Writing Your Structure Fire Report Narrative

BY FRANK VISCUSO

Report writing is an essential part of success in the fire service. For example, using the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) supported by the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and accurately documenting the incident by putting in the correct data will assist you in acquiring funding through grants and other sources. These data assist in critical decision making at all levels of government, and all department members who use this system should be trained in it.

The tips below assist the report writer in drafting a narrative for the written report’s “Remarks” section after an incident—specifically, a structure fire. Take a moment to consider this: Once you create and submit a report, you are locked into that document for the rest of your career. Attempting to change what you have submitted or contradicting a report can be considered highly suspicious. Detailed fire reports have always been vitally important; however, many departments have placed little emphasis on this area and have often downplayed the importance of a well-crafted narrative until, of course, they find themselves in trouble.

Incidents are documented for many reasons, but the paramount one is the threat of civil litigation. If a property owner decides to take legal action and you, as the incident commander or first-arriving company officer, are subpoenaed to appear in a court of law to provide testimony, the opposing attorney will not take your word for what happened at the fire based on your memory. That lawyer will stress the fact that it has been several years since the incident and you could not possibly remember every last detail. You’ll try to argue your point, but when the attorney asks you to tell the court what you had for dinner the past seven nights and you struggle to recall, he will win the argument right there. If you anticipated that question in advance and provided the court with your shopping list, you now have the upper hand. This is the same advantage you will have with a detailed and thorough narrative.

Report writing can be tedious, but it’s necessary if you intend to fully protect yourself and your department. In today’s litigious society, more than ever, it is essential that firefighters write accurate and comprehensive fire reports. When it comes to report writing, the bottom line is, “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.”

Here are a few quick tips to consider before we talk about formatting the narrative.

  • The best time to write your report is when the incident is fresh in your mind.
  • Spell out commonly abbreviated phrases such as rapid intervention crew (RIC) and company officer (CO). Use the abbreviation if the expression is used later in the report.
  • Use a format but not a template. It’s smart to have a guideline to follow such as the one outlined below, but make sure you write what you did—and exactly how you did it.
  • This format applies to writing a narrative in a fire report such as NFIRS. It is not designed for effective fire investigation reporting.
  • Compose your narrative in a text document so you can more easily review and edit it. When you are satisfied with it, you can easily paste the final document into your reporting system.
  • Use a spell checker once your report is completed, and have someone else proofread it for grammatical errors.

REPORT FORMAT FOR STRUCTURE FIRES

You can use the 11 main categories as headings for each part (or paragraph) of your narrative. They are En Route, Establish Command, Size-Up Factors, Initial Radio Report, Resources Requested, Incident Command System (ICS), Strategy and Tactics, Problems Encountered, Under Control, Transfer or Termination of Command, and Additional Information. For me, the most effective way to write my report is to list these 11 categories and work my way down, addressing each in sequence. This guarantees that you won’t miss an important section and end up excluding valuable information from your narrative.

Let’s look at each category, the information to include, and a hypothetical narrative text.

1 En Route. Explain the actions taken from the moment the call came in until your arrival on scene. This information may include the following:

  • Reviewed preplans.
  • Monitored radio reports.
  • Reviewed hydrant map.
  • Surveyed the building with a multisided view.

While en route, I reviewed the structure preplans, monitored radio reports, and surveyed three sides of the fire building prior to positioning my vehicle on the A/C side of the fire structure.

2 Establish Command. Explain in what manner you took command at the fire scene (i.e., you established, transferred, or assumed command). If there was a transfer of command, describe how it took place.

On arrival, I met the Engine 3 officer (Captain MacArthur), the initial incident commander, for a face-to-face briefing that included the conditions he found on arrival, the actions taken, and the resources ordered. I then reassigned Captain MacArthur as the interior division commander and assumed command of the incident.

3 Size-Up Factors. Discuss which size-up factors influenced your decision-making process at this fire.

Among the more pertinent size-up factors were construction (balloon frame), occupancy (multiple-family, occupied), location of fire (basement), water supply (the closest hydrant was out of service), and time of day (3:20 a.m.).

4 Initial Radio Report. Describe the information you provided in your initial radio report, including the following:

  • Designated tactical radio frequency.
  • Structure description.
  • Conditions on arrival.
  • Command post name and location.
  • Additional alarms and resources called.

I provided my initial radio report, which included a description of the structure and conditions on arrival (heavy smoke condition, fire showing from division 2, Side A). I then established command on air, announced the location of the command post, and called for a second alarm.

5 Resources Requested. Provide a list of all resources that you requested at the beginning of, during, and after the fire, and explain why they were called. These may include the following:

  • Second or third alarms.
  • Utility companies.
  • Law enforcement.
  • Emergency medical services (basic and advance life support).
  • Rapid intervention crew.
  • Safety officer.
  • Accountability officer.
  • Water department.
  • Rehab unit.
  • Red Cross.
  • Department of public works.
  • U.S. Coast Guard.
  • Hazardous materials team.
  • Urban search and rescue team.
  • Office of emergency management.
  • Health department.
  • Technical specialists.
  • Investigation unit.
  • Other.

