Daniel P. Sheridan: The Preincident Guide: “What’s in Your Response District?”

By Daniel P. Sheridan

Every fire department has its “bread and butter” operations. They respond to the same type of buildings. I have developed a standard operating procedure (SOP) for these responses. I am quite sure the local departments in New England have their SOP for the “Triple Decker.” Battalion Chief John O’Regan of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Ladders 3 in the 1960s as a result of his company, Ladder Company 26’s, responding to the same type of tenement fires day in and day out. Ladder 3 became the model that every new firefighter in the department had to know inside and out.


Every department develops SOPs to address the different types of buildings in its response district. I would guess that many of these SOPs were developed using Deputy Assistant Chief John Norman’s Fire Officers Handbook. The FDNY has in the past 50 years grown its SOPs to handle every type of fire or emergency imaginable. Just in the 30 years I have been in the department, I have seen our “Books” grow incredibly. We now have SOPs for all sorts of fires and emergencies such as hazmat, building collapse, subway emergencies, and a host of others.

When an SOP is developed, it should be based on size-up and tactics. As far as size-up is concerned, we would want to know everything that is contained in the acronym COAL WAS WEALTH.  I have been using this acronym since I was a probie. I know over the past few years that there have been some modifications to this acronym, but I still stick with it:

C              –           Construction

O             –            Occupancy

A             –         Apparatus and Equipment

L            –            Life

W          –            Water Supply

A           –             Auxiliary appliances

S            –            Street conditions

W          –             Weather

E            –             Exposures

A            –            Area

L            –            Location and extent

T            –            Time of day

H            –           Height

Out of these 13 points, the only variables that will be different for each incident are the weather, location, and time of day; the other 10 could be deemed as pretty much consistent. Every department should have some information on every building in its response district. In the FDNY, we have a critical information dispatch system (CIDS). Companies determine that certain buildings in their administrative district feel should have some additional information that is not readily apparent from the outside of building.  A good example in the modern age would be lightweight construction, which has become a critical issue responding units should have some foreknowledge of.

CIDS is sort of like a Tweet: Up to 160 characters can be attached to the response ticket. The CIDS would be a step below having a preincident guide (PG). The CIDS program has definitely saved firefighters’ lives in the FDNY. On one occasion, firefighters in Manhattan were involved in an incident involving a fire in a vacant five-story tenement. At some point, the battalion chief asked his aide to check and see if there was any CIDS on the building. (The key to the CIDS program is having the actual address of the building). The aide said he would check with the dispatcher. At this point, there was fire on two floors and probably six companies were inside the building; all were heavily engaged. The dispatcher sent the CIDS to the chief’s aide. Part of the CIDS was a recommendation that no firefighters should enter the building: “Exterior Operations Only.” The aide gave the information to the chief, who then immediately pulled everybody out of the building. Within minutes of the firefighters leaving the building, there was a pancake collapse from the top floor to the basement.

Knowledge is power, as they say. Firefighters use the information gleaned from years of responding over and over to the same types of buildings for all sorts of emergencies and applying it on that day when they pull up at 3 a.m. and have fire out the windows. Emergency medical services (EMS) responses are a perfect opportunity for firefighters to get to know their buildings. Ladder companies get into the buildings for all sorts of emergencies such as gas leaks, electrical emergencies, water leaks, and so on. Today, our engine companies are getting into the buildings as much as the ladder companies, if not more.  Ladder companies and engine companies should be taking the time after treating patients or dealing with a nonlife-threatening emergency to do a walk through the building and talk about different possible scenarios. It’s a good opportunity for ladder firefighters to check out access to the roof or whether or not the building has rear fire escapes, for example.

A good friend of mine, Battalion Chief John Rice, was a lieutenant in a neighboring engine company in Manhattan, where it is not out of the ordinary to have an altered layout in an apartment. Many buildings have had two floors converted into a duplex apartment. At one fire on the East Side of Harlem, it appeared that we had two floors of fire.  There was heavy fire out the windows on the exposure 2 (B) side and heavy smoke pushing out the top-floor windows on the exposure 4 (D) side. The battalion chief was very concerned about the extension to the top floor, so he asked me to stretch a line to the floor above, which I did. John gave a report to the chief that “all visible fire was knocked down.” The chief was confused and told John that it appears that there was extension to the top floor. John explained to the chief that “the apartment was a duplex; all was ok.” After the fire, I commended him on the great job. He told me that he was in the apartment the tour before for an EMS call and knew about the duplex.


