Engine 22 arrives at the scene of a reported dwelling fire. Finding a pan smoking on the stove, the firefighters remove it to the outside. The situation is under control. Incident priorities shift from life safety to property conservation in less than a minute.

Initial actions may mitigate a vast majority of the incidents to which we respond. These actions are based on prediction, preparation, and development of standard operating procedures (SOPs). When initial actions fail to control the incident, continuing actions are required, and a plan must be developed and implemented.

Continuing actions may address the life-safety priority or, more commonly, reaching the point of stabilization. A strategy must be developed, and tactical objectives must be determined and assigned. Coordinated actions and accountability of personnel are key elements of the plan.

Once stabilized, a dramatic shift occurs. Once “out of control,” the situation is now “under control”-our control. Time, once against us, is now on our side. We switch from reactive to proactive actions.

As continuing actions after stabilization ensue, we will eventually reach the point of termination. Termination actions involve placing our equipment back into service and getting ready for the next incident, but they also involve leaving the scene in the safest state possible for the occupant/owner or fire investigators.

As we examine the phases above, we will see they run parallel to the classic incident priorities developed by the National Fire Academy.1


Incident Priorities

Establishing a priority for every incident is the bedrock foundation for a successful plan. The National Fire Academy identifies three incident priorities:

• Life safety,

• Incident stabilization, and

• Property conservation.2

We follow these in order from the time the bell rings. Lack of information, misinformation, and rapidly changing conditions require us to respond with lights and sirens to many incidents until the first company arrives and assesses the incident. This does not mean we should drive recklessly. The objective is to get to the scene safely.

“Me” and “You”

Repeatedly in strategy and tactic courses, I’ve shown slides of fires and ask the students to identify the appropriate incident priority. Too often, some students identify every incident as “life safety.” When asked why, they repeat what they have been taught: “Me, then other firefighters, then the public” are subcomponents of the life-safety priority. Have we been teaching this correctly?

We should be teaching that we are part of the solution. People call us to resolve their problem, and our first action on the scene is to assess the situation. This size-up requires that we identify the problem, select the appropriate incident priority, and direct our efforts toward that goal. “Me” and “you” don’t belong in the problem-identification column. Instead, it should look like Figure 2 above. That line dividing problem identification and the solution columns represents both safety at the incident and a management/administration responsibility.

It is important that we do not cross that line while engaged in operations. An example of an instance where we might closely approach and then cross that line is during search and rescue operations: We are conducting a search inside a structure while the fire is still out of control. Suddenly, we become disorientated and lost. We just crossed that line from being part of the solution to being part of the problem.

Experience, training, having adequate personnel on the scene, following SOPs, and conducting a good risk/benefit analysis are some of the initial items on a list of elements that keep us from crossing that line.

Management’s list is longer and involves having an early notification system and an adequate and timely response of resources (including properly trained personnel). Physical fitness of personnel and wellness programs need to be incorporated.3 Apparatus and equipment must be properly maintained. Safe practices must be used. SOPs must be followed. The incident command system must be in place. The list goes on forever.

Risk/Benefit Analysis

Regardless of the type of incident, firefighters face a certain degree of risk-it’s inherent in the job. Although one cannot argue the value of an incident safety officer, safety is everyone’s job, especially the officers’, who should keep risks at a reasonable level. The incident commander (IC) must conduct a risk/benefit analysis for the entire incident, but officers should conduct their own risk/benefit analysis for each operation.

A low benefit does not mean you have to take a defensive mode posture. It means you should attack in a slower, more deliberate fashion than if a victim were trapped.

Realize that the action plan will change as its tactical objectives are achieved. As incident priorities are accomplished, operations need to be revised. Although a continual size-up and monitoring are necessary, a deliberate size-up and a risk-benefit analysis should be made at each phase of the incident.


Initial actions are dictated in large part through properly prepared SOPs and by having adequate apparatus, equipment, and properly trained personnel respond. Critical planning is necessary to determine what resources are needed to handle various incidents and which will be available in a timely response. A lot too late is ineffective; too little in a quick response is equally ineffective and causes us to more closely approach that line of safety between solution and problem.

Initial actions will parallel the life-safety priority. These actions necessitate gaining control of the area through evacuation and isolation, or both. Removal or rescue of victims or removal of the hazard may be required. Accounting for all occupants and assessing their condition are necessary actions.

Initial actions also include “establishing command,” identifying the incident commander, determining where command is located, providing a brief initial report, determining the appropriate incident priority, and conducting a risk-benefit analysis.

