Lost in the Fog of the Fireground

By Joe Pronesti

My mistake of getting “sidetracked” on arrival could’ve led to a serious problem on one of my fireground commands. Don’t let yourself be sidetracked at your next serious event.

Although I am not a military veteran, I have tons of respect for veterans and am an avid reader and student of military leadership and command. One particular book from a former Marine who fought in World War II describes the term “lost in the fog of war.” According to this author, this expression describes both the literal fog created by the dust, smoke, and debris of the battlefield and, more importantly, the mental fog of confusion and uncertainty created by a lack of knowledge of the enemy.

As my own worst critic and in a continuous effort to improve, I am always studying fires, my own and others from around the country. While doing so, my mind continues to review the lessons from one fire in particular that I commanded and became “lost in the fireground.”

I share this experience with the intent of helping responders and future command officers not make my mistake of getting “lost.” After serious thought and study, I created a list of ways in which firefighters can become lost and some quick tips to help avoid these traps.

My Getting “Lost” Adventure

Wednesday, December 30, 2009, was a cold and snowy day in my city of Elyria, Ohio. The day began as a typical shift during a holiday week, typical administrative duties and lots of leftover Christmas goodies and coffee. At approximately 1125 hours, the Elyria Fire Department received a call of a house fire at the corner of West River and Tattersall Court. This is an older area, and the house was a typical area residence: a 2½-story wood-frame building of balloon construction built at the turn of the century. An addition had been built at some point, which added to the difficulties of this fire.

(1) Reading the building and setting up collapse zones are musts. Be diligent in adhering to these tasks. Ice on the building can be an eccentric load; we often forget this.<i> (Photo courtesy of PhotoShack Photography, Findlay, Ohio.)</i>
(1) Reading the building and setting up collapse zones are musts. Be diligent in adhering to these tasks. Ice on the building can be an eccentric load; we often forget this. (Photo courtesy of PhotoShack Photography, Findlay, Ohio.)

As I was responding, dispatch advised me of multiple calls. The first indication of my “fog” was already upon me: Weighing heavily on my mind was the fact that our department was in the midst of drastic personnel cuts and demotions, stations were closed, and minimum staffing was eliminated. We staffed companies based on whoever showed up. This particular day, our staffing was 11 members with two engines, a truck, and me on the shift commander vehicle. Mutual aid was on my mind, but after going to years and years of fires with adequate staffing to handle most fires similar to the one we would face this day, it wasn’t hard for me to make the mistake of thinking that whoever showed up could handle every type of fire.

On arrival, I was faced with a working fire on the first floor and the problem that would totally envelop me in a “fog,” a trapped viable victim. I say “viable” since numerous civilians on the scene were attempting to rescue a single resident inside. The civilians were actually speaking to the victim in the side doorway of the residence on the D side. All of this was being recorded by a news photographer and reporter from a Cleveland television station who happened on the fire while going to cover an unrelated event. The video also assisted in my critique; it documented fire spread and, although not on the radar quite yet in 2009, it was an excellent example of wind-driven firefighting and horizontal ventilation discipline – you can see one of the attempted rescuers knocking out windows with his shoe prior to our arrival. I sincerely want to thank David Arnold who took the video and graciously allowed my department to review and now share it with others with the hope of paying forward my lessons in the name of education and improvement.

The Fog Traps Me

I was first to arrive and, as stated above, was confronted with a working fire and a trapped occupant. The urgency of the situation along with the citizen rescuers kept me from doing an adequate size-up and, most importantly, a 360° walk-around (360°) of the residence. This critical mistake and not coordinating the ventilation of the rear windows almost caused the incineration of my nozzle firefighters. They escaped unharmed but only because their protective gear held up even though it was damaged to the point of needing replacement. The heat also melted the remote microphone of the engine officer, causing the metal solder to ooze out of the top, rendering his radio unusable. Yes, we flowed lots of water, as the video shows. The crews were spectacular and performed their duties flawlessly and with professionalism.

The truck crew found the victim not far from where the citizen rescuers were talking to him in the C-D area on division 1, but it was too late. He had expired.

If I had completed a 360°, I would have had a much better view of the entire residence and its size, and I would also have been able to read the smoke and conditions much better. The lack of arriving resources kept me from getting crews to all necessary areas, and the firefighter assigned to outside ventilation did his job of venting ahead of the line, but my not recognizing the vents made by the citizen’s shoe and not coordinating the ventilation event caused more headaches.

