Surviving the Fireground


Firefighters are faced with an ever-changing and dynamic fireground at structural fires. This has made it vitally important to understand what it means to have situational awareness at these incidents: knowing that personal and high-risk aggressive firefighting could lead to injuries and death and that the rules of engagement for a given situation are components of situational awareness. The term “situational awareness” has long been used within the military and, most recently, within the fire service as a concept that enables soldiers and firefighters to make the necessary rapid decisions under extreme stress.

A mental mindset for establishing situational awareness would be firefighters’ perceiving elements in the fireground environment that are evolving through space and time, comprehending their meaning, and evaluating their status at the moment and estimating their status in the next moment-in other words, the firefighter must be able to read the physical environment he is presently in from moment to moment. The actions of other firefighters in a given situation must also be clearly understood with regard to their movements, the purposes of their assignments and tasks, and their relevance to the overall objective.

Firefighters’ ability to maintain situational awareness on the fireground can differ dramatically; this can affect their functional capabilities in complex, fast-paced environments. Being able to have accurate, real-time information of the fireground’s dynamics will provide a more relevant and accurate view of the “battlefield,” as it does in military campaigns.

To make good decisions on the fireground, firefighters must obtain an accurate assessment of a given situation to prepare to make split-second decisions that can save lives (theirs included) and property. The accurate assessment will enable them to recognize a plausible course of action as a first effective safe choice in an environment controlled by time constraints, changing conditions, physical demands, and mental stress. Usually, when good decision making and solid situational awareness are present, the first choice of action is better than a second choice or a change in decision.

Individual firefighters or teams of firefighters involved in aggressive firefighting tasks, such as interior fire attacks or civilian searches, are incorporating situational awareness and decision making in split-second timing while incident commanders are overseeing and preparing the overall course of action. Firefighters are required to make decisions quickly in a firefight. Commanders must juggle large amounts of incoming information and develop a model situation; this results in a slightly slower decision-making process. This is the reason firefighters and their officers on the fire line should be skilled decision makers with sound situational awareness. The first course of action taken by a firefighter using situational awareness in his decision-making process can set the tone for the incident’s success or failure.

Gaining superior skills in situational awareness and decision making comes from experiences that reference previous assessments of given situations that help us perceive probable successful outcomes. Also, fireground experiences need to be critiqued after each incident so that all the actions, positive and negative, that occurred at the incident can enhance situational awareness and the decision-making process for future similar incidents.

Training is another important tool in acquiring situational awareness and sound decision making. Experience gained through repeated training is invaluable, and providing this training is one of the fire department’s most important responsibilities.

Situational awareness, along with risk assessment analysis, is comprised of key elements such as building construction, incident command, risk management, and fireground safety. When situational awareness and risk assessment are lacking, firefighter injuries and deaths often result.


Following are some of the factors and deficiencies that influence situational awareness and risk assessment:

  • Lack of knowledge of incident scene information, events, and personal actions.
  • Implementing negative actions that affect operational goals in the present and future states.
  • Poor communications, interrupted information, and a poor decision-making process.
  • Command and company officers failing to use dynamic risk assessment in changing environments.
  • Continued conflicting incident priorities-demands outweigh resources.
  • Lack of effective informed decisions throughout the duration of the incident.
  • Lack of understanding of the structure, the occupancy type, and the changing fire conditions within the structure.

As you can see from the above criteria, commanders and company officers must look at the incident with the same concerns and priorities to ensure accurate communication of the conditions and implementation of actions that will provide a battle plan to mitigate the incident and ensure the safety of those on the fireground. Achieving these high levels of competencies and, more importantly, experience take discipline through continued training. Everyone must be engaged in vigilant situational awareness and evaluation of the risk consequences from moment to moment.


Commanders and firefighters on the fireground must do the following to achieve full situational awareness:

  • Be alert to all changing conditions.
  • Be alert to all escalating fireground factors.
  • Quickly identify and understand the fire’s dynamics in compartmentalized structures, and take the appropriate actions.
  • Observe your environmental surroundings.
  • Consider the possible consequences and reactions of the structure to its construction and makeup.
  • Monitor the fire’s development and its effects on the structure’s interior and on the structural shell.
  • Keep in mind your personal safety and that of your team members.
  • Maintain the highest mental awareness at all times.

On the fireground, a firefighter can be confronted with a threat from any direction. Be aware of the numerous potential threats at structural fires. Think of the fireground as action areas that are occurring at different times, presenting varying degrees of potential threats that may cause injury or death as well as result in Maydays. If you think of yourself as working on the fireground within a boxed area that can be assaulted with threats coming in from its sides and above and below, you can see how important it is for firefighters to have situational awareness and to avoid tunnel vision. Not only should the firefighter be aware of his presence and purpose within the immediate box, but he should also realize and attempt to establish situational awareness regarding his relationship to the entire fireground operational areas-in other words, the big picture. Consider these questions: How is the structure reacting to the task and assignments and the seat of the fire? Is progress being made with the tasks and assignments in relation to the seat of the fire? Is communication on portable radios flowing clearly with accountability?

Fire departments and firefighters need to establish good foundational training in situational awareness by examining the elements and building blocks of self-awareness and potential threats on the fireground. Helping firefighters through mental and physical training to perceive and understand these threats is essential to recognizing the hazards’ potential effects not only on them but also their team members and the entire fireground.


