What a Chief Should Know About Fire

What a Chief Should Know About Fire

Seattle, Wash., Fire Department

Adapted from a talk before the Symposium on Needs of the Fire Services conducted by the Committee on Fire Research of the Division of Engineering of the National Research Council.


Fire problems and, to some degree, fire combat vary widely in America. Problems common in New York City rarely occur in most of the other areas of our country. Hot dry weather coupled with unusual fuel loadings familiar in parts of southern California creates conditions rarely found in moist coastal areas. Fires in mile-high Denver present unusual problems never considered in sea level cities.

To a major degree, fire combat in these widely diversified areas is individualized, with an agonizing variation of techniques and use of personnel. Fire fighting in America, due to its parochial fire department unit structure and heavy dependence on part-time fire fighters, coupled with fragmented training programs, suffers greatly from a lack of uniform methods and direction.

Even our major cities, with their full-time professional forces, allow personal whims and tradition to predominate over new or proven tactics from another area. Truly we are a very reactionary public service agency!

Yet, in spite of these varying fire department structures and techniques, certain recognized evaluations and procedures are generally accepted as good fire fighting practices and are used to some degree by most departments. It is these reasonably near absolutes that we will discuss.

A fire chief in combatting a typical fire must be versed in several areas of knowledge. I have arbitrarily divided these areas into what I call “10 desired knowledge areas.”

The following groupings are not necessarily in order of priority, and individual items would have varying importance under varying conditions.

I. Atmospheric Conditions

A. Wind: Probably the most important atmospheric factor, wind—its direction and velocity—determines the spread and acceleration rate of a fire and will be an important factor in determining the amount of exposure protection needed. This is especially true in brushy, hilly terrain where under certain conditions the fire spreads with unbelievable speed.

Wind direction is also all-important in a pier fire, or in buildings having limited one-side or two-side access. It is one important key to successful ventilation; it will affect hose streams of all sizes; a strong wind can seriously hamper ladder operations; flying brands from the original fire will start additional fires; and the products of combustion entering other buildings or areas will affect the tenants, at times forcing their evacuation.

B. Temperature: High temperatures are a definite factor in contributing to the spread of fire. Extreme temperatures (both high and low) affect the capabilities of the fire fighters and present problems in apparatus performance.

C. Humidity: A vital element in all fire, but especially true in brush fires, a low humidity is a vital element in the starting of fires on roofs, piers and outdoor areas. Conversely, a high humidity affects the capabilities of fire fighters.

A typical example of these three elements—high temperature, low humidity, strong wind—occurred several years ago in the Bel Air District of Los Angeles.

D.Visibility: The final condition, visibility—altered by fog, snow, heavy rain—will not only impede the initial response to the scene, but will hamper operations on the fireground. A fire in a large or tall building with little visibility severely limits your communications and analysis of the situation.

Wind and other atmospheric conditions are available from local weather bureaus, from personal observations, and from the alarm or dispatching office where this record is continously maintained. Frequently units responding to a fire are able to determine the effect wind is playing on a fire from a considerable distance. Under good visual conditions, the seasoned fire fighter can determine the degree and severity of a fire from some distance by observing the smoke column.

In some fire departments, special responses and procedures are established prior to an actual fire, and these decisions are based largely upon atmospheric conditions.

II. Season of the Year

Although the severity of the seasons of the year varies greatly by geographical area, generally the problems created remain the same. Each season creates its own problems.

A. Spring: High winds and a greater accumulation of debris from the winter season and from cleanups.

B. Summer: Heat and dryness. You will encounter residential vacancies due to summer vacations and children will cause more incendiary fires. Historically, the heat of summer will be a factor in civil disorder fires and the dryness of the season will contribute to the rapid spread.

C. Fall: Incidence of certain type fires will rise from the initial starting of heating appliances, etc., after a period of nonuse. Also, with school starting, the number of fires in educational occupancies always increases from both accidental and arson causes.

D. Winter: As the season becomes more severe, the number of fires from defective heating appliances will riseparticularly in tenement and similar areas. The response to the fire scene will become slower. You encounter difficulty in fire fighting tactics, and personnel discomfort will increase.

The season of the year is obvious, and specific procedures, techniques, and equipment are usually programmed as standard operating procedures year after year.

