10 Foundation Stones of Fireground Knowledge for Company Officers


As a member of the volun- teer/on-call fire service for more than 36 years, I have seen totally opposite extremes when it comes to the quality and capabilities of company officers. Some volunteer departments have strict promotional criteria that require skills and knowledge, but others do not. Yet, if a reported working fire were to come in to a department that does not have established promotional criteria and the crews were to engage in an interior attack, that department’s members would be exposed to the same life-and-death dangers faced by all other fire departments regardless of their promotional policies. To enter a fire structure and safely and effectively put out the fire, the officers need to be properly taught and trained.

We have all seen or may even have worked with firefighters and officers whose lack of knowledge or skill scared the heck out of us. The decisions company officers make and the level of skills and knowledge they possess (or don’t possess) can be a matter of life or death.


Over the years, I have had the opportunity and honor to visit with and talk to many volunteer firefighters from around the country. I learned that there are three basic ways volunteer department company officers are promoted: You can (1) study, test, do well, and be appointed; (2) be elected, hopefully with some prerequisites; and (3) be appointed with no qualifications.

The volunteer service needs to recognize that volunteer company officers have a significant impact on the department on an active fireground. Many larger departments can offer their future officers a good quantity of real time experience when they respond; however, for so many volunteer departments, the fires seem to come few and far between. Learning on the job is not an option.

Some of the original (1976) foundation of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, was the belief that the officer candidate was gaining knowledge through actual experience. We need to set a priority that we will teach our company officers and officer candidates what they need to know to be effective and safe when leading a company on the fireground. To help us achieve this, I have proposed the 10 Foundation Stones of Fireground Knowledge, described below.

Note: The intent is to get you to a level where you recognize what needs to be done. Hopefully, you will seek out the knowledge by taking classes, attending seminars on the subjects, attending FDIC, and reading whatever you can find on the subject.


1 Effective Leadership

Capable leaders must possess and apply skills and traits that enable them to manage competently. The members of their companies depend on them. How the leader communicates with them, conducts himself, and sets the professional tone on the fireground and at training directly affects the company. How well the leader manages directly affects how well the members do their jobs.

The leader’s abilities to perform are based on the following:

  • Training and your ability to do the job.
  • Knowledge of all aspects of the operation.
  • Leadership and management abilities.
  • Desire and motivation.
  • Physical condition—are you physically able to do the job?

Company officer management involves two arenas: the emergency scene, which includes training and official fire department activities, and social activities.

On the fireground, the officer’s actions always speak louder than words. Do your officers have command/leadership presence and confidence backed up with realistic and adequate training and skills? Although we are volunteers, we are dealing with real life-and-death issues when we respond. We are not partaking in a hobby, a club, or a game! Emergency scenes are run in a paramilitary manner; as such, we must operate within the structured chain of command. We receive orders, acknowledge them, and attempt to meet our tactical objectives. Leaders teach their companies to operate as a team, rely on each other, and watch out for each other so they can get the job done safely and go home.

The basics of the officer’s job as crew supervisor include the following:

  • Treat the crews with respect.
  • Protect them.
  • Convey the tactical assignment, and assign the tasks.
  • Assist with the tasks as needed.
  • Lead, direct, and encourage.
  • Keep the incident commander (IC) updated with regard to your progress with benchmarks—i.e., fire knocked down.
  • Remember that training—yours and that of your crew—is the key to safety. Attend and participate in all the drills and training you can.

You need to build trust with your company members. Some ways to do this are to know your job, be consistent, walk the walk, and support your people—encourage, coach, and mentor them.

Social Activities. For decades volunteers have been boasting to the public, “We are on duty 24/7!” The officer is a department leader, part of the management team. Officers’ actions, attitudes, deeds, and words are noticed and set an example for others in the organization. They also impact the public’s perception of the organization. Does your department have a code of conduct? If not, it should! Today it’s all about social media. Is the public image your department projects online flattering?

