The Tactical Pause

By Sean W. Stumbaugh

You are the first-due engine officer responding to a reported house fire. You and your engine company are part of a first alarm with two additional engines, one ladder truck, a battalion chief, and a safety officer responding. You are en route from your station; the normal chatter of excited firefighters can be heard in the jump seats behind you. Racing through your mind are all of the possibilities you think you could encounter when you arrive. Your confidence is high as the dispatch information makes this sound like a real fire. Your knowledge of your first-due area tells you that this home is probably a little older and is not too large, maybe between 1,200 and 2,000 square feet. A good water system is available, so you should have enough water to fight the fire.

Your rapid mental size-up is continuing in your head as you respond to the call. As your engine turns off the main road into the neighborhood, you can see a column of moderate black smoke rising in the air. You speak into your headset mic to your crew, “We have smoke showing; it looks like we’ve got a job! Get ready back there. We’ll be first in!”

Your engine makes the final turn onto the proper street, and you proceed to the smoke. You have checked your maps on the way in and know that there is a hydrant across the street and two houses from the reported address along your approach. Another hydrant is five houses farther down the street. Your engineer pulls past the house and spots just a little beyond the address, just as you trained him. This spot gives you a three-sided view of the house and also leaves room for the truck.

On the Scene

You observe a single-story house with no signs of fire or smoke on the three sides or the roof; however, you do see a column of black smoke rising from the C side behind the house. What could it be-a bedroom fire in the rear or a basement fire escaping through the cellar door? You can’t tell from where you are.

You have processed the information you have, but you want to see that other side of the house. You give the following initial arrival report on the radio, “Engine 32 has arrived. We have a single-story house with a possible basement. Black smoke is coming from the C side. Engine 32 will set up for fire attack. The next engine will get a water supply. Truck, you can have the front. Engine 32 will be taking a lap. All units, stand by.”

You advise your crew to pull a line to the front yard, mask up, and wait for you. You hop off the rig, grab your thermal imaging camera (TIC) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and head for the backyard. You enter through a wooden gate on the B side of the house and head for the B/C corner.

Once you arrive, you look around the corner to observe the source of the smoke. Behind the house you see a turkey fryer knocked over with a raw bird sitting on the patio. There is a grease fire burning violently on the ground. The fire has involved some of the patio furniture and is spreading across the ground toward a garden shed. A distraught homeowner is aggressively fighting the fire with a garden hose, but he is just spreading the fire, making things worse. Then, over your portable radio, you hear the following transmission: “Engine 35 has arrived. We are establishing a water supply for Engine 32; Engine 35 is making entry for fire attack.”

You immediately return to the front of the house. Your crew is on the front lawn, masked up with a charged hoseline. They are looking at you with wide eyes through their SCBA masks and are raising their hands as if to ask, “What the heck?” That’s what you would like to know. You also observe a second charged hoseline going through the front door, which has obviously been forced by the irons sitting on the porch. You hang your head in defeat before giving your updated radio report notifying everyone that you have located the fire.

The Tactical Pause

Does this sound familiar? When I was an engine captain, I went to many fires where the on-scene companies did not practice coordinated fire attack. My frustration with this issue doubled or tripled when I became a battalion chief. The addition of companies over the years, typically to fulfill the two-in/two-out or rapid intervention function, only made this problem worse. Without careful coordination and discipline from officers and their crews, a coordinated fire attack was a difficult goal to achieve. A few months prior to my retirement, I finally embraced a concept that may solve this issue in the future. The concept is called “the tactical pause.” It is designed to establish a pause in most (not all) fireground activities while the first-due officer gathers more intelligence (intel).

In the scenario, we just read that the officer needed a little time to discover the source of the smoke. The process of gathering intel, which is typically accomplished with a 360° lap around a small structure, provides the officer with the last piece of the puzzle to make an informed tactical decision. During this lap, the other responding companies need to exercise discipline in decision making and allow the first-due officer time to get the intel. If second- and third-due officers do not allow this time, we risk making a decision without all of the vital information. These hasty decisions lead to inefficient and ineffective tactics. Also, we do not enhance the overall safety of the fireground; we tend to make things worse, somewhat like the garden hose on the grease fire in the back of the house, spreading chaos as we go. These hasty decisions, driven by the “I have got to get some” attitude, can and will lead to increased property damage and a poor public image-or, worse, to injury and even death.

The tactical pause can be a learned trait adopted by individual officers; however, it will be totally ineffective if it does not become part of an organization’s training, standard procedures, and culture. If you are experiencing operational issues that keep officers from effectively communicating and working in a coordinated fashion, you need to implement the tactical pause.

