P3 ~ Strategy and Tactics: Changing Our Center of Gravity

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The Aggressive Offensive Attack

The aggressive fire attack is what the American fire service is known for worldwide, in addition to our line-of-duty injuries and deaths. The American firefighter has been trained to take pride in the aggressive firefighting tradition and in winning at every incident. Because of our aggressive actions in such a fast-paced, dynamic, and unpredictable environment, we often move into harm’s way because of insufficient risk assessment at structural fires. Locating fires within structures and searching and advancing lines in low- to near-zero visibility take their toll eventually and expose every fire department to that tragic day of the loss of one of their own (photo 4).

(4) Fire companies take an aggressive offensive posture here, committing to an interior attack with minimal ventilation.
(4) Fire companies take an aggressive offensive posture here, committing to an interior attack with minimal ventilation.

We proudly and willingly commit our strategies and tactics to the interior firefight. Improper size-up, low to near zero visibility, mistaken fire location, and underestimated fire size will defeat our efforts unless we again address The Fire Doctrine, the four main principles that determine whether we go offensive.

The Fire Doctrine

  • Firefighters are committed to interior offensive firefighting only if absolutely necessary.
  • Not acting presents a compelling risk.
  • We must have and apply an overwhelming force to engage and prevail over the fire.
  • We must have an exit strategy within all areas of the fireground for firefighters.

In going offensive, we should incorporate sound action plans that will provide us with a win/win outcome. The ability to get to the seat of the fire and improve visibility for our members is paramount to saving lives and property and bringing our members back to quarters after every fire.

If considering operating and advancing to the interior, our strategy should be to achieve good visibility and to relieve high heat conditions. First-in officers should communicate to all on arrival of their decision to commit to an interior firefight. This commitment should be based on their belief that with the present resources, the fire’s dynamic, and the need for civilian rescues, the odds are in everyone’s favor. As long as there is little confusion and we apply clear, relevant tactics to the fire’s location, growth, and probable extinguishment, the aggressive offensive attack is forthright.

The transitional moment begins when fire companies arrive and commit to offensive procedures from the outside before entering the front door. Things can change, and quickly, as we proceed with our aggressive offensive postures. Sometimes, that is unavoidable, but those deciding to go forward should be aware of this possibility and have a planned exit strategy. When conditions warrant and it is easier to approach the seat of the fire or a search for victims because of improved heat conditions and visibility, we will accomplish our goals. Such conditions are usually more likely to be present early at a structural fire than later, after fire and smoke take over the structure more and more. So the obvious mentality we should adopt, from when we go out the door to when we arrive, is that these early conditions are rarely present.

As we proceed to the offensive aggressive attack, we are more and more exposed to the hazards of a fuel-filled environment, which is always advancing just as we are advancing into it. A quick and decisive knockdown is the only way to come out of such aggressive actions. Also, a quick and decisive knockdown will probably save more lives than an attack delayed because of misread or overwhelming conditions.

The offensive aggressive attack truly begins the minute we enter the door to an IDLH environment. Everything before that point is merely an announcement of our intent to go interior. As long as we remain alert before the final advance past that front door, we can change or alter our first decision (hitting a fire from the exterior) and then still mount an aggressive campaign to go interior. In short, keep a defensive approach in mind until the offensive approach becomes viable. Many solid considerations still allow us to be aggressive and proceed with the offensive interior attack, but keep in mind a quick transitional posture. This all occurs on the outside first, even though we want to go inside or know we can go inside and prevail.

All we need to set this mentality in motion is to conduct a focused 360° size-up of the structure and the situation. The following conditions revealed in the 360° size-up determine whether we hold on to our aggressive stance and take extreme risks at a given structure fire:

  • Is there visible rescue required?
  • Is there fire present that will affect rescues or diminish occupant survivability?
  • Is the structure still strong?
  • Can we provide effective ventilation for interior firefighting and increase occupant survivability?
  • Will environmental concerns such as severe weather and wind delay or accelerate fire growth?
  • Can we provide a more aggressive exterior attack before we transition to the interior attack for better survival of occupants and firefighters?

If we observe carefully and act with these considerations in mind, we will increase the overall survivability of our firefighters and the interior occupants. If we want to control the fire and increase the visibility by providing quick extinguishment and life rescue, we should consider these parameters. When we don’t and enter blindly and aggressively into these environments, we end up on our hands and knees in high heat conditions, often unable to get to the seat of the fire or to occupants in need of rescue.

An aggressive offensive attack does not necessarily always have to beat the living daylights out of us to make it a good fire, just so we can say we slayed the beast—but, more importantly, it should be that we did not ignorantly expose ourselves in losing our lives.

Part of the aggressive offensive interior attack mindset should be that when heavy fire is showing or present on the interior on arrival, we initiate attack from the exterior with the assumption that we will then quickly move to the interior advance tactic. Consider this an offensive approach since the intent is to ultimately fight the fire on the interior for complete extinguishment. With the exterior fast water application, we are indirectly reducing the volume of fire and reducing the temperatures that increase the rate of heat rise to help diffuse flashover conditions. Also, it will often improve smoke conditions. This, coupled with coordinated ventilation procedures, guarantees a winning combination and the safety of occupants and firefighters. This essential concept of quick exterior to interior firefighting also helps reduce the risks associated with interior firefighting (e.g., confusion, prolonged zero visibility) that can lead to the loss of situational awareness and eventual disorientation.

The aggressive offensive posture taken at structural fires is many times anything but aggressive when searching for fire or victims. When we enter a world that impairs our senses, especially our ability to see, our aggressive campaign becomes slowed and questionable. We may call our strategy or tactic offensive and consider these actions part of the offensive procedure, but we need to fully realize that we should be on the defensive when pursuing these actions on the interior. If low visibility, high heat conditions, or both slow the engine company, personnel may not find the fire quickly or the fire may come to them with overwhelming force. Blind searches in near zero visibility also reduce and slow the interior aggressive posture of the offensive action. The relationship of the aggressive offensive fire and rescue posture correlates with the fire and its aggressive speed in taking over.

Firefighters rarely perceive the passing of time when advancing, searching, and getting to the seat of the fire. This also depends on the structure’s complexity, its compartmentalization, and floor plan. Inside, we completely focus our thoughts and energies on interior operations as conditions worsen, which increases the potential for us to lose our way and our situational awareness. Loss of visibility and the misperception of time are among the most prominent causes of firefighter fatalities.

The following conditions usually precede firefighter fatalities in interior firefighting:

  • Initiating aggressive interior actions without proper size-up.
  • Interior disorientation.
  • Separation from advancing hoselines.
  • Discerning egress off multiple lines.
  • Separation from company members.
  • Accelerated diminished air supply.
  • Falling debris and collapse.

Without question, the decision to assume the aggressive offensive interior posture comes down to firefighters’ abilities to conduct proper size-ups, recognize prolonged zero visibility, and know when to apply an exterior to interior application of containment when necessary.

Additional Links

Firefighter Training Bulletin: Size-Up

Training Days: Fire Location and Nozzle Evolution

Use Size-Up for Better Decision Making

MIKE MASON is a retired 31-year fire service veteran. He was a lieutenant with the Downer’s Grove (IL) Fire Department, assigned to Truck 2/Squad 2. He is a certified instructor III and fire officer II and has an associate degree in fire science and master’s certificates in strategic and organizational leadership from several universities. Mason is the director of and an instructor with RicoFireRescue Inc.

Mike Mason will present “The Strategic and Tactical Battleground for Survival” on Friday, April 24, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC International in Indianapolis.

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