Tactical Fire Objectives for Commercial Occupancies

This month’s question comes from Assistant Chief Steve Kreis, operations deputy from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.

We try to achieve tactical objectives in the following order: rescue, fire control, and property conservation (some of us have added “customer stabilization” and “firefighter safety and welfare”). This works well on residential and small commercial structures. For most commercial fires, should we commit early resources to “rescue,” or should we rethink our tactics and strategy? For commercial structures, would we be better off controlling the fire first and performing rescue activities later?

I love questions that can’t be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”! First and foremost, I believe this question can and will be answered differently by several people I consider great thinkers and strategically sound minds in the country. It gets to the roots of several current problems in the fire service today—staffing, risk assessment, lightweight construction, and incident priorities, to name a few. Other variables such as “visible” rescues as opposed to “reports” of people inside and the extent and location of the fire in relation to occupants (and their egress) have a great deal to do with the outcome of the fire and known rescues.

You must always review your tactical objectives or priorities (rescue, fire control, and so on) at every incident. Just as each fire is different, so should our priorities be different. Consider each incident and prioritize. Chief Alan Brunacini, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, in his book Fire Command, lists those priorities as firefighter safety, civilian safety, stop the fire, and conserve property. It is from your priorities that specific strategies and tactics evolve.

When I first got promoted, I tried to look for “pat” answers or cues to drive my actions as a fire officer: “If this … then this …!” I soon learned through trial and error that that all too often doesn’t work. No two fires are alike, and setting hard-and-fast rules may lead to problems on the fire scene.

There are several factors to consider. Staffing is a key component. If your staffing calls for the response of 20 or 30 firefighters who will all arrive at about the same time, as in larger cities, then in some instances you can attack and rescue all at the same time. However, if your staffing consists of 15 firefighters or fewer or response times are staggered, your strategic and subsequent tactical options diminish proportionally with the actual number of members arriving. Another major concern is the training and experience level of responding crews. I like to call this the “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?” factor. How long will it take your crew to get an effective hose stream in place? How long will it take to “rescue” visible victims? How long will it take to search a 3,000-square-foot area for unseen victims? Better yet, how long will it take or how many firefighters should you, or do you have to, commit to searching a 40,000-square-foot store or manufacturing property? (Should you even be searching at all?) Knowing what your crews are capable of is a key factor.

Risk assessment concerns dictate actions and subsequent strategies. The size and scope of the fire problem, the potential for life hazard (a fire in an army recruiting office located in a strip mall at 4:00 a.m. should have less of a life hazard than a popular bar at 12:30 a.m.), and the property type and contents involved will all have a bearing on strategic priorities and subsequent tactical evolutions. You need to honestly look at the scene and, as part of a realistic risk assessment process, ask yourself if savable people could even be inside (because of fire and smoke conditions). Other concerns are construction and occupancy type.

When I discuss strategy, I stress two interrelated points. First, if all things are equal (an equal fire and rescue and search problems) and staffing is low (not sufficient to accomplish all at the same time), put out the fire, then aggressively ventilate by the swiftest means possible. This practice allows you to first get a line (or protective stream) between savable victims and the fire (assuming that the line was taken into the structure in the most appropriate avenue—placing it between the fire and savable people). Hopefully, this will keep the situation from getting worse. Then you need to aggressively vent (by hose stream, fan, or whatever) so you can “look” for victims as opposed to “feel” for them.

I may find myself standing alone in this concern, but I do not advocate volumes of procedures and policies for a fire in a specific occupancy type. I would rather that an officer be allowed to open a “bag of options available” based on experience, training, and a firm knowledge of exactly what the responding crews are capable of doing—and then make decisions based on that particular situation, experience, and crews’ abilities.

Unless you can effectively do several things at the same time, put out the fire! To me, that holds true for a commercial or residential occupancy.

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.

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

Typically in Phoenix we try to achieve the tactical objectives in the order of rescue, fire control, and property conservation, but there are times that we either cannot or do not achieve them in that order. For example, we might have fire under control before we have completed a primary search. For the most part, our aim is to achieve the tactical priorities in the order in which they are listed. But our SOPs do provide the flexibility for an incident commander to deviate from that order when appropriate.

For residential fires, we try to stick to the order above for a number of reasons. There is a chance that people inside may need to be rescued. Fire may be isolated to a room that would allow crews to do a thorough search, and typically the magnitude of a fire in a residence is something we can easily handle.

