Fireground Management: Prioritizing Tasks on the Fireground

By RICHARD RAY

Volunteer firefighters comprise 71 percent of today’s fire service in the United States; however, the number of available volunteer firefighters is steadily decreasing. Volunteer fire departments face a staffing challenge that is different from combination and career departments; personnel availability is based largely on when the emergency occurs. Because of work schedules and family and other responsibilities, there are limits on when volunteers can respond. So, how can you ensure that the fireground functions are prioritized and done safely and in a timely manner when staffing is limited? It takes preparation, training, and execution.

Preparation is a fundamental element of success. For the volunteer fire department, preparation involves having departmental standard operating guidelines (SOGs) that are relevant and applicable to the department and its response area. SOGs set the stage for a fireground that reduces freelancing and overwhelming the incident commander (IC)—two key aspects that lead to fireground failure for volunteer fire departments.

In addition to SOGs, mutual-aid agreements must be in place. In these mutual-aid agreements, you must identify personnel and resource allocation. It is critical for an IC to know and understand the available resources neighboring departments can provide to aid his fireground decision making; it allows command to prioritize and coordinate tasks, which equates to a safer fireground for personnel. Unfortunately, volunteer fire departments that do not have SOGs and mutual-aid agreements still wonder why their fireground is dysfunctional and out of control.

Using on-scene resources available at a residential structure fire and the initial actions performed will determine the outcome of the incident. Completing fireground tasks can be difficult for volunteer firefighters. Once on scene at a residential structure fire, do you have the firefighters and the equipment to safely and effectively accomplish fireground tasks? What are the tasks you must accomplish? How do you prioritize these tasks?

Initial actions performed by first-arriving members are the cornerstones of accomplishing fireground priorities such as life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. However, without the appropriate staffing and resources, critical tasks/actions will not be performed, which leads to failure on the fireground in the form of injury or death and loss of property. There is a two-part solution for this problem: appropriate staffing and performing the right tasks. When staffing is the hardest for volunteers, fireground success occurs when the right tasks are performed at the right time. The basis for prioritizing fireground tasks includes identifying rescue potential, the building, fire volume, equipment, and available personnel. Many times, there are not enough firefighters or resources at the beginning of the incident to accomplish all the necessary fireground tasks. Effectiveness is lost, and firefighter safety is compromised because on-scene personnel try to perform too many tasks rather than prioritizing and completing them.

Many tasks performed on the fireground are either engine or ladder functions. Engine company tasks include initial line placement and size, available water supply, the second line, and any additional lines. Ladder company tasks include search, forcible entry/egress, ventilation, salvage, and overhaul. So, for the volunteer fire department with minimal staffing and minimal resources, size-up, command, rescue, forcible entry/egress, fire suppression, search, ventilation, rapid intervention teams (RITs), salvage, and overhaul must be performed for all residential structure fires. Without the appropriate staffing and resources, failure to complete these tasks will create an unfavorable outcome for victims, firefighters, and citizens.

(1) Note the smoke exiting the building from the soffit area of the structure and minimal smoke exiting from where the firefighters are entering
(1) Note the smoke exiting the building from the soffit area of the structure and minimal smoke exiting from where the firefighters are entering. This could indicate an attic fire or a fire that has extended to the attic. (Photo by author.)
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Scene Size-Up

Everything starts when the first-arriving officer or chief accurately sizes up the incident and identifies needs. Once the scene has been assessed and the needs determined, establish command. The IC should implement a risk management plan that calls for help early, makes the toolbox (apparatus) available for equipment and effective deployment of lines, establishes a positive water supply and a RIT team, and figures reflex time for accomplishing fireground tasks with limited personnel. He also must understand departmental responses based on the time of day as well as the nature of the mutual-aid response. Members must communicate their schedules and availability prior to the incident; this critical information helps the officer prioritize tasks. Too many times, the uncertainty of staffing creates doubt within the officer’s mind. Effectiveness and control are lost on the fireground when there is uncertainty of the ability to accomplish the necessary tasks based on staffing.

Fireground tasks are prioritized and completed through an accurate size-up. When performing size-up, use the 13-point acronym COAL WAS WEALTH (Construction, Occupancy, Area, Life hazard, Water supply, Apparatus and equipment, Street conditions, Weather, Exposure, Auxillary appliances, Location, Time, Height) or the five-point acronym ELBOW (Extent and location of fire, Life hazard, Building type, Occupancy type, Water supply). However, the volunteer firefighter should add the letter “S” to these acronyms for Staffing prior to the incident. On any given day, a volunteer fire department should know who can and cannot respond based on the day and time of the incident. When the call comes in and the response is initiated, personnel should consider staffing as part of their size-up. Once on scene, perform a survey of available personnel just as you would a survey of the building and fire. With this basic information, you can form a strategy, allowing you to identify and carry out the tactics to accomplish that strategy.

By knowing the available staffing, the initial-arriving officer can better read the building and the fire volume to begin prioritizing fireground tasks. The ability to compare and contrast smoke exiting from different openings, smoke volume, and the rate at which the smoke is exiting are indicators for fire volume and potential. To accomplish this, perform a 360° walkaround of the structure to see the “big picture.” The first-arriving officer should also note if there are people standing in the yard, cars in the driveway, toys on the lawn, open windows with the screen missing, and so on to help indicate the possibility of occupants. Next, identify the location of the fire. Reading the smoke and the building also provides additional pieces of critical information. Understanding the building’s construction and design can simplify this aspect of the size-up.

Remember, the buildings and the fuels that are inside these structures have changed. Today’s houses are not compartmentalized like the houses built just a few years back. Newer homes have open floor plans, lightweight construction materials, and synthetic fuel loads, which present greater challenges. Building knowledge is critical, and understanding fire behavior is just as important to first-due officers. The fire growth is faster, and there is a greater presence of fire gases because of a larger presence of plastics. With today’s building construction and fuel loads, the stages of fire have been compressed, and the toxicity within the structure is deadly. Once you determine the life hazard and fire volume, begin prioritizing fireground tasks.

Locating Victims

Trapped victims are your top concern; you must give them the best chance for survival. Depending on their location, this can be a tremendous challenge for initial-arriving units with minimal personnel. The victim’s location will dictate the task that you must perform. First, address the known locations of victims, which is done through performing vent-enter-isolate-search or by laddering the building to remove the victim from a window or rooftop. Another option for rescue is fire extinguishment. Do this by correctly positioning the line and extinguishing the fire. Each situation will be different; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, you can increase your survival chances and those for your victims by positioning the hoseline in the paths of egress. Also, remember the basics of a search: checking behind doors, searching high-priority areas of the structure, and creating egress points.

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