Intelligent Response Structures, Part 1

By Eric G. Bachman

Periodicals, Web sites, and media outlets often feature multialarm fires with attention-catching headlines such as “Four-Alarm Downtown Fire” intended to gain readership/viewership interest. Multiple alarms usually indicate a working incident and often are a benchmark for the seriousness of an incident. Generally referred to as “box alarms,” I will use the term “response structure” for this article, which is synonymous with and represents the systematic dispatch of resources.

Response structures are a preincident intelligence component designed to counter likely scenarios. As important as developing and managing response structures are, there are not many topical training programs on the subject. Note that there is no “perfect” response structure. This article will reinforce the need to develop a response structure methodology. It is necessary to provide basic response structure concepts, tools, and training to personnel to compare capabilities to the incident needs.



Response structure composition is influenced by many organizational and community factors including finances, staffing, equipment, and location. Obviously, one of the primary factors is finances. A tax-funded fire department is at the mercy of the tax-base and what local municipal officials deem a suitable appropriation for fire services. Some departments are also at the mercy of fluid donations and fund-raising activities. Finances influence the fire department fleet and equipment compliment.

Physical location also influences response structures. Some locales are remote, and mutual aid may be hours away or not available whatsoever. In this case, the response structure is basically fixed to the local fire department’s resources. In a volunteer department, the lack of volunteers may require the dispatch of multiple alarms with the hopes of getting minimal staffing and equipment (photo 1).

(1) A daytime weekday house fire required multiple alarms to assemble enough volunteers to quell a residential fire. (Photos by author.)


In some areas, the response structure is not necessarily developed for the potential hazard but rather what resources the organization has or can afford to staff.  A fire at a nursing home should require extraordinary resources to support the firefight and related tactics as well as facilitate occupant evacuation. The local response structure, however, may not be flexible (or resource rich) and, the same limited resources dispatched to a small garage fire are the same as a response to the nursing home.

Regardless of the fire department’s disposition, understanding the availability and capability of resources are essential to realizing what tactics the fire department can initiate safely. This is especially important for company officers and potential incident commanders (ICs) who may be charged with managing an incident and its resources.  Knowing the makeup and methodology of response structures is necessary to mitigate an incident.



The fire service culture, with regard to response structures, varies and reflects organizations’ cultures toward automatic and mutual aid. In some organizations, only units within the department are dispatched, and assistance is called for well-progressed incidents. Others rely on automatic and mutual aid to bolster an initial response structure to a venue (photo 2). Some response structures are modified after shortfalls from an extraordinary incident. Others reflect relationships with bordering jurisdictions which, at times, fosters favoritism over proximity. Response structures are critical for effective community service and fire department staff safety. It is an important preincident intelligence component that drives the incident outcome.  

(2) This fire at a winery required multiple alarms because of a lack of water infrastructure.


Methodologies for response structure development vary. For one career department, the first-alarm fire dispatch is the entire on-duty fleet and staff. This can vary with vacations, sick calls, or other time-off requests. If fully staffed, its compliment is three engines, one truck, and a duty officer, with a potential staffing of up to 16.

If the duty officer (IC) calls for a second alarm [other than an additional ambulance (provided by a private service) being dispatched to the scene], the second-alarm protocol is paging an off-duty platoon to respond. This may yield another 16 firefighters that may staff a reserve pumper and reserve truck. A third alarm is yet another page for other off-shift personnel. At this level, the communications center makes notifications to the city water bureau and high-ranking government officials. The duty officer may call for mutual aid from bordering jurisdictions to provide standby and rapid intervention services. A fourth alarm brings in a specific number of mutual-aid apparatus. A fifth alarm (and each subsequent alarm) is comprised of three engines and two trucks from bordering jurisdictions.

The processes and response structure of the second though fourth alarm stymies the IC’s ability to effectively manage the incident. Except for ancillary notifications, the only absolute is the uncertainty of what staffing and resources may or may not arrive in a timely manner. The IC does have some flexibility to call for certain resources, but noncompliance to the established response structure can have postincident disciplinary repercussions. An IC managing an incident with inadequate resources or no reserves has no options. When there are no options, the result is unfavorable, if not tragic.

In some areas without a countywide fire system, response structures are individualized and developed based on the discretion of each fire districts leadership. This results in disparity of responses for similar incidents. For one volunteer fire company, the first-alarm response for a 2,000-square-foot, single-family dwelling fire encompasses one engine (maximum staff of six) and one two-seated mobile water tender, both from the first-due department. No other resources are automatically dispatched. With a maximum staffing of eight, the ability to carry out the most basic of incident tasks is challenging. Here, too: no added resources equals no options and bad outcome potential.

In an adjacent jurisdiction, the response structure to the same type of home includes automatic aid from multiple agencies totaling four engines, two trucks, two rescues (not emergency medical services units), and two mobile water tenders. Subsequent response structures for both jurisdictions are inconsistent presenting each IC with compromising options.



The examples cited above are not meant to be critical of those agencies. No two fires are the same, and postdispatch profiles will vary and test or exhaust resources differently. Other factors such as administrative and political can influence response structure progression. However, keys to response structure development and management are establishing a methodology and recognizing the capabilities of dispatched units. Furthermore, and often a deficient aspect, is it requires training company officers (CO) and potential ICs about the response structure. This is necessary so the CO and IC can quickly compare postdispatch situations to pre-dispatch response structures capabilities.



How many personnel are required to initiate certain tasks that are not a part of this article? There are resources that provide guidance on response structures such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, and NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments. Additionally, programs developed by the National Fire Academy (NFA) also suggest minimal staffing levels for initiating certain tasks. Using fire flow formulas such as the NFA Fire Flow equation (length x width x height/3 = gallons per minute) can aid in developing response structures. It certainly is not an exact science, but at the very least, it provides a starting point and building block to consider with district challenges.

Minimum criteria must be developed so that the fire officer understands the anticipated capabilities of the resources. Perhaps the first-alarm resources are anticipated to deliver the fire flow for 25 percent of the fire involvement. If that is the methodology, what resources are needed to achieve and sustain delivery? Perhaps the staffing methodology anticipates crews to perform basic functions such as deploying two handlines (one attack and one backup line using two personnel for each and one fire apparatus operator), conducting search and rescue (two personnel), and performing ventilation (two personnel) (photo 3). In theory, to achieve 25 percent fire flow and to initiate the three tasks above, what and how many apparatus are needed and what is the anticipated staffing per apparatus? For this example, the response structure may be two engines (three personnel each) and a truck (four personnel).

(3) The initial response structure methodology for a residential house fire may include resources to handle a room and contents fire.

For Part 2 of this article, click HERE


Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 32-year fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.

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