Working fires in large or even medium-sized commercial structures offer us a different set of challenges. Most of the American fire service (Phoenix included) does not staff its companies to a level that provides for safe and effective fire operations on these types of fires. And, except for the downtown business district of Phoenix, we don’t have companies arriving at the scene of an incident quickly enough to achieve the tactical objectives to operate safely and efficiently at commercial fires.

Realistically, how does a single engine company arriving first at a large commercial structure heavily charged with heat and smoke extend supply lines and attack lines, take command, do a size-up (this list could go on and on), and do a thorough search of a 30,000-square-foot commercial structure? It’s not possible for a single engine company to do all of that. It takes a lot of companies to do a complete search of a medium-sized commercial structure in zero visibility. Most of the American fire service cannot muster and deliver enough resources to a working commercial fire to operate safely; provide for a sustained fire attack; and search a commercial occupancy in hot, smoky conditions. Clearly, if you can see, you can search fairly quickly, and our plan would change accordingly.

Even with the passage of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments—2001, it’s not likely that most of us will get the necessary resources to successfully sustain a commercial fire attack and search the structure. The way NFPA 1710 is written today, it will only allow us to catch up and operate safely at residential fires (a good first step). The staffing and arrival requirements in it are based around the conditions for a 2,000-square-foot residential fire, not a large or even medium-sized commercial structure.

It’s time we really look at what we are doing. Recent experiments conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and our department have determined that at five minutes of elapsed time in a warehouse fire, the carbon monoxide levels reach between 30,000 and 40,000 parts per million (a human being will die in an atmosphere of 10,000 parts per million after 30 seconds).

At an operational level, it’s time we changed some of our actions. The best course of action on a commercial structure with a working fire inside is to ventilate and attack the fire, rescue any people we encounter on our way to extinguishing the fire, and complete the primary search as quickly as possible—basically, take the fire from the victims.

Philosophically (for now), let’s look at the facts. If the roof typically comes down in 17 to 18 minutes (with no intervention by firefighters), people are dead after five minutes (it’s difficult to get there that fast), and we cannot deliver enough resources to the scene to operate safely (in the early stages), should we even be inside?

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

Our goals in the fire service have always been the saving of life (accounting for life by use of search, part of which is rescuing those unable to remove themselves or removal of those in threat of becoming disabled); next, simultaneous, or as a life-saving tactic is to control the fire—keep it where it is, keep it from going where it wants, and extinguish it; then property conservation. Recently (in our lifetime) the concern of environmental impact has been added. This goal is litigiously placed in and around the last two objectives after human life is accounted for. This is the reason incident commanders are paid more, because if it is ignored, the department will be liable in court. Firefighter safety is certainly a concern and is included in the first step—saving of life.

Why does the question emphasize commercial fires? The difference in tactics that support the various strategic choices (from aggressive offensive to defensive) depends on where the fire is in the structure and who or what is in its way.

With the constant thought of locating the fire on everyone’s mind, the process of isolating it (control) goes hand-in-hand with our other goals of saving of life and then saving of property. What the property is used for is not a primary consideration—only human life seen by the fire service, witnessed by testimony on the scene, or expected or probable within the structure (in descending order) is important.

The problem as I see it is, Do you have enough people on the fireground to perform the tactics necessary to support the strategy that you have chosen for the structure on fire? The question tries to distinguish between small fires in small structures and fires in big structures. If all things are equal—and life is the same consideration and objective risk on arrival—then there is no difference. Tactical objectives used to isolate the fire and account for human life are as valid for one as for the other. The differences here are the staffing and logistics needed to perform the same necessary tactics of forcible entry, search, fire control, ventilation, and rescue/removal of life AND coordination and control of those tactics at the larger structure so that any one does not negatively impact our primary mission of accounting for ALL life within the structure.

Fire in large commercial structures is a two-headed problem: Is the fire controllable, and do we have sufficient personnel and logistics to perform the necessary tactics in order to support the strategy (interior, aggressive, offensive structural firefighting) or are some tactics unable to be performed because we will never have enough people, our logistics and training are unavailable, or the structure will prevent positive effects of the tactic (wrapped or otherwise “unventable” structures, partial collapse, hazardous materials release, and more)?

In some situations that occur on our structural fireground, tactics become unrelated to each other in a semifreelance fashion, are directly self-canceling, or are never performed or completed in relation to the desired effect on the fire problem as we are “funnel visioned” by rapidly incoming data at the decision level concerning life impacts on the fireground. The real dilemma we face as we commit our firefighting operation to an offensive strategy is, Can we make the enclosure behave so that our risk is minimal dependent on the goals of life accountability and THEN property conservation? The control of the fire condition is only one of the simultaneous ongoing tactics of interior aggressive offensive firefighting. Some of our strategy and tactical texts of the past have put the stamp of approval on fire control being put on “hold” if the life exposure is too severe and must take total concern. Remember, that is in the mind of the writer and his or her experience at the time. It is not to separate life saving from fire control—at least at the fires I have experienced.

