Residential Fire Tactics


Private dwelling fires are the most common structure fires that occur throughout the United States and Canada. More than 2,500 civilians die in residential fires each year. Historically, more than 75 percent of these civilian fire deaths occur in private dwellings. In addition, about 47 percent of firefighter combat deaths occur in these residential structures.

It is no secret that the fire environment in these structures has changed in the past 30 years. Buildings are made to be more energy efficient, and their structural members are being made lighter and cheaper. These lightweight “engineered” structural members are prone to collapse after just a few minutes of fire involvement. Fuel loads have changed; with just one upholstered chair and some other ordinary room contents, a room can be brought to flashover.

Some say that fires are burning hotter. This may not be true; the furnishings actually have a higher heat release rate and can lead to quicker increases in temperature and flashover. The plastic and foam used in today’s furniture are, in essence, frozen flammable liquids just waiting for enough heat to release vapors and burn. These changes, along with the open staircases and larger open floor plans with vaulted or cathedral ceilings, can make fire spread quickly and can make early collapse more probable than in years past.

(1) There's more to fireground tactics than fire attack. (Photo by Ray Kline.)
(1) There’s more to fireground tactics than fire attack. (Photo by Ray Kline.)

All fireground tactics such as fire attack, search, and ventilation must be coordinated through Command. Be aware that, although they are separate tasks, they have a tremendous impact on each other. For example, if the engine contains or extinguishes the fire, search becomes much simpler. Do not delay putting water on the fire to complete other tasks. As many great fire service leaders have said, “Put the fire out, and most of the other problems go away.” Engine company operations or putting water on the fire may be the most basic of our functions, but it cannot be all for which we plan and train. If your only initial tactic is fire attack (with search and ventilation as a second tactic), you are probably creating a lot of empty lots and placing members in undo jeopardy.

The same can be said for ventilation; if done correctly and timed right, it will make search and fire attack more efficient and, more importantly, safer for the crews operating on the interior. If not coordinated with fire attack or done in the wrong place, improper ventilation could unintentionally draw fire onto the interior crews, making conditions completely untenable for the engine and search teams. At a minimum, this action will make you fail in your mission and lose the structure; at its worst, you could fail to save a viable victim or could lose a firefighter. A recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of more than 400 line-of-duty deaths determined that 87 percent of those deaths happened with no or improper ventilation. The same study concluded that many of today’s fires are oxygen limited, not fuel limited as in the past. It also warned that making entry to stretch lines or search should always be considered ventilation and that you must be prepared for the fire’s reaction to this, good or bad! Command cannot treat ventilation as an afterthought; it must be part of the overall plan.

(2) Ventilation must be part of the plan. (Photo by Johnny Knotts Rainey.)
(2) Ventilation must be part of the plan. (Photo by Johnny Knotts Rainey.)

Although search should be fluid in nature, it cannot be performed independently of fire attack and ventilation. Search crews without hoselines must ensure that all fireground personnel know where they are operating. Crews must be assigned to search by geographic areas, not simply assigned to “search” the dwelling. For example, Command should state, “Truck 1, search the second floor.” The reports back to command must reference the same: “Command from Truck 1, primary search of the second floor complete and negative.” The crew should then wait for reassignment or report to rehab/staging. They must not go on to search another area on their own. This does not aid Command with accountability and may duplicate efforts. When you search, you are looking for windows, victims, doors, and other clues to orient yourself within the structure; in essence, you are mentally mapping the home. Update Command on your progress with frequent status reports.

When deciding whether to vent a window, know if the line is in place or if you can compartmentalize the search area by closing doors—all this while managing your air and checking for changing conditions. If you vent a window when the door is closed, the room will lift quickly, increasing visibility while decreasing heat, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide. This should have no negative effect on fire conditions and will speed up your search, making it safer for you and any victims in that room.

The attack and extinguishment of a residential fire may be the most complex, interdependent, and time-sensitive set of tasks found in any job. Therefore, these tasks must be coordinated and controlled through Command to ensure all fireground personnel are operating on the same page. All companies must be cognizant of where other companies are operating and what actions they are performing. Command is to fire attack, ventilation, and search on the fireground as the conductor is to the woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion of an orchestra. Although all are equally important to the score, they are nothing if they do not work together and in unison. This orchestration is Command’s responsibility. Many of these operations can be arranged ahead of time through good standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines. You can have assignments for the first- and second-due units, which will free Command to work on the action plan; they will know what should happen based on those SOPs.

(3) The fire scene's
(3) The fire scene’s “conductor.” [Photo courtesy of the East Haven (CT) Fire Department.]

For example, the first-in engine will stretch the attack line, protect the means of egress, and attack the fire. The second engine will supply water and stretch the backup line. The first-due truck can be assigned the roof and outside ventilation while the second-due truck is assigned search or vice versa. Any deviation from these SOPs must be radioed to Command; make sure all fireground personnel are aware that you are operating outside the norm. The bottom line is to keep firefighters safe and to have a successful conclusion to the incident. Command must be aware of everything happening on the fireground.

Remember, the same tactics must occur whether the residence is in a big urban paid district, a medium-sized suburban combination district, or a small remote rural volunteer district. If only you arrive on an engine and you have no truck, ventilation and search must still be done and someone has to be in command. Your engine carries ladders and tools; use them! Don’t leave them in the compartments.

Most departments are not getting enough work to improve at coordinating these skills, so you must practice and train repeatedly. Officers and firefighters should take classes at the local or state academy and go to seminars like the FDIC. There are many excellent training opportunities throughout the country. It is your responsibility to continuously improve your knowledge skills and abilities. You owe it to your fellow firefighters and to your families.

JIM DUFFY is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran. He has been a career firefighter for 20 years and has served as shift commander and public information officer for the Wallingford (CT) Fire Department since 2000. He was also a captain with the Mineola (NY) Fire Deparment. Duffy co-hosts “Fireground Strategies and Other Stuff from the Street” with Anthony Avillo on Fire Engineering Talk Radio. He is a nationally certified fire instructor and lectures throughout Connecticut and New York on a variety of firefighting subjects. Duffy is also an adjunct instructor for Middlesex County (CT) Regional Fire School.

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