Incident Tactics System: Identifying Tactics

By Bob Pressler

The introduction of the incident command system (ICS) has led to fireground operations that are more efficiently managed. Unfortunately, the ICS will manage the operation even if the tactics employed are incorrect and sometimes even dangerous to our operating companies.

The Incident Tactics System (ITS) was developed so that fire departments that use the ICS to manage their fires will also have a system in place to help them select and manage the tactics needed to successfully bring the incident under control. The ITS identifies the tactics needed to operate on the fireground by breaking down the typical fires that most departments respond to. The fires are classified by the expected resources needed to safely and efficiently bring the operation under control.

Through the system, you can expand the tactics as the incident conditions change. The tactics identified are not hard and fast solutions to all fire problems but are meant as a starting point for a tactical approach to fire attack and a training program, based on the system, to get the desired results.

The American fire service has spent a significant amount of money, time, and energy teaching every company officer or “front-seat firefighter” for the past few generations how to develop a Type II or greater incident command chart. Meanwhile, many of these same individuals have not learned the basic tactics and, more importantly, the basic tenets of interior structural firefighting.

(1) Level 5: Companies arrive on scene with light smoke showing.
(1) Level 5: Companies arrive on scene with light smoke showing. Is it food on the stove? Maybe rubbish in the basement? At a Level 5 incident, the least severe, the company officer should lead the investigation to determine what the correct course of action is. If the investigation determines a more serious incident, the operation may be upgraded to Level 4. (Photos by author.)

Within the ITS, operations are broken down into five levels, and general tactics are applied according to the severity of the incident. As with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a Level 5, the least severe of all levels, should be used for investigations, outside fires, including brush, rubbish, and vehicle fires, which would normally be expected to be handled by a single company. A Level 1 operation is for the operations that border on natural disasters: aircraft crashes, large wildland fires, oil refinery fires, and so on. The middle three levels fall somewhere in between, based on factors including staffing, resources, training, and the caliber of company officers.

The ITS is also based on a set of tenets that apply to aggressive interior firefighting in a safe and efficient manner. Several of these beliefs are addressed at the company officer position.


The company officer is the backbone of the American fire service. Because of this, these individuals need to be among the most competent and highly trained individuals in the department.

This is not meant to take anything away from firefighters or chief officers, but the company officer day in and day out guides the department in the firehouse, on the street, and on the fire floor.

Because of this, a company officer must have several sets of skills-leadership skills, decision-making capabilities, knowledge of this profession, integrity, and a willingness to train. The officer is in charge of morale; he must act as a mentor to the crew, defend the crew, and ensure that the company is battle ready. The crew in return trains hard, operates as a team, and listens to orders on the fireground. This is the base for safe and efficient operations on the fireground.

Level 4 incidents are for fires or incidents in a building that can reasonably be controlled with one handline. This is not to say that a second handline such as a backup line would not be stretched, but the fire would be expected to be knocked down and controlled by the first handline. Level 4 fires would include most of our everyday fires: bedrooms, kitchen, and detached garages. Most times these are true “engine” fires. If the line gets into position, the fire is over. The ladder company or firefighters assigned to do truck work have tasks that need to be completed here, but putting the fire out helps to accomplish these tasks.

Level 4 incidents reinforce the next tenet of the ITS.

(2) Level 4: An engine and a truck company start operations at a bread-and-butter house fire.
(2) Level 4: An engine and a truck company start operations at a bread-and-butter house fire. These fires are the staple of the American fire service and should not pose great difficulties for properly trained departments. Stretching and operating the first handline are the top priorities of the engine company, and safe, aggressive searches should be top priorities for the truck company.


Nothing should deter the stretching and operation of the first handline on the seat of the fire.

Bedroom or kitchen fires may rapidly grow and extend if the department is not on its “A” game. However, if the first-arriving engine company is properly trained and motivated and has an officer who is ready to supervise the stretching and operating of that first line, then the fire will be rapidly knocked down and fire extension will be held to a minimum. This is where the ITS differs most from accepted ICS practices.

In most ICSs, the first-arriving officer has to establish command. That in itself is not a huge problem. The problems arise when these initial incident commanders (ICs) are removed from their positions as company officers to assume the role of IC. Who is supposed to ensure that the first line gets down the basement stairs? Who is supposed to ensure that the search above the fire gets done? How has the American fire service deemed it okay for two rookies to try to move a handline into a fire area as their captain stands out front and “commands” the fire? And if the engine “passes” command, the poor truck boss now gets to stand outside as the ladder company members operate without direct supervision.

Nothing is more important on the fireground, especially in Levels 5 through 3 and occasionally 2, than crew integrity. By taking the officer away from the crew, the efficiency of the crew diminishes. It is that simple.

So if we do not leave an officer outside, how do we address command issues? Very simple: strong standard operating guidelines (SOGs) or best practices and strong company officers.


The most efficient and effective interior fire attack occurs when groups of firefighters are assigned to perform both engine operations and truck or ladder company operations simultaneously.