Finally, leaders, understand that bugles do not make you better than others. People might respect the rank, but do they respect you? A good effective company officer always strives to be the very best he can and to stay current, active, healthy, and safe.

2 Fire Behavior

When I am teaching officers and firefighters, I ask this question, “When was the last time you took a good in-depth fire behavior class or opened your Firefighter I/II textbook and read the chapter on fire behavior?” The answer at least 90 percent of the time is, “Not since rookie school or basic training.” This confounds me. How can we retain what we have learned if we do not keep ourselves refreshed, up-to-date, and current?

Fire behavior is not just something we need to learn and know solely for taking a Firefighter I certification exam. How can you do your job if you do not understand basic fire behavior? Do you realize how important fire behavior (and reading smoke, the next “stone”) is? All firefighters need to be well-versed in fire behavior, and officers need to know it cold. How can you make critical decisions, such as whether to commit firefighters to an interior attack, if you do not understand the nature and science of fire behavior?

We are talking here about basics that are critical. We need to know and understand—these are two very different things—the phases of fire behavior: ignition, growth, fully developed, and decay and the basics of how fire spreads: conduction, radiation, and convection.

Do you really understand these terms? Can you give examples of each as they pertain to a structure fire? Using the sun to explain radiation is not putting it into structure fire terms.

What about flashover vs. backdraft? Do you understand the difference? If you were asked to write on a piece of paper a definition (in your own words) of flashover, its warning signs, and ways to prevent or inhibit it, could you? What actions can a company take to survive, and what would be your chance of survival? Could you do the same for backdraft? You need to be 100 percent correct. Confusing one thing, such as venting, can and has killed firefighters.

3 Reading Smoke

Reading smoke is one of the most important skills at a structure fire. Dave Dodson has published an excellent CD series and book, Art of Reading Smoke.1 FireEngineering.com is an excellent place to begin your research and education on reading smoke. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of correctly reading smoke, especially when considering modern construction and today’s room contents. Reading smoke will assist you in determining your initial actions, the number of lines and how much water are needed, whether the fire is deep seated, heat conditions, the probable location of the fire, and flashover probabilities.

Further, understanding smoke will help you to assess the effectiveness of the venting and whether the fire or you are winning that battle. Remember, smoke is fuel. When evaluating smoke, consider volume, velocity, density, and color.

Volume tells you how much fuel is off-gassing. Compare the volume of the smoke with the size of the building.

Velocity is pressure. Look at how fast the smoke is exiting. Is it laminar and turbulent? Smoke under a lot of pressure can indicate high heat. Observing different pressures from different openings can indicate where the fire is.

Density indicates the quality of burning and the continuity of the fuel. It is an excellent indicator of a potential flashover or backdraft.

Color tells us many things, including the stage of heating, fire extension, if it’s a deep seated fire, and engine company progress.

Being able to read and understand smoke will keep you more proactive as you can anticipate what is happening and what might happen. Really learning and understanding smoke involve many hours of studying and practice. Use every available training opportunity to acquire this skill. Your firefighters’ lives depend on your making the correct decisions.

4 Decision Making and Incident Action Planning

Decision making on the fireground happens at all different levels, from the IC to the company officer to the firefighter doing the task. The decisions we make at any level affect the success of the operation and the safety and survival of those operating at the scene. As volunteers, what type of realistic training have you been provided to help you make these decisions? Have you ever taken a class on fireground strategies and tactics that includes practical exercises involving a realistic scenario such as the following?

Scenario. As the first-due engine company officer, you arrive on scene with a full crew (officer and three firefighters). Also responding, and due in moments, are three additional engines staffed with four, two truck companies staffed with four, one heavy rescue staffed with six, a battalion chief, a safety chief, and a deputy chief, for a total of 33 firefighters.

Where I live, this would be three to five alarms for that number of personnel. Perhaps for some of you, these numbers might be your staffing level. If so, you are blessed! For the vast majority, it is completely unrealistic. We need to train and practice our skills based on the resources we can reasonably expect.

