Strategy vs. Tactics

In Firefighting Principles & Practices, William E. Clark states, “Strategy is the large-scale general plan, and tactics are the ways of implementing the strategy.” In Strategic Concepts in Fire Fighting, Edward McAniff lists five strategies for structural fires: offensive, offensive-defensive, defensive-offensive, defensive, and the indirect method of attack. From these two experts in the field of firefighting, we have two different and varied views of strategy and tactics. Clark’s vision is more simplistic. McAniff’s vision revolves around the location of firefighters (inside = offensive; outside = defensive) as the starting point of a firefighting strategy.

In the simplest terms, I believe that strategy is the “what” in structural firefighting and tactics are “how” we get the “what” done. Strategy is what we intend to accomplish at a fire; tactics are the evolutions required to accomplish it. The experienced chief or officer should be able to “look at the picture” and decipher a strategy. On assignment, an experienced officer or firefighter should be able to translate that “assignment” into a tactic.

As an example, say a chief pulls up first to a single-family dwelling fire with light smoke coming from a bedroom window. His first assignment is to the first-in engine—he assigns these members to “attack.” It should be clear that an “offensive strategy” is in place for this fire and that the first line should be taken in by the most direct route to (1) cut off the spread of fire and (2) get a protective line between any savable victims and the fire.

For strategy to mirror tactics and—just as importantly—for tactics to mirror strategy, there must be coordination and communication on the fireground. The incident commander must ensure that he conveys his vision of the strategy to all incoming crews. If the IC believes that the strategy at a particular fire is to confine the fire to the bedroom of a two-story home, as in the example above, then tactically crews will need to pull an attack line (probably a 13/4-inch line) up the interior and to the bedroom door. If, however, in the same circumstance, the IC has the same strategy (to confine the fire to the bedroom) but the first crew on the scene—without direction by assignment or other communication—begins a search on the first floor instead of pulling a hoseline, then we have a problem. If fireground operations are to be successful, there must be a link between strategy and subsequent tactics.

I believe tactics play a bigger role than strategy in the successful outcome at a fire. You can develop all the grandiose plans (strategies) you want at a fire, but if crews are not trained to complete the evolutions required to carry out those plans, then you are destined for failure. As an IC, I can stand and “bark” orders all day long at a fire, but unless my crews understand the direction I am giving them and can actually convert the “direction” into “action,” I am wasting our collective time and energy.

John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Questions: We often hear members of our profession discuss the terms “strategy” and “tactics.” What do you think the relationship of strategy is to tactics at structure fires? Which do you think plays a bigger role in the final outcome of a fire—strategy or tactics?

Tom Brennan, chief (ret.),
Waterbury (CT) Fire Department

Response: Tactics are those tasks necessary to be ongoing, planned, and completed to support the strategy in place at the firefight. There are four strategic concepts of operating on the fireground. Each is labeled as to what is going on with the original fire (or emergency) building. Our favorite, of course, is the aggressive interior attack, and our performance gravitates to less and less interior involvement until we employ the strategic concept of defensive attack.

Tactics are those tasks that MUST be accomplished to support the strategy choice. This one sentence is the secret to reduction of fireground deaths and injuries. If the tasks necessary to sustain a strategy chosen cannot be accomplished because of fire location, building renovation/construction/destruction, lack of personnel to assign to the simultaneous tactics, or not enough logistics available, YOU MUST CHANGE THE STRATEGY or you are guaranteed to have injuries on the fireground and will lose more of the “target” than you ever planned. You will play catch-up with fire spread until relieved by the next shift.

The tactics that support an offensive strategy include forcible entry (if you can’t get in, how do you have an interior attack?), first vertical and then horizontal ventilation (to control the interior conditions for the attack teams), search, isolation of the fire condition, and constant water supply to properly sized and placed hoselines.