The second issue concerns the tactics we are going to employ. Our tactics vary greatly depending on the type of structure involved. We have in my response district every type of building you can have in New York City from private dwellings to huge factories that take up an entire city block. As a guideline, let us use an 11-point guide suggested by Dunn:

1.      Locate the fire.

2.      Save life.

3.      Prevent fire spread.

4.      Confine fire.

5.      Ventilate.

6.      Extinguish fire.

7.      Search.

8.      Overhaul.

9.      Salvage.

10.   Prevent rekindle.

11.   Secure scene.

In this second part of the equation, we take what we know from our size-up and apply these tactics. One thing to keep in mind is that we cannot commit any of our forces until we locate the fire. I have seen over the years, many well-intentioned companies anxious to get to the fire and start stretching to a location only to find that the fire is below them or in an exposure. As always, life takes precedence; life hazards need to be addressed immediately.  Sometimes, a properly placed hoseline can serve two functions by protecting firefighters making rescues and preventing fire spreading to those people in danger.

You need to look at the buildings in your response area and make a decision.

• The first option would be, if the structure is a building that is a normal response such as a private dwelling, our normal SOPs should be sufficient to enable us to handle any type of fire or emergency that may arise.

• The second option would be that maybe our SOPs are sufficient to handle the situation at hand but maybe some things exist that the incident commander needs to know about such as the following:

a.      Truss roof

b.     Window bars

c.      Lightweight construction

d.     Duplex/triplex apartments

e.      Guard dogs and so on.

• A building or structure where arriving units would have a tough time dealing with the situation. This is where it would be necessary to develop a PG for the structure.

Preincident Guide

My interest in PGs came as a result of a phone call I received from the head of Fire Safety of the New York City Department of Corrections. He asked if I would be available to come down and look at one of his facilities located in my response district. I spoke with the captain of the company in which the structure resided and arranged a walk-through. When we arrived at the structure, I realized within a few minutes that if we had an emergency here, I would be way out of my comfort zone and would have a real tough time.

To backtrack a bit, the first time I was confronted with a situation that overwhelmed me was a fire in a hospital in the middle of the day. I was working in a battalion just for the day tour in the North Bronx. It started with a very vague phone alarm for smoke in the street at an intersection, with no further information. Thinking that this was going to be just a routine oil burner or other noncritical call, I didn’t give it much thought. En route to the box location, the dispatcher informed me that they were now getting additional calls for smoke in the emergency room at the local hospital.

On arrival, we found a heavy smoke condition in the street.  I discounted a report I received from one of the firefighters that it was just a rubbish fire in the shaft outside the building. My gut told me that this was something bigger, so I transmitted a signal for a working fire. I told the dispatcher that we had something but I was not sure what it was and I would get back with further information. Thankfully, the dispatchers were on the ball and transmitted the signal for a working high-rise fire.  

It turned out that we had a fire in the generator room of the hospital, with a pretty decent smoke condition throughout. To compound the situation, the backup generators were knocked out by the fire.  The hospital initiated a disaster plan while this was going on; I did not know about this. The plan involved evacuating 165 people, many of whom were nonambulatory and were on ventilators. It took up to four people to move just one person. If I had a PG and was familiar with the building, I would have been able to be more proactive and not have to make all these decisions on the fly. I am grateful that it all worked out, but it was a definite lesson learned.  

After a few minutes at the correctional facility, it was very apparent to me that we could have the potential for a huge disaster here. We had a six-story 1,000- × 125-foot barge that had been converted to a jail. In the hold of the ship were four diesel generators with 80, 000 gallons of diesel stored in a few tanks. On the decks above were about 700 inmates with a few hundred prison guards. We agreed to have a familiarization drill that would include the Marine Division and the satellite water delivery system. We created a scenario where there was a fire in one of the generators that would require a foam handline. There were a lot of lessons learned from that exercise; I now feel confident that if a situation were to arise, we would be much better suited to handle it.

As fate would have it, there was a fire at the barge a few weeks later; but unfortunately, my battalion was on another call and did not respond. The PG was still not fully developed. Fortunately, it was just a small rubbish fire in the stairwell, but it reinforced the point that we needed to have a preplan. We plan on doing a tabletop and another full-scale exercise very soon.