Low-frequency, high-risk structural fires affect a firefighter’s ability to maintain situational awareness. Every fire should be considered a high-risk event, but when the fires do not occur frequently, the likelihood that situational awareness will be lost increases because of the experience deficits in perception, understanding, judgment, and the ability to predict future events. When you don’t perform your craft often enough, you can’t analyze and compare one event to another, which may create incompetencies that could create unfocused actions. Training is the only way to make up for the response to low-frequency events that involve high-risk actions. To effectively train firefighters to develop the necessary instincts for situational awareness, training programs should encompass the following training areas:

  • Fire behavior at structural fires.
  • Building construction.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Tactics and fireground operating procedures.
  • Reality-based scenario and hands-on training.
  • Fireground communications.
  • Team-based coordinated actions.
  • Shared experiences.

The key concept involved with training firefighters is sound team coordination when performing tasks within the fireground action areas, which will increase situational awareness. Team members and their commanders must also be able to see, hear, communicate, and evaluate in their entirety applied strategies from one company to the next, to the overall operation, and their progress and imposing threats.


Firefighter disorientation is often attributed to the loss of situational awareness. It should not necessarily be associated with a deficit in situational awareness. They are separate components that feed into each other. The loss of situational awareness can lead a firefighter into a state of disorientation, and the longer you are in a state of disorientation, situational awareness progressively decreases. You can help prevent firefighter disorientation at structural fires by training in the following areas:

  • Structural features. Identify the type of structure; its age; the design features; the number of windows and doors in relation to the structure’s size; and any basements, irregular hallways, irregular exterior walls, multiple floors, and multiple additions.
  • Fire conditions. Check them on arrival and during operations. Look for smoke and fire conditions that increase the potential for disorientation and prolonged zero visibility, flashovers, backdrafts, rollovers, and sudden and violent changes.
  • Tactics and strategies. They include aggressive interior attacks, searching above and below fires, searching without hoseline advancements, searching in prolonged zero visibility, and unrecognized strategy changes by members.
  • Interior actions. They include members separated or working alone and separated from handlines, loss of water in handlines, inability to move handlines or moving them slowly, primary searches with sudden zero visibility, sudden rollovers or flashovers, falling down stairs, falling through floors, collapse of floors or roofs, inability to identify and locate multiple handlines through the structure during evacuation, sudden evacuations, fire officers separated from their members, stairwell confusion, and unmonitored air consumption.

We can see from the above that disorientation within structures during aggressive firefighting can happen in any type of structure. The potential of disorientation at structural fires involves three prominent features:

1 Is the structure open? Does the structure provide for adequate ventilation and have adequate points of egress? For a structure to be considered open, it should have multiple windows and doors within reasonable distances to each other. Residential structures usually provide for adequate openings, whereas industrial or commercial structures may provide limited openings within unreasonable distances.

2 Is the structure enclosed? Many structures should be considered enclosed. Structures with the absence of doors and windows or the presence of only a few should be considered closed, as should structures of inadequate size for ventilation, egress, or sudden evacuations.

3 Is zero visibility present? Zero visibility can be present on arrival or can occur at any time throughout the incident. Members should be aware of prolonged zero visibility when it occurs. It should be a warning sign that possible low-air alarm issues could arise because of the limited amount of working air time firefighters have. It is extremely dangerous when disorientation occurs to members within a structure with prolonged zero visibility if they have not been monitoring their air supply. Early evacuation of the structure prior to the activation of low-air alarms should be part of fire departments’ fireground procedures.

By reviewing the above listed principles, fire departments can help first-in officers make decisions by establishing a short standard operating guideline that would enable them to recognize the potential for a disorientation problem at structural fires incorporating offensive strategies. The first-in officer’s initial size-up is probably the first hint that offensive strategies at enclosed structural fires could present disorientation problems. Once members cross the immediately dangerous to life or health environments into near zero visibility, especially with inadequate ventilation, conducting primary searches in these conditions could escalate disorientation while the advances for both tactics are attempted.

The following structural types contribute to disorientation (there is no “safe” structural type when it comes to disorientation):

  • enclosed structures, small or large;
  • enclosed structures with basements;
  • opened structures above grade but enclosed below grade;
  • high-rise structures involving compromised stairwells;
  • high-rise and multidwellings involving compromised hallways; and
  • opened or closed structures that produce near-flashover events.

The use of thermal imaging cameras by commanding officers assists in more accurately assessing the structure’s interior for the potential for disorientation before fully committing firefighters on advancing lines to conduct primary searches off of hoselines or through vent-enter-search procedures. It is also crucial that once a decision is made to commit to advancing in interior fires that backup crews with an established water supply and a secondary hoseline be used. When necessary, consider using additional areas from other directions when attacking fires with backup hoselines from other companies, always avoiding the potential for opposing streams.

The longer the distance to the seat of the fire by advancing hoselines increases, the greater the risk that enclosed and even open structures will produce heavy smoke, raising the threshold potential for interior members to become disoriented. Sometimes concentrating on advancing to the fire through the shortest distance may be more of an advantage than following the usual premise of attacking from the unburned side. Hoselines advancing into zero visibility to the seat of a fire by the shortest distance increase the safety of interior members, but we should always weigh the outcomes of the civilian potentials for rescue or recoveries affected by this action. Attacking fires from the shortest distances allows firefighters to more safely manage their air supply.

MIKE MASON is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Downer’s Grove (IL) Fire Department, assigned to Truck 1/Squad 1. He is a certified instructor III and fire officer II. He has an associate degree in fire science and master’s certificates in strategic and organizational leadership from several universities. He is a senior staff instructor as well as the director and founder of the not-for-profit RICOFIRERESCUE INC. He also instructs for the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, the Downers Grove Fire Academy, the Chicago Fire Academy, the Romeoville Fire Academy, and John Wood Community College.

Mike Mason will present “Surviving the Fireground” on Friday, April 26, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC 2013 in Indianapolis.

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