If vertical ventilation is compromised or there are not sufficient personnel to stretch a second handline, you must begin to change to defensive strategy before the structure begins to “eat” the firefighters. Conversely, if you determine a defensive strategy is the way to go, you must gather the logistics and position them for an effective exterior, large-caliber stream attack. Here you can also cause injuries through poor tactical support. If the outside streams are not sufficient in amount, placement, or mobility, the thought of shutting down and returning to the inside is nonsense!

If there are sufficient signs that collapse of the fire structure is a possibility, you must also plan for that defensive strategy by moving logistics and personnel beyond the collapse zones—to less effective positions—and handle the tactic of discipline aggressively or, again, injuries will result.

Nicholas DeLia, chief/fire marshal,
Groton City (CT) Fire Department

Response: From an incident commander’s point of view, an appropriate strategy could provide the most positive outcome for many types of incidents including structure fires. Firefighter safety, in particular, is critically dependent on the IC’s strategy. As with any emergency, the more risky the strategy or dramatic the overall plan, the more dangerous the operation becomes. The sector commander or unit leader may feel the tactics make the strategy work. The failure to complete a tactic or ineffective performance in carrying out a mission could cause extreme risk and injury. The positive blending of these two command concepts, with clear direction and feedback, creates an effective action plan to handle the emergency. One failure I see is the lack of clear and direct verbalization of the strategy by the IC to ensure team leaders, when given tactical objectives, know the plan. This message ensures sector and attack leaders understand the overall mission. An appropriate strategy is critical to the positive resolution of the incident. A poor strategy can doom an operation and put good people carrying out effective tactics in jeopardy. While it is true poor tactics can hinder or harm a suitable strategy, a good IC can adapt and modify those tactics or add additional resources. In the long run, it is our responsibility to effectively utilize strategy and tactics and better educate ourselves in their coordination.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: It might be easier to think about the relationship between tactics and strategy if we consider it in the terms of a football game. Basically, a football team consists of a head coach and the coaching staff (incident commander and incident command team), an offensive unit (offensive strategy), a defensive unit (defensive strategy), a special teams unit (marginal strategy), and a group of reserve players (other resources). As in a football game, our team (fire department) plays against an opposing team (the structural fire). The coaches’ strategy is dependent on who has the ball (fireground conditions). The strategy that an IC (coach) chooses is either an offensive strategy (offensive unit), a defensive strategy (defensive unit), or a marginal strategy (special teams unit). As in the football game, the IC must base strategy on the fireground conditions and the rules of the game (risk management profile).

If the opposing team has the ball (fireground conditions in its favor) and is on the offensive, then to be successful the coach (IC) must deploy the defensive unit in an attempt to control the opposing team. If our defensive unit overpowers the fire’s offensive unit, we control the fire. A huge problem that can exist in any firefight (as in a football game) is deploying our offensive team when the fire is on the offensive. Think about what would happen in the football game if both teams’ offensive units were on the field at the same time. First, it would be mass confusion; second, obviously the team with the ball would overrun the other team. I would contend that 99 percent of the time on the fireground the reason firefighters get injured or killed is that we use an offensive strategy under defensive conditions.

Honestly, how many of us have ever been in this position? If we tell the truth, all of us can say we have operated in this situation at least once—for some of us, many times. In this situation, the only difference between firefighters who have died in the line of duty and us is luck. No incident commander would ever put firefighters in this position intentionally. Most of the time this situation happens for one of two reasons: either we used the wrong strategy from the onset or we failed to recognize changing conditions and to transition (using our special team) to a defensive strategy as the fireground conditions changed.

On the other hand, if the conditions are in our favor—we have the ball and the fire is on the defensive—then our coach should deploy the offensive unit. This is the situation we find ourselves in most of the time. Our goal is to have our offensive unit overpower the fire’s defensive unit. The downside to an incorrect strategy choice by our coach in this situation is not nearly as dangerous as the one mentioned above. In this situation, if the fire is defensive and we have our defensive unit on the field, we will eventually give up possession of the ball (conditions will get worse) and have our defensive unit on the field a little longer than necessary. But the big difference between this situation and the earlier one is that in the morning we all get to go home.