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

Our procedures describe the standard tactical objectives priority. Company officers and chief officers are empowered and entrusted to make good tactical decisions that will meet the priority of the tactical objectives. We should always remember that sometimes the best way to accomplish the rescue objective is to take the danger away from the victims or put out the fire. Even if the fire is not immediately controlled or extinguished, a quick attack can slow the spread of the fire and buy other firefighters additional time to take the victims from the danger.

During the past few years, working toward the first two tactical objectives of rescue and fire control has been complicated by changes the fire service has had to make. Ensuring compliance with the two-in/two-out rule and assigning firefighters to rapid intervention teams increase the number of issues that the first fire officer has to think about and decide. Directing or managing specific actions to meet the first two tactical objectives is a challenging task.

Rethinking the tactical objectives and their priority may not be necessary. We always need to think about our strategy and tactics. The rescue of occupants in a commercial structure requires more detailed thinking. Occupants might be quickly triaged not by injury but by who is in the greatest danger, what resources are needed to rescue or evacuate occupants, who can self-rescue or evacuate with directions, or who can be sheltered in place. The rescue objective is often thought of in the traditional sense of a couple of firefighters rushing into a building and carrying out a victim. For commercial structures, we need to expand our thinking, given the changes in our profession during the past few years and our limited resources.

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

We identify the three primary tactical objectives in order of priority as rescue and life safety, incident stabilization, and conservation of the environment and property. The generalized language of these objectives allows for their application to all emergency activities, not exclusively to fire suppression.

Rescue and life safety is inclusive of the concept of “firefighter safety and welfare.” Our operational guidelines state that each tactical objective will be accomplished while providing for the safety, accountability, and welfare of Toronto Fire Services personnel. This pervasive and constant emphasis on firefighter safety is best illustrated by our application of a British-style system of entry control. A controlled area is established whenever SCBA is required or when the incident commander determines that operating in pairs would afford firefighting personnel a greater margin of safety. With one exception, whenever personnel are required to operate on SCBA at an emergency incident, they will do so in pairs or multiples of two. The exception occurs when the first vehicle arrives at a scene where lives are endangered and every firefighter is needed to effect immediate rescues. Once rescues are completed, or if it is determined that there is no possibility to save lives, the focus shifts back exclusively to firefighter safety, and no exception to the policy of operation in pairs or multiples of two is permitted. This is true regardless of the occupancy—residential, commercial, or industrial.

Incident stabilization as the second objective could include a variety of operational goals as applicable to the scene. A chemical spill would be identified, isolated, controlled, or neutralized. A collapsed structure would require activities of shoring or tunneling. Controlling or confining a fire with a well-placed fire attack (offensive or defensive as appropriate) would also constitute incident stabilization.

In a situation where an aggressive interior attack is required first to support or protect firefighters engaged in rescue, the prioritization of the tactical objectives remains consistent. The purpose of the fire attack in such a case is not to stabilize the incident but to enable the completion of the first objective of rescue and life safety. Once any possible rescues have been completed, the fire attack may stay in place, be modified, or be discontinued as the situation demands.

For conservation of the environment and property, the incident commander must commit the necessary resources to keep environmental and property losses to an absolute minimum. An early and ongoing awareness of potential environmental and property damage is required. This would include considering damage that may result from actions taken to stabilize the incident. In all cases, the deployment of resources to achieve tactical objectives must be conducted within the framework of a consistent strategy, making use of accurate and timely size-up and building information, and with a constant emphasis on firefighter safety and welfare (not as a separate or additional objective).

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

Our tactics and strategies have been based on the type of occupancy for many years now. Specifically, our training and recommended operating guidelines (ROGs) have addressed the issue. We have a very proactive training program that includes a lot of hands-on training and real-life case studies. We have been taught that “usually” the only life hazard in “most” commercial fires is to the firefighter. We try to familiarize ourselves with all commercial buildings in our district by performing company inspections, training tours, and “tactical” surveys.

We probably have a safety advantage over many districts because our response area is mostly residential, with only two main corridors that contain commercial occupancies, which are mainly mercantile or assembly occupancies. Additionally, we study the NIOSH firefighter fatality case histories and other line-of-duty-death reports available.

