There are many situations, problems, and variables we must consider and overcome while conducting structural firefighting operations. Fire service textbooks, magazine articles, and operational manuals all describe in detail the many fireground challenges that we face and the appropriate solutions for them.

Regardless of the challenge at hand, just about every solution can be traced to one of the three basic elements of firefighting: apparatus/equipment, staffing, and firefighting procedures. These are the three dimensions of structural firefighting. To conduct >safe, efficient, and timely firefighting operations in burning buildings, all three of these important elements must be fully developed.

We must also keep in mind that there are many other operations and situations for which most fire departments are responsible-emergency medical, collapse, utility emergencies, and auto extrication. These also must be handled safely and efficiently, but the three-dimension perspective is unique to structural fires. Let’s examine each of these dimensions and the impact of each on the outcome of a structural fire.


Regardless of the specific style, design, or construction type of the building involved, there is a group of apparatus and equipment that must be available for firefighters to use to battle the fire. Apparatus and equipment are each broad categories for a large collection of tools and machines we use to perform our many tasks and tactics.

There are numerous manufacturers, styles, and designs for fire apparatus. There are engines, aerial ladders, tower ladders, city service ladder trucks, quints, rescue trucks, rescue pumpers, brush trucks, utility vehicles-the list goes on and on. Many fire departments may have several of these apparatus types, but few departments have them all. The reason for this is simple-they don’t need them. Most departments have specific and unique needs that determine their apparatus choice. Regardless of what apparatus you have in your firehouse, you probably need only a smaller selection.

Many fire departments throughout the United States may have only an engine as their apparatus. Yes, just an engine. You cannot have a fire department without one. Name any other apparatus type and you’ll find a fire department without one, but you won’t find a department without an engine. It’s the basic unit of service for the fire service. Larger fire departments may have only several engines and nothing else. Villages, towns, and even some city departments may exist and operate solely with engines. So the engine is a must. Why?

Water! It is the most important and necessary ingredient in the fire suppression equation. There are certainly many other functions and tactics that can be conducted from an engine, but the delivery of water through a hoseline, master stream, or fire suppression system is that machine’s core function. Many of the fire departments that operate exclusively with engine apparatus carry additional firefighting tools and equipment so the firefighters onboard can conduct support functions.

If your city or town has buildings of three, four, or more stories, structures that require forcible entry and ventilation tactics, and your run numbers warrant it, the ladder apparatus or truck is a natural choice for a second type of apparatus, after an engine. This apparatus is a solid second in the long line of apparatus available for fire department operations. Ladder trucks are designed and used to carry portable ladders, forcible entry tools, and ventilation equipment and, of course, include a ladder. It can be an aerial, a tower, or a basket, based on your department’s needs, building design, and procedures.

The specific type of ladder truck is much less important than the apparatus’s function. We need a ladder apparatus to do truck work: to transport truck company firefighters to the scene of a burning building so they can force entry, conduct search and rescue operations, ventilate the building, and overhaul it after the fire is extinguished. Many fire departments operate with engines and trucks. For structural fires, you absolutely need an engine, and you had better think real hard about having a truck!

So we know now that we need an engine and a truck, but what do we need to carry on these rigs? Again, there is a large list of tools and equipment many departments carry on their apparatus. Many fire service tools are rather basic, even primitive. The work that firefighters perform is difficult manual labor in many cases; and the tools, even the older ones, are pretty simple. A list of “basic” (i.e., you should have them) firefighting tools follows. Remember that previously we had talked about conducting safe, efficient, and timely firefighting operations in burning buildings. That means the items we are discussing are a minimum-you really need to have them or get them.

On engine apparatus:

  • Hose. A sufficient amount for several stretches, including large and small handline sizes such as 1 3/4-inch and 2 1/2-inch, as well as a larger size supply line, such as three-inch or larger.
  • Appliances. Hydrant connections, wyes, siameses, nozzles, master stream devices, hydrant wrenches, fittings, and related equipment.
  • Hand tools. Halligan, ax, maul, and pike pole.
  • Portable ladders. One or two ladders of proper length to be carried on the engine.
  • SCBA. One complete set for each riding position and a spare air bottle for each breathing apparatus.
  • Utility rope. For securing hard suctions, master streams, and other functions.