At every incident, someone has to be in charge and make good command decisions. However, to make good decisions, you need training and practice in a system that is simple, easy to use, and very effective. Many times, our first instinct is to pull a line before we have even looked at the situation.

Making fireground decisions depends on knowing basic information that should directly impact your decisions. An example of a component of this knowledge base is the fireground priorities. As all firefighters know, they are first, life safety; second, incident stabilization; and third, property conservation. You must base your action plan on your on-scene and incoming resources and your crews’ capabilities.

The next step is to assess the problem. Yes, the house is on fire. But, where, to what extent, are occupants trapped or missing, are there exposures, and so on? After you have identified the problems, you begin to plan your actions and implement them. Years ago, I learned this method from a National Fire Academy program called “Multiple Company Tactical Operations.” It was a great course and easy to use and apply. Its approach follows the logical thought process:

  • Size-up = Problem identification.
  • Strategies and Tactics = Action planning.
  • Implementation = Assignment of tactics and conversion into tasks.

In other words: THINK, PLAN, ACT!

There are many good programs, books, and articles on this subject. Attend conferences and learn. Our volunteer officers are not being taught how to make decisions on the fireground based on their resources. Perhaps it is time we started.

5 Strategies, Tactics, and Tasks

Some firefighters confuse these categories. Understanding them will put you in a safe, proactive mode and improve the safety of your fireground personnel and organization of your operation.

Strategy. According to the National Fire Protection Association Handbook, strategy involves the development of a basic plan to deal with a situation most effectively. The plan must identify major goals and prioritize objectives. Strategic decisions are based on an evaluation of the situation, the risk potential, and the available resources.

Simply, a strategy is a broad goal. It is where you want to go, the overall plan. Select your strategy based on what you are looking at—what you have. At most incidents, more than one problem needs to be addressed; therefore, there must be more than one strategy. Some basic strategies include the following: locate and extinguish the fire, rescue the victims, protect exposures, contain the gas leak, and contain the brush fire to the field of origin.

Another approach I have been taught is “locate, confine, extinguish.”

Tactic. A tactic is a specific and measurable objective necessary to achieve your strategy. It encompasses the actions that are going to be performed. Examples of basic tactics include fire attack, ventilation, and primary search.

Task. A task is a specific action taken at the company level that will implement the tactic assigned to the company. It is the “doing” part. When listening to a scanner or attending training, I hear ICs sometimes assigning tasks as tactics and vice versa.

Following are examples of an IC’s assignment of a task vs. a tactic:

Task: “Engine 2, you and your crew pull a 1¾-inch line from the rear of Engine 2. Make entry to the second floor and knock down the fire.”

Tactic: “Engine 2, fire attack, second floor.”

Task: “Ladder 1, take a 24-foot ground ladder from your truck and a 10-foot pike pole and open up all the second-floor windows on the B side.”

Tactic: “Ladder 1, horizontal ventilation second floor, bravo side.”

6 The Brief Initial Report

Have you ever been en route to a fire or listened to a neighboring community responding and heard the first-due company or chief officer arrive on scene and say something like this, “Engine 1 is off at the scene, Working fire”? Does that work for you? What do they have? Is it the whole house on fire, or is it the 10- × 10-foot shed in the backyard? It makes a difference to the responding units. Does it not? Basically, the brief initial report should describe for all the responding units listening to the radio what the officer has found on scene. This report should accomplish the following:

  • Place the first-due officer in a proactive role.
  • Force the responders to look, see, and begin to evaluate the situation.
  • Force them to begin to take action.
  • Indicate to others responding what the situation is.

