In last month’s spellbinding column, we discussed standardizing incident conditions along a 1 to 10 scale of severity. This approach can be a big help to fire officers who must rapidly evaluate conditions and decide on an effective action plan that will produce the outcome that logically (not emotionally) goes with the condition/action combo. The process of standardizing critical incident factors creates a set of simple, understandable evaluation and decision-making “hooks” arranged along the 1 to 10 scale. Evaluating where a condition is on the scale and then hanging it on the appropriate hook creates a quick and effective tactical orientation of how fire conditions escalate from nothing showing (1) to burned down (10). Understanding the entire range of the scale creates the perspective to know what led up to where the condition is currently on the scale and what the future will look like if that condition is not stabilized (brought under control).
Directly connected to the standard scale is another parallel action-oriented scale that describes the standard operational response that corresponds to where the condition is on the scale. As we gain experience, we use the scale (and the system) quickly, instinctively, and unconsciously. Making the condition/action/outcome (C/A/O) connection using the standard scale is what we actually load into our mental “slide tray” (and “slot machine”). Firefighting is very episodic, fast, and violent and can appear/feel-even to us-to occur in a very random, jumbled-up, confusing, and unmanageable way. Until and unless we create a regular (i.e., standard) way to make those mental deposits into our experience accounts, we just keep going to our very first fire.
Using the scale is a big help, but fire command will always be challenging simply because all the stages of severity are not created equally-some early stages can be pretty “lazy” and sometimes go on for 20 minutes. Given the current burn rate of modern and very dangerous synthetic stuff, once the monster gets going, the exciting middle (which is right up against the beginning of the end) of the scale can “burn up” that stage in 20 seconds (literally).
In the early stages, the IC sends the troops inside to bash the monster in the head. In the end of the middle stages, the IC assigns the troops outside to keep the monster from going next door. The C/A/O approach applies to what we do on every level. The troops do a succession of integrated C/A/O tasks that create the manual labor that directly converts out of control to under control. The sector/division/groupers coordinate their area/function as PPE-dressed middle managers. The command team converts C/A/O into an ongoing overall offensive or defensive strategic decision from the vantage point of the command post.
The result of matching standard action with standard conditions produces a standard outcome. The three basic conditions/action/outcome pieces help us understand the dynamics of where and how we can create an effective and survivable tactical engagement. The highly connected basic three-part process also creates a very practical firefighting reality check. The three parts of the model are absolutely connected. If the size-up is accurate and produces an action plan that matches that evaluation (size, speed, location, duration), we achieve a standard outcome. When this happens, the three parts of the model match. If the evaluation of conditions is incorrect, the attack does not match what is really going on, and the outcome will quickly send a message that the model is out of balance. The imbalance occurs because the evaluation was not accurate or conditions changed quickly or the attack is not effective because it does not match actual fire conditions. This is what the reality check really means.
We can disregard the model and do a nonthinking attack routine, but we can’t disconnect the parts of the model. The three parts of the model are connected logically, and those three standard parts do not give a hoot about our “attack optimism.” Our not understanding or responding to a reality does not make it any less real. Being out of balance for any reason (bad size-up or quickly changing conditions, for example) can be fatal, particularly when it involves mistakes with defensive conditions. The only thing we can do with those defensive conditions is to stay away from them, because when we get those conditions on us (collapse, intense/thermal/toxic insult, for example), we can’t get them off. Tactical operations that match conditions many times do not produce happy outcomes-only standard ones. Our approach should always be to respond quickly, evaluate conditions along the standard scale, and initiate appropriate intentional action that matches that standard condition.
It is stupid to think we ever get an old window of opportunity back (no “unburning”/”undeading”). Firefighters operating in stage 4 positions at a stage 7 fire are way outside any safe (standard) power curve and are in big trouble; if they listen real hard, they can hear the bagpipes warming up. Many times, they sadly pay the mess-up tab with their welfare. Beating our chests and chanting “We are aggressive, interior attack warriors” as we operate in an offensive position under defensive conditions is generally suicidal. Forget all the romantic notions about firefighting-it isn’t about magic or miracles. It’s all about water. We can only operate on the conditions we inherit with the resources we have. We didn’t make the world combustible. It came that way.
ALAN BRUNACINI recently retired as the chief of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where he has served since 1958. He was promoted to chief in 1978. He formerly was chairman of the NFPA board of directors and headed the NFPA’s Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Committee, which developed Standard 1500. He is chairman of the NFPA’s Career Deployment Committee. He is the author of Fire Command and Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service.