Strategic Planning—A Way To Maintain Control of Fires

Strategic Planning—A Way To Maintain Control of Fires

Speaking before a group of fire officers, one of the nation’s leading fire officials recently commented that “fires are still fought basically the same as we did 50 or even 100 years ago.” While some will look upon this as an overly harsh indictment, it is probably correct that we have not made significant advances in the theory of how we can be more effective in controlling fire fighting operations.

If, as it has been suggested, new technology is not the panacea to better fire control, then where can the fire officer look for new answers to age-old problems? Perhaps the answer lies in turning our attention toward the decision-making process of fire fighting—decisions that can, and must, be made in advance of actual needstrategic planning.

There has never been a championship football team that waited until it took to the field before deciding on a game plan. The fire officer is faced with a similar situation. Unfortunately, too many fire officers have been trained to feel that there is little they can do before the emergency actually exists. Too often the fire officer permits the fire to control his actions rather than use his knowledge and ability to control the fire.

The important challenge facing the fire officer is whether he will control the fire or the fire will control him.

A logical approach to any problem is to first understand the problem and all its ramifications. This, of course, leads us to suggest that a fire fighting operation is actually a complex system composed of several factors. At least we should say that a successful fire fighting operation depends on a great deal more than a good size-up or efficient tactics.

Strategy and tactics

Perhaps the first step toward a better understanding of the fire fighting problem is to draw a distinction between two frequently used terms, strategy and tactics. In advancing the trinity concept of war, Antoine Henri (1838) suggested that the successful prosecution of a war was dependent upon three separate ingredients: strategy, tactics and logistics. Just as with the three legs of the fire triangle (heat, fuel and oxygen), each leg is different but also dependent upon the other two. We can see these differences by defining each:

Strategy: The art of planning and directing forces—skillful management in getting the better of an adversary. Emphasis is on overall goals and objectives.

Tactics: The science of arranging and maneuvering forces in action—the procedures and maneuvers required to actually achieve and implement strategy.

Logistics: The mathematics of supply and transportation and the movement of bodies of troops.

Theory and application

In essence, strategy is basically the theory that is concerned with what should be done, and tactics is the application of that theory or how the theory can be carried out. Perhaps the differences and interdependence of strategy and tactics can be better understood by example.

The rear of the third floor of an old, non-fire-resistive, six-story multi-family building is heavily involved in fire. Heat and gases have begun to enter the rear stairwell, which threatens to endanger the removal of tenants. The first company is fighting a holding action in the front stairwell until evacuation is completed. The chief knows that if the fire is permitted to extend up the rear stairwell, it may spread across each floor, trapping victims on the upper levels, and that the efforts of the first engine company will be wasted.

The chief desires to set up a temporary holding action at the rear stairwell until all tenants are safely evacuated. The order to the second engine company will probably sound something like this, “Take your company to the fourth floor and get a line to the rear stairwell. Hold that fire until we can get these people out.”

This is STRATEGY. The chief has made a strategic decision to accomplish an objective. He did not tell the officer how to accomplish the job. He expects that the officer and his men have the training and knowledge to carry out the mission.

Officer’s alternatives

The officer of the second engine company must now decide the best way to attain the mission objective. He may have several alternative techniques available: extend a line up to the front stairwell to the fourth floor, use an aerial ladder to raise his men and hose, use an aerial ladder or fire escape to place men and hose on the roof and then work down a scuttle hole to a standpipe.

We cannot determine which alternative is the correct one without additional information. The important point is that the company officer must decide how his mission can best be accomplished.

But isn’t the company officer also making a decision? The answer is obviously yes. However, there is a significant difference between the decisions made by the chief and by the company officer. The chief determined what the mission would be. That was the strategic decision. The company officer must decide how to carry it out. That will be a tactical decision.

We now have one basic distinction to help us separate strategy and tactics. Strategy is primarily concerned with deciding WHAT has to be done, and tactics is primarily concerned with deciding HOW to accomplish it.