(2) I got lost in the fog of the fireground and almost burned two members when I failed to complete a 360°.
(2) I got lost in the fog of the fireground and almost burned two members when I failed to complete a 360°.

I might also have been able to see the clues of a possible hoarding condition inside. Members in the attack said that conditions were made even worse by the excessive clutter inside. It wasn’t until a mutual-aid chief arrived that I got a good idea of the conditions and pulled members out to go defensive for a while in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

The survivability profile of the victim deteriorated rapidly after my arrival, and I failed to take that into consideration. I kept going on the fact that since the victim was seen alive by witnesses, he must still be viable. However, the change in fire conditions dictated otherwise, and I failed to compute that along with where I was going to place the first attack line.

We were lucky that day. All my crews went home even though the tragic fire killed the homeowner and I allowed the fog to envelop me.

Avoiding the “Fog” Trap

Following are some of the prime issues that can entrap us in a “fog” on the fireground.

Failing to complete a 360°. I think we can all agree that the 360° must be performed on the fireground. There may be times when it is not feasible to do so, but when you can do it, do it and know what to look for – basement issues, smoke, fire, and victims, for example. You will get lost in the fog when, as I did, you get caught up in civilians’ yelling or the victims in distress. When a 360° is not done, adjust your attack thoughts and be pessimistic in your approach until a 360° is completed.

Not listening to dispatch information. How good of a listener are you? When responding, we must consider all the information given to us en route by dispatch. Some dispatchers are better than others; but when responding and dispatch gives out updated information such as multiple calls received or a very common one, “PD on scene reporting a working fire,” do you compute the information given to you? When receiving it, take the time to let the information sink in and ask yourself if the new information changes your size-up or tactics.

Not listening to on-scene reports and conditions, actions, needs (CAN) reports. Good company officers are the eyes and ears of a command officer. When I say “not listening,” I do not mean purposely disregarding what they are saying. I mean, are you computing the information they are giving you? “Bars on the window,” “appears to be a basement fire,” and “Chief, the hydrants in the area are bad” are all pieces of information on which the chief will base his strategies. We must listen and decipher the information. Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief (Ret.) and author Vincent Dunn says that life-threatening information on the fireground is not discovered by the incident commander (IC) but by firefighters. Sometimes, Dunn explains, their information can be vague or in bits and pieces, and it’s up to the IC to put the puzzle together quickly. Practice listening by playing audios of fires from your department or other departments. While listening to the reports to the IC, ask yourself if you had received that information how you would have reacted to the communication. It may sound silly, but it works. Try it.

Delay in getting water on the fire. By now, most of the fire service is aware of what is commonly called the “modern fire environment,” in which furnishings release their heat faster than ever and our training must be geared toward getting water on the fire as soon as possible. When a delay occurs, things can go south in a hurry. Command as well as all members on the fireground must have a clock in their head. A delay in getting water to the seat of the fire has been cited as a factor in many firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). The old rule of 20 minutes before you reevaluate things on the fireground does not exist anymore. It has gone the way of the landline phone and CDs. When your crews are having a tough time getting water on the fire within the first minutes, you are responsible for having a Plan B. A recent LODD report from a large Midwest fire department noted that crews failed to get water on an apartment fire for more than 15 minutes.

Lack of discipline in the collapse zone. Most of our work is done in one- and two-family dwellings. Even when faced with the Type II strip mall or stand-alone commercial building fire, we rarely set up collapse zones completely around the building. Sure, we are concerned about a façade collapse at a strip mall; but for the most part, the fog gets thick when we are faced with a Type III ordinary construction campaign-type fire. Disciplined sector officers need to hold members in check. A good rule to follow is, if you go defensive, go with big streams and lines only – no small handlines.

(3) Look at the conditions I missed. <i>(Photos courtesy of Bruce Bishop.)</i>
(3) Look at the conditions I missed. (Photos courtesy of Bruce Bishop.)

Members want to get close. They want to check a door or look into a window, and command must also take into consideration buildings separated by narrow alleys and streets. Crews can easily get sandwiched in between them, causing a big problem if a building collapses. Exposure buildings are included. Two Philadelphia firefighters died while operating in an exposure building when the main fire building collapsed on top of the building in which they were operating. Set up your zones, announce them over the radio, establish sector bosses, and make sure these zones are adhered to just as zealously as seat belts and the use of self-contained breathing apparatus

Failure to sector the fireground. Cut up the pie! Today’s fireground is no place for a single chief with a portable radio running laps around the building. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t get the fire under control within the first 15 minutes and you have laid multiple lines, called additional alarms, and so on, begin sectoring the fireground. The fog can be thick and can lull you into thinking you can see it all. If your department does not have the resources, start researching now for ways to get command-level officers on additional alarms to use as sector bosses.

