'Take the Fire First'
The December 2002 edition of Fire Engineering presented a 'Roundtable' review of Tactical Firefighting Objectives. The contributors were mixed in their views of  prioritizing tactical options and the discussion touched upon strategic areas first proposed in 1991 by Paul GRIMWOOD - FOG ATTACK

The tactical objectives for first-arriving firefighters have historically placed life-safety as the number one priority in the strategic plan at structure fires. In definition, life-safety has also been taken to mean the safety of firefighters but this concept has rarely placed firefighters lives ahead of those trapped inside burning buildings. It is common for firefighters to place themselves at great risk in an effort to remove victims to safety as the priority and this act of selflessness has frequently cost them their lives.

In 1991 I first proposed that the priority in tactical objectives should shift in situations of limited crewing. Where an initial response of 10 or more firefighters arrive together then there is every likelihood that fire attack and rescue Ops may be implemented jointly. However, with a single engine arriving on-scene a choice often has to be made - fire attack or rescue....which is the priority?

If there are building occupants visible at windows or balconies from the exterior and they are within reach of a ladder then this almost certainly is the priority. A rapidly escalating fire that threatens multiple occupants may be the only exception to this rule. However, under limited crewing situations the priority is this - isolate the fire or; site a hose-line that will protect the greatest risk; or extinguish the that order! These are primary actions and should take priority over all others.

My 1991 assessment of fire-ground primary and secondary actions placed interior search strictly into the list of secondary actions and this was considered highly controversial at that time. Ever since that time we have operated under proposed cuts in crewing that have perhaps made this approach even more topical!

In 1994 a retired Los Angeles fire chief, John Mittendorf, claimed (FRDG 6/94 UK) that the priority between fire attack and search and rescue was changing and that controlling the atmosphere and conditions within a fire-involved structure was increasingly being viewed as more important than carrying out search and rescue. He stated his beliefs that fire attack rather than search & rescue was the first-crew job and that this view was spreading across the USA. He further stated that a more efficient use of limited manpower could be achieved by redirecting efforts towards controlling and relieving interior conditions.

This proposal became a tragic lesson when in 1996, two UK firefighters were killed by a backdraft that occurred a few minutes after they, and four other firefighters, arrived on-scene as the initial response to a house fire.  They faced  the predicament of several children being trapped upstairs and opted to take the interior search prior to taking the fire, failing also to initiate any form of confinement or isolation strategy. The fire escalated before producing a massive fireball and subsequent flashover inside the house.

In the 2002 Fire Engineering article Assistant Chief Ops Steve Kreis (Phoenix Az) posed the question that tactical objectives for commercial buildings only should prioritize firefighting over interior search. He suggested that medium to large sized buildings offered greater challenges and therefore demanded a different approach to that used in Phoenix for residential structures where interior search is seen as a primary action. He did make the point that Phoenix FD SOPs are flexible in that they allow Incident Commanders to deviate from this condition where appropriate. Deputy Chief (Toledo OH) John 'Skip' Coleman's response proposed that ' unless you can effectively do several things at the same time (on the initial response) - PUT THE FIRE OUT (first)'. He then went on to say 'this should be followed by aggressive ventilation by the swiftest means possible'....'This practice allows you to first get a hose-line between savable victims and the fire (assuming 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'.

Chief ret. Tom Brennan made some important points and went on to say 'Tactical objectives used to isolate the fire and account for human life are as valid for one as the other'. He continued...'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'. Chief Brennan saw no difference between size and occupancy type in terms of prioritizing tactical objectives. Ron Hiraki is an Assistant Chief in Seattle WA. and he said 'we should always remember that 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 away from the danger'. He also made the point that the two in-two out rulings had complicated the tactical issues surrounding first-arriving SOPs. Peter Sells, a District Chief in Toronto ON., suggested that the safety of Toronto firefighters was a prime concern but still placed rescue above incident (fire) stabilization.

