The Ten Command-ments Of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

Building the Incident Action Plan

Fire officers are strategic resources; firefighters are task resources. As a strategic resource, a competent fire officer must have the ability to identify problems and, to address those problems, develop an incident action plan (IAP) that is built upon a foundation of:

  1. The status of life safety
  2. The determination of risk versus value
  3. Knowing what and where the problems are
  4. Your resource capability

The following seven-step progression will produce a terrific initial IAP:

  1. Step One: Investigation mode (Big Six size-up)
  2. Step Two: Determine risk versus value (Value-Time-Size)
  3. Step Three: List Big Six problems (F-S-VO-PO-E-A)
  4. Step Four: Prioritize problems tactically
  5. Step Five: List Primary Phase objectives
  6. Step Six: Call the Play (T.R.P.O. or D.)
  7. Step Seven: Assign objectives to resources

Attempting to remember this list at three in the morning is not practical. Thus, a simpler, more concise street model is preferred; the ideal model must be consistent and easy to remember yet encompasses all seven steps — and more. Command-ment VII will introduce you to the "Four Box Action Plan" model. This plan is simple, quick, adds strategic significance to your Big Six size-up, and is easy to recall at three in the morning.

Before we get started, I believe it's important to understand that the ability to craft an incident action plan is not some esoteric theory. The importance of size-up and incident action planning is validated by some pretty impressive company, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Fire Academy, National Fire Incident Management System Consortium and a host of respected fire service leaders and organizations.

So, who says you have to develop an incident action plan? Let's start with the Standard for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications, NFPA 1021, 2.6.2., which states that a first-line fire (company) officer shall:

Develop an initial action plan, given size-up information for an incident and assigned emergency response resources, so that resources are deployed to control the emergency.

NFPA 1021, 2.6.3, continues:

Implement an action plan at an emergency operation, given assigned resources, type of incident, and a preliminary plan, so that resources are deployed to mitigate the situation.

The Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, NFPA 1500, 3-3.35, defines an incident action plan as:

The objectives reflecting the overall incident strategy, tactics, risk management and member safety that are developed by the incident commander. Incident action plans are updated throughout the incident.

NFPA 1500, 8.1.8, states that:

At an emergency incident, the incident commander shall have the responsibility for the following:

  1. Arrive on-scene before assuming command
  2. Assume and confirm command of an incident and take an effective command position
  3. Perform situation evaluation that includes risk assessment
  4. Initiate, maintain and control incident communications
  5. Develop an overall strategy and an incident action plan and assign companies and members consistent with the standard operating procedures
  6. Initiate an accountability and inventory worksheet
  7. Develop an effective incident organization by managing resources, maintaining an effective span of control and maintaining direct supervision over the entire incident, and designate supervisors in charge of specific areas or functions
  8. Review, evaluate and revise the incident action plan as required
  9. Continue, transfer and terminate command (the NFPA does not provide guidance on how to comply; in particular, note responsibilities 3, 5 and 6)

The Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System, NFPA 1561, 3.3.17, defines incident action plan as:

A verbal plan, written plan, or combination of both, that is updated throughout the incident and reflects the overall incident strategy, tactics, risk management and member safety that are developed by the incident commander.

NFPA 1561, 5.2.5 states that:

The incident management system shall maintain accountability for the location and function of each company or unit at the scene of the incident. (Recall from previous Command-ments that this level of accountability is called "Tactical Accountability.")

NFPA 1561, 7.5.14, states that:

The incident commander shall be responsible for developing and/or approving an incident action plan (IAP). This plan shall be communicated to all staged and assigned members at an incident. (NFPA 1561 allows for verbal action plan communication only during the "initial stages" of the incident.)

The Model Procedures of Structural Firefighting (NFSIMS), first edition, page 17, describes an incident action plan as:

A well-thought-out, organized course of events developed to address all phases of incident control within a specified time. (The Model Procedures manual does not describe what any of these "phases of incident control" are.)

Page A-6 again describes an incident action plan:

The strategic goals, tactical objectives and support requirements for the incident.

