First-In Tactics: Fireground Rules: Addressing Laws and Limitations

By Mark J. Cotter

To be able to win, we first need to know the rules. In the case of firefighting, following the rules is necessary for successfully accomplishing our mission efficiently and safely. Doing so with limited staffing may not necessarily require different guidelines, but failing to comply may have more immediate and serious consequences. In this third installment of columns exploring the unique challenges facing fire departments that, for whatever reason, can muster only a small number of firefighters for emergency incident control, we will discuss the procedures that must be set in place for ensuring success and protecting personnel. Inherent in developing these “Fireground Rules” is the need to recognize and address the loss of capabilities because of less-than-ideal staffing levels.

The first column in this series (“Dealing with Limited Staffing”) discussed the disconnect between, on the one hand, staffing mandates and traditional fire attack strategies that each call for more than a dozen firefighters to be assembled on the fireground almost immediately and, on the other hand, the reality of limited staffing faced by many volunteer and even some career fire departments. Further aggravating these situations, the current economic downturn is creating shorthanded situations for even previously well-staffed departments resulting from personnel layoffs, station closures, or the elimination of overtime pay. In many communities, the arrival of additional resources is not a reliable occurrence.

The second article  (“Accepted Practices: Taking the Best and Leaving the Rest”) looked at the essential components of an effective and efficient fireground management strategy, distilling what were seen as the best attributes of proven approaches to emergency incident control down to their most basic parts. The “PEAK” (Prepare, Equip, Assign, and Know) acronym that resulted from this analysis was introduced. It was offered as a foundation on which to base further discussions, decisions, and designs regarding our attempts to maximize the effectiveness of available personnel. These principles will be examined in detail in future columns.

In this column, we will attempt to identify some of the unique limitations faced when attempting to fight fires with smaller teams and define some specific parameters within which we must operate on the fireground to remain effective and safe. To be honest, most of these restrictions apply to some extent to small and large teams. Indeed, firefighting is a most unforgiving endeavor with any number of personnel on hand; all the more so, if we deviate from accepted practices. Having only a limited number of firefighters means, among other things, that there is no redundancy in capabilities or ready reserves for backup. With a small team, following the rules is even more important because not following them is even more dangerous. It is firefighting without a safety net.

Despite the expected and acknowledged limitations, there are standards for safe and efficient firefighting that do not change based on the number of firefighters present. Ventilation must be performed to prevent backdrafts and improve interior conditions; forcible entry will be needed to penetrate barriers; adequate water is required to flow to absorb the heat generated; and so on. The fire does not care how many firefighters are present and will, by force of nature, demand the same measures to halt its ongoing damage regardless of our ability to provide them. Determining how to best ensure that the required tactics are accomplished is the objective of First-In Tactics, and the framework for doing so is the subject of this month’s discussion.

We tread on dangerous ground when discussing fireground operations with fewer than the recommended number of firefighters [at least 14, per National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments]. I hope you don’t misconstrue and think I believe such limitations are acceptable. I do not. Instead, it is in response to the widespread incidence of limited staffing in the fire service that this column is written, not to advocate for reductions in the numbers of firefighters assigned to each station or dispatched on each piece of apparatus. This particular discussion on the subject is intended to further reinforce that this is a strategy of necessity, not preference, by focusing on the various factors that act to constrain the effectiveness of small teams of firefighters. In other words, this column can be viewed as an attempt at a persuasive argument against trying to control fires and other emergencies with less-than-ideal staffing levels.

The two “regulations” that typically come to mind when discussing fireground staffing numbers, at least in the United States, are NFPA 1710 and 29 CFR 1910.134, commonly known as Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) “Two-in/Two-out” Rule. NFPA 1710, which mandates that at least 14 firefighters be on the scene of a fire within eight minutes of dispatch 90 percent of the time, was addressed in the first column. To summarize, we agreed it was a comprehensive plan but recognized that many fire departments cannot meet it and, even if sufficient personnel were en route, that would not provide guidance for how activities can be performed prior to the arrival of the full 14-member contingent. It is mentioned here merely for completeness, as the purpose of First-In Tactics is to provide a method to be used when the staffing required by NFPA 1710 cannot be, or at least has not yet, been met. Personnel in departments than can fulfill its requirements do not need, and probably would not be reading, these articles.

