By Eric G. Bachman

Preincident planning, risk assessment, preincident intelligence, and prefire survey are all terms used to characterize the information-gathering process for target hazards. Regardless of what the process is called, if you’re not inventorying, identifying, and analyzing your hazards, you’re going to be caught off guard and unprepared. Communities are rapidly growing, and technologies are constantly changing—and the fire service must grow and change with them.

Preincident intelligence aids in reducing some of the unknowns. It is a vital tool that you must use before, during, and after operations. Preincident information and hazard analysis affect nearly every facet of the fire service. Why do you carry the equipment you do? Is it because everyone else has one, or is it based on identified hazards/situations found through preincident surveying? How were the engine company hose load(s) determined? Was it because that configuration was all that would fit or because there was an identified situation requiring a predetermined or extraordinary amount of hose? Why do you participate in certain training? Does some standard require it, or is there a potential situation for which you are preparing?


The tragic effects of the lack of preincident preparedness have been well-documented throughout the history of the fire service. Technical reports published by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and other organizations have illustrated the effects of being unprepared. In some cases, firefighters are hurt and killed because of lack of training, inappropriate personal protective equipment, and tactical errors. Aggressive, practiced, and shared preincident intelligence will aid in improving these factors.

I have identified six basic preincident intelligence principles on which the fire service fails to concentrate. It is important not to overlook any of these areas, as each impacts the others. Like in any other process, a preincident intelligence program is only as effective as its weakest link. This article references published case studies as well as other experiences to reinforce the need to conduct and maintain a preincident intelligence program. These references are not meant to criticize any department but to help us learn from past tragedies and errors.


The first and most important failure is in identifying occupancy types and their associated hazards. What do you protect? and What is in it? are initial questions that you need to ask and answer. Your department must identify potential hazards and how those hazards will affect operations. This will ultimately serve to safeguard firefighters and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of re-sponse.

Case study: In December 1991, in Pennsylvania, four firefighters were killed after a floor collapse in a mixed-use residential/commercial building. The fire department had no prefire information or any detailed knowledge of the occupancy. The facility was complex with limited access. The lack of this information, which the incident commander needed to process and manage the incident, contributed to the tragic outcome.

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Facility names are deceiving; you cannot assume the occupancy, processes, or hazards until you get out into your community and examine what you protect. Business centers and industrial/commercial parks have unique hazards and may include numerous occupancy types. See photos 1 and 2 for examples of business center signs listing the occupants. What occupancy types can be identified? What do some of the occupancies do? What are their hazards? How will you respond if called for an emergency?


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The second common failure is not becoming oriented with the facility (see my article “Preincident Size-Up” in the April 2002 issue). This requires fire department personnel to gain a better understanding of the basic concepts of the facility, its layout, and its operations. A department cannot be expected to be an expert in all facilities in its jurisdiction or memorize the layout of every occupancy. But it must identify and understand the complex arrangement, inherent access problems, and dangers of processes beforehand to prevent injury, death, and large fire losses.

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Photo 3 is an example of a large healthcare facility with several interconnected buildings. Understanding the orientation of each building and how it “connects” with the others is critical to reduce orientation issues.

Case study: In December 1995 in Massachusetts, 37 people, in-cluding six firefighters, were injured at a manufacturing facility fire. The fire caused more than $500 million in damages and destroyed more than a million square feet of the building. The complex included several interconnected buildings. According to the USFA report, there was no prefire plan information. Also contributing to the problem were storage trailers that blocked access points and yard hydrants. The fire department was not familiar with the complex layout or the storage trailer problem.


A third common failure is im-proper information management. We have taken a tour of the facility, obtained floor plans, and know the materials stored. Now what? The information must be processed—systematically reviewed and prepared to illustrate the facility and its hazards. You cannot just haphazardly place blueprints and other floor plan information in a book or scan it into a computer program. You must present it in a form—such as an organized tactical worksheet, including maps—that personnel can interpret and apply to an incident. Illustrate facility access points, room identifications, process areas, distances, egress types, and other details. Include details on life hazard, construction, utilities, and protection factors. Whether you maintain the information in a book or on computer, it must be readily accessible, elementary, and accurate.

