BY SCOTT THOMPSON AND STUART GRANT
The notification and deployment of resources assigned to the initial alarm of a structure fire and the initial plan of attack will largely determine the outcome of the incident and, more importantly, have a huge impact on firefighter safety. This holds true for large metro departments as well as for small rural fire departments. It doesn’t matter if you respond to structure fires with four engines, two trucks, two chiefs, and 40 career firefighters or with one brush truck, a tanker, and four volunteer firefighters. The fireground is a demanding and unforgiving environment that requires quick thinking, quick decision making, and quick action by those involved in the initial fire attack. The ability to correctly identify problems and develop an incident action plan to address those problems makes or breaks the initial incident commander (IC). All fires, big or small, rural or metro, demand that certain things occur if the outcome is to be favorable and if everyone is to go home safely.
Choosing the correct mode of attack, offensive or defensive; apparatus placement; line selection; line placement; and incident organization—all play a very important role in determining if things will go well or not. Stubbornness, pride, and ego can cause the bread-and-butter operation to turn into a disaster. The inability of firefighters to recognize that they are having a bad fireground experience only compounds problems and increases the likelihood that one of our own may become a victim.
The following basic considerations are offered as tools for the initial IC operating in the early stages of a structure fire. It has been said that “the first five minutes will determine the next five hours.” These considerations will not guarantee success on the fireground. What they will do is help define the playing field and assist the initial IC in maintaining a proactive approach to the incident.
Implement a Risk Management Plan AT All Incidents
Every fire department has limitations, and that’s okay. In some situations, the availability of personnel may define limitations; in others, it may be the reflex time associated with the arrival of mutual-aid companies; and in still others, the size and magnitude of the incident will be the determining factors. The important thing is to identify your department’s limitations and to recognize very early in the incident when those limitations are being exceeded. First-arriving companies and initial ICs must resist the temptation to exceed their limitations and must strive to work within the capabilities of the resources available. We must always resist the temptation to take unnecessary risks, and we must constantly keep an eye on the time on-scene, the fire, the smoke, and the building with the goal of managing risks.
An effective and easily applied risk management plan that has been used for years is the risk vs. benefit plan. Simply stated, we will only assume managed risks if there are verifiable gains to be made as a result of assuming the identified risk. Too many times we hear about a firefighter being injured or killed trying to save lives or property that was already lost prior to arrival. Of course, there will be those occasions when, based on the initial information provided on arrival, firefighters will do what they do best and place themselves in harm’s way in an effort to save a life.
Firefighters must be smart, and the individuals who make decisions early in the incident must be smart and know the difference between savable lives, savable property, and a lost cause. They must know when to make the transition from a rescue operation to a recovery operation. They must understand that on some occasions people will die, regardless of the actions taken. Finally, they must understand that we must take care of each other and not place our brothers and sisters in situations that have a high probability for disaster. Our goal should always be to do our best, with a smart, safe fireground operation, and then we all go home.
Standard operating guidelines, training, and supervision all are important components of risk management. Identifying off-limit structures and preincident plans can provide initial fire companies with critical decision-making information early in the incident. Knowing ahead of time what might go wrong and what structures we can and can’t enter will help the initial IC develop an incident action plan and incorporate a risk-management plan into the initial fire attack strategy. Unfortunately, many times critical information is not available or is inaccessible in the early stages of the incident. It goes without saying that the more information available to the initial IC, the more likely he is to develop a strategy that is not only effective and safe but also manages risks. The best risk managers see the problem and mitigate it before it can do harm.
(1) The staffing board shows apparatus assignments and positions. It is updated during roll call. (Photo by author.)
Develop a Game Plan Prior to the Event
Imagine a football team going into a game without a playbook. Imagine the quarterback calling the play in a language that no one understands. Imagine two engines and a truck being dispatched to a fire with no deployment plan or assignment for when they arrive on- scene. Now imagine the firefighter riding backward and the company officer riding the seat not knowing if they will be pulling the first line, establishing a water supply, or going to the roof and venting. How successful can we expect our companies to be when faced with situations that require quick decisions and actions if there is no predetermined plan for how incoming companies will deploy?