Leigh Hollins, a Battalion Chief in Cedar-Hammock FL., said that 'unless victim rescue presents itself on arrival, in most cases fire control is the number one priority in larger commercial buildings'. He further stated that firm decisions cannot be dictated by recommended operating guidelines (ROGs) but are based on training, experience and size-up. Assistant Chief Larry Anderson of Dallas FD expressed his views by offering an anagram RECEO - Rescue; Exposure; Confinement; Extinguishment and Overhaul - suggesting this as the easiest method for establishing fire-ground 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.

Lt. Bob Oliphant of Kalamazoo MI. suggested that rescue should be the first consideration but not necessarily the priority. He said, 'I am truly saddened when I read accounts of firefighters who died trying to effect rescue when there was only a remote chance of finding anyone. Its a tough call but I think we have to realize that some victims are beyond saving'. Chief Nicholas DeLia of Groton City FD CT. mentioned that many small fire departments  multi-task on initial response, combining initial fire attack with primary search. He did not discuss the potential for conflicting with 'buddy systems' in such multi-tasking although he clearly made the point that fire departments should be provided with efficient resources to undertake what is expected of them.

Frank Shapher, Chief of St. Charles MO. FD made his point, '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 determined 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'. Chief Shapher challenged those who disagreed with him to read the NIOSH reports to see how firefighters get injured or killed whilst making rescue attempts. Chief Rick Lasky of Lewisville FD TX. similarly suggested looking at the same contributing factors causing losses on the fire-ground and proposed a switch of rescue for fire control in larger commercial structures.

My original proposal in 1991 (Fog Attack) recommended essential 'Primary' and 'Secondary' actions (‘golden rules’) to be followed by firefighters on arrival at a structure fire. As a Standard Operating Procedure these rules placed fire attack ahead of interior search as a primary action. 

The plan is described as 'comprehensive but by no means complete'. It remains flexible in as much as  'tactical options' may be either up or down-graded in the hierarchy to suit specific circumstances - but a sound basis of risk analysis must be put forward to support any such decisions. For example, the secondary action of 'tactical ventilation' may be upgraded to a ‘primary’ with good reason; for example, where strong 'backdraft' indicators are preceding entry to a compartment an exterior tactical venting action may be upgraded in front of 'fire attack' (and entry) as a safer option.  It should be remembered, any tactical venting action should be preceded by carefully sited 'cover' hose-lines and the plan recognizes this important point. At the very minimum, fire isolation tactics should be considered as a means of confining the fire until water can be effectively applied. The simple action of thinking laterally and closing a door or restricting air-flow towards the fire may be enough to prevent fire spread and save lives!

Where do procedures like Rapid Intervention (RIT); back-up hose-lines and accountability fit into this plan? The answer is – they are all secondary actions! As important as they appear, can you honestly place them into the first category of eight actions as a priority? Having said that, some form of accountability should be initiated ahead of any interior operations, including fire attack. In the UK we have introduced Rapid Deployment procedures to accommodate this point. As well as implementing the plan it is also important from the outset that the Incident Commander (IC) makes a clear decision on the mode of operation – are we in an offensive mode (usually interior attack) or a defensive mode (usually exterior attack)? This decision must then be communicated to ALL personnel operating on the fire. This strategic decision should balance risk versus gain and should not place firefighters into dangerous situations without good reason!

In my opening (author's) notes in 'Fog Attack' I placed great emphasis on what I consider to be the most important point in the book where the reader is urged to examine the text carefully. 'It is often only with hindsight, following a personal experience, that important points (in the book) become highly relevant. The experience of others is here' - to be learned!  The 'fireground action plan' is uniquely simple and its strengths go way beyond that of compartmental firefighting. However, even in its most basic form, I only wish the crews at many LODD fires had resorted to it - a more positive outcome might have resulted and a tragedy may have been averted.

Take the fire first!

" Worst of all, both experts said, was the delay in getting water on the fire. Had crews gone to the right spot and applied water at once, the fire would have been manageable, they said. Instead, firefighters concentrated on evacuation. "If you don't put water on the fire, you're going to lose control," Quatrone said. "That's what they did. They lost control."

Clearwater Florida Fire