III-Time of Day and Day of Week

A. Response Time: The flow of traffic at peak hours will delay the response time—and at times virtually halt some responding fire units.

B. Occupancy Load: Obviously, when considering the occupancy load of any commercial or residential building, you must analyze the “time of day and day of week” factor:

1. Businesses: Heavy during the working hours and virtually deserted at other times.

2. Restaurant: Heavy during eating hours, lighter during the remainder of the time.

3. Hospitals, rest homes, jails: A fairly constant load, but less supervision during the night.

Time of day and day of the week are constant factors that are borne in a fire chief’s mind as a regular reminder. Combined with these obvious factors would be specific problems of responding fire units within a definite geographical area. These complications could vary greatly and could include such factors as traffic and pedestrian congestion.

IV-Type of Occupancy, Size and Contents

A. Occupancy: This can vary from a hospital to a hotel, to mercantile or manufacturing establishments, to a one or two-family residence, with each contributing individual problems ranging from high life hazards to dangerous processing methods.

B. Size: Another all-important factor with the following points to be considered:

1. The size of the building will affect the size of the initial commitment and the potential.

2. It has significant impact on the ability to establish and maintain communication.

3. The size is one of the determining factors in the amount of specialized equipment needed and the required mobility of the fire force.

4. From the knowledge of the size of the building and contents, we can compute the total mass to determine the approximate Btu potential.

C. Contents: As in other building variables, the contents can change from human habitation to manufacturing, to the storage of extremely hazardous materials, each requiring specific equipment and techniques.

Knowledge concerning the occupancy, size, and contents would probably be obtained from a personal knowledge of the area combined with studies of the pre-fire plan concerning the specific building or area. The latter may actually be accomplished on the fire scene.


A. Causes: Protection of exposures is always one of the primary responsibilities of a chief officer. The causes of an exposure fire range from the intensity of the fire to the distance between structures. These factors, coupled with the exterior construction, height, wind direction and builtin protection, all combine to produce the governing factors of an exposure fire.

B. Considerations: Valuation and human risk are two major considerations in determining the amount of effort to be devoted to the exposed building.

The importance of exposures can be determined to some degree from personal familiarity and studies of the pre-fire plan. However, frequently the significance of exposures cannot be fully determined until arrival at the fireground, when the full effects of wind, the severity of the fire, etc., are apparent.

VI-Water Supply

A. Primary supply: The number of hydrants available and the gallonage supply to these hydrants, plus the available pressures, is one of the prime considerations of any fire chief.

B. Secondary supply: This would include tanks, adjacent natural water sources and, where available, fireboats to supply land-based companies.

The availability of water supply is probably one of the best prevalent constants in a chief’s mental bank. It is something he has almost memorized from the time he became a fire fighter. Chiefs’ cars or command units usually carry elaborate water maps, and fires of consequence automatically bring water department specialists for any indicated assistance. A breakdown in normal water operations requires the chief to exercise his ability to improvise. His decision is based on an intimate knowledge of his equipment and all available natural or other sources.

VII-The Actual Building

A. Location: It may be located in a now congested or dilapidated section of the city where the life hazard may be high, or it may be on a hilly or difficult terrain where personnel and equipment will encounter additional problems.

B. Construction: This is very vital. The construction may be modern Class I, well-sectioned or possibly sprinklered, or it may be old frame, possibly balloon construction with many concealed spaces and routes of easy fire travel. The building may be under construction or possibly being demolished; either case will impede normal fire fighting tactics.

C. Height: High-rise construction requires a special approach to the method of operation and the type and amount of equipment required. It also requires particular attention to exposures and the possibility of flying brands, etc. Frequently, great height will interrupt normal communications.

Knowledge of the actual fire building is one of the most vital elements in the fire chief”s ability to successfully confine and extinguish a fire. The information concerning the fire building will come from many sources.

If he has worked in the area as a junior officer he will have personal knowledge as a result of numerous inspections over the years. An excellent primary source of information, one that should always be utilized, is the pre-fire plan. Not to be disregarded is the valuable information to be obtained from tenants.

Another extremely valuable source of technical knowledge relating to the fire building is frequently obtained from the fire combat officer responsible for the district. He is conversant with the building as a result of frequent and recent inspections and can readily relate the building’s features to the necessary fire techniques.