Our ROGs for fireground operations are fairly general in nature and do not specifically state that fire attack should be the primary consideration when dealing with commercial occupancies, although that may be the most advantageous in some cases. Training, experience, and proper size-up should be the determining factors for making this decision.

Our ROGs do contain very specific language for initial tactics at occupancies with standpipe and/or sprinkler systems, which are found in many of our commercial buildings. The ROG states: “For any fire department connection (FDC), when fire is indicated by visible fire, smoke, water gong, etc., unless conditions dictate otherwise, the first-in engine company shall lay a supply line from the FDC to the closest hydrant and pump and maintain 150 psi.”

This ROG is saying, commit the first-in engine company to suppression at these types of commercial buildings, since that will probably be the most advantageous.

So unless the victim rescue presents itself on arrival, in most cases fire control is the number one priority because of the nature and size of the commercial occupancy. However, the decision cannot be dictated by a ROG—it must be made based on training, experience, and size-up on arrival.

Larry Anderson, assistant chief, Dallas (TX) Fire Department

The term “tactical objective” might be better stated as “strategy.” Strategy is the overall game plan you must follow for mitigation. You must consider the strategic priorities in the same order at all incidents. It doesn’t matter if you are formulating command decisions for a car fire, dumpster fire, wildland fire, or city block on fire, consider the priorities in the same order for each. Each priority may not require overt action, but consider it before moving to the next. I don’t believe any experienced fire officer will argue with the concept that rescue is the primary priority. How one goes about accomplishing the strategic priorities involves actions and tasks that fall into the category of “tactics.” The tactics chosen to accomplish a particular strategic priority are up to the individual incident commander. Often it is necessary to initiate fire attack to be able to accomplish rescue operations. In this case, fire attack is a tactic that supports the number one strategic priority of rescue. On large commercial structures with heavy fire involvement, many individual tactics such as heavy battery handlines, ladder pipes or other master streams, ventilation, and forcible entry are employed to effect rescue.

I have found over the years that the old anagram RECEO—rescue, exposure, confinement, extinguishment, and overhaul—is the easiest method for establishing fireground operations. It never fails; some officers will say, “The best way to accomplish rescue is to put out the fire.” In some cases, that is true, but “putting out the fire” is a tactic brought to bear to accomplish rescue. The tactics employed by the fireground commander are a matter of experience and circumstance, but the strategic priorities should never change. The greatest aspect of using RECEO to establish your strategic priorities is that the situation will dictate your actions and simplify your thought processes.

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

We don’t have an SOP that requires a specific progression of operations or rescue at every fire. It is up to the incident commander to decide. I think rescue should be the first consideration but not necessarily the first priority. It depends on the type of structure, the size of the fire, and the potential for victims.

I would generally not initiate rescue operations on commercial buildings that are closed for business or otherwise vacant unless there was a credible report or indication that someone was inside.

Despite its purpose and intent, I think that rescue can be misused. I am truly saddened when I read accounts of firefighters who died trying to effect rescue where there was only a remote chance of finding anyone. It’s a tough call, but I think we have to realize that some victims are beyond saving.

Unless there is a reasonable likelihood of finding someone, I feel the best option is to attack the fire. Rescue only solves one problem, while extinguishment solves a lot of problems including rescue. Limiting rescue to those occasions when there is a reasonable chance of finding someone seems like good risk management.

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

I believe we can use the same incident priorities to create our strategic plan for this question. What can we do beforehand to make this decision easier for our incident commanders? I have always understood life safety (or rescue) to include firefighter safety and welfare. Our SOPs attempt to provide the initial alarm assignment with the resources necessary to support the decision process. This process includes offensive or defensive attack and aggressive initial search or delay until access is possible. Our procedures include automating the response of a FAST team and an additional backup team if the initial reports indicate the possible need. It is important for our personnel to be able to determine if a life hazard exists, besides our own, and what the probabilities of a successful rescue are.

Obviously, training relative to risk/benefit analysis pertaining to structural fire attacks for all sizes of buildings is critical. I believe it is even more critical for small departments with limited resources. Many times you have one shot to make the right decision because of the time delay before additional help arrives. For many small departments in this country, a multiple-room structure fire with extension is a significant event. We have limited experience with commercial occupancies, yet we all have them. The most obvious question for this example is, What are the possibilities of the occupancy having a rescue component? If the structure is open or occupied by employees, then resources must be committed to those tasks.

