Hmm U I have been getting a lot of e-mail from all of you (although not as much as I thought I would get) and want to clear up some things for readers of this column.

Strategy. What do we mean by strategy and tactics? I guess this is an age-old question. Almost every book and periodical you pick up may have a different interpretation.

For this column, however, strategy is the game plan, preferably offensive attack to the interior of the structure and at the heart of the fire. Staffing problems abound as the strategy at the onset or arrival of fire forces dictates a difference.

Offensive/defensive (the second strategy) indicates that the structural fire must still be attacked from the interior but that the exposure is so “important” that it cannot be ignored for a second! A second alarm or mutual aid cannot be called soon enough. If that ability is not available to you, you must use the “changing thumb” tactic.

The third strategic concept is applied when defensive strategy is employed for a structure that, for any reason, cannot be entered AND there is extension to an occupied exposure. Again, staffing levels must be increased almost one hundredfold. The momentary defensive operations will become offensive shortly, and the exposure firefight may never be over!

The fourth, of course, is totally defensive. No exposures, total outside operations. This type of firefight usually has the efficient municipality responding with too many initial firefighters. I say this because this strategy is the most difficult to control and will cause the most injuries initially in the operation. Firefighters hate defensive operations. Lieutenants and captains get intimidated by aggressive, senior firefighters. Strong incident commanders are late in arriving. Put these control and command problems together, and the freelancing and discipline problems become the hidden causes of injuries. Remember more firefighters are killed outside the collapsing building than inside.

Tactics. Well with that random dust out of the way, what then do I (because I write this column) mean by tactics? It is the stuff you use to “play” the strategy chosen at the moment. In many cases, our ability to perform or account for the tactic necessary can dictate whether we can continue to safely and effectively play the strategy chosen or must change it.

Ventilation is a critical factor that must be accounted for at every structural fire in which an aggressive interior attack is initiated. That tactic, not performed adequately for whatever reason, will force a strategy to become defensive on the fire building–that is, should the fire on arrival be of medium to heavy conditions.

Critical factors influencing tactics. So, what then are some of the most critical factors influencing key tactics for some of our experiences?

High-rise office buildings (start with the worst). The tactics must rely on our getting control of and using the following: the elevator; communications; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems; the floor(s) below the fire staging and attack; orderly search; and evacuation tactics. In short, screw up less than the last one.

High-rise RESIDENCE buildings. These structures present another game altogether. To confuse these basically simple fires with office building fiascoes is a major mistake. The key (critical) tactic here has to do with ventilation. The apartment or section involved must be vented immediately from outside. If the fire is within the reach of your aerial or portable ladder devices, so much the better. If not, the tactical solution is more involved, but it still must be accomplished: that is to gain access to an area directly above the occupancy on fire–the apartment directly above is best, the roof if the fire floor is close to the top floor. Tie a tool (halligan will do), and break every window below that issues back a smoke condition. The interior line advance will depend on your tactic, as will the aggressiveness and success of the search tactics.

Churches. Another oddball fire (because we don`t see it so often anymore) is the church fire–not the one-story building that used to be a store. I mean a Gothic-type, peaked-roof structure. It seems as though most of American fire forces “lose” these structures. Why? Because the critical tactic here also lies in large and rapid vertical ventilation. This time at the ridge pole! The fuel load in this structure–the stuff that will spread the fire to unmanageable proportions–lies under the roof, the trussing.

Until the tower ladders and articulating platforms arrived, we were most times unable to accomplish this objective (large and rapid vertical ventilation) safely and with enough clout (how large and complete the opening was created) to stop the horizontal spread in the truss that resulted in local roof collapse, the backing out of the forces to defensive operations, steeple collapse, total roof collapse–and you know the rest. Whether or not we save this structure lies totally (almost) on our ability to control the horizontal spread of fire in the roof supports. That is accomplished by ventilation above and extinguishment with larger streams from below.

Strip stores (taxpayers). These fires are a staffing “blotter” if you are to maintain an offensive strategy on the fire store. Tactics involve a three-pronged (or more) immediate objective. Prompt vertical ventilation is a must not only for the relief of the firefighting forces but for fire control. Without it, you will lose most of the building wall enclosure–the row of stores! More important, you will have fire drop around the interior forces and into the exposures. You also must open (at least) the rear of the store on fire and open, enter, and defend the adjoining occupancies. All this virtually simultaneously! Now how many firefighters? n

n TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief`s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He is the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. You can e-mail him at

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