On ladder apparatus:

  • Forcible entry tools. Axes, halligans, and mauls.
  • Hooks and pike poles. Common and frequently used tools for truck firefighters.
  • Power saw. A useful and efficient tool for roof ventilation, cutting padlocks and gates, cutting concrete, and other tactics.
  • Hydraulic forcible entry tool. A more modern method of forcing doors and other openings; a small pump with spreader tool makes forcible entry in smoke-filled areas much faster and safer.
  • Thermal imaging camera (TIC). One of the newer tools on the rig, it allows us to find hidden fire, hot spots, extension, trapped civilians and firefighters, and more. Although it’s a relatively new tool, you should still have one!
  • Search rope. For advancing into large areas within commercial/industrial buildings or in any area.
  • SCBA. One complete set for each riding position and a spare air bottle for each breathing apparatus.
  • Portable ladders. A full complement of ladders of various sizes.

Although there may be additional tools and equipment that you believe are useful at structural fires, the above list is the basic required complement. Once you have all of these, you can acquire a larger more complex assortment.


Although staffing is the second of the three dimensions of structural firefighting, it is by no means the second most important. It is the most important because, of the three dimensions, it is the one most often overlooked, underfunded, or simply ignored by those responsible for providing the fire department with proper resources. We are addressing staffing from an operational perspective, not a political one. To conduct safe, efficient, and timely firefighting operations in burning buildings, how many people do you need on your engines and trucks? This is an apparatus and a staffing question.

Before we can decide or discuss the number of firefighters needed to properly conduct firefighting operations, we need to look at two items: the tasks and tactics we need to conduct and their timeliness or immediacy-i.e., how soon in the operation they need to be completed. As we examine each of the tasks and tactics below, consider how the tactic’s immediacy will affect the staffing requirement.

Engine tactics/tasks and immediacy

First attack hoseline. This is stretched immediately on arrival or after fire location is determined and requires two to three firefighters. All available engine firefighters should work to get the first hoseline in operation as quickly as possible. The sooner we get water on the fire, the less the fire will develop, and the easier and safer it will be for the firefighters operating the hoseline and working in the burning building.

Establish water supply. You need to do this reasonably quickly but not immediately on arrival; it is a two-firefighter tactic. Just about every engine apparatus has a sufficient booster tank capacity that will provide water for an initial hoseline attack. While the nozzle team is moving in with this finite amount of water, the pump operator, or even later-arriving-unit firefighters, can establish a water supply to the first engine.

Operate apparatus pumps and radios. A multitask assignment, it begins with the response and continues until the company returns from the alarm, and requires one firefighter.

Truck tactics/tasks and immediacy

Forcible entry. This is one of the first, if not the first, tactics most truck companies perform on arrival at a structural fire. It usually requires two firefighters; in rare situations, a single person can do it. Members assigned to the first attack hoseline and most other operations are usually waiting for this task’s completion before they can begin their work inside the building.

Search and rescue. This must be initiated immediately on arrival, and it requires two firefighters. We are searching not only for victims but also for the fire. The first engine company has stretched its primary attack hoseline and is waiting for the fire to be located so members can move in and extinguish it.

Ventilation. How soon ventilation should be accomplished depends on the type of ventilation required. Horizontal venting, or venting for fire, is conducted as the attack hoseline is advancing into the fire area. This definition requires the venting to occur at the same time as the hoseline advance, which puts it right up front and early in the operation. Can a hoseline be advanced without this venting taking place simultaneously? Yes, but without the fire venting out a window or two on its own, interior fire extinguishment, search and rescue, and ventilation will all suffer, and the fire area will be much more dangerous and unstable for firefighter operations. Ventilation can be accomplished from the outside by a single firefighter.

Operate apparatus ladder, generator, and radio. This multitask assignment begins with the response and continues until the company returns from the alarm. The single firefighter needed for this can, based on availability, also team up with other firefighters for inside and outside assignments.

We have listed just seven very basic tactics for the first-arriving engine and ladder company firefighters to perform. Whether all the firefighters arrive on engine apparatus or a mix of engine and ladder apparatus, the tasks are the same. The fire condition; building design, layout, and construction; and the strategy selected dictate the work to be done.

Remember, the immediacy of fireground tactics is as important to their success and impact on the efforts to control the fire as is their tactical effect. Horizontal ventilation is very important and effective for a bedroom fire in a private house, but only when it is accomplished at the same time as the engine company is advancing a hoseline into the burning room. If you climb a ladder and break the only window into a room that is involved in fire 10 minutes after the hoseline has operated there, you are not performing horizontal ventilation; you are only breaking the homeowner’s window.

Staffing is important not only for effectively accomplishing the tactics but also for the immediacy of these efforts. Some firefighters and officers think you can use the same two firefighters to perform all of the tasks and tactics; they must simply prioritize the tasks and handle them one after another. This will not and does not work. Fighting a fire is like conducting a symphony orchestra: All of the instruments must play together, at the same time, to create the desired effect.


