Critical Fireground Factors


In recent columns, we have discussed a critical part of the incident commander’s (IC’s) size-up process that involves comparing the hazard level that is present with the capability of the safety system that we use to protect the firefighters working in the hazard zone. The IC must quickly evaluate and include that hazard/safety relationship in the initial size-up and then continually reevaluate how that same connection is going as operations continue. A basic job for the IC is to always ask the very basic command question: “Are conditions getting better or getting worse?” If conditions are getting better, the IC continues to support the attack; if conditions are getting worse, the IC must decide if the attack can be reinforced (made bigger) or if the troops must be moved—this reaction describes very simply what managing the overall incident strategy really means.

In addition to the hazard/safety evaluation and decisions, the IC must develop and use a simple system to deal with an inventory of all the basic incident information. Without such a system, it will be impossible to perform the situation evaluation and all the other command functions efficiently. The standard critical factors offer the IC such an evaluation, decision, and management structure.

The standard critical factors are a list of the basic items that the IC must consider when evaluating tactical situations. They provide a checklist of the major topics involved in size-up, decision making, initiating operations, and review and revision. Command deals with these critical factors through a systematic management process that creates a rapid, overall evaluation; sorts out the critical factors in priority order; and then seeks out more information about each of them and focuses on them. These factors are the following:

  • Customer profile
  • Life hazard
  • Fire
  • Exposures
  • Time
  • Building
  • Occupancy
  • Arrangement/access
  • Nonfire hazards/problems
  • Resources
  • Action
  • Personnel safety
  • Special circumstances

These factors are not listed in any order. A major situation-evaluation function of the IC is to line up the factors in priority order based on the profile and needs of the situation. Although this sounds simple, it requires training, experience, skill, and practice to get it right. Effectively engaging the incident problems by making assignments based on the correct critical factor priority order is a huge part of how the IC creates standard, safe outcomes.

Virtually every incident factor comes with a related set of consequences that can range from minor to fatal. This is what makes critical factors critical. A major IC information-management function is to identify the factors with the most severe consequences and then concentrate on reducing, stabilizing, eliminating, or in some cases avoiding the possible outcomes of those critical factors. This requires the IC to develop a standard approach to sorting out and prioritizing (triaging/raking) critical factors.

The IC must train and prepare (practice) to continually engage in conscious information management. Incident factors and their possible consequences offer the basis for a standard incident-management approach. Decisions and the action they produce can be no better than the information on which they are based (unless you are awfully lucky). A standard information-management approach is the launching pad for effective incident decision making and successful operational performance. The IC must develop the habit of using the critical factors in their order of importance as the basis for making the specific assignments that make up the incident action plan (IAP). This standard approach becomes a huge help when it is hard to decide where to start.

The IC must create a standard information system and use effective techniques to keep informed at the incident. Information is continually received and processed so that new decisions can be made and old decisions revised based on increased data and improved information. The IC can never assume action-oriented responders engaged in operational activities will just naturally stop what they are doing so they can feed the IC a continuous supply of top-grade objective information. It is the IC’s responsibility to do whatever is required to stay effectively informed.

During most critical incident situations, Command many times must develop an IAP, based only on the critical factor evaluation information available at the beginning stage of operations. Many times, that information is incomplete. Even though the IC will continue to improve its quality, the IC will seldom function during the fast, active periods of the event with complete or totally accurate information on all factors.

This is most evident during confused, compressed-time initial operations. This continual improvement in the accuracy and timeliness of incident information becomes a major IC function. The ability of the IC and the response team to quickly be informed and perform an analysis of the critical factors that can cause major physical and emotional setbacks to the responders and the customers will have a great impact on the health and longevity of the troops and the customers and their property.

Critical factors are critical because of their physical and tactical consequences. Therefore, a basic command job for the IC is to first figure out what is critical and what is not. The IC must then quickly learn what is required to first keep that critical factor from hurting (or worse) the troops/customer and then convert an out-of-control situation (related to the critical factor) to one that is under control. The IC must realize that not knowing about a severe factor does not change its “criticalness.” In fact, sometimes the obvious factor can disguise other more critical nonobvious factors or distract the IC from learning about them.

Generally, the longer a critical factor goes without attention (and action), the more dangerous and difficult it becomes. Experienced ICs must grow brain cells out of the road rash created in the past when what they should have known about in the beginning of an event reached out and grabbed them and “threw them under the bus” (to use a modern phrase). Such hard-earned brain cells create an effective before/during/after size-up capability. Such painful experiences cause the IC in the future to be as concerned about what is NOT known and to use the “not known” as critical information targets.

The ability to sort out the known from the not known emerges from the IC’s developing a practical knowledge of the information inventory of critical factors that go with that particular situation. Refining this inventory is the natural result of living through lots of incident beginnings, middles, and ends. Red flags can describe building conditions (structural stability), fire conditions (or conditions that are about to change), or any other critical factor/situation that can quickly turn lethal. Some red flags can rapidly be dealt with and neutralized without making wholesale changes to the IAP. Other red flags are indicators that the tactical situation is about to become very ugly. Red flags must be identified, plugged into the size-up, and then be effectively reacted to.

I recently heard a pre-red flag condition that requires attention and caution described in an interesting way as a tactical “black cat.” I guess it means that when the “cat” (i.e., that condition) runs in front of the IC, some bad luck is lurking and there is very probably a red flag close behind.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the quarterly fire service magazine and the Blue Card hazard zone training and certification system. He can be reached at

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