VIII-Availability of Assistance

A. Own department: In all fires requiring assistance beyond the normal response, you would first look to your own department. There are three major points to be considered.

1. Available on and off-shift manpower.

2. Other fires in progress which may require more personnel.

3. Unusual conditions which could restrain rapid availability (such as heavy snow, civil disturbances, etc.).

B. Mutual aid: All departments, large and small, usually enter into agreements with surrounding fire protection districts. In an emergency, the chief officer can draw from these pacts. He would bear in mind:

Previously agreed-on units with specific capabilities.

Numerical abilities, enough equipment to be available to contain the fire problem.

Availability of specialized equipment.

C. Supporting agencies: In many departments or areas, it is simply not possible to have equipment to cover every conceivable emergency. Contact should be made with agencies outside the fire service to provide equipment. These could include:

1. Utility companies: At times they can be and are included in the initial response to specific areas where their need is virtually assured.

2. Construction companies: They will have specialized equipment not found in the majority of fire departments.

3. Police agencies: Their aid is almost a necessity in certain areas and under certain conditions.

4. Military: Aside from civil disorders, they provide many services, such as boats, specialized equipment, etc.











Availability of assistance of all types is general knowledge, but the specifics are usually maintained and dispatched by the central alarm office. They, better than the fire ground chief, have a picture of the overall capability of supporting agencies and are in a position to establish contact.

IX-What Caused Fire

A. Normal fires: Experience and a quick check will normally determine those fires caused by the routine elements—heating, electrical, careless smoking.

B. Arson: This type of fire is becoming more common. Records show that a fire in a commercial establishment between 1 and 3 a.m. will very often be caused by arson. Knowledge of this fact will determine certain procedures, including preservation of evidence until fire investigators arrive or until the proper conclusions have been reached.

C. Explosion: Type of explosions would dictate certain indicated actions. Knowledge of what caused the fire is frequently known by the dispatcher and relayed to the responding units. Patterns established by civil disturbances or arson attempts become readily known, and this information, coupled with a knowledge of the fire area, serves to determine much of the tactical action by the chief.

X-Unusual Factors

A. Civil disturbance: Knowledge of civil disturbance is a new factor in a fire chief’s planning and will greatly alter normal fire techniques and execution. It may be necessary to recall off-shift men, man extra companies, demand added police protection and completely alter normal procedures. Of extreme importance is the ability of a chief to psychologically prepare and maintain the attitudes of his men. Versatility and initiative are valuable assets.

B. Attitude of involved citizens: This can range from open hostility to complete cooperation. In cases of hostility, some diversion of manpower may be necessary to protect equipment. In fires where large-scale casualties are present, large allocations of manpower must be diverted to assisting victims and survivors. Conversely, fires in large industrial plants usually provide a significant source of willing, competent workers to assist the fire department.

C. Impediments to fire fighters: These can be extremely varied and can range from physical obstructions to masses of people. Ships moored at piers or in drydock and surrounded by other ships are examples. Difficult terrain and lack of ready access are typical impediments. Large-scale fires usually produce hundreds of spectators with the obvious problems.

D. Attitude and morale of your department: This is a factor that is very important and yet probably no other single item is as hidden or as difficult to change. Some fire departments have a great deal of spirit, attack fires with courage, enthusiasm and tremendous tenacity. Others are lackadaisical and have a tendency to give up easily.

The ultimate difference between the two departments is frequently the difference between a successful fire stop and a total loss. A department’s attitude can change—the emerging of present tough labor negotiations and the resulting attitudes can actually, radically, change the morale of a department almost overnight. A chief must be aware of these factors and their impact upon his ability to achieve a given effect from his men.

A typical fire

Now let’s examine a typical fire and simulate some of the observations and actions to be implemented. These will be based on the previous conclusions and on normal tactics.

This fire is in a 10-story, one-blocksquare hotel of Class I construction. It is equipped with only dry standpipes and has no sprinkler system. The initiating call comes from the hotel’s switchboard, reporting a fire in a fifth floor storage area behind a bank of elevators.

The first response to this fire includes a normal high-value complement of companies consisting of four engine companies, two 100-foot aerial ladder companies, one salvage unit, and two battalion chiefs, one supervising. The first arriving unit— it can be either a chief or one of the fire companies—will immediately assess the seriousness of the situation, report this fact by radio, and if necessary summon additional help.