Two-In/Two-Out, on the other hand, is the de facto minimum staffing standard for interior structural firefighting (defined as “the physical activity of fire suppression, rescue, or both, inside of buildings or enclosed structures involved in a fire situation beyond the incipient stage”) and cannot be so readily dismissed. That regulation specifies that whenever firefighters are inside a burning building, they must operate in teams of two and that an additional two firefighters with self-contained breathing apparatus must remain outside the Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) zone, monitoring the progress and condition of, and ready to rescue the interior firefighters. The effect on First-In Tactics, as with any other method, is that until there are at least four firefighters on scene, interior firefighting cannot be carried out (unless it is a rescue situation, in which case this rule does not apply). Also, regardless of the number of firefighters eventually present, at least two must remain in ready reserve for the duration of interior firefighting operations.

Although Two-in/Two-out has inspired more than its share of controversy and commentary, you will not find such here, primarily because I believes it actually describes good firefighting technique. I was taught early on to use the buddy system while in a hazard zone, and having a designated team monitoring those in an IDLH atmosphere and ready to intervene if needed, is a no-brainer. The fact that this is a federal directive with associated varied interpretations, penalties, and red tape, is the root of most problems the fire service has with this otherwise prudent practice. Like most burdensome regulations, at its heart is a good idea, which some carried to an extreme. Also, it does not apply in a setting where there is only a tiny fire (“incipient” is the term used), we can ignore it in a rescue situation, and there are plenty of things to do anyway while we await the arrival of a fourth or fifth firefighter. Realistically, if we find ourselves at a working fire with fewer than four firefighters present, not being able to go inside without violating an OSHA regulation should be the least of our worries.

In First-In Tactics, this law is addressed by following it–that is, performing interior firefighting only when we can assemble two teams of at least two firefighters each, one team inside and one outside. The method by which these teams are designated and equipped and the specific activities they are assigned will be discussed in detail in future columns. Assigning personnel for these roles better ensures they are fulfilled as required by OSHA, as well as good sense. Again, there are dozens of factors to consider before allowing firefighters to enter a burning building (e.g., stage of the fire, water supply, structural integrity of the building, capabilities of firefighters, and so on), the presence of a two-firefighter backup team is only one.

In reality, physical laws are the greatest impediment to the success of First-In Tactics. Being able to do only one thing at a time, be in one place at a time, fit so much water or tools on a vehicle, and so on are the true limiting factors. Of course, this is the case with any firefighting strategy. The chances of any emergency services agency successfully and efficiently controlling an incident are directly related to the number and capabilities of personnel and equipment on-scene. Although any portion of this equation can be modified to the benefit of efficiency (e.g., specifying more versatile apparatus or providing better training to improve capabilities), the component we are primarily concerned with in this series is the number of firefighters on hand.

The best trained, equipped, and led firefighters can only do so many things at once. Multitask does not mean everything-task. Although having several companies allows for the simultaneous accomplishment of complementary activities, often in different locations, the lack of sufficient personnel will ensure, instead, that certain tasks must await the completion of others.  Since some interventions and operations need to be carried out in a certain sequence, carefully choosing which to perform first, second, and so on, is vital. Getting it right the first time is key.

Further, every emergency incident presents complex and unique challenges that must be matched as well as possible to the resources at hand. Delays or increased hazards can occur in such instances as when the structure involved is too big for the incident commander (IC) to survey in a timely manner, or the fire is too large to be controlled by the available water supply. Again, this same calculation of needs vs. abilities must be undertaken at any fire or other hazardous situation by every IC, regardless of the resources available. When limited staffing is part of the equation, the likelihood of quickly and easily controlling the emergency is lessened. We can do a lot with a small team–almost everything that a large team can do–just not as rapidly and, therefore, not as effectively.