The Student Manual, page SM-3-9, of the original U.S. Fire Administration course Managing Company Tactical Operations (MCTO) described an incident action plan as:

An organized course of action that addresses all phases of incident control within a specified time. (As with the Model Procedures, MCTO does not reveal what any of these "phases of incident control" are.)

You may have noticed that these incident action plan recitations are very similar. Both MCTO and the Model Procedures specify that an incident action plan must address "all phases of incident control within a specified time." Neither manual hints at what any of the "phases" are. In fact, I have not been able to find what one of these phases of incident control are, let alone all of them. I do like the phase concept, so I came up with my own:

  1. The Primary Phase
  2. The Secondary Phase

The Primary Phase is that portion of your action plan before the incident has been stabilized; the Secondary Phase is that portion of your action plan after the incident has been stabilized. Recall that during any incident you have three strategic priorities:

  1. Life safety
  2. Incident stabilization (since stabilization is a strategic priority, it makes sense for everybody to know when the incident has been stabilized)
  3. Property conservation

Separating the incident into two phases makes action planning easier and less stressful. Typical square-foot action plan tactical objectives can be divided into phases of incident control. Primary Phase objectives address each strategic priority and work toward incident stabilization. Secondary Phase objectives are assigned after the incident has been stabilized and the command post has announced "Primary Phase complete."

Square-mile incident action planners have the luxury of discretionary time ("The next operational period planning meeting is at 1800 hours. Be sure to get some sleep and eat dinner before the meeting.") As a square-foot fireground action planner, you don't have the luxury of discretionary time to think and plan — the "operational period" is in your face. Because the incident is unstable, the Primary Phase is the urgent, chaotic, high-stress phase of an incident. Discretionary time separates the proactive informed strategist from the reactive uninformed tactician. Proactive square-foot strategists know how to create moments of discretionary time; reactive square-foot tacticians don't know how to create discretionary time.

Recall from Command-ment I (Firehouse®, March 2007) that the purpose of parking or basing apparatus and having personnel report to temporary staging at the command post is to create an island of discretionary time amid the storm of those first five on-scene minutes. Even if you have 12 alarms and the Vatican Swiss Guard responding, everybody has been given an assignment. This simple yet powerful resource management technique reduces the pressure of those first five minutes on-scene. You will never again hear, "We're a block out, where do you want us?"

By quickly getting your arms around all responding resources, and portioning tactical objectives into strategic phases of incident control, action planning becomes relatively quick and easy. For example, during any offensive fireground operation a standard Primary Phase game plan emerges:

  1. Primary search
  2. Confine
  3. Vent
  4. Extinguish
  5. Primary salvage

When the fireground has been declared "offensive," this standard game plan will always be addressed. For example, even if you have an immediate rescue and a threatened exposure, once the rescue is complete and the exposure stabilized, the standard Primary Phase offensive game plan will be addressed (unless the mode is transitioned to defensive).

To support the Primary Phase action plan, there are support objectives that must be addressed. Objectives that support the standard Primary Phase offensive game plan are:

  1. Water supply
  2. Utility stabilization
  3. RIT = SB + BU

Support objective number 3, RIT = SB + BU, was briefly introduced in the February 2007 issue of Firehouse® and will be discussed when Command-ment VIII is published. In the meantime, the formula represents the following contemporary fireground risk management progression: once the rapid intervention team (RIT) is deployed, the two-out standby team dons self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepieces and transitions offensively as the backup (BU) team. The net benefit is you end up with RIT fulfilling the two-out standby role and a backup team protecting egress within the hazard area.

The key to successful on-scene incident action planning is to use a structured, systematic process that is easy to remember, easy to do and can be done quickly. The systematic process can't be complicated or existential. I like and recommend the "Four Box Action Plan." The seven steps mentioned previously fit neatly into this four-box mental progression. The seven-steps make for interesting classroom discussion; the Four-Box Action Plan works great on the street, even at three in the morning. Stewart Rose, a respected colleague and friend, developed the original Four-Box concept and it works great.

