Operating on Autopilot

Firefighters confront a fire in an abandoned home

By David DeStefano

Photo above courtesy Rita Reith

People in general, and perhaps especially firefighters, are creatures of habit. Our daily routines, comfortable situations, and actions that provide predictable outcomes are often shortcuts to navigating daily activities. We have a daily rhythm of work, training, and incident response.

During fireground operations we must be prepared to act outside of the routine, assess changing conditions and evolving incidents, and make rapid decisions that involve the life safety of firefighters and civilians in a compressed time frame. Too often the response from firefighters, company officers, and chief officers is to simply embrace the comfortable routine with which we often find success. Worse, there may be no acknowledgement of or response to changing conditions, which may have catastrophic results.

The autopilot mode has no place on the fireground. Continual size-up and situational awareness are key elements to safe and efficient operations only if the information identified in this process is communicated to the correct organizational element and acted upon appropriately.

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In the following paragraphs we will discuss only a few of the multitude of situations where immediate identification, notification, and response to a fireground condition is necessary. By no means is this discussion all-inclusive but is rather meant to serve as a reminder against autopilot operations. 

Large, Open Floor Plan with a Heavy Volume of “Cold Smoke”

When fire companies encounter a smoke condition, the general response involves donning self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and proceeding with a tactical operation such as search or advancing a hoseline. However, given the additional details that the heavy volume of smoke is relatively cool and the occupancy features a large, open floor plan, a deviation from “routine” is signaled. The fire may be deep seated and held in check by sprinklers. However, due to the size of the building, members may be forced to operate under prolonged zero visibility conditions. The use of a search rope becomes a major consideration. The principles of air management that firefighters have learned will be critical to their safety in this environment. Although outside openings may be available, the distances to these means of egress may be considerable.

Unusual Content Load

A heavy content load poses a variety of problems in different structures. During operations involving residences we most often associate a heavy content load with Collyer’s Mansion (hoarding) conditions. Often undetectable from the exterior, members working inside must not only communicate the presence of these conditions but understand how their existence changes the parameters of the firefight. Other examples of heavy content load may include manufacturing/warehouse facilities or offices storing large quantities of paper records. Other content-related hazards require a deviation from the routine. These include occupancies with drum storage, chemical baths, or other contents that may pose a hazard undetermined from the exterior size-up.

Lightweight Construction

Whether wood or steel, lightweight structural members are a game-changers when they are (or are likely to be) involved in fire or exposure to heat for any period of time. Widely known for early failure, the issue may be identification and communication of this type of roof or floor system in a new or renovated structure. Firefighters who predominately work in districts with other types of construction must be aware that these buildings may be structurally compromised by the time the first-due companies arrive. Many older buildings that undergo renovation feature new lightweight components that firefighters operating on autopilot may fail to notice or communicate to the incident commander.     

Renovation/Modification and Change of Use

Conducting operations on auto pilot, members may easily overlook signs of renovation or structural modifications that are immediate game-changers for strategy or tactics. Building layouts may change from open floor space to a “cubicle farm.”  Businesses may open floors to provide convenience stairs, conveyor systems, or industrial equipment. Load-bearing structural members or fire-rated assemblies may be illegally removed, weakening the structure or allowing fire and smoke spread to an area where firefighters would expect protection.   A change of use for a building has the potential to impact all aspects of the firefight. Often a warehouse space may be converted to a makeshift place of worship or an office condo may be sub-rented to a small company that conducts an industrial process in the space.

Situational Awareness

The issues discussed here as well as the many other conditions that are likely go unacknowledged or unreported by firefighters on autopilot will be accounted for by experienced firefighters and officers using proper size-up and situational awareness. The catch is that when firefighters fall into the routine of what they believe are the same fires in the same type of buildings, every reaction (including size-up) has a tendency becomes skewed by past experience.

The best awareness model uses the benefit of experience and training guided by constant vigilance and fresh observation. These factors tempered with a skeptical approach to the unknown is our safest approach to the unique and evolving nature of the modern fireground. 


David DeStefanoDavid DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.

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