Another situation that is extremely dangerous for firefighters is having two different strategies on the fireground at the same time—basically, having part of our offensive unit and part of our defensive unit on the field. As in a football game, somebody’s going to get hurt or penalized in this situation.

Each of our football units (offensive, defensive, and marginal) have plays by which they operate. These plays could be likened to our tactics. As in football, the plays an offensive team uses in many cases won’t work if used by a defensive team. Take ventilation as an example: It is a great tactic when we use it as an offensive strategy, but it has little benefit in a defensive strategy.

When we are on the offensive, we can use many tactics. Ventilation is often required to support the fire attack. We have to consider such tactics as where to ventilate and whether to use vertical, horizontal, positive-pressure, or hydraulic methods. Another tactic our offensive unit uses is hoseline management. Do we attack from the unburned portion, or do we use the fastest direct attack on the fire? The size of the attack line, how many attack lines, and straight streams or fog attacks are more plays (tactics) our offensive unit uses to overpower the other team (fire).

When the coach (IC) has deployed a defensive strategy, some of the tactics (plays) we use include master stream locations, cutoff points on the fire, how much of the property we are going to write off, and how we are going to protect the exposures.

As for which is more important—tactics or strategy—they are both dependent on each other. They operate hand in hand; both are critical to our success on the fireground. To be successful, the tactics we use must correlate with the strategy. If the strategy is incorrect, the tactics we use will be at best ineffective and at worst quite possibly dangerous for the firefighters.

Joseph Floyd, assistant chief,
Columbia (SC) Fire Department

Response: When it comes to strategy and tactics, I don’t know if you can separate the two at structure fires. Operational strategies and tactics are interrelated; they go hand in hand. I have always been taught and do believe that operational strategies are the actual plans needed to bring the incident under control. Tactics are the techniques or procedures used to implement the operational strategies. When I think of operational strategies, I think of things like rescue, ventilation, confinement of the fire, exposure protection, and so on. When I think of tactics, I think of ways of deploying and directing resources at an incident to accomplish the operational strategies. For example, my operational strategies may be to perform a rescue, ventilate the building, and extinguish the fire. My tactics may be to remove the victim by way of ladder, open the roof for ventilation, and advance handlines to extinguish the fire.

The operational strategies are the mission on the fireground. They are based on a strategic plan, incident size-up, and the officer’s experience. Tactics are the way fire units on the scene meet operational strategies and goals. The incident commander should know when to implement the different operational strategies and what tactics should be used to obtain his objectives. The IC should constantly evaluate the incident and be prepared to implement different strategic plans, operational strategies, and tactics to deal with any new situation.

As to which figures more into the final outcome, they are equally important. Tactics will not help a poorly thought out strategy that does not address the priorities of the incident. And poorly executed tactics can doom a very well thought out strategy. You must do both well to reach fireground objectives.

Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain,
Aurora (CO) Fire Department

Response: Strategy and tactics must go hand in hand on fireground scenes; one cannot exist without the other if fireground operations are to be effective, safe, and successful.

Strategy at fires depends on identification of the problems encountered. Chief (Ret.) Stewart Rose, Seattle (WA) Fire Department, a very wise fire service instructor, teaches, “Don’t start throwing solutions around before you know the problems.” The problems we typically encounter at structure fires are victims, fire, smoke, access, and exposures. An example of strategic decisions at a house fire to mitigate these problems would be rescue the victims, offensive fire attack, horizontal ventilation to eliminate the smoke, forcible entry to make access, and protect the exposures. Essentially, strategy is the core and coordinator of the incident action plan.

Tactics, derived from the strategic decisions as related to the above fire situation, would then involve implementing a primary search on the first and second floors, stretching 13/4-inch hoseline to the seat of the fire, implementing positive-pressure ventilation to assist the attack line, forcing entry with halligan and ax at the front door, and using a second line to protect interior stairwells and exposures. Tactics essentially consist of knowledge of building construction, fire behavior, tools, techniques, and solid firefighting skills.