Rather than being overwhelmed by all the strategic and tactical stuff you need to do as the first on-scene officer, you simply progress one box at a time. These are not literal boxes; I'm not suggesting that you respond with four cardboard boxes on your lap that you open like birthday gifts. These are figurative boxes that you open and close as part of a consistent mental progression. In other words, when you arrive, open box one and address its contents; close box one and open box two, and so on. The Four Box concept structures and sequences the action plan process:

Box One: Arrival Report

Box Two: Big Six Size-Up

Box Three: Big Six Report

Box Four: Establish Command Post

The first officer on-scene will "open" boxes one, two and three. The first officer may or may not open box four. Once two fire officers are on scene, box four must be opened by one of the two officers.

Open Box One: Arrival Report

Peering through the windshield, the first officer on scene delivers a brief arrival report. This report is not a speech; your speech will happen after you've exited the apparatus, gathered your wits and investigated the fireground. The arrival report consists of declaring side A, giving a quick situation snapshot, initiating command, establishing or delegating water supply, and declaring the mode as "investigating." This brief arrival report would sound something like this:

"Engine 33 on scene, house fire. Engine 33 is side A, second engine bring a hydrant. Initiating command, investigating four sides. Update to follow."

Remember, you'll give your speech later — after you've got all the information. Don't attempt to paint the picture when you don't know what the entire picture should look like. You've told responders what they need to know: there is a house fire, they won't be canceled and you're getting more information. This level of clear, calm, concise communication requires some playbook front-loading so that everybody knows what the words mean and what the expectation are. "Investigating" is calling the play (the initial action plan). (For more information, refer to Command-ment VI, Firehouse®, August 2007.) Close box one.

Open Box Two: Big Six Size-Up

First of all, get your team going, in other words, have team members start doing something: stretch handlines, establish water supply, position a fan, etc. While they are busy at task-level jobs, you will exit the apparatus and complete your Big Six size-up. While identifying problems, you will also do a quick risk-versus-value assessment (value-time-size). Using abbreviations, list your problems (I use a status board and grease pencil). Big Six problems are listed as F for fire, S for smoke, VO for verified occupants, PO for possible occupants, E for exposures and A for access problems. Don't worry about listing details such as sides; just capture each problem and the general location (your brain will hold the details). As an example, consider the simple house fire shown in the photos 1 on the following page.

While investigating, each Big Six problem would be listed as shown in the left column:

Problem: You would know what each problem abbreviation means:

F 2 There is fire venting from side C on floor 2

S 2 There is smoke venting from sides-A and C on floor 2

PO 2 There are possible occupants on floor 2 (no verified occupants)

E ATT There are exposed attic voids to investigate

PO 1 There are possible occupants on floor 1

EX 1 There is exposed property on floor 1 (in fact, the most value is on floor 1)

While viewing each side of the fireground it will take no more than a few seconds to list these problems. These few seconds will add tremendous value and significance to your fireground investigation. Notice that the list of problems has been prioritized tactically. (It also demonstrates another reason why floors should be designated numerically and exposures designated alphabetically.)

Incorporate the "Three That Kill" (Command-ment III, Firehouse®, May 2007) into your investigation and you would further increase the value. You would register that there is not a basement and that floor 1 is clear and stable (thus no fire below while operating on floor 2). Thus, the greatest risk to the greatest value (firefighters) would be a hostile fire/smoke event on floor 2 and hidden fire growth in attic voids.

Because you investigated the fireground, you know what and where the problems are; because you listed your problems, you know what needs to be done; because you know what needs to be done, you have produced your initial incident action plan (refer to NFPA 1021 at the beginning of this article). Close box two.