Given the infinite variations in the balance of incident control necessities vs. on-scene capabilities, it is impossible to categorically list the absolute limitations on the effectiveness of a small team of firefighters. Even large buildings can have small fires within, and even a relatively big fire can be extinguished with just booster tank water if it can be easily accessed. Instead of listing all of the potential limitations, let’s discuss some predictable and important factors that constrain our capabilities. Even these, though, can be attenuated through careful planning and preparation that improve a fire department’s capacity for incident control. In the following listing, the basic fireground functions, also to be further explored in future columns, will be used as the framework.

Command — With small response teams, the IC is typically also a company commander, and must maintain overall supervision of the scene while monitoring the activities of multiple personnel. Further, if only four or five members are on scene, the IC often is required to perform some hands-on firefighting tasks that, if not carefully chosen, might distract from maintaining the required situational overview.

Water Supply — Depending on the setting (i.e., rural vs. urban; hydrants vs. static sources), the time to establish a continuous water flow, often a labor-intensive operation, may be prolonged. Fires that require water flows beyond that which is immediately available may lead to a defensive posture being chosen earlier.

Forcible Entry — Difficult maneuvers, such as wall-breaching or scaling fences, can occupy, or at least delay, much of the on-scene contingent of personnel to the detriment of other equally as pressing activities (e.g., putting out the fire, searching for victims).

Ventilation — The maximum length of the ladders carried, usually 35 feet, is an absolute cap on the heights that can be reached by personnel, potentially limiting the use of this tactic. Also, having members atop a burning building creates a need for more firefighters to monitor their safety as well as prevent them from performing or otherwise supporting interior firefighting operations.

Fire Control — The application of water indoors is limited by the need to provide backup teams outdoors, often resulting in the ability to deploy just one interior hoseline.

Search and Rescue — Extinguishing the fire and removing victims are both important and form the core of our mission of firefighting, but small teams may not be able to do both at the same time.

Salvage — This becomes a lower priority, unless it’s the only priority (i.e., the fire is easily controlled and no victims are in danger, leaving property conservation as the sole objective).

Overhaul — Timely performance by a small team is not an issue with this function, as the work involved can and, unfortunately, will wait until we get around to it. With a small team having already carried out all other firefighting activities, the potentially grueling efforts required for cleanup and investigation can render them unavailable for other events for long periods.

This is just a sampling of considerations required when evaluating the capability of a particular response team to control a particular incident; they are intended to illustrate the mix of predictable and unpredictable factors present.

Having identified both specific and general limitations affecting emergency incident management with only a few personnel, how do we address these issues–that is, how do we keep from failing in our mission or, worse yet, getting injured or killed trying? Enter the PEAK principles that were introduced previously and which will be discussed in much more detail in future columns. They make up the preparatory framework for successfully performing emergency incident management. As necessary attributes of a comprehensive strategy, following these guidelines will ensure personnel are better prepared and protected.

The one additional “Fireground Rule” that helps to provide a “safety net” for First-In Tactics is this: Structures may not be opened or entered until authorized by the IC. This simple but foundational measure prevents actions that are unsupervised (freelancing) and potentially disastrous (e.g., entering a building charged with smoke before ventilation has been accomplished). Rather than being an “extra step” that hinders efficiency, the IC will instead often authorize forcible entry, ventilation, and/or building entry as part of the initial instructions to the team regarding the incident action plan. Requiring definite authorization for, and knowledge of, crew activities that can result in an increase in the hazard level (i.e., putting members in harm’s way or making the situation worse) improves both protection and coordination.

In summary, attempting emergency incident mitigation with less than an ideal number of personnel presents many additional challenges. Some of them are obvious, and some are not. Efforts to identify and, where possible, address shortfalls should be relentless. The result will be a maximization of capabilities and a better likelihood they are not exceeded.

Next column: Extraordinary Measures Basics vs. Heroics

Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years of experience in emergency services and serves as a volunteer with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at

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