The relationship between tactics and strategy is so closely intertwined that you should not separate them—the natural progression of decision making on the fireground depends on choosing the correct strategy and then implementing good tactical operations to achieve the desired result, thus solving the “problems.” The most successful strategists have knowledge of and experience with tactics, just as the successful tactician knows and understands strategy.

A good analogy of strategy and tactics may be a horse and rider at competition, with the rider being the strategist and the horse being the tactician. A great rider on a poor horse will not get the desired results. Conversely, a great horse will not function as efficiently and smoothly under a poor rider.

As to which has more effect on the final outcome of a fire, I say tactics. The greatest strategist in the fire service will never put out a fire, but a good tactician using correct procedures and operations will eventually put out the fire. The “rider” can never compete without the horse; however, the “horse” generally knows the course and can navigate itself based on knowledge, skills, and experience.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant,
Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety

Response: To my way of thinking, strategy and tactics constitute a unified concept. It’s difficult to separate them. Each supports the other. I can’t say that one is more important than the other.

I would define strategy as the overall plan for managing the incident and tactics as the individual or group efforts used to execute the plan. I think strategy relates more to command and tactics to line personnel. If command gives the order to ventilate a structure, it becomes the responsibility of the officer and crew assigned to the task to use the appropriate tactics to accomplish it.

I have seen incidents go bad because of poor strategy or bad tactics. A good strategy can fail because of poor execution. Ventilating a building may be a good strategy but may not accomplish anything if the right tactics are not used. Likewise, good tactics cannot rescue a bad plan. Ventilation where extinguishment has not been adequately considered in the plan will makes things worse. It takes both strategy and tactics to successfully manage an incident.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Seattle (WA) Fire Department

Response: Our training and operations have been built around the following definitions for strategy and tactics: Strategy is what we are trying to accomplish; tactics are how we will accomplish it. Sometimes the term “goal” is used synonymously with strategy. The strategy must be an extension or more detailed than the goal.

For example, the goal is to rescue people and put out the fire. The strategy is attack the fire from the uninvolved side, confine the fire to the kitchen, and extinguish the fire, thereby protecting or “rescuing” the people from the fire.

The tactics are how to carry out the strategy—for example, one hoseline or two, the size of hoseline and type of nozzle, the type of ventilation, the number of firefighters who will carry out the tactics, how, and where they operate. At every fire, but especially a structure fire, there is a strong relationship between strategy and tactics. The strategy dictates the tactics.

At small residential fires, the strategy may seem obvious. This combined with the multitude of tasks and the urgency of the situation could interfere with the first company routinely communicating the strategy to other fire companies. However, communicating the strategy greatly increases the safety and efficiency of all firefighters on the fireground. At a structure fire, consider the dangerous result if one group of firefighters thought the strategy was defensive instead of offensive.

Strategy and tactics are equally important in the final outcome of the fire. You could have a good strategy, but if you don’t have well trained firefighters and good equipment to carry out the tactics, the good strategy doesn’t mean a lot. Conversely, if everyone doesn’t know the strategy, the tactical resources can be ineffective or wasted.

Firefighters and fire officers frequently drill by showing each other photographs, models, or computer generated graphics of structure fires. In these drills, the student is instructed to quickly give a “size-up” radio report and describe initial actions. Instructors can enhance this drill by asking the student to give a brief strategy statement. Display the photograph, model, or computer image, and then ask for a “size-up” radio report, strategy statement, followed by initial actions. Listen to determine if the strategy statement helps students describe their initial actions. Then, determine if the drill carries over by listening for the strategy statements on the fireground.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief,
Cedar-Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: “Strategy” means “what you are going to do” and “tactics” mean “how you are going to do it.” The relationship between the two terms (as they relate to structural firefighting) is extremely close in one aspect and very remote in other aspects.

Strategy and tactics must be closely aligned if the task at hand is going to be successfully mitigated. Let’s face it—even if we do nothing, the fire will eventually go out. However, to be successful at a structure fire, which is to protect our people, save civilian lives, and reduce property damage, the person deciding what the overall strategy will be (usually the IC) must convey that message to those who are deciding the tactics (usually the operations chief) so that everyone is “on the same page.”