A good game plan starts with written deployment guidelines and seat assignments on the apparatus. Nothing fancy, just an operating guideline that lays out what the first-arriving engine, first-arriving truck, second-arriving engine, and so on will do based on the type of equipment and the order in which it arrives on-scene. For example, the first engine takes fire attack. The second engine establishes a water supply if the first engine has not and then pulls a backup line or secondary line if needed. The third engine assumes rapid intervention while the truck addresses forcible entry, ventilation, and search. The medic crew assists with water supply and then with advancing hoselines, leaving the battalion chief to assume command. In one paragraph, the roles and responsibilities of the first-alarm companies are addressed, and the crews can now prepare accordingly.
Take the game plan a step further. Apply the same concept to riding positions on the apparatus. The officer on the first-arriving engine conducts a size-up while the firefighter stands by ready to pull the appropriate line under the direction of the officer. The first-arriving truck splits up, allowing the driver and firefighter to handle ventilation while the officer and the firefighter on his side combine to conduct a search. The rider position on the medic takes the hydrant while the driver bunks out and assists the engine driver with establishing a permanent water supply. Once established, these assignments are understood, practiced, and implemented automatically unless otherwise directed by the initial IC.
Regardless of whom you send, give them a clue as to what they would be expected to do. Nothing adds to a stressful situation more than arriving on the scene and not knowing if you will be doing engine work, truck work, or something in between. Riding assignments will help your crews be successful by allowing them to prepare mentally and dismount the apparatus with the tools they will need to do their assigned job. If standard operating guidelines do not exist, a simple roll call at the beginning of each tour is an effective way of outlining who will do what on fires, vehicle accidents, and medical runs. Roll calls are a great opportunity for the officer to brief the crew on tool assignments, riding positions, and other important information relevant to the tour. Roll calls don’t necessarily need to occur daily; volunteer organizations can achieve the same outcome by conducting roll calls at weekly or biweekly training sessions.
Call for Help Early
Let’s face it. We all like going to fires. Why, then, do we hesitate to call our neighbors when we are hosting an opportunity for them to go to work? As mentioned earlier, certain things need to occur on the fireground: Lines must be stretched, water supplies established, ventilation and search must be undertaken, and so on. If at any point during the incident all companies are working and there are no fresh companies to assign, chances are the incident has gone from a proactive to a reactive operation. In addition to delaying critical tasks, we risk beating up our crews unnecessarily and quite possibly impacting firefighter safety.
Good ICs are always asking themselves, What if? The IC must anticipate, predict, and plan the next 10 minutes of the incident. This helps maintain a proactive posture on the incident and ensures that the needed resources are available if the “what if” becomes reality.
What about firefighter rescue? Don’t we owe it to our people to have sufficient fresh companies available to assist them if they are needed? We back up everything we do (haz mat, swiftwater, confined space). Shouldn’t we do the same for our interior fire crews? Applying sound risk management practices and the ongoing training of initial ICs will hopefully reduce the need to activate rapid intervention.
Extreme weather conditions will also dictate the need for additional resources on structural alarms. It is not a bad idea to have predetermined guidelines that address what resources will be added if weather conditions/temperatures change to cause additional stress for firefighters. It is important for the IC to continually be aware of the stresses to which firefighters are being exposed and then take action to reduce the stress if at all possible.
The Lone Ranger we-can-handle-it-by-ourselves strategy is dangerous. Don’t let pride keep you from getting the help you need. Recognize the need for help, and call for it early enough in the incident. Firefighting is a team effort, and it is critical that initial ICs accurately assess their needs and then add some for the unexpected.
(5) The initial rapid intervention team prepares for activation. As more resources arrive, this team will become part of the rescue sector. [Photo courtesy of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department.]
(6) The sector officer communicates using a lapel microphone. (©2004, Jon Freilich/firerescue photos.com; published with permission.)
Make the Toolbox Accessible
A fireground mystery has existed for years. Why is it that departments spend three-quarters of a million dollars on an apparatus; fill it to the brim with forcible entry, search, ventilation, salvage, and overhaul tools; and then park it a block away from the fire building? What about placing this valuable piece of equipment in a spot that makes it accessible to the building and firefighters? If we need to use the aerial or additional tools from the toolbox, can we get to them without having to walk a block or moving another apparatus? There will be some exceptions, such as strip malls and high-rises; but for the fires to which we most commonly respond, the single- or multi-family dwelling, why not put the truck in front? This can be achieved quite simply by educating engine companies and initial ICs on the importance of saving a spot for the truck. If you don’t run a truck on the first alarm, put your most versatile piece of equipment, your “toolbox,” in front. There is usually plenty of room if the engine crew pays attention to apparatus placement and hose deployment. Always remember, the address belongs to the truck.
