TACTICS: THE LIMITING/ ENHANCING FACTOR FOR STRATEGIC DECISIONS

BY TOM BRENNAN

In the early 1980s, I was the brand-new editor of this magazine-straight out of the ghettos of the City of New York. Now, I was in a suit (lots of suits) and at my first conference in Pennsylvania-Harrisburg to be exact-and intimidated and impressed by everyone I met.

“Go to the classes and seminars and look for instructors who seem to know what they are talking about for future articles,” I was told by the real journalist who worked with me. College attendance had taught me to sit close to the front if you want to get “all you can” out of the presentation-and I did.

The class on truck work was an easy place to start, although the title on the door was some tricky play on words, a practice still found at conferences today.

The instructor was a young lieutenant (for me, everyone was starting to look young, from cops to ball players and now fire officers). Two minutes into the class, he made the most astonishing statement I had ever heard in answer to a question from the audience: “I make all my strategic decisions on the fireground based solely on hunches!”

Aggggghhhhh! Now, I wanted to get out of there ASAP, but I was stuck right in front of the overhead projector. Respect and my newness had trapped me in a room full of firefighters in which I didn’t want to hear the next word or sentence uttered from this speaker.

Why has this story surfaced in this column more than 20 years after its origin? Because nothing seems to have changed, that’s why! Tactics are simply the engine and transmission and tires that make the shiny vehicle choice (strategy) go. It is as simple as that. The reverse is that you can choose a strategy on the fireground, but if you are not able to add the “wheels” and all the other things we all know as support tactics, you have something that will never move forward or, at least, in an increasingly positive direction. Unfortunately, when tactics are not available to aid and support the strategy “selected,” you are guaranteed to lose more than you planned or imagined when you arrived and will have injuries on the fireground.

In the old days, we had tactics without much thought for strategy; now, strategy and encouragement to make early and enduring decisions have taken over the fire service as the driving force for everything we do and all we want to accomplish-at least on the fireground. We have presentations about first-line supervisors who, on arrival, made the strategic decision to set up at the structure in a defensive posture and fight from outside. The report made on the radio was heard by the 50 or so firefighters at all rank levels who would arrive in short order to follow that strategy without even reevaluating the practicality of applying now-on-scene tactics that may improve conditions that would alter the initial strategy. The fire finally found its way outside the enclosure while all waited, and the defensive setup of logistics was able to become effective and additional alarms were struck and more sectors were set up and the building burned to the ground and all were safe and all went home.

Success? Maybe.

Let’s stop here for a minute. The checklist for defensive strategy is full of quick decision makers. Are the tactics that will make the strategic decision work available and able to be employed? If the decision is to operate aggressively from the interior of the structure and reduce the spread of fire and extinguish it, our priority is to make the building or the enclosure “behave.” That, simply put, is tactics-effectively supplied, synergistically and nearly simultaneously applied.

In the hypothetical case here, did the first-arriving units have the knowledge and the response (the equipment) to have an opportunity to begin the tactics that would, hopefully (as with most structure fires), show that an interior attack was not only feasible but necessary? In some cases, this means just get water to the hoseline and see what happens. Ensure the support tactics of entry and ventilation to remove the pressure of incomplete combustion and limit spread and allow more adequate movement by all within the structure.

Simply put, if the tactics are not available because of manpower or equipment shortages or construction design or are unable to be used because of the size and volatility of the incident or a myriad of other reasons, then you must change the strategy, and as fast and as orderly as possible.

The discussion here is that there are no “quick fixes” in this job. Fireground losses in injuries and deaths to our firefighters and civilians and catastrophic loss of real property will occur any time strategy is driven without and in spite of adequate support tactics. Tactics will be similarly costly to “them” and us when devoid of any strategy chosen to support or when there is a mismatch-offensively or defensively.

It is a great marriage, those two. But, like any marriage, it must be worked on constantly. When we understand them as a union of strengths, we will begin to win the marketing war with our municipalities, become more successful at emergency scenes, and-most importantly-drive down the frustrating and sadly wasteful number of firefighter deaths and injuries from trauma on the “nonbehaving” fireground.

TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as five years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He is a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.

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