In a perfect world, the firefighters assigned to the engine company would do nothing else on the fireground except stretch and operate their handline. This would stop engine company freelancing and would almost always ensure that the handline is stretched.

Occasionally, a member of the first-arriving engine will need to perform a duty other than helping stretch the first line but only in life-threatening situations. The firefighters assigned to the ladder truck, if the department has a dedicated truck company, or assigned to do the truck company jobs on the fireground are basically responsible for everything else that needs to get done. Forcible entry, search and rescue, ventilation, ladder throwing, and controlling utilities are just some of the tasks that the truck company officer and the firefighters must evaluate to prioritize the workload.


Nothing saves more lives on the fireground than the proper placement and operation of the first handline. However, efficient and aggressive searches place a close second.

Once it is a working fire and the engine begins fire attack, the operations of the truck, or truck-assigned tasks, must be put in place. One of the chief concerns of these firefighters is searching for any trapped occupants. This is one area that most departments are deficient in because of a lack of proper staffing; a lack of proper training; or, in most cases, a lack of experience in actual searching for a trapped occupant.

To really look at the hows and whys of searching, a closer look at the fireground is required. In Firefighter 1 class, firefighters are told about fire behavior, smoke and backdrafts, and fire growth and flashover. Some students are even sent to the flashover chamber to observe a staged “flashover” and feel the heat. They are told how great the turnout gear is that they are wearing and how it will protect them. However, because most of them have never been in a working fire, they have nothing to compare their flashover chamber experience to in the real world. They do not know what too hot is; they do not realize that a flashover can occur without heavy black smoke and, basically, that wearing their gear will save their lives. What we do not spend enough time on is the hazards of our gear-about how good it is; how close it will let them get to the seat of the fire; and, if they do not understand fire behavior, how the turnout gear will actually get them into trouble.

So part of the educational and training process must be centered on fire behavior and how it relates not only to building construction and operations but also our survivability. Too often, our lack of proper training, proper equipment, proper staffing, and strong officers leads departments to use the risk vs. reward mantra, and they throw the safety card into the firefight.


Proper staffing, training, equipment and strong officers change the variables when using the risk vs. reward equation.

What may be risky to the unknowing or the unskilled might be routine to someone else. Firefighting in general is risky and dangerous. Sending an engine company with two people on it to a working fire is dangerous. Sending a ladder truck with just a driver is dangerous. Fighting a fire with five people is dangerous. Having enough people on the fireground to do engine AND truck work simultaneously lowers the risk. Being able to conduct searches while attacking the fire lowers the risk for trapped occupants and makes the rewards easier to obtain. We know that this is not always possible, but ensuring that those five people have the best training, equipment, and officers MAY overcome the fact that they do not have proper staffing.

A Level 3 incident is one that will require more than one handline to attack and control but usually not more than three and is restricted to one building or the original fire building and the exteriors (radiant heat damage) of any exposures. Level 3 fires include fires in private houses that have extended to involve more than one floor, fires in multiple dwellings including garden apartments, and small fires in rows of stores or taxpayers. Level 3 fires also start to increase the role that truck personnel start to play in the incident outcome.

(3) Level 3: Heavy fire vents from the front windows of this mixed occupancy building as companies prepare to go into operation.
(3) Level 3: Heavy fire vents from the front windows of this mixed occupancy building as companies prepare to go into operation. Being met with an advanced fire of a possibly occupied building in the early morning hours raises the stakes for the arriving first-alarm units. The stretching and operating of several handlines as well as search and timely ventilation put this operation at a Level 3 incident.


There are only two things that a fire department does on the fireground that directly affect the outcome of the fire: the application of water and how much air we give the fire (ventilation). Fire departments should always be careful to not introduce more air into a fire building than they have the water to control.

As the engine company applies water to the seat of the fire, the truck firefighters begin their searches, checking for extension and securing utilities. They also sometimes need to perform ventilation of the fire building to help the advancement of the engine and to relieve the built-up heat, smoke, and steam.

If you study ventilation, you will find that there are several ways to remove these products of combustion. First, let’s look at the reasons we ventilate.


There are only two reasons to ventilate: for life and for fire.

Venting for fire is used to enhance the advancement of the engine company, remove the products of combustion from the fire building, and increase visibility for the members performing searches. Venting for fire must be coordinated with the engine companies’ advancement and is performed after water is established to the handline.

The easiest, quickest, and least complicated way to ventilate for fire is by breaking windows. Ventilation can start from the fire area and work back toward the advancing engine or, if conditions dictate, at and adjacent to the area where they are entering the building. Avoid venting behind the advancing engine crew, as this could cause fire to light up behind them.

Positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) and positive-pressure fire attack are two additional methods of venting for fire. These are more advanced tactics that the fire service has adopted as cure-alls. Before a department adopts either method of fire attack, it has to ensure that everyone involved understands the times when to use and when not to use these methods. A study done several years ago by the Orange County (FL) Fire Department, a proponent of using PPV, came up with a list of when not to use it. This list included at fires in balloon-frame buildings, when there is no control of natural openings on fire department arrival (too many windows or doors already opened), and if you do not know where any trapped victims might be. Also added to this list should be if any member is performing a vent-enter-search (VES) operation. PPV does have its uses, but you should evaluate the tactic on a case-by-case basis to ensure it will help, not hinder, the operation.

