplies are often warranted because of different access, increased gpm flow, and FDC/sprinkler connections. Plan on multiple water sources (photo 10).

(10) This was just one of several pumping engines on this commercial fire. (Photo courtesy of Wes Schultz.)


If the recon crew encounters civilians attempting to evacuate, they should direct people to fire exits or stairwells. Do not commit the recon company to physically remove oriented and ambulatory people from the building unless conditions warrant. Notify command of the situation and keep moving forward, as the fire may continue to build unchecked if recon/attack is delayed.

Known victim locations will yield more effective search results than searching as if in a dwelling. A known office, break room, or work space may be more quickly accessed. Target searches from ladders into windows may be warranted with proper intelligence. Vent-enter-search (VES) may be a tactic of choice. The division/group supervisor will coordinate these operations and call command for CAN reports.

We must attempt to ascertain the location of the known victims to expedite rescue while minimizing risk. We cannot afford to go into large buildings blindly to search as we would a small dwelling, unless we have control of the fire. Find out as much as you can about the number and location of victims prior to entry, if possible. This may require that you enter at a different location or make an entrance by breaching a wall.

A large-area search bag (200-foot Kevlar® rope with tag lines) is an excellent tool for commercial structures. The key is training. Truck companies that have this tool must be extremely proficient in its use and the proper communication techniques for within and outside the crew.


The argument between vertical ventilation and positive pressure ventilation (PPV) has droned on for years. Unfortunately, some parts of the country and some individuals believe that one form of ventilation or another is preferred all the time and that the other is too dangerous to even consider, no matter what the circumstances. This type of thinking limits our options. Both forms of ventilation are effective, have their place, and can be safe in the hands of a properly trained skilled company. I have used both for 25 years and require the use of both by my truck companies, depending on the circumstances (photo 11).

(11) A Roof Division supervisor surveying the scene. (Photo courtesy of Don Carroll.)

In addition, horizontal, mechanical, and hydraulic ventilation are options for the IC and the division supervisors. The key is to know when and how to use each tool and when to prevent their use. The IC, division/group supervisor, and task level companies must be on the same page.

On a recent fire, the division supervisor asked me for PPV. I denied his request because of the amount of fire still coming out of windows on the fire floor (photo 12). The supervisor was unaware of the conditions, which were visible from the command post.

(12) These were the conditions when PPV was requested on a fire in a center-hall apartment building. The order was denied until the fire was controlled.

Study both tactics. They each go way beyond the scope of this article. That being said, any kind of ventilation must be coordinated with the division being impacted. Fire attack/search crews must know that ventilation is pending and be in concert with the decision. Roof Division or Ventilation Group must coordinate with Division A, for example. The IC must ensure that this is happening.


Do not allow RIC to become an afterthought. When the roof collapsed on the salon fire, RIC was not established. Commercial structure fires warrant early establishment of RIC. One engine company is not enough. Consider a truck or rescue company to augment your capabilities. Always have one advanced life support (ALS) transporting unit on scene for personnel.

The Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department conducted a study after Brett Tarver died in the Southwest Supermarket Fire on March 14, 2001. It determined that a ratio of 12:1 was required for a down firefighter rescue. That number has remained a recommendation for the past decade.

When a firefighter Mayday is called, call an additional alarm and two additional ambulances. Even if you have a standby RIC of multiple companies, call an additional alarm and have them stage if you do not have an assignment. Additional firefighters may become entrapped. Always expect the unexpected.

Proactive softening of the structure (that does not adversely impact fire behavior), forcible egress, and secondary laddering should all be objectives for the RIC Group. Consider one RIC Group supervisor who coordinates all the RIC companies on the fireground. This consolidates this critical support function and streamlines communications.

Laddering and Apparatus Placement

Laddering has become a lost art for some fire departments. Laddering is critical in the commercial arena, be it for roof operations, rescue, or hoseline deployment. Aggressive laddering makes way for quick access and egress and, like RIC, must not be an afterthought (photo 13). Preplanning is critical.

Consider aerial apparatus placement early. Ensure that your truck companies have prime real estate. Hoselines can always be extended. Ladders cannot. Once large-diameter hose is charged on the ground, you are limited. Slow down, and get companies in the right place the first time.

(13) Aggressive laddering.

Consider the collapse zone, power lines, radiant heat, and hazardous materials when spotting apparatus. Ask yourself, what will this look like in 10, 20, 30 and 60 minutes if things go south? Trucks should spot the corners for optimum reach, access, and protection from collapse (photo 14).

(14) This truck is set up off a corner for the aerial master streams, out of the collapse zone. (Photo courtesy of Don Carroll.)


Although utility control has historically been a truck function, consider having your RIC Group secure utilities. Its members are already lapping the structure, softening performing structural assessments, and considering safety issues. This frees the trucks to focus on more time-critical tasks like search and ventilation. When is the last time you heard a truck company brag about a great utility it secured? It’s usually a great grab they made.

Tactical Templates

The strategy of your fire is one of three: offensive, defensive, or a combination. A combination strategy has a portion of the building where collapse potential is a risk in defensive mode while taking advantage of the building characteristics (fire wall, for example) to contain the fire and save the uninvolved areas (photo 15).

(15) A combination strategy. Note the elevated master stream and the use of an interior hoseline from inside pushing out the roof to support the interior fire wall.