The tactical pause is a temporary hold in fireground operations initiated by the first-due officer. The purpose of the temporary hold is to allow time for the first-due officer to fully assess the situation, conduct a proper hazard analysis, and make a final strategic and tactical decision. The tactical pause is followed by a radio report [Conditions, Actions, Needs (CAN) report] updating all units of the strategic decision and tactical objectives.

Contraindications for the Tactical Pause

Some may be thinking, “What do you mean, ‘Stand by’? You want me to sit there and do nothing?” I understand your point of view, but don’t misunderstand mine. I’m not saying that a tactical pause is needed at every fire. There are plenty of times where the right strategy and tactics are obvious. When this is the case, do what you have been trained to do (“hit it hard from the yard,” for example). When the right choice is not obvious, you need to be more deliberate; you need to take that extra time to figure out what’s going on and respond appropriately.

Battalion Chief Anthony Kastros from the Sacramento Metro (CA) Fire Department, points out that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lists five causal factors that emerge over and over in firefighter fatalities-the NIOSH 5 (“Mastering Fireground Command: Calming the Chaos,” Fire Engineering, March 2011). The primary factor involved with the NIOSH 5 list is inadequate risk assessment or poor size-up. The tactical pause is one tool to use to combat this primary factor in line-of-duty deaths.

We would not use a tactical pause when we have a known rescue. In that case, it’s “all hands working.” Also, it is not always necessary when there is an obvious building fire (smoke, fire coming from openings); however, even in this case, a little extra time to make a good decision on what method of attack to use (offensive, transitional, or defensive) can make the difference between success, failure, or tragedy.

Management by Objectives

Implementing the tactical pause will not be easy. If you try it, you may soon find yourself trying to push a rope uphill. The proper way to implement change is through a systematic approach. Your idea first needs to be well thought out, and you must think of the potential roadblocks and pitfalls that will keep you from success. Using a process to create, develop, introduce, receive approval for, and finally implement your plan is essential.

There are many ways to view this process. One approach that worked for me is Management by Objectives (MBO). MBO requires you to begin with your final destination in mind, describe what that destination looks like, and then create the objectives you will need to complete to get you there. We call the finish line the “terminal objective.” All of the steps that help you get to your successful end are called “enabling objectives.” You or your team will have to develop these objectives. Write them down so all involved can see and understand the road map to success. Without a written plan, you are more susceptible to failure and not improving “conditions on the ground.”

Your plan for implementation will be unique to your organization or region because of the operational and political structures that exist. A plan for implementation in a large metropolitan city will be very different from one required for a smaller, more rural setting that deals with numerous fire departments. Whatever your individual situation, you can use the following template to build your plan. Typical objectives for managing a process follow.

Terminal Objective

It is to develop, train for, and implement an operational change for the rural county fire operational area (insert your name here) that allows officers to initiate a “tactical pause” by stating “tactical pause.” When this phrase is communicated, all other involved companies will understand and comply with the intent of the “tactical pause.”

Enabling Objectives

  • Create the written concept of the tactical pause with input from all organizations that are stakeholders within the operational area.
  • Develop a unique phrase all agree on to be used by officers to initiate the tactical pause.
  • Present the written concept to change agents, operational officers, and decision makers in all affected organizations for refinement and buy-in.
  • Once approved, develop training programs and update standard operating procedures to reflect the new operational change.
  • Select the appropriate delivery method to ensure that all personnel receive and understand the new and updated procedural information.
  • Deliver training to all personnel and set an implementation date for changes to take effect
  • Monitor, update, and provide additional training based on outcomes as compared to the terminal objective.

Again, these are examples of objectives. Develop objectives that work for you. Use them as your checklist of things to do as you go through this process. You may need to add additional objectives as the project moves along to keep things on track and moving forward. Never lose sight of the terminal objective; that is where you want to end up.

The Trigger Phrase

Choosing a trigger phrase (a group of words unique to this concept that will be easily understood) may be difficult. It may seem a bit silly, but words do matter. To reduce opposition to the idea, it needs to be packaged and sold properly; you don’t want officers to feel micromanaged as they are introduced to the concept. When incident commanders (ICs) hand out assignments, it is ideal to use only a few words to describe what they want. For example, when giving an assignment to a truck captain, the IC can say, “Truck 3, vertical ventilation.” The truck captain understands these words and will go and get the job done. Notice, however, the IC did not say where to place the hole or how big to make it. These decisions are up to the experienced truck captain, who doesn’t want to be told exactly what to do. Similarly, an engine captain needs only a few words for him to complete an assignment. An IC could say, “Engine 6, establish a water supply for Engine 2.” Again, there is no micromanagement, just simple direction that is understood.