The next logical question might be, aren’t strategy and tactics so linked that for all practical purposes they are actually one and the same? The answer is both yes and no. To illustrate, let us go back to our six-story, multi-family building.

In making his analysis, the chief had to consider what could be accomplished within the limitations of his available resources. The chief had to keep his strategic decision within the realm of what was practical and possible. In other words, strategy should always be within the tactical capability of resources.

Let us assume that in our example the chief is initially limited to two engine companies and a ladder truck. The chief is faced with the problem of the occupants’ safety. It would be ideal if the chief could order evacuation, ventilation and extinguishment to be done simultaneously. It is doubtful that he could tactically accomplish such a desirable strategy because of his limited available resources.

Not only must the chief consider the quantity of his resources in developing overall strategy, he must also recognize and accept the operational limitations of those resources. A 100-foot aerial ladder cannot reach the roof of a 15-story building, and no matter how brave fire fighters are, they cannot perform the impossible. Therefore, the development of strategy must concern itself with tactics. We must know what resources are available to carry out the strategy and recognize the operational or tactical limitations of these resources.

Tactics involves decisions

Now let us turn to the company officer responsible for implementing the tactics necessary to fulfill the strategy developed by his superior officer. To some extent the company officer must do more than simply carry out a tactic. Implementation of tactics also requires decision-making.

The company officer has been instructed in the mission—usually in broad terms. The company officer will most probably decide how best to achieve the objective. Therefore, we can say that the company officer is involved in strategy even if it is more narrow in scope. The important requirement for coordinated operations is that strategy developed by the company officer must be looked upon as supplemental strategy. This encompasses the decisions required to implement the overall strategy established by the chief.

Strategy and tactics are closely tied to one another. The success of one depends upon the practicality of the other. But even with this interdependence, strategy and tactics are not the same. The good fire officer must be able to recognize the differences as well as the similarities.

Foundation for efficiency

Strategy is the mental process of planning and decision-making. Tactics involves putting the plan and decision into action. While strategy and tactics are closely linked, they may be analyzed separately. Being able to distinguish between the two is the foundation for more efficient fire operations, designed to enable the fire officer to better control the final results.

The knowledge that strategy and tactics are different also alerts us to the fact that different officers have different roles. The commanding officer is primarily responsible for determining the scope of the mission, while his subordinate officers are responsible for seeing that the mission is achieved. Without this understanding, the result may be what Keith Royer of Iowa State University has frequently termed the “free enterprise system of fire fighting,” or the situation where no one decides what the job is—but everyone knows how to do it.

Figure 1.

Even more importantly, our ability to distinguish between strategy and tactics now enables us to isolate specific parts of the total fire fighting operation. This, in turn, permits closer examination of the how, when and why of several factors that play a vital role in the final result of every fire fighting operation.

Fire fighting model

One way to better understand the complex problem of gaining and keeping control in a fire fighting situation is by way of a simple model, Figure 1. The model lets us visualize how more effective control can be achieved by following a sequential process in planning and decision-making.

Another objective of the model, and perhaps the most important aspect, is to emphasize that a considerable amount of planning and decisionmaking must be undertaken before the receipt of an alarm.

Finally, the model recognizes that while tactics are a factor, they probably are not the most important consideration. Put another way, the fastest ladder crew is of little value unless it knows where to place the ladder. Therefore, the foundation to all tactics is strategy.

Essential factors

Now let us examine each part of the model and define the scope of the essential factors.

Basic knowledge—the aggregate of the officer’s total education, training and experience that is necessary for effective planning and decision-making. In general terms, education means developing the mind, training develops proficiency and experience adds to practical wisdom.

No attempt will be made at this point to discuss the relative value of each. All three are important and interrelated. Education provides the foundation that permits the fire officer to effectively apply his skills that are made more proficient through training, all of which is reinforced and polished with experience.

Problem analysis the systematic and comprehensive collection of all information pertaining to a building or hazard that will enable an officer to determine the magnitude of the problem and the ability of his fire department to cope with the problem. This requires a detailed survey or inspection, which is meaningful only if the officer has the basic knowledge required to interpret the facts and probabilities of the situation.