Both breaking windows and PPV are forms of horizontal ventilation. Vertical ventilation is also important at some fires. Whether or not to send firefighters to the roof of a burning building depends on many factors. The single biggest factor is the skill and experience level of the crew being sent to the roof. If you have not trained personnel in throwing ladders, power tool operations, ax use, and safe ventilation practices, do not send them to the roof!

Working above the fire is the most dangerous place for firefighters to operate. Sending untrained, unskilled personnel to perform vertical ventilation is just as dangerous. If you have skilled personnel available, send them to the roof. By opening the “top” of the building, conditions should improve on the levels below.

Start with natural openings: bulkhead doors, skylights, and scuttle covers on flat roofs and skylights or ridge vents on peaked roofs. If additional vertical ventilation is needed, consider roof openings. If personnel cannot comfortably stand on peaked roofs or do not have a safe platform from which to operate such as a ladder or tower ladder basket, they should use an ax to open a ventilation hole. For flat roofs, power tools always speed up the operation.

The IC should keep in mind that fire venting from a hole in a roof is a good sign. This is the reason holes are cut. It is not a reason to abandon the building.

Venting for life is usually done before the engine company has water and with a known or an expected life hazard in a particular area of the fire building. Venting for life requires another set of skills to be performed safely. The firefighter must understand fire behavior, be able to read smoke and fire conditions, and be able to search under adverse conditions. This operation is commonly referred to as VES; it is usually considered the second most hazardous situation in which to put personnel-the first is above the fire.

In the first three levels, the first-arriving company officers should maintain crew integrity and operate with their respective crews. The second-due engine officer, after ensuring the first engine has a water supply established, can now assume command until a chief arrives.

A Level 2 incident is one where numerous handlines and/or master stream devices will be needed to control the incident or where there is fire in more than one building. Examples are a fire that has control of several stores in a strip mall, a fire in a row of frame buildings with several already involved, or a burning vacant building that is exposing other homes.

In a Level 2 incident, the first-arriving officer should establish command and start to assess the incident in an attempt to contain the fire. Many Level 2 operations start out as defensive operations, as the fire has a head start on the department. The officer should make decisions on where to attempt to stop the fire spread based on protecting life first and then property. As additional help arrives and the incident escalates, he should allocate resources to reinforce these initial operations. Once a chief officer arrives, the company officer should rejoin their crew.

(4) Level 2: Firefighters arrive to find a rapidly spreading fire in a vacant frame building.
(4) Level 2: Firefighters arrive to find a rapidly spreading fire in a vacant frame building. The fire is extending to exposures on both sides of the original fire building. This type of incident is where the strategies of the operation will start to have priority over the tactics. The heavy body of fire dictates an exterior or defensive operation. Companies should be looking to limit fire spread into additional exposures and then extinguish the main fire building. Many times you can use a master stream on the original fire building while you stretch handlines into the exposures.

At a Level 1 operation, first-arriving officers should also establish command, as such operations are long term, usually span large areas, and require multiple resources to bring under control. Starting out with a strong command presence is the only way to keep the incident from getting away from you.

(5) Level 1: Fires of this magnitude are the real incident command fires.
(5) Level 1: Fires of this magnitude are the real incident command fires. This fire destroyed a large mill complex. The initial operations must consist of trying to determine the potential fire area and what resources might be needed to contain the fire. Trying to establish boundaries, possibly by giving up some buildings, to find a defensible position may be your initial tactic. In fires of this magnitude, the strategies are more important than the actual tactics. The tactics still will help you put out/limit the fire but the strategy of how to accomplish this is the difficult part.

The first three ITS levels basically are for offensive fire attacks; the company officer should remain with the crew for safety and efficiency. Getting the first line in service should be the number one priority on the fireground for all operations. Levels 2 and 1, because of the amount of fire or the size of the fire problem, usually mean that the fire will start as a defensive attack until the fire area is established and fire growth is contained or halted. Because of the amount of resources needed to do this, the first-arriving company officers should establish command and run the incident until a superior officer arrives.

One important fact to keep in mind when viewing the ITS as a tool for your firefighting is that each level leads to the next. If an inexperienced company officer underestimates an event and treats it as a Level 4 incident, any subsequent arriving officer, either an additional company or a chief officer, can easily upgrade the event to the appropriate level. The ITS is not intended to replace the ICS but rather to give operating companies a starting point for safer and more efficient operations based on tactics.

Bob Pressler has been involved in the fire service for more than 39 years and retired from the Fire Department of New York as a lieutenant. He is the first assistant chief of the Montgomery (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. Pressler has an associate degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University. He was the hands-on training coordinator for the Fire Department Instructors Conference for its first seven years in Indianapolis, Indiana, and for three years in Sacramento, California.

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