Scenarios: An Offensive or Defensive Attack?

By Daniel P. Sheridan


You are still in your car, about three minutes away from this incident when you receive a report from your first-in engine company that it is on the scene of a working fire on the top floor of a three-story wood-frame vacant building. What is the decision process for this incident? Do you wait until you are on scene to make a decision about the initial attack? What are some of the factors that go in to this decision?

Without even seeing the situation, you must immediately try to draw a mental picture of the scene. Your brain will search its memory bank to see if there have been any other similar incidents on which it can draw. After ascertaining if there is a file, you will begin the decision-making process. All the while, you will be listening to the radio for any more pertinent information that will assist you in formulating a plan. Getting good information is vital to making the right decision. Similar to a computer you need good data that is relevant and factual.

While you are going through the decision process, you need to find out four important pieces of information about the present situation, which follow:

  1. What is the structural stability of the building?
  2. Is there any known life hazard?
  3. Size and location of the fire.
  4. Verification of safe access to the fire area.

As you draw nearer to the scene, you now can see the night sky lit up a bright orange and hear reports on the fireground radio that the units are experiencing low water pressure. You arrive to the front of the building and see that the whole top floor is involved.  Your ladder companies are working to remove the plywood coverings on the front door and the windows on the first floor. The building is locked up tight and it seems doubtful that there is any life hazard here. It is reputed to be a “shooting gallery” for the local drug abusers, but there is no one around to verify if anyone is inside. Low probability and high-risk, you decide to pull the units back and switch to a defensive operation.

Now that you have decided to employ an exterior attack using tower ladders, you order your first-in ladder company—an aerial device—to back out of the block to make room for a second tower ladder. It is generally good practice that if you expect you may need to use a master stream, such as for a fire in a strip mall or warehouse, you must make accommodations in front of the building for that device. In this case, there was a tower ladder on the first alarm and a second tower ladder was special called to cover the B side. Your focus now becomes the exposures.



At this incident, the building (exposure B) was a one-story 100- × 100-foot auto body shop; a 100-foot × 100-foot two-story warehouse (exposure C ); and a three-story, occupied, wood-frame multiple dwelling (exposure D) separated by a 20-foot alley. The wind was blowing from the northwest, which meant the fire was blowing toward the multiple dwelling. Embers from the fire were raining down on the rooftop of the warehouse in the rear.

What is your strategy, and what tactics would you employ to see your strategy become successful? First and foremost, a second or even third alarm would be in order based on your department’s staffing levels. When planning your strategy, think about your very basic 13-point size-up. The acronym COAL WAS WEALTH is an easy way to remember the points:

  • Construction: Wood Frame.
  • Occupancy: Vacant.
  • Area: 25 × 75.
  • Life: Low Probability.
  • Water Supply: Low Pressure.
  • Apparatus: 4 engines, 2 Trucks, Rescue, Squad, Rapid Intervention Team (initial alarm).
  • Street Conditions: Overhead Wires in front of building.
  • Weather: Cold enough to turn water into ice.
  • Exposures: B—Body Shop, C—Warehouse, D—Multiple Dwelling.
  • Auxiliary Appliances: N/A
  • Location: Top floor and cockloft.
  • Time: 0200 hours.
  • Height: Three stories.

When given a situation such as this, it is good practice to consider the most important factor at the incident—life—not where the fire is most likely to spread. In this instance, the priority is to protect the multiple dwelling; it just so happened to turn out that it was the most severely exposed building as well.  The tower ladder was set up on the D side to serve two purposes: 1) Protect exposure D, and 2) Extinguish the fire.

It is important to remember that when using a master stream such as a tower ladder (or if your department doesn’t have a tower ladder and only an aerial device) to get the stream into the top floor windows and drive the stream up into the cockloft. The idea is to drive the stream upwards and get it to bounce off the ceilings to get as much of the water on the fire as possible. If multiple floors are involved, start low and work upward. It does no good to raise the nozzle above the roof and shoot the stream downward. The roof is designed to keep water out of the building and, until the fire burns through the roof, you won’t be extinguishing any fire.

Another consideration when using a master stream is to have someone monitor water runoff. A master stream will pour tons of water into a building. If the building has a lot of stock, there is a possibility that the stock is absorbing the water. At eight pounds a gallon, that will add a lot of weight to a structure. If a master stream has been in use and the incident commander decides to switch back to an interior attack, YOU MUST CONSIDER THIS.

After getting the first tower ladder into operation, you now must decide where to place the second master stream. In this instance, it was decided that exposure C was the next priority, based on the wind condition. The third tower ladder was special called on the second alarm and placed on the B side. Since the fire was above exposure B and the wind was blowing the other way, it became a nonissue. After all the apparatus is in place and operating, it just becomes a waiting game until the fire is extinguished.

Deciding to switch to an exterior defensive attack at times can be very unpopular. I remember one fire in the same exact type building with which I was involved about 25 years ago. I was assigned to a tower ladder at the time. We started getting ready to force entry into the front door, which was blocked up with plywood. The chief arrived on scene and told us to stop forcing entry and set up the tower ladder. We were not happy; we wanted to go in because our senior man was working his last tour and was hoping he could have the nozzle one last time. We reluctantly set up the bucket and proceeded to extinguish the fire. After the fire was knocked down, we shut down the line and started overhauling the cornice to get at the hidden pockets of fire. I noticed the bucket move and I said to my partner, “Why did you move the bucket?” He gave me a very puzzled look; it was then that we realized that the building just collapsed.

It goes without saying that there would have been some serious injuries had we gone in. That event has been stored in my memory bank, and I shutter to think about what could have happened that night. Now, some 25 years later, I am the guy wearing the white hat, and it is my responsibility that everyone goes home safe. That building turned out to be empty and was knocked down two days later, some developer, I am sure, will grab that valuable piece of property and put a new modern apartment house there in no time.

(Photos by author.)


Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief assigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for



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