How do small volunteer and combination departments prepare for the inevitable big fire? Many things must be considered. In addition to strong tactical capabilities, at the top of the list are preplanning, mutual aid, and incident command. Any of these standing alone could not get the job done. It takes a well-balanced combination of the three to effect an acceptable end result.


Preplanning is among the most often overlooked and neglected activities in the fire service. Let`s face it. A training drill that consists of making a building sketch, locating utility shutoffs, measuring and calculating square footage, figuring fire flow requirements, determining the available water supply, and many other pertinent facts is not exactly exciting.

How important is preplanning? Stop and think. How easy is it for you to remember every exacting detail of each room within your home? It`s not that easy at all. Yet, you spend 12 to 14 hours a day there. Apply this example to a large commercial structure that you drive by occasionally. Even if your department toured it on a regular basis, it would still be tough to remember all the details that could affect the outcome of an incident.

Get your preplan down on paper. Many computer programs on the market can aid in the preplanning process. If funding will allow, these programs will speed up and take some of the pain out of drawing up the plan. No matter how fancy or plain your preplan, make sure that all the individuals who must use it understand it. Address the important items–hydrant locations and their distances, utility shutoff points, types of materials stored, and square footage of areas–to name a few. Keep multiple copies of the plan in the command vehicle. This will enable the incident commander (IC) to make notes on more than one plan as the incident progresses.


I cannot understand how fire departments can survive without mutual aid. I`m sure a few departments across the country are completely self-sufficient, or think they are. In the small-town and rural departments, mutual aid is a way of life–or, more so, a way of survival. It seems as though no rural department has enough tankers and no small town or city has enough engines, not to mention adequate staffing at all times. To make mutual aid work, participating (neighboring) departments must train together regularly. Once mutual-aid units arrive on the scene, all are working as one department. Freelancing will only add to the confusion and compromise the safety of all personnel. A little preplanning among mutual-aid companies will make it possible to purchase specific equipment without duplication among adjacent departments.

Let`s go one step further. Forming automatic response companies throughout an area will give all parties involved a better chance of heading off a major disaster. For example, an automatic response for an activated fire alarm at a high school may have the three closest departments respond with personnel and apparatus while the next closest departments are put on standby. If the standby departments are activated, the next outlying departments would be put on standby and move equipment to the vacated stations. This system has a domino effect, and equipment is shared by departments sometimes as far as 20 miles from the original call. This system ensures that adequate response is at the scene and no district is without protection during the incident.


The incident command system has received more bad press than any new idea the fire service has devised in the past 20 years. The first thing you hear from most departments is, “Well, it would work fine for the big departments, but it won`t work here.” Fire service personnel who believe that should pull their heads out of the sand. The system is not complex or confusing. The multistage flowcharts that illustrate how the system works do no more than put on paper the objectives and goals for every emergency scene.

The main idea behind the system is to let your support staff help you. If many small departments would analyze what they do at each scene, most would find that they are using the incident command system. At many scenes, someone takes care of interior attack (a sector officer), someone takes care of water supply (a sector officer), and someone takes care of getting firefighters ready to make entry (a sector officer). See a pattern here? Most small departments are doing the “incident command thing” but just are not taking credit for it, as can be seen from the following scenario.


At 12:53 p.m. on October 1, 1997, we received a call of heavy smoke coming from the old Wood-Crafts furniture factory. This was one of the calls we had planned for but feared. The complex was made up of nine rooms that had been constructed during the years from 1952 to 1971. About 75 percent of the 55,000-square-foot complex was of bowstring roof construction. The building had not been in use for nearly four years. The sprinkler system in the building was in a state of disrepair due to lack of heat in the building. Before the structures were vacated, we had made a thorough preplan of the buildings. This information was in the preplan file of our Unit 605, a converted tool sales truck that serves as the department`s equipment/command vehicle.

Our first-in pumper arrived at the scene at 12:54 p.m. The driver reported to all incoming units that heavy smoke was visible from the south end of the building. Initial command and suppression operations were set up on the south side of the complex. Water supply, using a five-inch supply line, was established.