If initial actions do not stabilize the incident, continuing actions will be necessary, and a plan must now be developed as you enter Phase II.


Continuing actions for stabilization necessitate that the IC again size up the scene and conduct a risk-benefit analysis. In addition, resources must be evaluated: Are enough on-scene or are more needed? Is technical expertise needed?

Plan Development

The incident action plan (IAP) is based on the resources immediately available and those responding. The goal is determined in accordance with the incident priority from which a strategy must emerge; tactical objectives, aimed at meeting the strategy, are determined and specific assignments made (if not already addressed in the SOPs). An accountability system should be established as assignments are made.

Resources fall into three general areas: personnel, apparatus, and equipment. Response involves two major factors: adequacy and timeliness.

If regionalization or automatic mutual aid is used in your area, carefully consider the benefits that will result. If these resources are to compensate for an inadequate immediate personnel response, consider that the entire response may not be timely.4

When developing the plan, you must consider what is necessary for supporting and building on the initial actions. Rescue will require victim care; attack will require backup crews. Forcible entry, ventilation, and a sustained water supply will support the attack. These functions, and others, require resources, especially personnel.

For too many years, we have operated at fires with a minimal number of personnel who often overextended themselves to get the job done. When this occurs, we extend the time for reaching stabilization, the fire burns longer, and more structural damage can be anticipated. It keeps “me” and “you” closer to that line of safety longer. Plan development should include a reserve force. Clausewitz identified this in his 1832 book On War: The need for a “strategic reserve” has two objectives: “prolongation and renewal of combat” and “for use in case of unforeseen events.”5 Raymond Hill, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Fire Department, described the “Principle of Reserve” as “protection against unforeseen circumstances” and a mechanism “to maintain the momentum of an attack.”6

Had we incorporated these principles in our plan development long ago, we might not have the mandatory “two-in/two-out” rule or the current emphasis on the need for a rapid intervention team (RIT). Note that a RIT accomplishes only one of the two objectives listed by Clausewitz and Hill.

Implementing the Plan

Once the IC determines a strategy and the tactical objectives to achieve that strategy, the next step is implementation. In some cases, a good set of SOPs will provide the “silent communications” for directing responders’ initial actions through predetermined actions. Yet, in time, and as the incident moves forward into continuing actions for stabilization, coordination will be necessary. This is best accomplished by communicating the plan, totally or in part, with specific assignments. If not communicated, accountability will be lost.

We are sometimes quick to criticize the “freelancer” but slow to determine why freelancing occurs. Firefighters and crews will freelance if not given a specific assignment. Being action-oriented people, they will develop their own plan if not directed in their actions. A weak IC will prompt freelancing, and the results will be a loss of accountability and possibly an uncoordinated attack that could result in injuries (i.e., opposing hoselines).

Staging is an effective method for communicating the plan. Staging is the process in which personnel or crews arrive on the scene, report to the IC, and are given an assignment. Without stopping the rig, a company can report in by radio, be given an assignment, and report to the area assigned. A “strategic reserve” would require a specific staging area in which personnel and equipment can stand by.


Once the incident is stabilized, the IC takes a deep breath and radios dispatch that the situation is “under control”-his control. Where continuing actions were necessary to bring about stabilization, continuing actions for entering property and environmental-conservation efforts may be needed after stabilization. Stabilization is a very critical point.

Time, once against us, is now on our side. We have time to take that breath, maybe take a break. Rehabilitation should be established, and a personnel accountability report (PAR) should be conducted to account for all personnel and assess their physical and mental condition.

Again, it is time for a detailed size-up and risk-benefit analysis. Information previously received should be reevaluated and new information should be gathered and considered in detail. The building should be surveyed for structural damage. Especially at surround-and-drown fires, the building should be given time to drain to reduce the weight on the floors.

A fire department’s primary duty is to save lives; the second duty is to protect the community. Resources should be assessed and, if possible, released from the scene to return to protecting the community. Exhausted firefighters should be replaced with fresh personnel.

With a newly conducted size-up and risk-benefit analysis, develop a written plan with specific assignments for specific areas in the structure.


As property and environmental concerns are met, the personnel on-scene may be craving a hot cup of coffee. Yet, termination should include more than just rolling hose. Termination efforts should be directed at leaving the property in the safest condition possible. Again, a dedicated size-up and risk-benefit analysis should be conducted. When checking for hot spots, crews should monitor the air for elevated carbon monoxide levels. Also, the building’s structure should be assessed and, if necessary, building officials should be properly notified of any hazards that may exist. Obvious hazards should be eliminated.