Many times, however, smaller departments combine the initial fire attack line with conducting the primary search. Again, with limited staffing, some tasks are combined. This dual-role attack could be the answer to the unknown life safety risk in the commercial occupancy.

One additional concept that can be used to increase your capabilities is to design your run cards with a risk/capabilities component, adding additional units or departments based on your department’s response capacity or additional information received. For example, if our regional dispatched center receives a second source reporting a structure fire, whatever type of source it may be, the FAST team and other additional resources are started. If, after investigation, they are not needed, they return. Whatever the size of the department, to make the best decision at the commercial occupancy fire, our people must have the necessary resources and training.

Frank Schaper, chief, St. Charles (MO) Fire Department

Rescue is always our highest priority at a structure fire, but it should not be the first thing we do unless, of course, we are interested in getting ourselves injured or killed. Therefore, I always maintain that the best way to rescue people from a burning building is to put out the fire. This makes it easier on the rescuer and the victim by reducing heat and eliminating smoke. This is accomplished by (1) establishing a water supply; (2) advancing an attack line(s) toward the fire; (3) simultaneously ventilating the building (the old fashioned way, by breaking the windows out); and (4) positioning ladders at windows for exit and rescue. Now you can attempt the rescue.

Some may not agree with my strategy and tactics. I would challenge them to read the NIOSH reports to see how firefighters get injured and killed while making rescue attempts. Rescue is the most dangerous part of our job. Doing it without water and proper ventilation is not only dangerous, it is suicide.

I can hear someone saying, “We can’t wait to do all that stuff. We’ve got to get in there and make the rescue.” Well, look at it this way: Pretend that instead of the house being filled with fire and superheated gases, it is filled with chlorine gas. Would you rush right in then? I don’t think so.

Here is another example: You arrive on scene and rush right in to attempt a rescue. You are on the second floor and get into trouble. The IC activates the rapid intervention team. What does it do? First, establish a water supply. Second, advance an attack line. Third, open up the building. Fourth, put up ladders. Fifth, call for a body bag. Now that is something to think about.

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

I think we all have in mind, for the most part, the same tactical priorities for handling structure fires. However, there are times when we need to change the “order” in which we attempt to achieve those tactical objectives. We still haven’t been able to put a significant dent in our line-of-duty death numbers; and as we look at the circumstances surrounding those fatalities—when we look specifically at those losses on the fireground—we see some of the same contributing factors each time. Whether it’s not following SOPs or trying to extend ourselves just a little bit too far, we tend to overlook one point when it comes to differentiating between residential and commercial structure fires: We approach and fight the commercial fire like a residential fire. From apparatus placement to line selection to SCBA air time, we tend to at times get lulled into that quick knockdown that we often get with our residential fires. Being able to separate the two fires is critical if we’re going to have a positive impact on the fire itself. When it comes to our tactical objectives, we need to switch rescue and fire control when it comes to a commercial fire. Barring an explosion or maybe an intentionally set fire in a building that is occupied, the need for an aggressive primary search followed by the fire attack—understanding that most often your fire attack is going to aid you in saving lives—can be and most often should be secondary to the fire attack itself. We should be aggressive in our fire attack and place our search or rescue tactical objective second when we consider the following factors:

  1. People in commercial buildings are usually awake, and most know their way out. This does not mean that we don’t search. Clearing a building still needs to be accomplished.
  2. Our fire loads in commercial buildings often are greater than those in residential structures.
  3. With number two in mind, we’ll need bigger attack lines capable of delivering the gpm that we need.
  4. We’ll have a lot more smoke to move, and ventilation efforts will require more personnel.
  5. Some hindrances in our efforts will be the building’s construction, forcible entry problems, and so on.
  6. When it comes to the rescue objective, many departments are not trained well in the “team search” concept, searching with a rope, or searching larger structures; or they may not realize until it’s too late that it took more air from the SCBA with this fire than it did at the last house fire.

A lot of what we’re in need of accomplishing at a commercial fire is staffing related. Simply put, we need to get more people there sooner. At structure fires, we play catch-up beginning with the receipt of the call, but with the types of occupancies and fire loads in commercial structures, we can lose ground much more quickly and find ourselves quickly outmatched. We need to get enough people to the scene to handle the tasks needed and get enough water. We can always send them home if we don’t need them.

To quote a friend of mine: “A good incident commander or command officer is the one who can predict his next alarm”—what’s burning, where the fire is going, how many more lines are needed, what’s needed apparatuswise, how many more people are needed, and any additional resources needed before they’re gone. The officer who can see what’s going to happen next will often be one step ahead of the fire.

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