Determining the tactics to initiate and assigning them must be accomplished before arrival at a structural fire. If you think you can figure this out as you arrive, you will be in big trouble at your next house fire. Obviously, there are conditions and events that we become aware of only after arrival that will have some impact on our operations. But when several fire department units are responding to a reported house fire at 3 a.m, they need to have a good idea of what tactics are required-if, in fact, there is a fire-and who will perform them. The first-arriving company officer has more work to do than he has time to do it; harnessing him with the chore of determining what specific tactics should be initiated and which firefighters on the apparatus should be assigned to perform them is unreasonable and inefficient. Firefighters are smart and capable and will operate in just about any manner or mode that you allow or demand. There is no reason not to have established standard operating procedures (SOPs) for your companies’ most frequent response situations. You can and should even have alternate sets of guidelines for the “other” types of operations your company responds to less frequently, such as commercial or industrial events.


Let’s take a look at a situation that is fairly common for many fire departments across the country, a single-family house fire. We will assume a response of one engine, one ladder, and a chief or an incident commander (IC). These are basic yet solid and accepted tactics for this type of situation. Keep in mind that you may have to modify or change some elements of this “procedure” for your department or community. Also remember that similar firefighting procedures need to be devised and established for your other types of structures and situations. The more detail you include (e.g., tool assignments and suggested tactics), the more efficient and complete the procedures will be. Obviously, we also allow firefighters to take alternate action when conditions dictate.

Situation. Reported house fire at 4558 Southern Blvd., 3 a.m., December 22, 2006.

Conditions on arrival. Heavy smoke from all second-floor windows. Fire showing from a single window on the first floor, side D. Peaked roof frame construction. No reports of people trapped or fire location.

Suggested firefighting procedures

Engine officer:

  1. Transmit working fire to dispatch.
  2. Order hoseline stretched to front door.
  3. Order operator to establish water supply.
  4. . Perform survey of structure/fire/exposures.

Engine firefighters:

  1. Select and stretch proper hoseline to front door.
  2. Bring forcible entry tools if ladder company is delayed.
  3. Observe building for fire location.
  4. On orders, advance hoseline to fire area, and extinguish.

Ladder officer (equipped with flashlight, officer’s tool, and SCBA):

  1. Make survey of structure for fire/victims/extension/stability.
  2. Ensure forcible entry is conducted if required.
  3. Enter structure with forcible entry firefighters, and begin search for fire.
  4. When discovered, radio fire location to engine officer.
  5. Ensure horizontal ventilation is conducted.
  6. Search fire area/fire floor for victims, then repeat on second floor.
  7. . Report search results to IC when requested.

Ladder firefighters (inside) (equipped with ax/halligan, SCBA, pike pole, and water extinguisher):

  1. Observe building for fire/victims.
  2. Conduct initial forcible entry.
  3. Conduct search and rescue with ladder officer.
  4. Perform ventilation of fire area from inside.
  5. Report fire or victims found to officer and IC.

Ladder firefighters (outside) (equipped with halligan/pike pole; portable ladder, if required; and SCBA):

  1. Conduct outside size-up of structure.
  2. Locate fire area, and notify inside officer when ready to ventilate.
  3. Ventilate fire area from outside.
  4. Enter fire area or adjacent area to join inside team.
  5. If entry is not possible, consider roof operations.

• • •

Books have been written on each of these three important structural firefighting elements, but we need to consider them all together, blended into a single event, to see how they both help and hinder each other. None of the dimensions is effective alone. The best-equipped fire department, with a thermal imaging camera for each member and a fleet of brand-new, top-of-the-line apparatus, is useless without a sufficient number of properly trained firefighters employing effective and practical procedures to start the job on arrival.

The same is true of the department that operates with excellent apparatus and equipment and is staffed by a sufficient number of professionally trained firefighters but does not follow any basic firefighting procedures.

Think of the most effective and successful fire company or department you know. Whether it is yours or another, you can bet that among the many other important elements such as planning, leadership, and funding, the core dimensions are the three described above. Apparatus and equipment, staffing, and firefighting procedures are the three basic, yet vital, dimensions necessary for conducting safe, efficient, and timely firefighting operations in burning buildings.

JOHN J. SALKA JR. is a 27-year veteran and battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York and an instructor and lecturer within and outside the department. He is a nationally recognized speaker on numerous fire service topics and a participant in the Fire Engineering monthly Roundtable. He is the author of First In Last Out-Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department and contributed to >The Fire Chief’s Almanac. He received Fire Engineering’s Training Achievement Award for his “Get Out Alive” firefighter survival program. His most recent endeavor is a leadership lecture series with Five Alarm Leadership.

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