Case study: In October 1993, in Massa-chusetts, 11 firefighters were burned while attempting to extinguish a fire involving sodium at a metal processing plant. By not understanding the risks in such an operation, their application of water resulted in six serious, one critically, and one extremely critically injured firefighters. One of the key factors identified in the USFA report was that the hazards of the facility exceeded the capabilities of the fire department. The report suggested that the best action for the fire department to take was no action. Gathering preincident intelligence at this facility would have allowed the department to ask itself several important questions, including the following: What is in it? Do we have the equipment to mitigate an incident involving the material? Are we properly trained to respond to such an incident?

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Photos 4 and 5 show a mixed-use office and warehouse building. At the rear of the building is the warehouse, which posts NFPA 704 placards. The fire department must determine what material is in the facility, how much, where it is located, and how to deal with it. For this occupancy, which is an agricultural material supplier, the placards are for ammonium nitrate. Overall quantities of this material are low. However, during the early spring when farmers are preparing for planting, this facility maintains an inventory of nearly 300 tons of the material.

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Another aspect of information management is information sharing. Some departments fail to provide tactical information to automatic- or mutual-aid departments. Everyone needs to be on the same page. When giving mutual-aid apparatus instructions, responders need to understand the facility layout and associated hazards as well. This will avoid confusion and miscommunication.

Preincident intelligence is vital for firefighter safety and survival. Incident commanders should consider maintaining copies of preincident intelligence information specifically for rapid intervention teams (RIT). While crews are operating at an incident, the RIT can review the intelligence for reference if called into action for downed or missing firefighters. The fire service should have no secrets when operating at an incident. If there is confidential information within intelligence mediums, fire officials should meet with mutual-aid companies and facility representatives to discuss this issue.

Most of the incident lessons referenced above required mutual aid. If no prefire information were available to direct the host company, imagine how the confusion would delay suppression and rescue efforts. If the response agencies do not have the same information, how can the incident commander effectively communicate instructions to incoming mutual-aid company officers?

Not all case studies illustrate incidents that went bad. A successful example of preincident intelligence involves an incident that occurred in California in April 1989. Because of the preincident intelligence gathered at a pharmaceutical plant, fire department personnel knew the hazards present. When the facility caught fire, they operated accordingly. The USFA report stated that the facility hazards were “well-communicated” and the plan was to keep firefighters out of the building, thus reducing the number of injuries.

Yet another aspect of information management is how and where the information is maintained. More and more departments are maintaining their preincident intelligence on vehicle computers. Whether you are using ring binders or laptops, you must maintain the information on all response apparatus. I recently visited a fire station and asked to look at the department’s preincident intelligence information. The department had some facility diagrams and tactical worksheets, but they were in a filing cabinet in the chief’s office. When I asked what happens when the department needs the information, the chief responded, “If the call is something, someone will get the file.”

Understandably, ring binders can be cumbersome, which was one reason I was given for their being carried only in the duty officer or command vehicle. The problem here is that the front line apparatus is responding blindly. The apparatus officer cannot visualize what he is getting into without a map. The duty (chief) officer must give unnecessary radio communications on specifics such as utility shutoff locations, fire department connections, and lock box locations.


A fourth common failure is not participating in exercises. Practice makes perfect is an old cliché that has applications in the fire service. With the information gathered, many departments do not exercise their abilities to respond and operate at a facility. If they are not applying what they learned through their preincident intelligence, they cannot really be sure that they are better prepared.

Case study: In February 1992 in Indiana, two firefighters and a civilian were killed and four other firefighters injured in a fire in a club of a multiuse building. Key factors identified in the USFA report were the lack of procedures for operations at buildings with standpipes as well as the incompatible threads on the standpipe hose system. These factors hampered the fire department’s attack on the fire. Had the fire department gathered preincident intelligence on the standpipe system, the outcome may have been different.

There are primarily three types of exercises: tabletop, functional, and full scale. When conducting any of these exercises, it is important to establish guidelines and goals. What are you trying to test? and What do you hope to accomplish? are two questions you should answer prior to conducting an exercise. Too often, especially in full-scale exercises, departments mean well, but they fail to develop exercise goals and, therefore, cannot properly gauge success or areas of improvement from the exercise.

