Timeless Tactical Truths


Early in my career, I developed the habit of writing notes on things I would see, comments I would hear, and thoughts I would have about stuff that related in some way to trying to understand my job as a firefighter. Most of them in some way had to do with firefighting and fireground operations. I thought I would depart from my usual column and talk about some of the old truths and a few recent ones.

You can only save the savable. We must always operate on the fireground with the understanding that we typically inherit a tactical situation that is underway when we arrive. The fire has created physical damage/injury/death that is basically irreversible—simply, we cannot “UNburn” the structure and its contents or “UNinjure” the occupants the fire has beat up (or murdered) before our arrival. A major challenge for us is to estimate how long the fire has been present and the effect it has already created. Being able to accurately evaluate “what time it is” in tactical terms is the foundation for establishing an attack plan that realistically separates what is lost and what is savable.

Don’t go anywhere you cannot come back from. We must always operate with the awareness that our survival depends on our always maintaining the capability to go into and then to come out of the hazard zone. The logical, and least painful, time for us to evaluate the round-trip entry-exit profile of the interior layout is at the very beginning of the attack process. This up-front exterior size-up requires us to slow down a bit and consciously decide (before we enter) if the overall situation is offensive or defensive. The size-up must be based on a nonemotional understanding that it is easier (and a lot more fun) to go into a hazard zone than it is to come out (which can be a lot less fun). When we decide if conditions will allow an interior attack, we must then decide on the best entry/exit “door” that will get us into the high-impact rescue and fire control points. When we figure out where we will enter, then we must decide what operational and command resources will be required, how our travel path must be protected, and if a tactical reserve (RIC) is in place. The old fire inspector said, “If you pay to get in, you pay to get out.” We ought to apply that to interior firefighting.

An engine without a supply line is just a 500-gallon tanker. It is the responsibility of every engine company to provide its own uninterrupted supply of water. Sometimes the officer, particularly the first-arriving pumper, will trade taking the time to lay a supply line for pulling quick attack lines. Sailing by the last hydrant at 35 mph commits that company to fire control with only onboard water. If the fire does not go out, it also creates the need for a desperate prayer that a subsequent-arriving engine will lay the “plug passer” a supply line. The only sound worse than a pump that has just spun away from the last water in the tank is the grumpy voice of your battalion chief asking, “What part of my last line-laying lecture didn’t you understand?”

Do not do the wrong thing harder. Operational action typically achieves a pretty quick effect. Simply, it does not take long to know if what we are doing is working. Many times an operating position requires multiple activities like placing an initial attack line; reinforcement with a backup line; and some truck company support, like forcible entry, venting, and opening up. The incident commander (IC) must adequately invest in each basic tactical position by assigning all the resources needed to create a concentration of tactical force that will solve (overwhelm) the problem in that place/function. Most of the time, these resources get the job done. Occasionally, they don’t. When this occurs, the IC must decide whether to expand that position or go on to Plan B. When the current plan is not working, many times the correct response is not to increase the investment in that position but to move on to a spot/function that will have a positive effect. This requires us to create a strong initial response in an operating position but not to fall in love with our attack plan. We must always maintain the tactical agility to move our attack to a place where we can cut off and control rather than chase and be behind.

If you must burn down a building, do it with class. As we operate on the fireground, we had better figure out that what the front end looks like will pretty much produce a picture of the back end. Sometimes that back-end picture is defensive. This means in plain English that the building is going to burn down. When this occurs, we must capture, maintain, and not lose control of ourselves personally and our resources operationally, even though the fire in the involved fire area is beyond our offensive capability. Just because the fire is out of control does not mean that we should be. The way we stay in control is through the following:

  • always operating with early and strong strategic and tactical-level command,
  • effectively deploying adequate operational resources within SOPs with a continuous tactical reserve in place,
  • integrating safety and worker welfare automatically and critically into all operations,
  • using effective tactical operations to limit loss as closely as possible to the area of origin,
  • protecting and caring for customers within an added-value service delivery plan, and
  • critiquing the incident to determine the lessons learned/reinforced and putting those lessons into a well-timed organizational action plan.

Consistently doing all this creates high-class firefighting and will displace the opposite.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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