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A Tactical Worksheet for the Dynamic Fireground

One of the key elements to the success of any fireground operation is the ability of the incident commander to keep several steps ahead of how the incident is unfolding. Proper planning and deployment of resources has a direct impact not only on the success of the operation but also in the safety of the members operating at that incident.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) case studies conducted after firefighter fatalities, the most common threads listed as contributing factors to firefighter LODDs are:

  1. Breakdowns in the Incident Management System
  2. Breakdowns of accountability systems on the fireground.
  3. Breakdowns in fireground communication.
  4. Lack of recognition of key aspects related to fire behavior and building construction.

Some departments are blessed with an abundance of resources that are available on an initial alarm assignment when a report of a working fire is received, but we all know and realize that is only a very small percentage of the American fire service as a whole. A majority of the time, only one officer will fill the command role and will not have the luxury of having several other chiefs on scene quickly to help provide the command aspect that is imperative for safe and efficient operations.

A simple way for an incident commander (IC) to keep track of what is taking place and what needs to take place on their fireground is through the use of a well-designed tactical worksheet (see Figure 1.) While it may be true that checklists and forms do not perform rescues or put out fires, they can provide a great training document prior to an incident or spark the memory during an actual incident. The use of a tactical worksheet or checklists should never be meant to make decisions for the IC; rather they should provide a "memory jogger" or a source of quick documentation for them. Let's face it, if the IC needs to constantly be referring to the tactical worksheet to make a decision maybe that is not the right person to be in that position.

The Right Worksheet For Your Department

An important element of a tactical worksheet is that the person using it is both comfortable and familiar with it. There are many worksheets that have been developed that contain great information and work flawlessly for one department or a particular individual, but may be difficult for someone else to utilize due to the training that the individual may have received or the operating policies/procedures of their particular department. There is no universal worksheet design that is absolutely correct for everyone or department -- again this is dictated by a lot of various factors. It is important though that command officers from a department all agree on a final design to be used for their department so they all are operating to the same "sheet of music" as well as making certain that the final product is in line with department policies and procedures.

A sample of a tactical worksheet that mirrors the way that I was trained and fits within the parameters that my department operates is shown in Figure 2 (download a PDF version below). Each section of the worksheet has particular importance in relation to ensuring that people will be operating safely on the fireground.

Every incident begins with the completion of a risk-hazard analysis. This analysis needs to be completed on every incident prior to committing firefighters and should be based on the department's risk/benefit policy mandated by NFPA 1500. Initial first arriving company officers that arrive prior to command personnel should be completing this assessment mentally on each call that they respond. This information serves as the foundation for all other decisions made on the fireground.

Engagement Evaluation

An engagement evaluation should be completed as a part of that analysis. The probability of success of an operation must be considered in relation to the degree of risk presented. Rescue profile, fire stage, savable property and danger level to firefighters are all categories that make up this evaluation. Each category is scored 1 to 5 with the higher scores equating to an increased risk level to firefighters. The scores are also color coded with 1 being green progressing to blue, yellow, orange and then red for a score of 5. This is done to serve as a visual reminder with green generally signifying that it is okay to "go" or red to "stop."

If the majority of the scores are lower numbers or more towards the green, the overall incident strategy may allow firefighters to be in an offensive mode undertaking interior operations. Scores that are higher or more towards the red may signify that a defensive posture from the exterior may be the proper strategy. Again, there are no absolutes to this method but it can serve as a quick tool to formulate a true perspective of the conditions being presented.

Fire flow is another major part of the risk-hazard analysis. In very general terms, if the fire flow capability of available resources exceeds the required fire flow, an offensive attack on the fire can usually be made provided that the proper resources are available to support the operation and circumstances or conditions allow. If the fire flow requirements can not be met, a defensive mode of operations is required.

Fire flow should be determined by the National Fire Academy Formula (taking the length multiplied by the width of the building and dividing it by three will provide the requirement for one floor at 100-percent involvement; numbers should also be rounded to make the math simple). If multiple floors are involved (including attic spaces) this final number should be multiplied by that factor (number of floors) also. It is also recommended that one firefighter be on scene for every 50 gallons of water flowing to support operations. Again, not absolutes but points that need to be considered.

Once strategy is determined, tactical objectives can be considered. A simple but effective acronym passed down to me from retired Chicago Deputy District Chief Ed Enright is SCSCVEOS. These eight letters basically run down the most essential objectives that need to be met on every fireground (Size-up, Calling for help, Saving lives, Cover and contain, Ventilation, Extinguishment, Overhaul and Salvage.) To better meet today's requirements and needs the letter R is also added into the mix to serve as a reminder to ensure that the Rapid intervention function is filled and implemented on the fireground.

A separate text could be written on each area but a quick simple thoughts on each;

Size-up - Consists of getting a proper perspective (conditions, resources) of the situation and establishing the IC process. What does a 360-degree size-up of the building reveal? If you can't get a look at all sides (including the roof and basement), do you have the ability to get someone to those positions to get you (and others on scene) the needed information? Do you know where the fire has been, where it is at, and where it is going (BAG). Incident size-up plays a key part in completion of the risk-hazard analysis.