Strategic plan—the point at which a determination is made as to how the problem, and the ability of the fire department to cope with the problem, can be brought into balance. This is the crucial point, for it is here that basic fire fighting strategy must begin —not after the fire has started. Where there is an imbalance between the magnitude of the problem and the fire department’s capabilities, two obvious alternatives are available. Reduce the problem or increase the fire department capability. It is through the first, reducing the magnitude of the problem, that we have the greatest potential to gain and keep control if a fire occurs.

Figure 2.

Alarm—that time when the fire department is notified (by whatever means) that an emergency is actually in progress or is imminent.

Size-up—the mental process designed to supplement the strategic plan by adding variables that were previously unknown. These variables include such items as time of alarm, actual rather than anticipated fire department resources, weather, extent of fire on arrival, etc. This mental process begins upon receipt of the alarm and continues until the entire operation is concluded.

Operational strategy—the actual mission, or missions, that the commanding officer determines necessary, based on the information developed from the above factors. The initial operational strategy may be to undertake rescue, protect exposures and seek to confine or extinguish the fire. These missions might be done individually, in sequence, or in combination, depending on the situation and the fire department’s capability. The operational strategy may be constant or changing, as the situation demands.

Tactics—the actual implementation of the operational strategy through the application of specific techniques and procedures. It involves the arranging and maneuvering of personnel and equipment to carry out the mission determined by the commanding officer.

Result—the product of the sequential approach will naturally be some type of result. If things have gone according to plan, the officer will be in control and the operation can be successfully and quickly concluded. What we learn is then used to reinforce, or modify, our basic knowledge in preparation for the next fire. If the result is uncontrolled, then the cycle must continue through additional size-up without appropriate adjustments in our operational strategy. It may also be necessary to verify the strategic plan to insure that the information upon which the plan was developed is still valid.

Successful application of the model is dependent upon an understanding of the important interrelationships among the individual factors. It is only through the combination of certain factors that we are able to establish the foundation for proceeding to the next phase of the model. For example, an effective strategic plan can be achieved only by combining basic knowledge and problem analysis. The combination of a strategic plan and variables (obtained through size-up) yields the operational strategy. And finally, operational strategy must be implemented with tactics to yield a result. This interrelationship and interdependence among the various factors is shown in Fig. 2.


The ultimate objective of any fire fighting operation must be a conclusion which is achieved with a maximum degree of safety, efficiency and economy. This objective can be accomplished only if the fire officer is able to exert maximum control over the situation instead of permitting the situation to control him. Gaining and keeping control is possible only through a sequential process of planning and decision-making, designed to bring into perspective the many factors that have impact on the final result of the fire fighting operation.

A major purpose of the model is to emphasize that control of a fire problem must begin before the alarm is sounded by developing a strategic plan. This plan is based on an analysis to determine the magnitude of the problem and how well the fire department is prepared to cope with the problem. We then must find ways to establish a better balance between the problem and our capability, either by reducing the magnitude of the problem or by increasing fire department capability to deal with the problem.

Which of these two alternatives is best will vary with the particular situation. However, if we analyze large-loss fires, it is readily apparent that in most cases the fire department was confronted with an unmanageable problem to begin with. Therefore, it would seem reasonable that the greatest opportunity for safer, more efficient and more economical fire fighting rests in reducing the potential fire problem to a more manageable size.

For example, the problem of a pierced fire wall between two buildings can be solved by increasing fire department resources. You simply add another company to prevent the spread of fire from one building to another. A more practical and economical approach would be to reduce the problem by closing the hole in the wall. In this way you manage, or control, the problem rather than allow the problem to control you.

Ideally we should, through strategic planning, seek to eliminate the potential problem entirely. From a practical standpoint, the fire officer knows that this is not always possible. Unfriendly fires have always been with us and they will undoubtedly continue in the future. If we cannot entirely eliminate the problem, we can at least reduce it so that it becomes more manageable. Once this is done, the fire officer has taken a major step toward controlling the environment in which he and his men must operate.

Copyright 1971, David B. Gratz

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