Mark van der Feyst: The First Five Minutes

By Mark van der Feyst

Every day in North America, fire departments are responding to structure fires that involve residential buildings. The bulk of the workload for the fire department will be the residential home, as statistics show that every 86 seconds a fire department is responding to a residential fire. Once a fire department arrives on scene, firefighters need to act quickly because since the number one priority on the fire scene is life safety. This involves the occupants inside the residential building as well as the responding personnel. In 2014, there were 2,860 civilian fire deaths attributed to a structure fire.

The time a fire department’s first-arriving officer and crew have to affectively size up a situation and decide on what action to take to address the life safety priority is less than two minutes. Within that timeframe, many factors need to be considered, evaluated, processed, and then decided upon based on priorities. The first five minutes are crucial to any fireground operation and set the tone for the remainder of the call.      

Studies have shown that fire doubles in size every minute. Modern fuel loads and heat-release rates add to the fire’s intensity. Every minute that we are indecisive on scene is another minute of rapid fire growth. By using information gathered during preplanning and from dispatch updates, coupled with situational awareness and a strong size-up, the incident commander (IC) should be able to formulate tactical decisions that have positive influence on truck placement and task assignments while taking into consideration any personnel issues that may face the department, especially a smaller department.

Agenda for the First Five Minutes

The First Five Minutes should begin with a correct size-up of the incident scene and then expand to clearly and concisely getting the information to incoming units and Dispatch. As we all know, size-up begins when the call comes in and ends when all are back at the station. How can we prepare ahead of time so that our size-up will be streamlined and efficient when arriving? We can do this by sizing up our response districts during our down time or when we are driving around in our response areas. By observing the present clues that are in front of us on a daily basis, we can build a data bank within our minds of what we know exists within our boundaries.

Know your response district and the types of residential buildings that comprise it. Knowing the common construction types, the common layouts, the average ages of the homes, and so on will help you to create different rescue profiles. These profiles can help the firefighter and company officer to gauge ahead of time what exactly they are dealing with. When the call comes in, they will have a better understanding of where they are going and what they are getting into.

Another element that can be added into the equation of knowing the area is demographics. Knowing the population in terms of average age segments such as seniors or retirees and perhaps students will help when creating a rescue profile. You can search for this information on local government Web sites or by observing your response district.

Other aspects of the size-up are with knowing the common locations in which fire victims are found within the residential structure. They are usually exit areas such as windows, doors, top of stairs, bottom of stairs, middle of stairs, and in the hallways; at the fire location; or in their beds, depending on the time of day. Knowing these locations helps to make the rescue successful and helps with decisions about where to begin the search and which tactic to use.

The fire apparatus is another area that can be addressed during the first five minutes. One focal point is the equipment options available to the membership. This involves setting up the apparatus for quick and easy access of required hand tools for rescue operations. This involves using compartment space effectively and placing certain tools on the right side of the apparatus.

Included here is the concept of combat-ready tools. The fire department can have certain tool combinations premade or prearranged and then placed in a spot on the apparatus that will make them easy to grab. Such examples may be the halligan and the ax, the halligan and the roof hook, the halligan and the maul, or the halligan and the water can. Many tool variations can be prearranged.

Prearranging seating assignments is also a good idea to quicken the rescue operation. The system ensures that standard specified jobs will be covered regardless of the person who sits in a certain seat in the back or the front of the apparatus; the assignment goes with the seat, not the person. This cuts time and the need to make these decisions at the scene.

Tactical Options

Many tactical options are available; it is just a matter of using the right one for the right situation and being efficient with it. Tactics starts with training and becoming familiar with how and when they are beneficial and how they can be incorporated into the department’s operational capabilities.

These tactics include vent-enter-search or vent-enter-isolate-search, positive-pressure attack, tactical ventilation, transitional attack, offensive attack, defensive attack, fast attack, blitz attacks, al- hands rescue, and so on. Tactics are great tools and enable them to be effective on the fireground – but only if the crews have trained on them again and again.  The tactic should be used for the first time on the training ground.

By focusing on these areas and others, such as communications, the culture of the department, rescue plans, and standard operating guidelines/procedures, the fire department can be effective within the first five minutes.        



Mark van der Feyst, a member of the Woodstock (Ont., Canada) Fire Department, began his career in the fire service in 1998 with the Cranberry Township (PA) Volunteer Fire Company, where he served as a firefighter and training officer. He then joined the Mississauga (Can.) Fire & Emergency Services. Before joining the fire service, he was a design engineer for Simplex Grinnell for five years. He graduated as a fire protection engineering technologist from the Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technologies and from the Justice Institute of British Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies. He is pursuing a master’s degree in safety, security, and emergency management through Eastern Kentucky University. He instructs in Canada, the United States, and India.

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