As discussed in Part 2 regarding multifamily dwellings, tactical ICS templates provide a good starting point for your commercial fires. The key to all of this is preplanning. Like a playbook used by a quarterback, templates and SOGs are starting points. A good quarterback knows when and how to call an audible. A good IC does the same. No SOG can forecast all the permutations that occur in a fire. Lifelong study is paramount to improved operations.

Single Occupancy

A simple Division A, B, C, D will usually work for you, based on the point of entry. Roof Division should be designated for any company on the roof. RIC Group is vital, as is Medical Group for the unforeseen, whether to assist civilians or firefighters (photo 16).

(16) A typical single-occupancy business.

You will want a roof report from Roof Division. This would include the construction type (usually determined by an inspection hole), fire condition, and loading. For example,

Command, Roof Division. We have panelized roof construction with fire in the B/C corner. Four air-conditioners on top.

Roof Division should also tell you the plan.

Command, Roof. We are going to make some heat cuts, then a strip cut (photo 17).
(17) A strip cut on a commercial fire.

As always, Roof would have to coordinate with Division. In many cases, the closest access to the fire is the best. This may violate the precept of attacking the fire from the uninvolved side, but if you have a report that everyone is evacuated and with moderate to heavy smoke inside, you want to get that fire out now!

The extra time to approach from the uninvolved, combined with the likelihood of extra hose and crews, will allow the fire to increase. Again, this is not a house or an apartment building. This is an evacuated business.

Big Box

Although the Division A, B, C, D template works, you will want to tactically look at this with some additional considerations. These buildings are relatively open, allowing safe recon with a TIC. Consider multiple access points from which to attack or search if conditions warrant. Ensure that the fixed protection systems are augmented.

Ground monitors and smaller, single-firefighter 500-gpm monitors can be deployed safely from rollup doors and cargo bays until knockdown, in which 2½-inch lines can be advanced once ventilation is established.

These are good candidates for large-area search tactics. Ensure that division supervisors have strong accountability of crews and continually size up conditions.

Also, consider that chain stores usually have contingency plans for fires and stockpile inventory regionally. Do not put your troops in harm’s way for a large chain that will be back in business in a week, regardless of your efforts.

Strip Malls

Strip malls provide a great opportunity to stop lateral extension by fire walls and attic spaces. The enemy will predictably attempt to outflank you in the attic. Stop his forward advance by using the battlefield to your advantage. Choke the fire down in the cockloft by pulling ceiling and getting lines up in the attic. Simultaneously, vertical ventilation and strip cuts will provide a fire break. Ensure that the Roof Division also coordinates offensive heat cuts with divisions underneath to make conditions more tenable. Take advantage of fire walls in the attic.

The temptation is to hit the main fire occupancy with a deck gun. The old adage “We need to take the heat out of it” is used. The problem is that the fire in the attic space moves unchecked and often is propelled by the pressure created by the attack on the lower space. Some crews have had luck with this. But it’s just that—luck. All too often, we attempt to extinguish the fire rather than first contain it. The priority is locate, confine, extinguish.

Units arrived at a well-involved, attached garage fire. They attempted to take the heat out of it by attacking the garage with a deck gun. After they ran out of water, the fire moved laterally through the attic space and burned the whole roof off of the large home. If they had contained it at the choke point of the breezeway, they would have had time to secure a water supply and move in for the kill afterward.

If a fire is small inside a center occupancy of a strip mall, then a direct attack is warranted. If, however, the fire is in a postflashover state and rolling out the front and back, then a flanking attack is the first priority. Once the fire is cut off, then move in for the kill by attacking the main body of fire with large-caliber lines.

The front of the strip mall would be Division A; the rear would be Division C. Divisions A and C should coordinate to prevent opposing hoselines. If the fire is relatively small, then Division A could have the objective of confining the fire by going into the B/D side occupancies to check for attic extension.

If the fire is larger, in a regional mall or a larger strip mall that involves a grocery store in the center, for example, then Division A would have the store, and Divisions B and D would be established separately to prevent extension and evacuate (photo 18).

(18) A strip mall.


Taxpayers present the unique combination of a commercial building on the bottom with living space above. Here, a more aggressive attack and search are obviously warranted, as the life hazard is much greater. The ICS template depends on the layout. If the commercial access is on the street, A side, as is usually the case, then the crews assigned the business would be working in Division A.

If the rear is where the access to the upper apartment units is located, Division C would be set up with the objectives of checking extension and searching above the fire. Division C would also have the objective of softening the rear of the store for ventilation and access/egress (photo 19).

(19) A taxpayer.


We must pay due respect to the NIOSH 5 LODD causal factors on the commercial fireground. The American fire service must get out of the habit of applying residential and dwelling risks and tactics to commercial fires. The greatest risk on the average commercial fire is what we bring to the fire: our firefighters. By blending sound strategy/tactics, ICS, and your department SOGs, you can build tactical templates that provide a starting point for your operations and make them more safe, effective, and efficient. Preplanning is critical!

The two previous articles in this series appeared in Fire Engineering in March 2011 (“Mastering Fireground Command: Calming the Chaos”) and August 2011 (“Mastering Fireground Command: 10 Commandments of Command”).

ANTHONY KASTROS is a battalion chief for the Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire District and a 25-year veteran of the fire service. He is author of the Fire Engineering DVD series Mastering Fireground Command: Calm the Chaos! and the book and video series Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center. He is the project manager for the Metro Command Training Center. Kastros has a B.S. degree in business and human resource management and an associate degree in fire technology.
Anthony Kastros will present “Next-Generation Tactics and Command” on Tuesday, April 17, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at the FDIC in Indianapolis.

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