The brief initial report should include the following:

  • Address: “Engine 2 off at 12 Oak St.”
  • Description of the building: “We have a two-story wood-frame building.”
  • Amount of fire and smoke showing, and from where: “Heavy fire showing, second floor A/B corner.” (By the way, where there is fire, there is smoke; it is redundant to say heavy fire and smoke.)
  • Report of civilians in peril: “Reported occupant trapped on the second floor.”
  • Immediate exposure problems: “We have an unattached one-car garage adjacent B side with light smoke showing.”
  • Obvious life hazards: “Electrical wires are down and arcing on the driveway.”
  • Any other unusual condition or situation that will have an immediate effect on the operation: “We have a 1,000-foot driveway covered with snow and impassible.”

Then, establish command!

Sticking to the basics, the above example might sound something like this: “Engine 2 is off at 12 Oak St. We have a two-story, wood-frame building; heavy fire showing second floor A/B corner, and a report of an occupant trapped on the second floor. Engine 2 is Command.”

Note: I purposely omitted the exposure problem, arcing wires, and snow-covered driveway. If they are pertinent to the situation, include them. I chose not to overcomplicate matters for this example.

This basic and brief radio report helps to prepare all other incoming units (if there are any) that you call for mutual aid and those that might be monitoring to begin their mental thought process. For the responding units, the officer of each unit needs to evaluate his crew and give assignments. Learn how to compose and deliver accurate, concise radio reports and then send one at every call.

7 Size-up, Initial and Ongoing

Size-up basically is the ongoing process of evaluating problems and conditions that can affect the outcome of the incident. It involves answering the questions: What do I have? Where is it going? What do I have to do to stop it?

There are many books, articles, and online learning classes that teach size-up. Size-up happens preincident, en route, initially on the scene, and ongoing until the companies are released. What follows is a primer. Reading this will not make you an expert. Seek out knowledge, study, learn, and become the best you can.

Preincident. For most of us, preincident size-up should come easily. Do you have preplans? They help. How well do you know your town, district, or response area? Do you know where your water supply—hydrant, draft, or water tender shuttle—is coming from for all the different sections of your community? Many of us will hear the street address and know the area to which we are responding. We know what mutual aid is available and what we can typically expect for a response from our department and mutual-aid departments. All of this is important.

En route. When responding, your size-up will begin with what you know from the dispatcher. What was reported: house fire, barn fire, from an alarm company, numerous calls? Responding, you know the weather: hot or cold; snow, ice, or rain. All of these factors will affect the response time and the personnel operating. You know the time of day and how it might affect different occupancies and any traffic situation.

On arrival. The brief initial report begins the size-up process. It makes you proactive. After the report, you need to begin a more in-depth size-up of the problem. Look at the following:

  • Nature of the incident.
  • Location and volume of visible fire.
  • The smoke—its volume, velocity, density, and color. This is critical.
  • Exposure problems?
  • Fire involvement with any known or potential lightweight construction?
  • Risk to your personnel vs. the gain. Is there anything to save? If not, why are you putting your people at risk?

Constantly reevaluate your size-up throughout the incident until all companies clear the scene. Many buildings have collapsed after fire containment and overhaul. Don’t drop your guard. Stay proactive.

Acronyms can help with size-up. The first two are most frequently seen; the third, I have had the most experience with.

  • RECEO VS: Rescue, Exposure, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul, Ventilation, Salvage.
  • COAL WAS WEALTH: Construction, Occupancy, Apparatus and personnel, Life hazard, Water supply, Auxiliary appliances, Street conditions, Weather, Exposures. Area, Location and extent of fire, Time, and Height
  • SSLEEVES: This acronym has roots in Massachusetts. I use it when training new or inexperienced officers. It works logically and covers the basics. It is not as comprehensive as the two above, but it is a great start and easy to use. I have divided it into two parts: (1) the thinking phase and (2) the planning and acting phase.

The thinking phase: Size-up, initial and ongoing; Sufficient help; Life hazards; and Exposures. Basically this is “What do I have, and where is it going?”

The planning and acting phase: Entry, Ventilation, Extinguishment, and Salvage. This phase covers “How am I going to stop it?”