Plan of attack

Let us assume that the fire, while serious, is within the capabilities of the original assignment. Then acting according to a previously prepared fire plan of the hotel, something like this would follow:

1. The supervising chief would assume command from a central point at street level, with chief No. 2 assuming secondary command within the building itself.

2. One or more engine companies would lay hose lines from the standpipes to fire hydrants and pump water to the dry standpipe system. The remaining engine companies would stretch hose lines from the standpipe to the fire area for fire combat and rescue operations.

3. The actions of the aerial ladders will vary greatly. In this case, a 10story building is too high for the ladder to reach the roof, and as the fire has not progressed to the point where the rescue of victims from specific windows is indicated, one or both of the aerial ladders would probably be raised to the fire floor. In this manner, they will provide an additional way in which hose lines can be brought to the fire floor and will also allow fire fighters entry or exit from the fire area by a secondary means. Designated members of both ladder companies would be assigned tasks by units, including search, rescue, ventilation and such other assistance as is indicated.

4. The salvage unit would be used to assist either of the specialized units or be assigned to independent specific tasks such as tarping, additional search operations, etc.

Many details involved

Actually, the foregoing is very simplified description of what usually is a very complicated, hazardous, and frequently frustrating task. A myriad of details is involved in a fire of this type, ranging from spreading tarps on the carpeted floors to checking thoroughly the adjacent floors and ventilating ducts adjacent to the fire area for signs of fire spreading. Hopefully, prior to charging the dry standpipe system, all the gate valves on every floor have been checked to determine that they are closed.

Tenants must be evacuated as necessary or at least assured of their safety. If at all possible, especially under certain conditions, minimal disruption of the hotel’s functions must be considered. (Incidentally, while all of this, and more, is going on, someone must combat the fire.)

Immediately upon control and extinguishment of the fire, a fully radioequipped fire department can place some or all of the fire units in service—ready to respond to another alarm—even though they are committed to several additional hours of overhaul, cleanup, and salvage operations.

The analysis and techniques described are not necessarily those used in the Seattle Fire Department, but rather a typical method of accomplishing a given purpose.

Areas needing study

This typical fire, the equipment, and the methods utilized can be cited as a graphic example of specific fire service areas needing attention.

1. In one city this fire would be fought with the mentioned nine pieces of apparatus and 35 men. In another area of the nation this same fire would require 13 pieces of equipment and 50 men. Which is more nearly correct?

2. One city would rely on 1,500gpm pumpers in lesser numbers, while elsewhere you would find many 750gpm pumpers.

3. Elevating platforms will be used exclusively in one area, aerial ladders in the next.

4. All self-contained masks will be found in one city; filter-type in the next, and in the third city, possibly no masks at all.

5. One city will allow central dispatching to retain control of fire units; the second will give complete command to the fireground control officer.

6. One would employ high or lowpressure fog streams, the second, nothing but straight streams.

7. In one city, the fireground chief would be allowed to complete the entire fire investigation; the second would demand that only the fire marshal perform this duty; the third would require both.

8. One fire department would leave the premises as soon as the fire has been extinguished; the second would remain for hours on cleanup and overhaul operations.

9. One chief would maintain control of the entire fire through the use of portable and mobile radio; the second would control by human contact.

These conflicts serve to emphasize that we, the fire service, are probably the most segmented, parochial, and independent public service agencies in America.

Lack of reliable records

One of the most frustrating things encountered nationally is a total lack of authentic and reliable records from which a comparative analysis can be made of techniques and departments.

Lacking in direction and guidance from a central source, we tend to develop numerous methods and types of hardware—frequently the product of nothing more than the whim or fancy of one individual, or the result of the tradition within a fire department—rather than utilizing the logical results of scientific analysis and studies. Historically, the American Insurance Association and its predecessor, the NBFU, have been leaders in quantitative requirements. Practically no one measures fire departments in a qualitative sense.

We are almost totally lacking in research and development. I realize that scientists and fire fighters alike are attracted to the development of hardware and exciting new machines. It is sincerely hoped that the many vital human factors involved in the fire service are not ignored in our research.

Would it be reasonable to assume that the first task of all is to establish priorities?

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