For example, if the IC’s strategy is to stop the fire at exposure D-1 and the operations chief sets up to stop the fire at exposure D-3, there is a problem. The problem is that the strategy and the tactics were not closely aligned. The fire was tactically stopped (success). However, exposures D-1 and D-2 were lost, and the IC’s strategy failed.

The relationship between strategy and tactics can also be very remote. When the IC decides that the strategy is to stop the fire at exposure D-1, the “marching orders” are very straightforward and direct: Stop the advancing fire at D-1! As long as the operations chief works closely enough with the IC in the beginning (to know what the strategy is), from that point on the strategy and tactics can be worlds apart in that the operations chief now has the marching orders and can accomplish the strategy in a thousand different ways (tactics). It shouldn’t matter to the IC “how” the job is going to get done, only that the fire is held at exposure D-1 (success). With this approach, strategy and tactics are very separate/remote issues.

As for which has a bigger effect on the final outcome of a fire, that would have to be the tactics employed at the scene. As most of us know, all the best, most well thought out plans in the world (strategy) can turn sour in a heartbeat. The key is to realize early that the strategy is not working and adjust before it is too late. There may be a thousand reasons why a certain strategy is not working, but in most cases, as long as the strategy is a reasonable one, the failure in some way would be related to the tactics. It may be the hands-on part or the resources part (both of which are tactical), but most failures will be tactical.

Jimmy Taylor, battalion chief,
Cobb County (GA)Fire & Emergency Services

Response: Strategy and tactics complement each other. Tactics should be implemented and reevaluated continuously so as to accomplish the overall strategy. The strategy should be conveyed to the crews whenever possible (i.e., stretch a handline to the attic to stop fire spread). This will allow your crews to know the strategy behind the tactical objective you assigned them. Regular updates from working crews are essential so the strategy can be updated and changed where needed. Never keep the same strategy throughout an incident. It should always be upgraded as conditions improve. Keeping the same strategy during an incident when conditions are deteriorating will get firefighters hurt or killed.

Tactics will have a greater impact on the outcome of the fire. It doesn’t matter how good your strategy is or how well you can command; if no one puts water on the fire, you will burn the building down. The accomplishment of tactical objectives is essential to the strategic plan. If one of the tactical objectives can’t be accomplished, then the strategy will change. Tactics are the to-do list that must be done to accomplish the strategic plan.

The key to strategy and tactics is a complete and thorough size-up. The first-in officer has the responsibility to size up the incident and initiate tactical objectives that will support a good overall strategic plan. The chief officer has the responsibility to perform a secondary size-up and formulate the overall strategic plan. He will then assign tactical objectives that will work to accomplish goals to meet the strategic plan.

Bill Knowlton, assistant chief,
Vischer Ferry (NY) Fire Department

Response: Strategy gives us a framework within which to operate. Tactics get it done. It all comes down to the firefighter on the ground with the tools in hand. Execution is everything.

Peter Sells, district chief—officer development, Toronto (ON)Fire Services

Response: To answer the question, it is necessary to understand the respective responsibilities of officers operating at the strategic and tactical levels. Toronto Fire Services expects an incident commander at the strategic level to develop and implement an incident management plan that defines overall strategic objectives and manages the following responsibilities: determining the appropriate strategic direction—offensive or defensive; predicting outcomes and planning; setting priorities; assigning specific objectives to tactical level units; obtaining and allocating resources as needed; coordinating the application of tactics in a safe, efficient, and effective manner; and evaluating the outcomes and making modifications to the plan as needed.

Tactical level responsibilities include deployment of sufficient resources and personnel to meet the objectives as assigned, supervision of personnel assigned to a specific geographical or functional sector, decision making and exercising of authority within the boundaries of the specific tactical objectives as assigned, and communication with the IC regarding the completion or inability to complete an assignment.

Let’s consider some common problems leading to poor outcomes and examine where the responsibility lies.

