Suburban Fire Tactics: Prioritizing Functions and Developing Preferred Operating Methods

BY JAMES SILVERNAIL

The challenges of managing structure fires can be unique and regionally specific; however, all underlying themes are constant. Whether your organization is urban, suburban, or rural, the objectives of rescue, containment, confinement, and extinguishment are the same. What are different are the tactics undertaken to accomplish these objectives. For the majority of suburban-based operations, this means making the most out of what you have and prioritizing essential functions. One way to do this is to establish preferred operating methods (POMS), or suggested operating guidelines.

POMs should reflect the conditions that affect your agency’s ability to deliver desired tactics/strategies. These variables include available staffing, responding apparatus, and response-area characteristics. POMs should reflect the minimal staffing available, and tactics should be consistent with the staff’s abilities and training levels. When considering the apparatus variable, evaluate placement, availability, and apparatus type. Know the limitations and capabilities of the vehicles responding. It is typical for many suburban fire departments/districts not to staff dedicated truck companies. Booster tank sizes can also alter tactical decisions. Response-area characteristics include not only construction and occupancy type but also terrain, street conditions, and water main size/availability.

Our district’s POMs, or suggested operating guidelines, for structure fires are undergoing their first revision since 2005. In this time, both significant and slight changes have transpired districtwide. These changes included apparatus movement, staffing variations, new construction and commercial additions, and tactical considerations.

Our organization is similar to many agencies in the Midwest and suburbia. We operate five engine houses and multiple automatic-aid agreements to serve 57.5 square miles in St. Louis County. Operating under a “modified” quint concept, our equipment cache consists of engines, rescue/engines, and 75-foot quint aerials. Fireground functions are not assigned by apparatus type; however, they are nondiscriminantly assigned by arrival order.

Predetermined POMs are absolutely imperative for agencies operating without dedicated truck companies that rely solely on arrival order for functional assignments. POMs assist with consistency, efficiency, and safety. Deciding whether to call a company an engine or a truck company can be a complicated decision. A predetermined “playbook” will help eliminate this confusion and organize the fireground chaos. 

PRIORITIZING FUNCTIONS 

Begin prioritizing functions at the basic level. Answer the question “What are we trying to accomplish?” Fundamentally, the answer should be “save lives, protect property, and minimize impact to the environment.” Simply broken down, this can be accomplished by containing, confining, and extinguishing the hazard.

The most important priority of and basis for a fire organization’s existence is to save lives. Rescue is always the number-one consideration. However, tactically, the search and rescue function may not always be prioritized first. As controversial as this comment may be, it can be backed up with the following assumption: No action taken on the fireground saves more lives than the proper size attack line stretched to the correct location and placed into service at the proper time. Therefore, this can be asserted to be the first tactical priority/strategy. After establishing this strategy, analyze what tasks/tactics need to be performed, sometimes simultaneously, to achieve this goal.

There are some occasions where the first-due company may have to abandon deploying the first attack line and attempt a rescue. Examples of such rescues can include ladder rescues and, for properly trained companies, vent-enter-search (VES). VES is a tactic that assumes a higher level of risk and should be attempted only by trained, experienced firefighters. Keep in mind that when a crew delays fire attack, the company officer is “writing off” confining the fire and possibly giving up the structure to an advancing fire. Life always takes priority over property; however, if more than one occupant is in the structure, or if occupants’ whereabouts are unknown, this is a bad tactic. In suburbia, where a truck company may not be arriving simultaneously, a single crew should attempt a rescue only under the following conditions: (1) There is a minimal number of occupants (one or two); (2) the exact locations of the occupants are known; and (3) the fire may be so far advanced that a single attack line will not be effective, leaving rescue in viable areas as the only alternative (Table 1). Containing, confining, and extinguishing a fire obviously begin with having a handline of an adequate size in the correct location in a timely manner.

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Size-Up

This is the first function that must be undertaken. The size-up can cause you to win or lose the incident. Size-up can be as simple as the first-due officer’s getting a three-sided view and then conducting a 360° walk-around or as complicated as the first-due officer’s going to the alarm panel and sending the next-due up three flights of stairs. Access may also be locked, blocked, or nonexistent, necessitating forcible entry. 

Water Supply 

The first decision involves water supply. As the first-due unit, do you secure your own water supply? Your decision may be affected by variables such as the size of the booster tank, the immediate use of a master stream, and the timeliness of the second-arriving engine. Some tactics may dictate a forward lay, depending on hydrant placement and the immediate need for water. Consider building this into your POMs.

