STRATEGY IS NOT A STAND-ALONE CONCEPT

BY TOM BRENNAN

I reserved this space in this magazine 20 years ago to hang out with you and “shoot the breeze” about one predominant subject, operations-responding to, operating at, and (most important) returning from fires and other related emergencies threatening our core of service: to protect the lives, property, and environment of those we promised to serve.

I always add that we must accomplish this in the most successful, competent, result-oriented, aggressive, timely manner, and as safely as possible. I always try to put a spin on basic information that will help us accomplish the goals listed above (especially the last one). Our fire service always cycles the need for dialogue like this and (just like the reasons for studying history) recycles it more and more frequently. Such is the case with understanding the importance of and accomplishing tactics on the fireground. There are a lot of reasons this concept gets clouded over; most of them today are social/economic driven.

What?

Because of the lack of personnel (staffing), we have begun to focus strictly on the strategic concept of all we have spoken of so far on this page. We are told that success on the fireground is ensured (positive and negative), that firefighter records of injuries and deaths (negative and positive), and all else are directly related to a specific designee’s (senior officer on arrival) making strategic decisions as soon as possible on the fireground and then controlling and supporting that strategy by assigning tasks by communication to each and every logistic (staffing included) arriving in the order of the competence, imagination, experience, leadership, aggressiveness, and management capabilities of the initial decision maker.

Close, but “no cigar.”

The term “tactic” has gone through an attempted name change to “task.” This is because we no longer perform operations in an interrelated fashion and, therefore, delay or eliminate the synergistic benefit of the relationship of tactic(s) to strategy.

To find a structure fire on arrival that can be mitigated only by a defensive strategy from arrival is a rare occurrence-at least for my thousands of events. Mostly, we train and plan for response and begin to operate on arrival as if the choice of strategy were offensive and the plan for the firefight were to “work from inside out.” There is, however, a middle-road strategy that is more commonly found, though not logistically commanded well. That “thinking man’s” strategy depends on rapidly applied tentative tactics of size-up, entry, ventilation, handline stretch, alternate entry, search (location, intensity, amount, and controllability of the fire condition, and life threat to firefighters and others).

All of us today should have no trouble deciding at the onset of a fully involved structure fire in which the chance of survivability for any human is zero that the strategy is and will remain defensive and that incoming tactics will be ordered to support that.

But what of the structures that are not so obviously “fully involved”? An advancing and growing fire condition within an enclosed structure is always an ugly event on arrival. Experience tells us that initial ventilation, a great entry point, and an effective and operational handline stretch can change conditions almost immediately.

To produce this outcome (or failure for that matter), the tactics mentioned have to be understood and practiced, set up as tentative operating procedures in the hands of a company officer, and performed basically all at once to the point that the intended positive result is not able to be gained and cannot support the strategy; therefore, it must be changed.

In this case, the strategy chosen-offensive-must be supported (tried) by rapidly applied interior firefighting tactics. A first-arriving officer cannot choose the strategy arbitrarily and then apply tactics as responders “trickle in.” If that is the case, most of our endeavors will usually become defensive after some time, and at a great cost. Sound familiar?

We in the fire service have such a ying/yang of leadership, management, and operations at fire scenes in our areas when it comes to smooth operations at structure fires.

We have junior officers deciding to “write off” large commercial enclosures on their first-arriving report before water is even started and its supply ensured and the fire located. This may truly be a great call initially, but it must be judged by the arriving supports’ tactical ability or inability to make a difference in what we think we see on arrival and what it becomes after a few moments of offensive tactical support.

Conversely and sorrowfully, we have records of events wherein top-line response management employed the tactic of search and rescue/removal in place within the structure without the support of handline operations and ventilation-not to mention alternate entry and exits-to yield the disastrous results of firefighter death and injury and the collapse of order on the fireground.

In the “old days,” tactical folks had no idea of what a strategy was and were never told their “play” in the choice made by command. A mistake!

Today, the reverse is coming to the fore in that the strategy is chosen by someone on arrival; but it is possible that an orderly and early application of tactics can possibly improve conditions so that the strategy can indeed be changed to one that is positive, is effective, and results in less devastation.

In short, we change strategy because offensive tactics fail to make a difference from offensive to defensive, but we are leaning toward an unchangeable early decision of a defensive strategy. We must always consider that a defensive strategy can be converted to offensive by more experienced leaders by the synergistic results of offensive tactics applied “all at once.”

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