Note: Think twice before assigning company officers to sector positions. Remember, these officers are programmed to handle (supervise) three to five personnel. Asking them to oversee three to five companies will overwhelm them, causing more headaches. If you must use company-level officers, train them in handling sectors.

Hoarding conditions. An increasing issue facing firefighters is hoarding conditions. There has been a plethora of articles and information disseminated on this situation. The company officer or commander who is advised of hoarding conditions by the crews or who sees these conditions should be prepared for a defensive firefight. We are obligated to protect our crews. These conditions can be impossible to overcome. Study up on this issue, and plan accordingly. Normal tactics such as search and hoseline advance will be struggles.

Shielding Command from the “Fog”

A stationary command position plus preparation can shield you from the fog. I believe that there are many ways to skin a cat in our profession. I try not to get into too many debates regarding fire behavior, dynamics, and command positioning. I have run fires obviously outside in front of a building and in a controlled command vehicle. My preference is to stay in a controlled environment and use my officers as my eyes and ears – performing a 360°, providing a CAN report – allowing me to control the fog enveloping my fireground. I recommend that you study and train on this approach, especially if you are the only command-level officer arriving at an incident in your vehicle This doesn’t mean that if you are arriving onboard an apparatus as a command-level officer or officer in charge with three members that you never leave the seat; however, you must be disciplined enough to see through the fog and not let it trap you. The March 30, 2010, LODD in Homewood, Illinois, and the December 22, 1999, triple LODDs in Keokuk, Iowa, are must studies if you are in command of a smaller department and arrive onboard an apparatus.

(4) Hoarding conditions can catch us. Prepare, anticipate, and react accordingly. This is what was left of a serious hoarding fire in my town. Twenty yard dumpsters were needed to haul away a 1,500-square-foot dwelling. <i>(Photo courtesy of Elyria Chronicle Telegram.)</i>
(4) Hoarding conditions can catch us. Prepare, anticipate, and react accordingly. This is what was left of a serious hoarding fire in my town. Twenty yard dumpsters were needed to haul away a 1,500-square-foot dwelling. (Photo courtesy of Elyria Chronicle Telegram.)

If you are from a smaller department like mine and don’t see the number of fires a big city department may face, preparation and practice are the keys to success. Prepare yourself mentally as a fireground boss; play the “what if” game constantly; use simulation software; read everything from all types of viewpoints; and truly engross yourself into the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports detailing previous LODDs. Be open and honest with yourself, and always strive to get better. There are no experts on the fireground, but the fine line between success and failure can be razor thin, and an engaged, educated leader makes all the difference sometimes.

After the Fire

June 17, 1972, was a deadly day in the Boston (MA) Fire Department; nine firefighters were killed when a collapse occurred roughly 58 minutes after the fire was declared under control. Although the cause of the original fire was not known, the subsequent collapse was attributed to the failure of an overloaded seven-inch steel column whose support had been weakened when a new duct had been cut beneath it and was exacerbated by the extra weight of water used to fight the fire on the upper floors. Never let your guard down after flowing hundreds of gallons of water into a building; continually assess conditions. Crews will be tired and in a hurry to get back to quarters. Also, be alert for ice buildup in cold weather. Be pessimistic when evaluating a fire-damaged building.

Cancer as a Fog

Cancer is a fog that can erupt around us and our members long after the fireground. Commanders and officers must make sure crews are deconned properly after the fire while still on scene and after return to quarters. If you are in command, give your crews adequate time to rehab and clean up and to clean their turnouts and personal protective equipment. These steps may save lives years from now.

JOE PRONESTI is a 28-year veteran of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department and an assistant chief (platoon commander). He has written for Fire Engineering and will be presenting at FDIC International 2017.

Joe Pronesti will present “Size-Up and Command for the Small Department: How to Avoid Being Lost in the Fog of the Fireground” at FDIC International in Indianapolis on April 25, 2017, 8 a.m.-12 noon.

Avoiding the “Fog” of the Fireground
The “Fog” Part 2: Communications on the Fireground
The “Fog” Part 3: The 360° Failure

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