Calling for help - Are adequate resources available for the situation at hand; does the alarm need to be upgraded? Remember, it is easier to return someone if they are not needed rather than to not have them there and available if they are.

Saving lives - Are primary searches and the rescue of civilians assigned?

Cover and contain - Is there an effective attack established on the fire and do exposures need to be addressed to keep the fire from spreading? The most effective life-saving effort on the fireground is to advance a hoseline and attack the fire. This may include protecting egress paths for trapped victims as well as elimininating the danger of the fire itself.

Ventilation - Search and rescue efforts should always be accomplished simultaneously with an aggressive fire attack and ventilation efforts if possible. In addition to life safety provided by ventilation, it is imperative in helping to keep a fire confined.

Rapid intervention team (RIT)- Is the provision for a rapid deployment rescue team for the purpose of rescuing lost or trapped firefighters in place? NFPA and OSHA standards state that at least two members of the initial attack crew must be assigned this task as the initial rapid intervention team until resources for a formalized team are on scene. It does not matter what rule, standard or regulation that we are trying to comply with - the bottom line is that firefighter safety must be the main objective. The RIT must be established as soon as possible and be made up of properly trained and equipped firefighters.

Extinguishment - Is an adequate water supply established to support the operations in place and is the initial line being backed up with an adequate line with the proper provisions in place to not be compromised if integrity of the initial line is (loss of water, pump issue, etc.)?

Overhaul - Has someone ensured that all voids that could contain hidden fire been opened up and that all "hot spots" have been thoroughly extinguished? Remember, a "rekindle" does not exist, it just means that we never properly put the fire out.

Salvage - One of the most underutilized functions on the fireground or one that has been assigned much too late. Are actions being taken to safely save or protect any property that may not be damaged?

A reminder to perform structural stability checks is also provided on the worksheet at different time intervals. Construction of the building that we are operating in has to be recognized early and the way that it will react must be understood. Many newer buildings contain some form of lightweight truss construction which is susceptible to collapse from fire exposure in a very short amount of time (as little as six to eight minutes from exposure.) Is the building that we are in able to support the forces that are taking place as well as what we are applying?

Benchmark Reminders

Reminders for important benchmarks on the fireground are also provided as well as additional considerations that are needed but can often times be overlooked or forgotten until they are needed. Again, the items on the sheet are meant to keep the IC several steps ahead of the incident.

Not knowing the status and location of companies on the fireground can be very stressful for an IC. When a roll call is needed on the fireground, knowing where and who is operating on the fireground becomes the priority -- having a system in place to simplify this process is imperative. On the lower portion of the worksheet is a table to help keep accountability of companies on the fireground is provided. This helps in providing documentation of tasks completed, location of a company and a checklist for personnel accountability reports.

It is preferred that additional command officers other than the IC manage a fireground mayday if it were to occur so that efforts on fire suppression are still being closely managed and not forgotten. These efforts may be integral to the survival and rescue of one of our own. Often times, the IC may be the only command officer on the scene during the initial stages of an incident. If a Mayday were to occur, the IC can become quickly overwhelmed if help is not available. The backside of the worksheet contains a list of items or reminders that can help the IC in managing the mayday until help from other command officers can be provided.

Speaking of RIT operations; it is imperative that a RIT chief or RIT officer get a good understanding of the fireground upon their arrival. Important information that must be obtained includes:

  • Which companies are operating and where?
  • How long have they been operating?
  • How much progress have they made?
  • What type of accountability system is in place?

By no means should a RIT chief or RIT officer take the IC's focus away from the incident for a lengthy dissertation of what is taking place -- most of the information needed can be easily obtained from a well designed and properly filled out tactical worksheet. A quick glance and short verbal exchange of some important points is all that it should take before the RIT chief is on their way.

As we stated prior, tactical worksheets and checklists do not put fires out -- well trained and experienced firefighters and incident commanders are what make the difference. Operating on the fireground is becoming a low frequency and ultra-hazardous event- why would we not want our people operating in key positions to have the tools they need to be successful?

JEFFREY PINDELSKI, a Contributing Editor, is a 20-year veteran and student of the fire service and is the deputy chief of operations with the Downers Grove, IL, Fire Department. Jeff is a staff instructor at the College of Du Page and has been involved with the design of several training programs dedicated to firefighter safety and survival. Jeff is the co-author of the text R.I.C.O., Rapid Intervention Company Operations and is a revising author of the Firefighter's Handbook, Third Edition. Jeff was a guest on the inaugural edition of the Training & Tactics Talk podcast on Radio@Firehouse. He was also a panelist on  Training & Tactics Talk: Fireground Coordination and  Training & Tactics Talk: Training Philosophies. You can reach Jeff by e-mail at