At this fire, the following resources were requested: a second alarm for additional staffing, law enforcement for pedestrian and traffic control, EMS for patient treatment and firefighter rehab, a safety officer for overall scene safety, the Red Cross for victim relocation, and so on.

6 Incident Command System. Describe the full extent of your implementation of the ICS. Include Incident Commander, Safety Officer, Information Officer, Accountability Officer, and Liaison Officer. In addition, include Finance, Logistic, Operations, and Planning Sections. Include any Branches, Divisions, or Groups that were assigned. Although most structure fires will not use all of these ICS elements, it is important to mention the ones that are used.

We implemented the ICS with Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso assigned as the incident commander, Captain Thomas Maher as the safety officer, and Lieutenant Richard Henry as the accountability officer. Engine 2 personnel were assigned as the rapid intervention crew, and Battalion Chief Michael Credico was assigned as operations chief.

7 Strategy and Tactics. Include your declaration of strategy and assignment of tasks to specific companies. If your department requires each company officer to write a company report, describe the first-arriving engine and ladder companies’ initial assignments, but you need not go into great detail. However, if your department does not require individual company run reports, be sure to cover this information with as much detail as possible.

We immediately engaged in an offensive attack and remained in that operational mode until the victims were safely removed from the structure and the fire was under control. Engine 1 secured a hydrant and provided the water supply to Engine 2. Engine 2 crew stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline to Division 1 to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire and protect life. Ladder 5 forced entry to the structure and conducted a primary search of Division 1, venting as they searched, in coordination with Engine 2. Ladder 5 personnel found and safely removed two occupants through a window on side B. Companies operating at this fire stretched backup lines, conducted secondary searches, protected exposures, shut off utilities, and performed salvage and overhaul operations. For detailed information, see individual company reports.

Be sure to review each company report to ensure accurate and complete information has been documented. Remember, if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.

8 Problems Encountered. List any problems that were encountered at the scene. This includes anything from blocked hydrants to firefighter injuries.

Two dogs barking inside the structure delayed entry. We solved this problem by opening a rear door and removing the dogs to the fenced-in backyard, isolating them from the firefighters working at the scene.

9 Under Control. Describe the actions taken after declaring this fire under control. This section may include such things as the following:

  • Completed secondary searches.
  • Conducted salvage and overhaul.
  • Removed residual smoke from the building.
  • Conducted a personnel accountability roll call (PAR).
  • Began to demobilize the incident.
  • Placed companies back in service.
  • Secured the building.
  • Checked carbon monoxide levels.
  • Other.

At 0400 hours, this fire was reported under control. At this point, we completed a thorough secondary search of the entire structure and performed overhaul by making inspection holes in two walls (Division 2 bedroom, sides A and C). We used the positive-pressure fan to remove all residual smoke from the building. I then called for a personnel accountability roll call to account for all members and began demobilizing the incident and placing companies (available at the scene) back in service as we began to clean up our equipment and repack hose. The building was secured, and carbon monoxide levels were within normal limits prior to leaving the scene.

10 Transfer or Termination of Command. Explain whether and to whom you transferred command or terminated command. Describe the actions you took immediately after, such as the following:

  • Turned building over to owner/occupant.
  • Conducted an incident debriefing.
  • Scheduled a postincident analysis.
  • Offered critical incident stress debriefing.

After we completed extinguishment and accomplished our incident objectives, the building and command were turned over to the fire inspector. We conducted an incident debriefing and scheduled a postincident analysis on our next working day. Critical incident stress debriefing was offered to all members.

11 Additional Information. In the final paragraph, provide any additional details that must be documented. In this section, you can include the names and the number of people involved in the incident, both civilians and responders. Document any important statements emergency personnel or civilians made to you regarding the incident. If they were not mentioned earlier, be sure to document them here. (Example: On arrival, a neighbor named Kelly Anderson approached me and told me there were two adults missing in the building.)

I formulated and followed an incident action plan and revised it throughout the incident to ensure that we were consistently meeting our goals of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Each company officer provided a progress report every 10 minutes, and we conducted personnel accountability roll calls every 30 minutes. Prior to leaving the scene, we provided the homeowners with a copy of “After the Fire.”

Let’s face it, report writing can be tedious and sometimes even dreadful. As firefighters, we love to jump on the rig, arrive on the scene, get in there, and get our hands dirty, but when it comes to documenting that same fire, most of us have the “deer in the headlights” look. I’m hopeful that you will find the tips and format outlined here as useful as my friends in the fire service and I have.

FRANK VISCUSO, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a deputy chief with the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is a certified New Jersey fire instructor, co-founder of FireOpsOnline.com, and co-author of the book Fireground Operational Guides (Fire Engineering, 2011).

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