While on the subject of size-up, if you are the IC, you must remember that what you see from where you are standing might be very different from what you would see if you were looking at the rear. How can you conduct a size-up and make logical decisions without seeing all four sides of the building? Have you ever been on a fireground where “surprises” were found? I know I have many times. Look around; it takes just a few moments.

On arrival, you should be seeing three sides. A quick trot down the B or D side will give you a visual of all four sides. If you cannot get around the building because of its size, use the eyes of your safety officers or sector/division chiefs/commanders to gain the valuable information you need.

Size-up is not just for the IC! Any company officer could be first due and will have to start the operation, making critical and potentially life-altering decisions. Every company officer should be conducting their own size-up, initial and ongoing. Look at what you are entering; observe conditions while operating! Listen to reports on the radio from other companies and think how and if they could affect you. You are an officer responsible for your crew’s safety and survival. Be proactive.

8 Building Construction for the Fire Service

Firefighters’ lives depend on the officer’s having a working knowledge of at least the basics of building construction: How is the structure built? How does it burn? How does it fall down? There are five classifications of construction:

  • Type 1–Fire Resistive
  • Type 2–Non Combustible
  • Type 3–Ordinary
  • Type 4–Heavy Timber
  • Type 5–Wood Frame

Depending on where you are located and what your mutual-aid response area is, you may encounter all five types. Regardless of your location, you must know the basics of building construction for your response area. It is not possible to become an expert on this subject by reading an article or watching a video online. You must spend many hours reading, studying, and taking classes.

You need to be knowledgeable about the material of which a structure is built and the methods used to construct it. Is it wood, steel, masonry, or a combination? How will the fire affect this material? Study all five types. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of each for firefighters—consider the effects of cocklofts, parapets, steel directly exposed to heat and fire, and when the structure will fail (hopefully with you or your crews not under it). All of this information is needed to make you proactive and safe.

With each classification, the fire will behave differently. How will the fire spread? What affects its path of travel? It is necessary to understand how the type of construction will inhibit or spread the fire’s travel. The classic example, of course, is balloon construction. Each classification needs to be understood. A Type 3 building will have cocklofts and possibly shared pockets in the masonry walls that allow fire spread. Fire will behave differently in a Type 5 platform constructed building than it will in a Type 4 heavy timber.

How often do we hear people talking about the collapse zone and then ignore the cautions at a fire? The collapse potential applies not just to the walls and parapets. It includes also a floor of lightweight construction burning and collapsing under a firefighter’s weight or a truss roof collapsing while you are trying to cut a vent hole. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health line-of-duty death reports are good sources to review for the many types of collapse that can occur at a fire.2 A competent fire officer needs to have a solid understanding of building construction and how it relates to the fire service.

9 Risk Management and Assessment

This component is one of the most important, yet it is frequently ignored. How often have we seen firefighters taking unnecessary risks? Firefighting is a risky and dangerous job, but the risks undertaken should be calculated. Volunteers put a lot on the line every time they enter a burning building. What would happen to their families if volunteers were killed in the line of duty? Does your community have an insurance policy that would give death or survivor benefits to the survivors consistent with what you earn in your full-time job? The answer for most of us is no. We need to consider the situation and the risks it presents, the capabilities of the firefighters standing before us, and how they match up to the given situation. Some of the terms associated with risk include risk/benefit analysis, risk management, situational awareness, and survivability profile.

Is the risk worth the benefit or gain? We should risk a lot to save a lot and a little to save a little. Do your officers have the knowledge and capabilities to make this type of critical decision?

Risk management is clearly spelled out in many NFPA standards including 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety; and 1521, Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer. They state that “activities that pose a significant risk to members shall be limited to situations when there is a potential to save endangered lives. Activities that we routinely use to protect property shall be recognized as a risk to the safety of the firefighter”—in other words, firefighting activities. The NFPA goes on to state the following: “No risk to the safety of our members shall be acceptable when there is no possibility to save lives or property. In situations where risk to the members is excessive, activities shall be limited to defensive operations.” As you read these words, think about what they mean.

