It is a fairly common occurrence: The interior attack lines have been ordered outside. The big guns had previously been placed to protect the exposures. Soon, you are flowing thousands of gallons per minute via master streams. You have been forced to change from an aggressive attack on the seat of the fire to a less satisfying but sometimes necessary defensive (surround and drown) operation.

The fireground is a dynamic place. It is important that you try to keep a couple of steps ahead of the red devil and that you make your countermoves in a timely manner. Staying with a failed tactic too long is as bad as not giving an approach a chance to work. One of the most important decisions made on the fireground is that of switching the strategic goal from an offensive operation to a defensive one.

Such a change may, of course, be indicated following the completion of a primary search or when you otherwise have confirmation that all occupants have exited the building and the stability of the structure is questionable. Deteriorating fire conditions should signal such a change in tactics. So does the likely presence of hazardous contents or conditions. The 20-minute rule for uncontrolled fire in conventional construction and the five-to-10-minute rule on lightweight truss construction remain reliable safety warnings.

Your actual standard operating procedure for changing from an inside attack to an outside one (and sometimes back again) must, of course, be done in a prescribed and orderly manner with sufficient training devoted to the practice to ensure a smooth and disciplined transition. An undue lag between the two attacks could result in the unchecked fire’s flaring up dangerously. And sudden disorganized activity (especially when using master streams) frequently leads to injuries.

First, get the ladder pipes and deluge guns set up and ready before they are actually needed. Back your interior lines out (all the way out or, if feasible, to a safe interior location). Get radio confirmation through a reliable accountability system (which may be a simple company-by-company head count) that all companies have been withdrawn to safe locations. Then, flow the big guns. To reverse the procedure, first carefully evaluate the integrity of the structure to be sure it is safe to reenter and suitable for interior firefighting activity. Get your handline crews in position-outside the collapse zone-and ready to move in before shutting down the master streams.


Unfortunately, the two leading safety problems when changing from offense to defense remain: freelancing by the people who were on the handlines and failing to make sure everybody is using the same game plan.

Since the high-volume ladder pipes, deck guns, and various deluge sets do not require many personnel, those firefighters who had been on the handlines are suddenly without an assigned function. Some of them, therefore, get back on the withdrawn 13/4-inch handlines and proceed to throw more water on the fire, freelance style. Of course, the additional 150 gpm or so per line, as an extinguishing agent, is a mere drop in the bucket-and is robbing water from the big guns.

Of course, the reach of the handlines is not quite sufficient to hit the main body of fire so the troops unconsciously inch forward, moving closer and closer until they are well inside the collapse zone. This “inch-and-a-quarter creep” is a scenario for disaster and one that is carried out repeatedly on our nation’s firegrounds.

How do you prevent this persistent problem? One way is to assign these people something else to do. There is even a school of thought that encourages their reassignment to some unnecessary task just to keep them busy and away from the collapse zone. With all due respect, I must strongly disagree with this approach.

In the first place, after being forced to bail out of an interior attack, these firefighters could probably use a rest. If there is some vital task that needs doing, and no other personnel are available, by all means have them do it. But to send them on a fool’s errand not only shows them no respect (respect is a two-way street) but sends a potentially dangerous signal as well. These firefighters will realize-if not immediately, then eventually-that you are giving unnecessary “make busy” orders. This may cause them to question the necessity and importance of your future orders. If you want their trust, you must earn it.

Another approach suggested by some is to have the lines disconnected so they can’t be used inappropriately.1 The lines could be disconnected by the firefighters who were staffing these lines. This would at least keep them occupied with a bona fide task (as opposed to “busy work”). The unconnected lengths of hose could also be left in place, unrolled, so they will be available if needed.

In certain situations, however, the practice may be overdoing things a bit and could even prove counterproductive. If, for example, the structure remains safe to enter after the deluge guns have darkened down the fire sufficiently, you may want to try another interior attack. You will then have to take the time and effort to recouple the lengths into handlines all over again. In any event, at least some of these lines will almost certainly be eventually needed for overhaul.

Perhaps a better practice might be to leave them connected and in place-but drained-and order the pump operators to leave them uncharged. They would then be immediately available for emergency use.

There is only one sure way, however, to avoid this potentially disastrous problem: training and supervision backed by written standard operating procedures (SOPs). It simply must be impressed on the company to keep members out of danger areas during defensive operations. Freelancing must not be permitted. Period. Perhaps the withdrawn firefighters might be made to stay in a designated rehab area. The safety officer should also have fire lines set up around the collapse zone and, if necessary, he can designate assistants to help enforce compliance.

To avoid the other main problem that occurs when switching from an interior attack to an exterior operation-failure to make sure everybody is using the same game plan-those in command must consider the following:

  • Has the change in tactics been formally announced over all appropriate radio frequencies as required by SOP?
  • Is it known for sure that all personnel have been withdrawn? Or is there a company still inside that didn’t get the word and is now wondering why conditions are rapidly deteriorating?


Most of us have experienced fires in which outside “defensive” lines have made life extremely difficult for inside “offensive” firefighters. Some years ago, I was part of a three-firefighter hoseline crew crawling through a pitch-black, well-involved furniture warehouse when a 1,000-gpm master stream was suddenly introduced into a roof vent hole above us (a definite no-no). The deafening sound and shock to the building caused us to believe that the structure was collapsing around us. The sudden heat buildup was intense. Needless to say, complete panic ensued and, in at least one firefighter’s imagination, a banner headline appeared: “Three Firefighters Dead in a Building Collapse.”

Fortunately, the stream was redirected when somebody realized we were still inside. We managed to make our way out with but one torn hamstring and three bruised egos. We were lucky. I have known firefighters who were severely burned or otherwise seriously injured through the use of opposing inside and outside attacks. Everyone on the fireground must be made aware of the mode of attack being used and must behave accordingly.

Sometimes the fault is with the crews inside, and the cost can be great. As a young lieutenant, I was once guilty of keeping my company too long on the floor above an extending fire after being ordered to back out. We were making good progress, and I decided that the deputy chief’s order was a bit overcautious. Didn’t he think we could handle the job? We knew what were doing. Engine 4 didn’t back out just because of a little fire in the walls.

What we had no way of knowing, of course, was that the companies downstairs had inexplicably lost their water supply and had been forced to retreat. The fire below was roaring out of control and heading our way in proportions well beyond the power of our puny 11/2-inch line. Fortunately for us, we had previously made a mental note of an alternative escape route through a stairway window and onto an adjoining roof. By the time we realized our situation, including the fact that the stairwell was by then untenable, we were forced to leap for our lives through our “back door” route.

We had no prearranged emergency withdrawal system in those days. (I later developed one for the department, partly as a result of this experience.) The deputy chief had simply notified us by radio and had gotten a “ten-four.” He did not have the time to explain his order, nor should he have had to! He trusted me to obey that order; I foolishly failed to trust his experienced judgment. I thus seriously-and needlessly-endangered the firefighters who put their trust in me. Thank God for back doors and second chances.


  1. Klaene, Bernard J. and Russell E. Sanders make this recommendation in their book Structural Firefighting, National Fire Protection Association, 2000.

CHARLES ANGIONE, former operations deputy chief for the City of Plainfield (NJ) Fire Division, is a freelance writer, a frequent contributor to fire service publications, and an online columnist for FireFighting.com. The decorated 25-year-veteran of the fire service is a National Fire Academy alumnus; a certified fire instructor; and a longtime student, an instructor, and a practitioner of the incident command system.

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