The tactical pause is no different. You need a simple phrase that all will know and understand, and it will trigger action on their part to hold off on strategic and tactical actions until the strategy and tactical decisions are made and communicated. This does not mean, however, that all fireground activity comes to a halt while waiting for the final decision; on the contrary, a great deal of activity will still be happening. For example, engines can be laying lines, and firefighters are suiting up, pulling attack lines, and securing utilities. All of these activities take time and should be in place once the first-due officer is ready to commit.

In our fire scenario above, what phrase did the captain use to initiate his tactical pause? Did anybody catch it? It was when he said, “Units stand by,” at the tail end of the radio report. However, if that phrase was not written into an operational plan or made part of standard procedures, then no one would have known what it meant. That is the reason you must choose a phrase, agree on it, build it into your written documents, and practice it often!

“Units stand by” is a phrase that I like; however, it is only one of many possibilities. If you incorporate staging levels (Levels I and II or Primary/Secondary) in your common operations and language, you could use them. If you did, it might sound like this, “Engine 32 has arrived; we have a single-story house with a possible basement. Black smoke is coming from the C side. Engine 32 will set up for fire attack; next engine, get us a water supply; truck, you can have the front; Engine 32 will be taking a lap. Additional units, Level I stage.” Whatever phrase you choose, it needs to be consistent, understood, and practiced; nonstandard phrases will not accomplish the desired goal and will lead to further chaos and confusion on the fireground.


Once you have taken the necessary steps to implement your written plan, you will need to monitor and evaluate the plan. Continually practicing and reinforcing the concept will be necessary for it to become part of your culture. If you launch a new program and forget it or place it on autopilot, it will eventually run out of gas. The key to a lasting idea is to complete the process and reinforce the concept until it becomes routine, just like putting on your seat belt.

If the fire scenario at the beginning of this article took place in a system where the tactical pause was fully implemented, it would have sounded much different. Let’s see if we can play the scenario out to a better conclusion using the tactical pause to our advantage. Flash back with me to the point where you reached the B/C corner; we will pick up the story from there. If you remember, you saw a turkey fryer on its side with the contents poured out. A large grease fire is spreading to furniture in the yard and is heading for a shed. The homeowner is frantically spraying water, spreading the grease fire around. You ask the homeowner if anyone is in the house. He answers, “No!” Your thoughts are interrupted by the following transmission over your portable radio, “Engine 35 has arrived, and we are establishing a water supply for Engine 32; Engine 35 is pulling a backup line and waiting for orders.”

You now have the information you need to make your strategic and tactical decision. You key up your mic and give the following update on conditions: “All units at the house fire, Engine 32 with an update: We have a grease fire in the backyard, no involvement of the structure. Engine 32 crew, bring your line and meet me on the C side. This will be an offensive strategy on the exterior fire. Engine 35, bring a dry-chemical extinguisher to the C side and assist Engine 32 with advancing their line. Truck 32, secure utilities and help us in the rear. All other units, Level I stage for now.”

With this simple concept, the tactical pause, we were able to avoid unnecessary damage to the house, mitigate our hazard with the fewest companies possible, and execute a coordinated attack we all will be proud of. This concept of slowing down a bit, maintaining discipline, and making sound fireground decisions will pay off in better morale, customer service, and-most importantly-safety. I encourage you to determine if this concept is needed in your department or operational area and, if so, if there is a way you can make it work.

The Two-Year Rule

A word of encouragement to progressive firefighters working in a regressive system: Don’t give up. Think of a phenomenon I discovered as I attempted to change things throughout my career. I call the phenomenon the “two-year rule.” It is the process in which you present your good idea and the time it takes for it to become someone else’s good idea. Two years is the ideal timeframe for the decision maker, who now has this great idea but can’t remember where it came from, to implement and fully fund this great idea. It never mattered to me who took the credit for the idea as long as the idea got implemented. If it truly is a good idea, making firefighters safer and enhancing operations and public safety, then all that matters is that it gets done. If these conditions exist where you work, put your ego aside and just keep planting seeds. Put your ideas out there in as many forums as you can. Water the seeds of your ideas from time to time by bringing the subject up in strategic places. Then just sit back and see how long it takes for good ideas to take hold. My experience is that it takes about two years.

The tactical pause is not a new or revolutionary concept. Many departments have been practicing this kind of discipline and coordination for years. All I did was give it a name. If you have not achieved this level of coordination in your organization, do some research and speak with other firefighters who may practice similar ideas. The tactical pause is a tool to assist you in fireground operations. Like with any tool, you must understand and practice with it.

SEAN W. STUMBAUGH is a retired battalion chief from Cosumnes Fire in Elk Grove, California.

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