The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 9 – Preplanning

By Thomas A. Merrill

Prefire planning may be viewed by many as one of those tasks that can get done as time permits, often getting pushed to the back burner for other jobs and projects competing for the busy volunteer’s time. However, there are a variety of techniques and tools available to help get a program started, keep a program updated and, more importantly, communicating the important information to your members ahead of time. A well prepared and implemented preplan program can contribute to a successful fire operation. A successful fire operation is certainly a trademark of a professional volunteer fire department. How do you implement a program or, if a program does exist, use it and maximize its effectiveness?

Does a preplan program already exist in your department? If so, great! You have somewhere to start. Even if it is nothing more than a bunch of paper drawings kept in a binder somewhere, it’s still a start. Assign officers or teams of interested firefighters to cull through your preplans. Organize them and decide which ones are in need of immediate updating. For decades, my department had binders full of building preplans. Few people paid attention to them, the important strategy notes they contained, and they were desperately in need of updating. One of my assistant chiefs was assigned the task of being the pre-plan coordinator. He quickly developed a program to update the plans, produced new ones, and came up with ideas as to how to communicate the important information contained in them to our firefighters.  

If your department does not have a preplan program in place, start one. Fortunately, with today’s technology, there are many tools and software programs available to help. At first, keep it simple; identify the high risk buildings in your fire district. Consider complexes or buildings that would prove to be difficult in a fire fight, employing your normal standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Assign teams and visit the complexes. Call the property owners first to arrange for the visit. Sometimes, the owners are skeptical as to the purpose of the visit and may be reluctant to let fire personnel on site. Reassure them that the purpose of the visit is to develop an action plan to be better prepared in case an emergency develops at the site. Explain how a well-documented preplan can save much time and potentially limit damage to their building. Convey the message that your department is a professional outfit taking the time to better serve and protect not only the residents in the district but the businesses as well. Remember to dress professionally as well. Look like a firefighter, and wear department T-shirts or some type of on-duty uniform. Be polite and respectful to those working on site.

Entire articles and seminars have been devoted to the type of information that should be gathered on preplan visits. Document as much of this information as possible including building construction features, roof type, utility locations, fire department connections, key box locations, door locations, and building hazards, among others. See if the property owner or manager can give you a drawing of the complex. If not, prepare to do a sketch yourself highlighting all these significant features.

Back at the firehouse, review the diagram and notes collected from the visit. We have found various online mapping programs that were a tremendous help with the planning process and can also be copied and included with the preplan. If you received a property drawing on your visit, scan it and load it into the preplan program. If not, you can either hand draw a neat diagram or use any of the commercially available drawing programs to create a nice, clean illustration. Pick a preplan template that ensures all information is recorded in a uniform manner. I always prefer a large font size to make the plan easy to read (older chiefs will agree with me on that). One thing I used to remind my officers when developing the plan was make them easy to read. Remember, you may be reading these plans at night, in periods of limited light, and in inclement weather. The easier to read, the better it is for all.   

In addition to the drawing and notation of building features and hazards, discuss firefighting tactics and procedures and develop strategy notes to include with the preplan. Sometimes, buildings and complexes are so large it can prove difficult to devise one plan of attack. Decades ago, one of our chiefs came up with the idea to separate large complexes into color-coded quadrants. Strategies were then developed for each quadrant, making it much easier to plan for fires in these large complexes. The idea worked so well that we still employ it today. Also, add the strategy notes directly to the preplan so the incident commander (IC) can quickly access and use them during the fire operation.

Pay attention to new buildings going up and renovations being performed throughout your protection district. You can see many important and unique building features before they are covered up. Many departments have a great working relationship with their local building departments and planning boards; they are notified of new projects, provided with building plans and diagrams, and allowed access to the sites of these new builds, which all greatly contribute to a well-rounded preplan program. See if this is possible in your area.  

Once the preplans are developed or modified, decide on the best way to carry the plans on the apparatus. Whether you use binders, notebooks, I-Pads, laptops remember to make them easy to retrieve, and easy to read and understand.

Use your communication center to load important information into the dispatch computers. My center ran out of room on the computer screen because departments were providing them with so much pertinent information. Every truss roof that we are aware of is logged on address screens as well as fire department connection information, alarm panel locations, key box locations, where hazardous materials are stored, and other valuable information. Just recently, we began flagging addresses that had a backup power generator on site. Our dispatchers can notify the IC of this so he is aware the power may still be on even though the main breaker has been turned off. We are fortunate that in our town, a building permit is required to install one of these generators so the building department notifies our dispatch center every time a generator is legally installed. 

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but the good news is once this information is gathered and saved, it should be available forever and needs to only be reviewed and updated periodically.

Once the plans are developed, it’s important to review them with the membership. Yes, the plan is stored for easy access, but I firmly believe it is a great idea to introduce the plan to the membership and to regularly review the plans for the benefit of not just newer members but for veterans as well. There are many ways to do this.

My assistant chief excelled at this, and we were lucky to be able to review a great many plans during his tenure as the preplan coordinator. One of the first ideas he implemented was to include a preplan with our monthly department newsletter. In addition to reviewing an existing plan, he introduced new buildings going up or existing buildings being modified. He expanded this idea by periodically including important department SOPs as well. This type of information can also be shared at department meetings and drills and be posted in the firehouse on a bulletin board.  

Another idea is to incorporate building preplans with some of the regular department training drills. You can do this in a comfortable sit-down setting, making it interesting with videos and photos while reviewing the plan and different firefighting strategies associated with it. One way to make it even more exciting and relevant is to use one of the many software programs available that allow you to create simulations for various smoke and fire conditions, hazmat situations, and other emergency situations. Import your own personal digital photos directly into these programs to simulate scenarios in any building in your district.

Walking members through a building at night to review new or existing preplans is a good idea, but actually drilling at a complex is a great idea. This is not always possible because of building occupancy and other conditions which might prohibit placing apparatus, ladders, hoselines, and other tools of our trade around or in the building during business hours.

But, when it can be done it is extremely beneficial. We have a six-story commercial high-rise building in our district and, in addition to reviewing our high rise SOPs in a sit-down setting, we also get out and drill right at the building on a regular basis. Again, this is also an opportunity to paint your department’s as a caring, competent, and professional organization. Often, business owners and tenants will be on hand to watch the drill. People walking by may stop and watch, too, and will no doubt be impressed with their professional volunteer firefighters taking the time to drill, practice, and be better prepared.  

While out on routine fire and EMS calls, discuss strategies and tactics and familiarize firefighters with the building you are responding; do this at single family residences as well. Discuss apparatus positioning, hydrant locations, and interesting or potentially dangerous building features. Walk through the apartments, commercial buildings, and other larger and unfamiliar structures before leaving the call. All of these ideas also generate interest and keeps our firefighters engrossed and motivated.

Prefire planning is a project that is really never finished. It is ongoing; new plans must be developed and existing plans must be kept up to date. Members come and go, necessitating continuous review and practice. This can take up valuable time of the already busy and, in some cases, overburdened volunteer firefighter. Fortunately, there are a variety of programs, tools, and methods for successfully launching a program and keeping a program going. The professional volunteer fire department embraces some sort of preplan program and uses it for maximum effectiveness.


Tom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at




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