Every officer and firefighter should always practice situational awareness when operating at an emergency scene. A company officer is expected to maintain a continual awareness of his company’s assignment, the progress or lack of progress personnel are making, and the overall situation around them. You must remember that current conditions will change for the good or for the bad. The company depends on the officer to observe the conditions and have the skills and knowledge to understand what is happening around them.

This skill must be used when getting ready to commit firefighters to a rescue situation. All too often, the victim at risk has long perished, the building is overwhelmed by fire, and we have too few resources on hand. To risk a crew of firefighters to save a long-expired civilian is questionable.

When you employ a survivability profile, you must apply common sense. What are the smoke and heat conditions? How much fire is there, and how long has it been burning? Is the victim in the room of origin? Has it been free burning for some time? Do not make these types of decisions on the basis of emotion. Honestly ask yourself if there is a good chance the person is still alive. Then ask yourself if the firefighters standing at the scene are capable of entering and getting back out alive (this is a matter of training and skills; remember all those drills they did not show up for).

10 Accountability and Crew Integrity

Does your department have a good, workable accountability system? Is it used at all calls? As volunteers, we have no idea who will show up to a call. Discussing and presenting accountability systems is in itself a stand-alone class. The information presented here is to make you aware of what is needed. A structured accountability system must be part of every operation. It needs to be easy to use and very functional. When teaching, I often ask students what accountability means to them. Every time, they describe their system of “tagging in.” In other words, accountability to them means tags and tagging in.

First, we should consider the meaning of accountability. It means to be responsible for your actions. For any system to work effectively, all firefighters must understand that their actions and decisions matter and can affect all on the fireground. They will be held accountable for freelancing activities, not following orders, or abandoning their company. An accountability system will work only if all officers understand the system, always use it as intended, enforce its use with their company, and set the example.

When it comes to accountability, don’t bother to offer excuses; none will be accepted. The primary purpose of an accountability system is to provide the IC with accurate and useful information if something goes wrong. Command needs to know what companies are operating in, on, under, or around the building; what their assignments are; where they are working; and the number of members in each company. This information will help direct the rescue and rapid intervention team efforts in an emergency/Mayday.

Crew integrity must be part of the accountability conversation. The first fireground priority, life safety, is at stake. Eighty-two percent of line-of-duty deaths associated with fire suppression activities involved those of a single firefighter. Many became lost or disoriented and died before their officer or the IC even knew they needed help. To maintain crew integrity, every company officer must know the location of every member of his crew. He must also instill discipline within the company and make sure every member understands why crew integrity is important and must be maintained. Company officers have a moral and ethical obligation to maintain accountability and crew integrity.


Company officers who seek out knowledge and skills will set the standards for the future. Think about how you can help your own department by setting a training example and embracing the concept that training is the key to professionalism and safety on the fireground. The foundation stones presented here are at an awareness level. It is up to you seek to out the intense education and knowledge needed to become a great and safe officer.


1. The Art of Reading Smoke, DVD, David W. Dodson, Fire Engineering Books & Videos. Vol 1-3, 2007, 2009, 2011, respectively.

2. A good place to begin your ongoing education is at the NIOSH Web site http://1.usa.gov/1gglOQh and review some of the LODD reports. I recommend especially the following: F2012-08, F2011-15, F2011-02, F2009-07, F2008-34, F2008-26, and F2008-08.

JOSEPH NEDDER was a volunteer or on-call firefighter in various departments for more than 36 years. He retired from the Uxbridge (MA) Fire Department in 2013. He has been involved in training for more than 25 of these years. He was an instructor for the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy for 16 years and has instructed at FDIC 2010, 2011, and 2012. He is the founder and lead instructor of Cross St. Associates, a fire service training company.

Joseph Nedder will present “Training Volunteer Company Officers” on Wednesday, April 9, 3:30 p.m.-5:15 p.m. at FDIC 2014 in Indianapolis.

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