In recent years, a fire investigator was killed by the collapse of a freestanding chimney several days after fire companies left the scene.7 Could you imagine the press if that had been a civilian attempting to retrieve valuables from the debris? Potential hazards should be identified as well.

Conduct post-incident analysis and debriefing sessions. There should be no fingerpointing, but there should be a good critique that evaluates everything from administrative rules and policies to company performance.


The initial size-up, that initial rapid gathering of information, will help determine the incident priority at that time. Although we have paid particular attention to that initial size-up and the generation of a brief initial report and have stressed continual size-up, we should also emphasize the need for a dedicated and detailed size-up and a risk-benefit analysis at each of the four phases of an action plan.

Phase I-Initial Actions are based on the selection of the appropriate incident priority and rest solidly on standard operating procedures. If initial actions do not stabilize the incident, continuing actions will be necessary, but not before a plan is developed. Any continuing actions can be wasteful and ineffective if a plan is not developed. If the plan is not communicated through specific assignments, coordination and accountability will be lost and the safety of personnel jeopardized.

Phase II-Continuing Actions for Sta-bilization requires that the IC recognize the situation is out of control and that additional resources may be necessary. Plans for and anticipation of the required resources should include the establishment of a strategic reserve and consideration of the time delay that may occur in acquiring those supporting or reserve resources.

Phase III-Continuing Actions After Stabilization requires another size-up and risk/benefit analysis, but now time is on our side. All potential hazards should be identified as personnel are accounted for and their condition assessed. Rehabilitation efforts should be started. Resources should be assessed to determine if they can be returned to service in anticipation of another emergency. Reserve forces can be released or rotated in to replace fatigued firefighters.

A written (not necessarily an elaborate) plan should document specific assignments as overhaul and salvage operations begin.

Phase IV-Termination actions should include a final size-up and risk-benefit analysis. There is a check for hot spots, and the air is monitored for toxic gases. Hazards (or potential hazards) identified should be eliminated or corrected if possible, or the agencies involved should be properly notified. Hazardous areas should be taped off. The goal is to ensure that the property is safe when returned to the occupant/owner or turned over to fire investigators.

The action plan and incident priorities change with each phase. Once life safety issues are addressed, prompt action is needed to achieve stabilization. Once stabilized, the scene takes on a different, slower pace, as at a medical incident after the patient has been stabilized or a hazardous materials scene when cleanup efforts are turned over to an environmental contractor.

Early actions require an adequate and timely response. If inadequate or untimely, continuing actions will continue to be necessary. Failure to achieve control with initial actions should prompt the IC to consider a strategic reserve force to support and sustain initial and continuing actions and for unforeseen events like collapse.

The major challenge is to keep firefighters in the solution column and not have them cross that line of safety. Therefore, a risk-benefit analysis should be conducted as each phase is entered, and company officers should conduct their own risk-benefit analysis for each operation they are assigned.

Initial, continuing actions for stabilization and continuing actions after the stabilization and termination phases closely parallel incident priorities, and a deliberate size-up and risk-benefit analysis should be conducted as each phase is entered, especially at the point of stabilization.


1. “Incident Command System” course, National Fire Academy, U.S. Fire Administration.

2. Because of my hazardous-materials response background, I have long taught “property and environmental conservation” as the third priority.

3. The Chicago (IL) Fire Department recently instituted a physical fitness program in accordance with one of several recommendations made by the city commission after a fatal high-rise fire.

4. When I was chief of a small urban paid-on-call department, a quick response in qualified personnel was often inadequate. An adequate response often resulted in a time delay, sometimes an excessive delay. The demographics did not offer a solution to the problem, and after one long year, I resigned. That department was subsequently dissolved, and a neighboring career department took over service to the community.

5. Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Penquin Books, reprinted 1988, 284.

6. Raymond M. Hill, “Fire Combat!” National Fire Protection Association, Fire Command, Aug. 1974, NFPA First European Fire Conference presentation.

7. “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 1999,” National Fire Data Center, U.S. Fire Administration, July 2000, 13.

JOHN A. REARDON retired from the Detroit (MI) Fire Department as a lieutenant and was recently chief of the Tri-City (MI) Fire Department serving Orchard Lake, Keego Harbor, and Sylvan Lake. He provides fire, hazardous materials, and incident management training and consulting.

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