Open Box Three: Big Six Report

Now that you know what the problems are, and you know what needs to be done to address each problem, you are prepared to give your Big Six report. You will now deliver your speech, your "State of the Fireground Address." This is where you'll paint a clear and concise oral picture of the fireground situation. Along with the Big Six, you would report the usual stuff: type of construction, size, status of life safety and any other pertinent information. You would also call the play by updating the operational mode (T.R.P.O. or D.) and, if needed, request additional resources. By calling the play, you have verbally communicated your initial action plan. You will also decide whether to remain a team leader or establish (name and locate) a command post. This report would sound something like this:

"Engine 33 update. Small two-story frame house, fire venting from side C on floor 2, unknown if occupied. Engine 33 is transitional from side A on floor 2."

If you decide to remain Engine 33 team leader, close box three; if you decide to establish command, open box four.

Open Box Four: Establish Command

Once two fire officers are on scene, one of them must establish a command post. Recall from Command-ment I the systematic process for "establishing" a command post. As part of establishing command, you will organize apparatus and personnel; you will park or base apparatus and have personnel report to temporary staging at the command post. Objectives and resources will be coordinated. Span of control will be managed (Command-ment V, Firehouse®, July 2007). Establishing command would sound something like this:

"Engine 33 establishing Main Street Command at Engine 33. First-alarm apparatus park, personnel report to temporary staging at the command post (let the dispatcher repeat this). Main Street Command is now offensive from side A on floor 2."

Box Four remains open until Primary and Secondary Phases have been declared "complete" and command is terminated.

Big Six Action Plan

Each of the problems listed would be addressed using the Primary Phase standard offensive game plan:

  • Fire floor 2 — Confine and extinguish
  • Smoke floor 2 — Ventilation
  • Possible occupants floor 2 — Primary search
  • Exposure attic — Investigate and report
  • Possible occupants Floor 1 — Investigate and report
  • Exposure floor 1 — Primary salvage

Primary Phase objectives that support the standard offensive game plan would be:

  • Water supply
  • RIT = SB + BU
  • Utility stabilization

The assignment to "investigate and report" the attic conveys the need for more information, that you don't want to be sucker-punched by unseen fire growth concealed in attic voids. Obviously, there is not much of an attic in the house shown; however, there could be some tricky voids, particularly adjacent to knee-walls. By the time an attic problem is recognized from the street, a positive outcome is unlikely. The point is not to ignore an attic.

Besides on-scene firefighters, the most (confirmed) value is on floor 1; thus primary salvage would be assigned early.

I should mention that there doesn't need to be a team for each objective; one team can be assigned multiple objectives. For example, a single team could be assigned floor 1 objectives: primary salvage and investigate for occupants. Likewise, one engine company could conceivably take care of three objectives during this house fire: confine, vent and extinguish. If they establish their own water supply, one fully staffed engine company could address four standard game plan objectives. Likewise, action plan implementation isn't linear; many objectives progress simultaneously.

Using TRIPOD to call the play (Command-ment VI, Firehouse®, August 2007), after the investigating mode (the 'I' in TRIPOD), the initial operational mode would be declared as: "Transitional from side A on floor 2." Once the two-out standby team is deployed, the mode would transition to "Offensive from side A on floor 2." (No need to announce that a standby team is deployed; by calling the offensive "play," you have communicated that a two-out standby team is deployed.)

Call to Action

There is nothing more important that a fire officer does than to identify problems and plan to address the problems identified. Not knowing what the problems are compromises safety and compromises a successful outcome — even when tactics are being performed flawlessly, everything can suddenly go wrong if the most significant problem has not been identified. Thus another of my Command Caveats:

Although you can't always identify 100% of the problems, you can always identify 100% of the problems that can be identified.

As strategic resources, competent fire officers must have the ability to identify problems and to develop an IAP that will solve those problems. A structured, systematic approach to incident action planning is built upon a foundation of size-up information that includes:

  1. The status of life safety
  2. The determination of risk versus value
  3. Knowing what and where the problems are
  4. Your resource capability

Separate your incidents into "phases of incident control." Doing so will simplify action plan development and action plan management. So that you're not overwhelmed, compartmentalize the action plan process. Know how to quickly get your arms around all responding apparatus and personnel; informed, proactive strategists know how to create an island of calm to think and plan amid the storm of those first five on-scene minutes. Choose to be a proactive strategist rather than a reactive tactician. Once you can do these things, you will be on your way to command competence.