Selecting and placing the initial hoselines are the most common tactics on the fireground. The effectiveness of the lines is an easy read for experienced fire officers, yet fire companies are continually allowed to operate with poorly deployed or inadequate handlines. Is it that we do not understand the water needs based on what the fire is showing us, or do we just tend to ignore the signs? Time and time again we see firefighters attacking great big fires with little water. What’s more disturbing is that they stick with the plan right up until the point that something bad happens to cause them to reevaluate their tactics. Bringing a knife to a gunfight has always been and always will be a poor decision. The maneuverability of a smaller line is an irrelevant factor. If you can’t deliver enough water, the fire will overtake you.
Customer service and property conservation are extremely important, but let’s not forget the importance of extinguishing the fire. The best way to solve problems is to take care of what is causing the problems. We have to deploy our initial resources with the goal of putting enough gallons per minute on the fire to overcome the British thermal units (Btus) being generated by the fire. We must resist the temptation to pull the lines that are the easiest or most convenient. Firefighters and fire officers have to judge the amount of fire with which they are dealing and deploy the proper line to suppress the situation. This does not mean wash the contents out the back door. It means that you should have enough reach, penetration, and heat absorption capabilities initially and then back them up with something equal to or greater than your initial line. If needed, put an additional line in service to block the fire, protect the stairs, or take the attic. If in doubt, go big!
Build a Command Staff
You are the initial IC, and you have everything going your way. Lines are in place, ventilation is in progress, second-alarm companies are en route, and all of a sudden a Mayday is transmitted. It is decision time. Your stress level is multiplied by a thousand, and you now have to develop a strategy for firefighter rescue while supporting your fire attack strategy already in place. Your initial reaction may be to forget the building and save the brother or sister. I agree, but just because one of our own is in trouble doesn’t mean that the initial problems that brought us there have gone away. On the contrary, conditions are more than likely worsening, and the crews working are approaching fatigue. The fire is still attacking the building, and the environment around the rescue situation is deteriorating. The firefighting effort has to continue so that you have a better chance of rescuing your own and preventing the loss of others in the attempt.
Ask yourself, Who will command the support efforts if the initial IC assumes control of the firefighter rescue effort? The practice of building a command staff on all working fires provides the IC with multiple officers on the fireground early and allows them to receive critical information as the incident progresses. Additionally, the company officer can move into an operations position or assume the supervisory role with his crew. The assignment of a safety officer and a Sector C (back side) officer should also be considered on the first alarm. Think about the firefighters who might be alive today if only we had put at the back of the building someone who had the experience and the ability to report back critical information to the IC. When you build a command staff, you build a “think tank”; on the fireground, that’s a good thing.
Finally, for those reading this and wondering where all of these people will come from, consider that if we can’t fully support our people [i.e., ventilation, backup lines, rapid intervention team (RIT), and so on], then maybe we shouldn’t be sending them into burning buildings. Consideration should always be given to maintaining a safe defensive position and doing the best you can with what you have, without jeopardizing firefighter safety. Work within your limitations, organize early, and provide your work groups with plenty of help and relief when needed. Allow supervisors to supervise, and place officers in critical fireground positions so that they can provide timely information, monitor conditions, and react to any unplanned fireground events.
Beef Up RIT
A lot of smaller to mid-size fire departments really struggle with this one. The problem is interpreting what is required and implementing what is practical. If nothing else, realize that a two-person medic crew or a three-person engine crew is not enough to locate and extract a firefighter from anything larger than a single-story residential structure. What they can do is function as an initial RIT, locate the firefighter, provide air, and communicate critical information relevant to the rescue to the IC. As the IC, you must be prepared to support the initial RIT with crews for extrication and removal of the downed firefighter(s) and additional rapid intervention work. Once RIT is deployed, priority must be given to calling for additional resources and assigning fresh companies to fill the vacated RIT position. Larger buildings may require multiple RITs positioned at different locations on the fireground.