Once you know the location of the fire and have estimated its extent/volume, select the desired water flow rate (gallons per minute) and handline size. If staffing on your first-due unit consists of a chauffeur, an officer, and a nozzle firefighter, can you deploy a hoseline in an efficient, timely manner? What if it is a 2½-inch attack line stretch? If this is the case, consider combining the second-due crew with the first-in crew. Even a 1¾-inch handline stretch above- or below-grade is too much for a two-person team to handle. At minimum, there should be a nozzle firefighter, a backup, and an officer. Ideally, there should be a firefighter at every bend of the hose. The actions of the second-due officer are now critical. This first attack line must be “facilitated” into place before any other functions are attempted. Resist the urge to deploy a second line until the first has been established. Also, once the attack line has met the seat of the fire, members who assisted with placement can now begin search and rescue from the nozzle back. 

“Facilitate” the Interior Attack (Truck Company Operations) 

Certain fireground functions must transpire simultaneously to assist with the attack line. “Facilitating” can be translated as the suburban term for truck company operations. As stated in the previous paragraph, however, this may include helping to deploy and stretch the main attack line. If your apparatus is an engine, it may include securing a water supply.

Essential truck company operations that must be performed include ladders, overhaul, ventilation, entry (forcible), rescue (search), salvage, and utilities. The functions that facilitate the attack line the most will have priority unless there is a known rescue. Therefore, early-arriving companies (excluding the first due) will be assigned “fire floor” truck company functions. They include horizontal ventilation, search and rescue, further forcible entry, and locating fire (overhaul). The remaining functions can be split and assigned to later-arriving companies. Also consider above-fire searches, VES, and vertical ventilation. Keep in mind that splitting and prioritizing the truck duties will necessitate communication. Often, the secondary support functions, such as ladder placement and utility control, can be overlooked. Organizations that operate without dedicated truck companies have to have a system in place and have fireground discipline to ensure all essential support functions are complete. 

Secondary Line 

Once the main attack line has been placed, you must deploy a secondary line for backup or as a secondary attack line. If this line goes into operation as an attack line, you must consider placing a backup line. If the resources on your first-alarm assignment do not support a second operating handline, call for additional apparatus or alarms. Compliance with NFPA 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, 2010 edition, Ch. 5.2.3.2.2, dictates there be a backup line and a minimal 300-gpm capability between the main attack line and secondary line.

There is a very strong possibility that a second crew will be needed if the second line goes into operation, to support the line placement. A variable in this, once again, is personnel. 

Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) 

Finally, no fireground should be without a trained and competent RIT; it is an absolute must and is mandated by the NFPA standard. Members who staff this role must be well-trained and have the proper tools. Depending on the size of the structure, you may need to assign more than one RIT. The RIT officer should conduct a separate 360° size-up and consider throwing additional ground ladders for egress.

It has been argued that RIT be prioritized higher on the functional assignment list. Many agencies have detailed their most experienced and trained personnel to staff this role at every structure fire. Each organization should determine who is capable of staffing a RIT. Be careful: RIT should not be perceived as the safety “catch-all.” RIT is a “parachute” used to save members in peril. Fix the plane before it is broken. 

Key to Success: Avoid the Urban Trap 

The key to fireground success is prioritizing the essential tasks and having a plan. Whether that plan is detailed by a POM or an incident situation assignment, a framework should be in place. Many suburban fire departments/districts fall into the trap of attempting to accomplish too much with too little. Suburban companies cannot operate like urban, large-city companies because of staffing and resource limitations. Adjustments have to be made, and they must be representative of each organization. The objectives are the same, but the tactics and strategies must reflect individual prioritization. 

DEVELOPING POMs 

Customize POMs for your operations based on three main considerations:

1. response area,
2. available apparatus/resources, and
3. staffing/personnel.

The response area should be reflected in tactical decision making. There are different priorities to consider when differentiating between commercial vs. residential, high-rise vs. single-story structure, and older construction vs. lightweight/truss construction. 

Some Considerations

  • The availability of a water supply.
  • Available apparatus and resources: Do the units assigned to your first alarm adequately satisfy the functions necessary for a coordinated interior fire attack? What kind of apparatus will respond? Are any dedicated truck companies responding? If so, this changes the whole game plan. No longer are functions completely assigned by arrival order but also by division into direct suppression and support designations.
  • Fireground objectives: Many agencies use REVAS (Rescue, Evacuate, Ventilate, Attack, and Salvage) as a blanket priority statement to follow. Others choose to develop more detailed objectives, such as the following modified algorithm:
    1. To Save Lives:
    a. attack fire (locate, confine, contain),
    b. ventilate,
    c. search, and
    d. rescue.
    2. To Conserve Property:
    a. locate the fire,
    b. stop fire spread (contain and confine),
    c. attack and extinguish the fire, and
    d. ventilate.
    3. To Minimize Impact to Environment:
    a. confine and
    b. extinguish.