Update to Follow

Not only must the action plan be implemented, the plan must be disseminated and managed. Command-ment IX will dovetail with this article by introducing you to a couple of nifty incident management tools: the Status Board and the Action Plan Template. The Status Board is used by the first officer on scene to quickly develop and supervise the initial action plan; the Action Plan Template is a command post tool used to manage the overall action plan. Both tools are intended to ensure that nothing strategic or tactical is delayed or overlooked.

A master craftsman firefighter knows how to use tactical tools; a master craftsman fire officer knows how to use strategic tools. Like the Dude's rug in the film "The Big Lebowski," Command-ment IX will tie the whole thing together.

Next: Command-ment VIII — Thou shall make eight assignments early.

  1. Thou shall have ONE competent incident commander.
  2. Thou shall maintain teams of at least TWO personnel.
  3. Thou shall recognize THREE situations that kill firefighters.
  4. Thou shall ensure that FOUR sides are seen and compared.
  5. Thou shall not exceed a span-of-control of FIVE.
  6. Thou shall operate within one of SIX operational modes.
  7. Thou shall perform the SEVEN-step action plan process.
  8. Thou shall make EIGHT assignments early.
  9. Thou shall address three strategic priorities with NINE tactical objectives.
  10. Thou shall evaluate the situation, mode and plan every TEN minutes.
Command Responsibility

The first officer on scene must initiate command responsibility, but doesn't necessarily need to establish and be anchored to a command post. Command responsibility includes the management of strategy, resources and risk.

Have you noticed that when the first on scene officer nails command responsibility, the rest of the incident seems to progress nicely? On the other hand, have you noticed that when the first officer on scene ignores command responsibility, the incident evolves into a freelance cluster that requires time and energy to un-cluster?

If you are going to function as a team leader with command responsibility, retain your team designator ("initiate" command). If you are not going to be anchored to a command post, don't change your name to "Command." When you name Command, you are (literally) naming and locating a command post.

Lloyd Layman's RECEO

Many fire officers cling to Lloyd Layman's 53-year-old RECEO model as if it were a worn, comforting blanket. Along with rescue, exposure, confine, extinguish and overhaul, Layman's original model was far more comprehensive than the simplified RECEO model. For example, Layman's original model included two objectives that RECEO omits: ventilation and salvage.

Even Layman recognized the importance of problem identification. Prior to RECEO-VS, Layman advised that a fire officer follow a "system of mental training…designed to enable an operational officer to develop a definite habit of mental procedure in dealing with a fire or other emergency." He called this mental procedure "size-up."

Layman's five-step "Basic Mental Evolution System" included:

  1. Facts
  2. Probabilities
  3. Own situation
  4. Decision
  5. Plan of operation (RECEO-VS was part of 5)

Layman's RECEO model still has value, but on the contemporary fireground, RECEO falls short. Layman's 1953 seminal text, Firefighting Tactics, does not mention the word "search." On the contemporary fireground, "rescue" means there is a verified viable occupant that needs to be removed. If four personnel are not on scene, you are allowed (by law) to exercise your two-in/two-out exemption to execute the rescue (two-in/zero-out).

On the other hand, primary search requires two-in with two-out. Layman's book does not address search and rescue, primary search or secondary search. The word "evacuation" is mentioned once, in passing. By the way, Layman never mentions the acronym RECEO in Firefighting Tactics.

(Formerly a police captain, Lloyd Layman served as fire chief of Parkersburg, WV, from 1931 to 1942 and again from 1947 to 1951. Chief Layman was a strategic pioneer.)

Mark Emery

MARK EMERY, EFO, is a shift battalion chief with the Woodinville, WA, Fire & Life Safety District. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and an NFA instructor specialist. Emery received a bachelor of arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and is a partner with Fire Command Seattle LLC in King County, WA. He may be contacted at or access his website