At the time of the call, I was almost three miles from the scene. Within 30 seconds of the call, as I was en route, I could see heavy smoke from two and a half miles away. Based on what I knew about the structure, I called for the following assistance: a full response from the Chester, Pleasant, Roann, Urbana, and Noble township fire departments and aerial apparatus from the Wabash City Fire Department.


On arrival, I assumed command and requested personnel from Silver Lake, Jackson Township, and Henry Township and the Bippus fire departments. It was evident that a well-advanced fire was burning in the southeast building of the complex. In view of the advanced state of the fire, I ordered a defensive exterior attack from the onset.

Initial attack was made from the exterior of the east side of the complex with three 212-inch and four 134-inch handlines. These had a minimal effect on the fire. Handline operations also were set up at the north end. About 25 minutes into fire operations, the aerial arrived. It was positioned halfway down the east side of the complex so that a roof trench cut could be attempted from the aerial in the area where the south and north main structures had been joined. In the short time it took to deploy the aerial apparatus, smoke conditions in the southeast building had worsened significantly. Heavy black smoke was pouring out.

I aborted the trench cut operation and diverted the aerial unit to fire suppression, as fire breached the south center roof of the southeast building. Though this essentially was a “surround and drown” operation, we were not without strategic options: We made a concentrated handline attack on the north end to keep the fire from spreading into the uninvolved northwest section of the building. Operations on this side and the west side were augmented by drop tank/tanker shuttle water supply.

After the initial breaching of the roof, severe collapse became imminent. All exterior crews were ordered to stay at least 30 feet from the structure. (The wall height of the structure was approximately 10 feet.) The bowstring construction performed just as expected. From the first collapse, it took only about 15 minutes for 28,000 square feet of bowstring roof to come down. As the roof weakened and collapsed, fire spread was accelerated throughout the structure. Firefighters poured water into the structure at a rate of approximately 5,000 gallons per minute at the height of the fire.

I declared the fire under control at about 2:30 p.m. At about 4 p.m., some of the mutual-aid crews and apparatus were released. At about 7 p.m., excavators and bulldozers were brought to the scene to facilitate final extinguishment, which was completed around 2 a.m.

Even though 11 departments and more than 100 firefighters were on the scene and 42,000 square feet of building (including 28,000 square feet of bowstring construction) were involved, not one firefighter sustained even a minor injury. I believe that a good preplan; an outstanding mutual-aid response; and sector officers, who were the backbone of the plan, made this huge operation safe and manageable. We must work to ensure this result at all our incident scenes.

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At 8 a.m. on October 2, 1997, personnel from the North Manchester Fire Department, Wabash County Squad 85 (comprised of fire investigators from various departments throughout Wabash County; it assists departments in the area with cause and origin determination), and the Indiana State Fire Marshal`s Office began cause-and-origin investigation. Most of the day was spent interviewing neighbors, witnesses, and personnel associated with recent activities in the structure. We learned that demolition crews had been using oxyacetylene cutting torches to remove metal ductwork that served as a sawdust collection system used previously in manufacturing processes.

On Friday, October 3, investigators began reconstructing the scene in the area of fire origin. The metal ductwork piping in the area was examined, and it was determined that the fire started inside the ductwork and spread to the upper level of the southeast building through uncapped outlets in the ductwork. It was determined that sparks from the cutting torches had ignited the sawdust left in the collection system pipes. n

(Top) Firefighters operate hoselines at the southeast building of the complex. Four 212-inch handlines plus the aerial master stream could not stop the fast-moving flames. (Photos by Harold Chatlosh.) (Bottom) The south end of the northeast building shortly after the first roof collapse in the southeast building.

Six 212-inch handlines operating on the north end of the complex successfully kept flames out of the northwest building.

JACK FETROW, an 18-year veteran of the fire service, has been chief of the North Manchester (IN) Fire Department since 1994. He has master firefighter certification in investigation, building inspection, and tactics and is an NFA Level III Instructor. Fetrow is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Indiana Fire Chiefs Association, International Association of Arson Investigators, and Indiana Fire Instructors Association.

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