Divide Functions 

For reference purposes, use NFPA 1710, specifically section 5.2.3.2.2., and NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments. Efficiently and accurately divide all functions among assigned companies. It is vital to realize the minimal capabilities of each company. You can use a worksheet for this task (Figure 1).

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The main goal of a fire attack is to place water on the fire, extinguish the hazard, and save lives in the process. The first attack line constitutes the heart and soul of a coordinated fire attack. Emphasize accurately placing the correct size of attack line: As goes the first handline, so goes the fire. The initial handline’s attacking the fire and removing the hazard in a timely fashion is the safest approach for firefighters and occupants at a structure fire. Notice that I said the main goal is to remove the hazard and to save lives in the process, not to directly save lives. Saving lives is always our number-one consideration; however, this statement was purposely worded this way. In many instances when resources are scarce and there is not enough immediate staffing for rescue and fire attack, placing a line on the fire is the best approach to rescue.

Many functions have to take place, sometimes simultaneously, to facilitate and assist effective placement of this line. Some may look at these functions as inferior, but they are essential. Imagine trying to attempt to attack a fire without gaining access, locating the fire, or ventilating smoke and heat. One of the biggest challenges of the quint concept and “truckless” responses is to decide which arriving company will perform these support functions. Do you detail your second- or third-arriving unit? Do you detail more than one? That debatable answer is specific to the agency’s response area and resources and staffing available.

The best coordinated fire attack involves efficiently using all available resources safely. POMs can provide direction in consistently achieving this desired outcome. Keep in mind, however, that a POM is “preferred.” Every fire is different and may require adaptation. 

Add General Statements 

Once all functions have been assigned and each apparatus has an established list of guidelines, add general statements to the POMs. General statements assist in guaranteeing accuracy and the administration of generally accepted practices. For example, if the agency is operating under the quint concept, there should be a statement dictating that aerial devices get the front of the building and noting the limitations of the assigned apparatus. If your initial first-alarm POMs are intended to support only one attack line and one backup line, the guidelines should note that the assignment be increased when necessary. 

IMPLEMENTATION 

Implementation is just as important as development. Command staff members must embrace and accept the policy by formally adopting the document and adhering to it. Once this occurs, all members, as well as automatic and mutual-aid companies, must be familiar with the POMs.

Training is the most important aspect of the implementation. Training can be accomplished with formal presentations, tabletop exercises, and practical evolutions. The orientation aspect, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ongoing training schedules should reflect truck and engine company activities for agencies operating when functions are dictated by order and without assigned truck companies. Companies under this system have double the duty and should be familiar not only with stretching and operating handlines but also with essential truck company functions, such as forcible entry techniques, ladder raises, ventilation, and search and rescue.

Another important aspect is discipline, which should be practiced and enforced. Each member should be taught that support functions are just as important as stretching a line and directly extinguishing a fire (although they may not be as “glorious”). Just because the assigned apparatus has hose and a pump doesn’t mean that the company has to deploy it. A single residential structure fire doesn’t always require three attack lines.

Finally, enforce preestablished riding and tool assignments for all companies. This can become confusing for companies that might have to operate as either a truck or an engine. To facilitate this, have an assignment board in your engine house with two columns: Truck Assignments and Engine Assignments (photo 1).

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(1) Assignment board. (Photo by author.)

 

REEVALUATE AND REVISE 

No system is completely flawless; it should be reevaluated periodically. Chief and company officers should keep track of which aspects work and which need improvement. Response areas, available resources, and staffing all can change; therefore, your POMs must also be dynamic.

POMs are tools to help firefighters develop a game plan during emergency situations. They organize the chaos, manage resources efficiently, and increase responder safety. The key concept is that POMs should be customized for each agency’s capabilities and challenges. What works in Manhattan will not always work in suburban Missouri.

James Silvernail will present “Suburban Fire Tactics” at FDIC 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday, March 25, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m.

JAMES SILVERNAIL, a 14-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain and training officer for the Metro-West Fire Protection District of St. Louis County, Missouri. He instructs for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and the National Fire Academy, is a member of MO-TF1 (FEMA USAR), and has a master’s degree.

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