Before conducting an exercise, it is important to understand each type of exercise, its purpose, and its limitations.

Tabletop exercises include reviewing a certain scenario and then role playing and discussing how to respond or react. Company officers can review preincident intelligence information and, based on the scenario, discuss how they would manage the incident. For example, pose a fire scenario. and have the company officers discuss access, apparatus positioning, and suppression actions.

Functional exercises are geared toward testing specific items. If you identify a response obstacle or task that may be difficult to manage, develop a scenario and practice it. For example, a water supply goal of a rural fire department may be to sustain a water supply using a mobile water tanker shuttle for a certain period of time to ensure a specific fire flow determined through preincident intelligence. Identifying the proper number of mobile water tankers, supply mediums, and refill routes may be the areas you want to test. The gauge would be the maximum gallons per minute achieved consistently and how long it was maintained. Accountability and rapid intervention team operations are exercise examples that you also can test in functional exercises.

Full-scale exercises involve testing and reviewing all components for effectiveness. A department may develop a fire scenario for a certain occupancy that incorporates all of the response functions. Be sure not to make the scenario impossible to manage by covering too many tasks and agencies. Work your way up to a full-scale exercise after conducting and critiquing tabletop and functional exercises.

Exercises should be a learning experience. Officers and firefighters who become frustrated or overwhelmed from the start will not learn much. Work with facilities—seek their involvement and input—and establish goals and objectives for each exercise.


The fifth common failure is lack of information maintenance. Knowing and being familiar with a facility are continuing, ever-evolving jobs. It is important to check and regularly recheck a facility to ensure that nothing has changed. Did you ever go to an address and say, “When did that go in?” Turnover of occupancies and management changes occur often; make sure the information you are using is current and up to date.

Case study: In January 1997 in Colorado, five occupants of a residential motel perished in a fire. According to the USFA report, the fire department had preplanned the facility several years prior to the fire, ascertaining room numbers, stairways, water sources, and other building hazards. The motel owners, however, had reorganized the room-numbering scheme shortly before the fire, which contributed to confusion as to which rooms were occupied.

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Photo 6 is an example of a facility renovation. It was previously occupied by a home improvement store. It is being renovated into a large furniture store/warehouse. Constantly monitor facility changes—in terms of management, materials stored, and building layout.


This sixth common failure is not applying the lessons learned. Case studies, other departments’ incident reviews, and your own postincident critiques are good tools in identifying potential response improvements. Have you learned from previous incidents, and will you incorporate those lessons at the next incident?

Case study: In December 2001 in Pennsylvania, a fire damaged a residence on a narrow street in an older neighborhood. Although the area was served by a municipal water authority, the closest hydrant was nearly 2,000 feet away. There was a delay in establishing a water supply as first-arriving engine companies failed to initiate and secure a supply line. The company did not conduct a critique; thus, no response deficiencies were identified.

In April 2002, another fire on the same street engulfed several garages and vehicles behind residences across the street from the December fire. The fire department again failed to recognize the water source distance problem, and the first two arriving engine companies again did not initiate a supply line. Both engine companies, using tank water for independent attack lines, ran out of water before a supply line was established. The fire company again did not conduct a critique and again may not be prepared for another incident in that area. Although no one was injured in these fires, it is critical to recognize the deficiencies and prepare contingencies so history does not repeat itself.

You must gather, study, and maintain preincident intelligence. Get out in your community; see what you protect and how you will respond to an incident. Do not become complacent just because you have gathered preincident intelligence on a facility. Continually process the information, practice during exercises, and regularly revisit facilities to ensure you have the most accurate information. Maintaining an aggressive preincident intelligence program allows you to control things before they get out of control. It is another important training and response tool to maintain, practice, and use.

ERIC G. BACHMAN, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and public information officer for the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. Bachman is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a Fire Officer I, Fire Instructor I, Hazardous Materials Technician, and Hazardous Materials Incident Commander. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the Manheim (PA) Fire Department.

Photos by author.

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