By Tom Warren
We’ve all heard the expression, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.” As many of us have learned, there is more than a grain of truth to this old saying. Most firefighters can recall fires when things didn’t go right from the very beginning and we found ourselves playing catch-up. We often play back these fires in our minds and try to pinpoint where and how things went wrong. Was it bad luck, equipment failure, poor water pressure, ambivalence, or just a fluke? We might dismiss it as a mysterious twist of fate, but those who are serious about our work know that playing catch-up should never be our chosen or accepted fireground strategy. Serious firefighters know playing catch-up usually results in cascading events that can have disastrous consequences.
So how do firefighters avoid finding themselves operating in the catch-up mode? There are some simple and time-proven tactics that can be employed at every emergency that can reduce the chances of playing catch-up. These tactics equally apply to most of the emergencies firefighters respond to, such as hazmat calls, auto accidents, EMS responses, and more.
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The first tool in our toolbox is sizing up the situation we are responding to. This means every firefighter responding must be thinking about the incident they have been dispatched to while their apparatus is responding. Once on scene, it is vital for the company officer to report the conditions found and what strategies will be employed. The spectrum of options can be quite wide for the first-in fire company. A building fire with light smoke showing may only require investigation; fire showing on the second floor with people hanging out a window will require rescue; and a fully involved three-story building will require a defensive action. Once the first-in company officer determines the appropriate strategy, a comprehensive radio report is necessary for every responding fire company to have complete situational awareness of the incident and the intentions of the first-due fire company. This comprehensive report by the first-in company will be setting into motion the incident action plan (IAP). The next step is to apply the appropriate standing operating procedure.
Standard Operating Guidelines and Procedures
Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are the strongest and most effective way to avoid playing catch-up. SOPs are developed based on three incident priorities. These priorities are life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. It is important to remember that life safety means both civilian life as well as the responding firefighters. These incident priorities will apply to virtually all emergencies fire departments respond to. An example of the strength of SOPs can be illustrated by looking at a simple building fire SOP. When fire companies are dispatched to a building fire, every firefighter responding is beginning a mental size-up based on the dispatch. The SOP for this fictional fire department dispatches three engines, two ladders, and a chief officer. In the building fire SOP, each fire company has a specific responsibility. Each fire company knows what their responsibility is and they also know what each of the other fire companies’ operational responsibility is as well. In this SOP, the operational responsibilities are divided to avoid a duplication of effort, meet operational requirements, and maintain the incident commander’s (IC’s) span of control.
The SOP assigns operational responsibilities by order of dispatch:
First engine: Respond to the scene, report fire conditions, report what firefighters’ operational objectives are and report any unusual circumstances.
Second engine: Establish a water supply to the first engine then advance a hoseline into the building.
Third engine: Advance a line to support the first engine or above the fire.
First ladder: Forcible entry, interior search, and ventilation.
Second ladder: Vertical ventilation, roof ventilation and secondary search.
Chief: Establish incident command.
In this fictional building fire response, every firefighter knows what his or her responsibility is. Just as important, every firefighter knows the responsibility of every other firefighter.
Every initial fireground objective required to achieve incident stabilization and firefighter safety is addressed through the SOP. For example, all firefighters responding on the second engine know they must find the nearest fire hydrant and lay a supply line to the first engine before the first engine exhausts their tank water. Water supply is critical, and it is this company’s sole responsibility to accomplish this task before they are available for reassignment. Equally important is that every other firefighter responding to this building fire knows and expects the second engine will accomplish this task. This frees all other responding fire companies to focus exclusively on their assigned responsibilities via the SOP. Dividing the operational objectives in this way also reduces radio traffic because every fire company knows what they are responsible to accomplish. Fire companies do not have to radio the IC for instructions; this frees up the IC to perform a 360° size-up, identify unusual hazards, and observe operational progress, as well as keeping the radio clear for any emergency traffic that might need to be transmitted.
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The fireground is a dynamic place, changing every minute in predictable ways yet often in ways that are totally unpredictable. Fire companies may respond to what appears to be a vacant building and find people living inside or they may be stretching a line into a building when someone appears in a window above the fire. These types of events will require changes in the IAP that may have been reported over the radio just minutes before.
When the first-in fire company is following the department building fire SOP by stretching a handline into the building to attack the fire and sees a person in the window on the second floor, everything changes. The fire officer must decide in a split second whether it is best to get the handline in operation to protect the person in the window or abandon the handline and take an extension ladder from their truck and extend it to the person in the window. If the first-due ladder company arrives in time, the rescue can be handed off to them and the engine company can stretch their handline into the building.
Experience will play a big part in the officer’s thinking and decision making but one thing is critical: the fire officer’s intentions must be communicated via radio to the IC and, by extension, to every responding fire company. Because active fireground operations are so dynamic, SOGs are drafted to provide for the flexibility that these dynamic situations demand. SOGs are not intended to be rigid documents but rather provide a framework that can accommodate the dynamic fireground situations firefighters operate in. When the fire officer communicates their fire company’s intentions, the IC can immediately reassign responsibilities with only minimal disruptions in the IAP. Adjustments made by the IC will maintain control of the incident and prevent fire companies from playing catch-up when objectives are not immediately met. Whenever a fire company cannot meet its responsibilities outlined in the SOG or SOP, for whatever reason, it must be communicated to the IC via radio so that all responding fire companies can maintain a situational awareness of the incident. Communication leads to progress reporting.
A good building fire SOP will contain language that requires fire companies to report where they are operating or if they cannot complete their assigned task/responsibility as outlined in the SOP. This information is essential to the IC to maintain accountability and monitor the progress of the IAP. It also prevents the possibility of playing catch-up when assigned tasks cannot be accomplished.
An example would be when the third-due engine company begins operating and is able to report: “Engine 6 to Command, charge my line and we are operating on the third floor, quadrant C.” Another example is when a fire company cannot meet its’ assigned task is: “Engine 6 to Command, we cannot make it to the third floor due to excessive debris in the rear stairwell.” Both of these radio communications report either progress or the lack or progress and both are very important communications for the IC and also for all fire companies to maintain a situational awareness. In the first example, the IAP is progressing well and the IC and all fire companies know that Engine 6 is on the third floor with a charged handline fighting the fire. Accountability of Engine 6 is confirmed and everyone operating at this fire knows that Engine 6 is checking vertical fire spread. In the second example, an essential fireground task/responsibility is not being met because of debris in the stairwell. Accountability is achieved because through this report the IC knows that Engine 6 is somewhere in the rear stairwell but the vertical extension of the fire has not been checked. The IC and every firefighter on the scene can expect to see deteriorating conditions on the third floor. The IC now knows additional resources must be deployed to check this vertical fire extension. This radio report may be precipitate the striking of an additional alarm. This is a good example of good progress reporting allowing the IC to adjust the IAP to meet this newest challenge. Progress reporting of this kind will prevent playing catch-up at this building fire.
In professional sports, one of the worst positions to be in is to be behind and playing catch-up. When sports teams play catch-up, they begin to push themselves and often take risks that prove to be disastrous. In the sports world, the worst that can happen is that the team loses the game or players are embarrassed. In the fire service, playing catch-up can have much more serious consequences—consequences that can last forever. Taking a little time and employing these simple suggestions can keep you from playing catch-up and improve your fireground operations.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
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