In my battalion, we have 12 PGs and another three in development. Our PGs include the following:

·       A fuel oil depot

·       A major natural gas pipeline

·       Lumber yard

·       Sewage plant

·       Office building

·       Old converted movie theater

·       A high- and low-rise residential complex

These are structures that would exceed the capabilities of our normal SOPs or CIDS, institutions that require a visit from the responding units along with a preplan because of the complex nature of the structure or occupancy. What we are looking for in a PG is to answer most of the points listed in the size-up and tactics. The visit is an opportunity for the local battalion chief and companies to think through the potential hazards and come up with solutions in a nonstressful climate. These situations don’t necessarily have to pertain to fires; they can include confined space, hazmat, or any other emergency.

I live in a small town about 60 miles north of New York City; at one time, it was a summer resort that grew into a bedroom community. There are no tall buildings in the town except for one tenement that is three stories and contains about 12 apartments. This type of building is a dime a dozen in New York City, our bread-and butter operation.” The local volunteers, I am sure, do not have an SOP for this building. They deal with ranch, split ranch and Colonial style private dwellings. They are their bread-and-butter operations. I would suggest that any fire department that has any type of building for which there is no SOP develop a PG and make that the subject of a weekend drill on that building.

I believe the criteria for whether or not a building or an institution qualifies for a PG is not the size or complexity of the building but rather the local fire department’s ability to handle such an incident if it were to occur. For example, we responded to a fire in a fire-resistive six-story multiple dwelling last week. On arrival many of the residents were self-evacuating. Many of the residents, except five, were in absolutely no danger if they stayed put and sheltered in place. By exiting the safety of their apartments and leaving their apartment doors open, they created a situation that quickly overwhelmed our resources. Imagine if this same fire occurred in a department that only has a handful of firefighters on the initial alarm, which is the case in many of the smaller departments in the surrounding areas of the Bronx. If such buildings exist in your area, it is imperative that you consider the worst-case scenario and plan for that.


Let’s now look at an actual PG in my response area. What we are hoping for in the PG is to cover all the points in the acronym COAL WAS WEALTH. Using a PG for the lumber yard in my battalion, you can see how well we hit all the marks on our size-up in relation to the PG.

·       Construction:                                      Class 5 Metal

·       Occupancy:                                       Commercial

·       Apparatus and Equipment:                Three engines, two ladders, and one battalion chief

·       Life:                                                    Workers during the day, office staff on the second floor

·       Water Supply:                                    Three yard hydrants inside complex

·       Auxiliary Appliances:                          Sprinklers throughout

·       Street Conditions:                               Located inside a complex; shouldn’t be an issue

·       Weather:                                            TBD

·       Exposures:                                        Standalone structure

·       Area:                                                   890 × 320

·       Location and extent:                          TBD

·       Time of day:                                      TBD

·       Height:                                                Two stories

Other important information on the PG that will give us a leg up would be special instructions on the PG for gaining access with our apparatus for specific areas of the building–for example, “For rig access to exposure 3 (C) side, proceed west of Barry Street & Oak Point Avenue into the Atlantic Bus lot” or “2 yard hydrants in the Atlantic Bus lot to supply the sprinkler siamese on the 2/3 (B/C) side of the building.”

Generally, the first-due battalion chief can run the fire anyway he/she wants, but there are guidelines in the PG to facilitate the decision making. The beauty of the PG is that these recommendations are put together under no stress and are well-thought out. As is the case in every fire, you never can predict what will happen because no two fires are alike. You can have identical fires in identical buildings, and there will be some slight variations. The PG for the Lumber Yard, for example, makes some well-thought-out recommendations based on the facts and the hazards that exist.  For example, The Lumber Yard/Furniture Warehouse has an extremely heavy fire load and not every door accesses every part of the building.

This is just one example of a PG. You must seriously consider what would qualify for a Preincident Guide based on the apparatus and personnel available to you if an alarm were to come in.  If you feel that you will need mutual aid for a particular building, preplan that, make it part of the assignment. In my experience in any fire, once you are behind the eight ball, it is very hard to catch up. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.


Dan Sheridan is a 29-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he is a battalion chief. He has worked in Harlem and the Bronx for most of his career. He is a national instructor and the founder and chief operating officer of Mutual Aid Americas, an international nonprofit training group to assist firefighters. Previously, he instructed at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy. He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering and has a monthly column on FireEngineering.com. He authored the Forcible Entry chapter for the Fire Engineering Handbook for Firefighter I and II.




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