Recent Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department studies undertaken in the wake of Brett Tarver’s death at the Southwest Supermarket on March 14, 2001, emphasize the need not only for initial rapid intervention crews but also for the formation of a rescue sector. This especially holds true for larger residential structures and commercial buildings.1
Figure on Reflex Time
One thing experience teaches is how long it takes to perform various tasks before you see the results and how to evaluate if something is working or not. Frustration, confusion, and hurrying often result in skipping steps and unsafe acts. ICs who casually use terms like trench cutting and team search as if they were everyday occurrences often are not prepared for the time it takes to assemble enough people and equipment, deploy to the best strategic location, perform the tasks, and get every firefighter down or out safely.
Reflex time basically is the time that elapses between giving the order and seeing the results. We all have an expectation of how long it will take the first line in to locate and begin to extinguish the fire or how long it will take the truck to complete ventilation once given the order. If the initial IC does not have a realistic understanding of reflex time, the first-alarm companies will be used up without seeing any real improvement in conditions. Additionally, allowing search crews to enter before ventilation can occur or initial lines are deployed is putting firefighters in danger without the protection or support that will allow them to accomplish their assigned task safely.
No fireground article would be complete without addressing communications. Like many things, communications can make or break the outcome of the incident. Outdated, insufficient or incompatible equipment, poor communication practices, and overall radio discipline all impact the effectiveness of fireground communications. A calm and cool IC sets the pace and the tone of the communications that will follow. If the IC is frantic, chances are others will follow.
Even if communications appear to go okay on “most” incidents, policies and practices must be developed for multiple alarms; working with mutual-aid companies; and, most importantly, in emergency situations. The initial IC and each radio-equipped firefighter must work at ensuring that their communications are relevant, necessary, and within acceptable operating practices every time the radio is keyed. Additionally, make sure that you and your radio are in a position to hear. Developing good communication habits will go a long way in reducing confusion, frustration, and stress during critical events. It is the IC’s responsibility to start things off calmly and to maintain communications throughout the incident. If things get out of hand because of a significant or unexpected event, the IC must do whatever he can do to settle things down and regain control of the fireground.
Talk About It
There is no better teacher than experience. Experienced instructors use the skill of creating a teachable moment, a skill often overlooked or ignored following a fire or rescue situation. The fireground can be an excellent classroom. Once the incident is stabilized and everyone has picked up and is ready to go back in service, take a few minutes to review what just happened. While on-scene, ask the “troops” how it went. After all, they are the ones who just performed the tasks, so their actions and recollections should be clear and correct. Don’t focus on good or bad; look at what worked well, what could have been done differently, and what changes might be considered in current or future standard operating guidelines. Take a few notes. During the next tour of duty, take the time to do a more thorough review. Put it up on the board, get copies of communication tapes, and lay out a timeline. Give key players an opportunity to comment and develop a summary that can be passed on to other shifts and fire stations so that everyone can benefit from the experience.
There is something to be learned from every incident. Don’t just talk about the “big ones,” and don’t wait on the training division to get involved. As the company officer or IC, take it upon yourself to educate those under your supervision and help them learn from experience.
The first alarm—or broken down, the initial notification, response, and deployment of resources to a fire alarm—is more times than not a department’s best shot at handling a structure fire in the early stages. The decisions made and the actions taken by the first-arriving companies will have a huge impact on the incident’s outcome. Sound, established guidelines that always consider firefighter safety first will help the initial IC get things moving in a positive direction and will pay tremendous dividends in safety and efficiency.
If the ICs will take a few steps back, look at the situation in front of them, and realize their capabilities and limitations, they will then be informed to make the necessary fireground decisions needed to handle the situation, without putting their people in unwarranted danger. Having a plan that is easily understood will ensure that everyone starts off on the same page and will respond in a predictable manner to critical events. Don’t make things complicated. Make them logical so that those involved will understand what is expected of them and their actions will be in line with your expectations as the officer in charge or initial IC.
1. “Rapid Intervention Isn’t Rapid,” Steve Kreis, Fire Engineering, December 2003.
SCOTT THOMPSON, a 20-plus-year veteran of the fire service, is a division chief with the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. He is a master firefighter and master fire instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection and has been a H.O.T. instructor at FDIC and FDIC West. He teaches at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and at the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency administration and planning and is a certified public manager.
STUART GRANT, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Dallas (TX) Fire Rescue. He is a certified master firefighter and is an instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, the Collin County Community College, and the Texas A&M Municipal Fire School. He is also an FDIC instructor.