Not enough water, personnel, or other resources to accomplish the objective. The responsibility for obtaining and allocating people, apparatus, equipment, or other resources is at the strategic level. So, except in the rare case where resources are on-scene but not requested by a sector officer, not having enough of something is a strategic issue, resulting in a tactical problem. If the situation is such that the demands of the incident overwhelm the available resources in the community, there has been a failure in strategic planning at the highest levels (perhaps beyond the chief).

Roof collapse or other structural failure resulting in firefighter death or injury. It is no longer accepted as inevitable that firefighters will die or suffer grievous injury when a structure “suddenly collapses without warning.” This will sometimes be the result of poor execution of tactics. One example would be a group of firefighters ventilating a roof and then maintaining their position on the roof instead of withdrawing as soon as the task is completed. More often, this type of tragedy is the outcome of strategic shortcomings such as failure to recognize changing conditions and make the appropriate changes to the incident management plan; selection of an inappropriate strategic direction, usually offensive instead of defensive or a simultaneous combination of the two; poor coordination of tactics, exposing firefighters to unnecessary danger; or assignment of an IC or incident safety officer who is not adequately trained and experienced in building construction or fireground safety.

Firefighter lost, unaccounted for, or freelancing. Although safety is everyone’s job on the fireground, the overall responsibility for firefighter safety is at the strategic level. Failure to exercise proper firefighter accountability and entry control practices is a ticking time bomb, which eventually must result in an official fire department funeral. Unprofessional, undisciplined actions on the fireground result from a lack of professionalism and discipline on the part of the IC or a fire department culture lacking in professionalism and discipline. The first indicates a failure at the strategic level on the part of the IC. The second indicates a long-term decline from excellence to mediocrity (decay) or a failure to keep pace with the modernization of the fire service over time (stagnation). Both of these effects (decay and stagnation) are the results of poor strategic management of change.

Execution of tactics is the meat and potatoes of firefighting. This is where we concentrate most of our training effort—on technical proficiency. This is where the most action is, where we feel as individuals that we really make a difference, and where we have the most fun. However, the comparatively less exciting world of the IC—a world of diagrams, checklists, benchmarks, and self-discipline—is where success is created. It is the proper management of strategy that has a greater effect on the outcome of most incidents.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: For years, we have debated whether we should refer to them as tactics and strategy or strategy and tactics. Having our plan (our strategy) with a set goal and having our way to get there (our tactics) pretty much still need to work hand in hand. Whether one plays more of a role in the success of your mission is often also debatable. We have to have a plan or something to work off or toward—whether this is something that begins back in the fire station and carries out onto the fireground or is expanded on once we are faced with a particular scenario.

We have seen how an incident can rapidly deteriorate because the individual(s) running the incident had no plan and ran the incident by the seat of the pants. This is where the need for good, solid standard operating procedures (SOPs) comes into play, keeping in mind that failure to follow SOPs is one of the leading factors involving firefighter fatalities. When we have no plan or no SOPs to follow at a fire, we can end up walking around like a bunch of ducks in a thunderstorm. We need it to be successful but, more importantly, the troops need it to accomplish their mission safely.

The other side of the debate is that without good tactics, we can’t accomplish our goal. This is true. It’s one thing to have a good plan, to have established our strategy; it’s another to know how to accomplish it and by whom and by what. This is where we rely on what we have done in the way of training personnel—have we given them the ability to do their jobs well and safely by allowing them to train; by providing them with good, quality training; and by creating an atmosphere that supports that thought process? Have we given them the tools, equipment, and apparatus to assist them in their fight? Do we have enough people coming, enough help? All of these things fall into place when we begin to discuss strategy and tactics and as we discuss which may play a more important role on the fireground.

When it comes down to it, we need our strategic plan, but we also need the people, equipment, and apparatus to get the job done along with the training that allows our people to win the battle. Both sides need to understand and support each other and to work as a team to accomplish the goals. Have a plan, put it in place, and support it with tactical objectives.

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