Preventing Firefighter Disorientation In Large Enclosed Structure - Part 2

Part 2 - Tactics and Guidelines

Editor's note: The author is a Texas state advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives Project. This article implements Initiative 3 - Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical and planning responsibilities; Initiative 8 - Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety; and Initiative 9 - Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries and near misses.

In general, enclosed-structure tactics are executed in the same manner at all enclosed structures, regardless of the size or type involved. However, when dealing with a large enclosed structure that presents greater areas, more contents and maze-like conditions, greater coordination established in a flexible guideline will be needed and must be understood by all responders prior to the incident.

A large enclosed structure is defined as one that is 100 by 100 feet or bigger. Fires in these types of structures deserve our close attention since firefighting operations that incorporate traditional tactics often result in multiple firefighter fatalities. With this in mind, the first step in managing a large enclosed structure incident involves identifying the structure at the outset. For the safety of the crew and all other responding companies, first-arriving officers must initially determine whether the structure involved is or is not an enclosed structure. This single piece of valuable information signals the degree of risk firefighters will be exposed to based on hard lessons learned. In short, you must identify an enclosed structure early because the structure will try to kill you. In those cases where there is doubt as to whether the structure is or is not an enclosed structure, it is always best and safest just to assume the structure is an enclosed structure and, with strong command, manage it that way.

The second step in managing an enclosed structure incident is to understand that enclosed structure tactics and standard operating guideline (SOG) are used at enclosed structure fires only under certain conditions. These include scenarios in that:

  1. A life-safety hazard does not exist.
  2. Light, moderate or heavy smoke is showing from the structure.
  3. The location of the seat of the fire is unknown.

One concern often raised pertains to how firefighters will know if search and rescue is not required. Although a rescue may be needed at any structure, because large enclosed structures are typically non-residential occupancies, a right-turn/left-turn primary search pattern, commonly used at opened structures involving single- and multi-family residences, is not usually required. Additionally, fires at large enclosed structures are often fought after business hours, when the buildings are locked up and secured with steel bars and gates requiring forcible entry. Many are also vacant and dilapidated. When large enclosed structure fires occur during business hours, often the occupants have self evacuated and managers will advise arriving firefighters that everyone is out of the structure.

One of the most challenging aspects involved in handling an enclosed structure incident is in determining whether the smoke that is showing is being produced by a nuisance fire or that the incident is a classic and extremely dangerous enclosed structure fire. When the required conditions for Enclosed Structure SOG implementation are present, the first-arriving officer will provide an initial report stating that the SOG will be initiated. From there on, for safety and task predictability, the Enclosed Structure SOG is implemented in the sequence of company or resource arrival as indicated in the model SOG and checklist.

Guidance and coordination, of course, are provided by a strong incident commander. Unlike the traditional offensive strategy that calls for a fast and aggressive blind interior attack to search for and extinguish the seat of the fire (and since these were the precise tactics implemented by firefighters who became disoriented in the past), firefighters today must take a different approach. The enclosed structure strategy is one that slows the action down and carefully and cautiously implements steps of an SOG that have been carefully programmed to avoid the risk associated with enclosed structure fires. In this way, a controlled and accountable number of firefighters are systematically allowed to enter the structure equipped with a thermal imaging camera, used within limitations. There, they conduct a safety-based interior assessment to determine which attack option is safest to initiate.

The results of the cautious interior assessment will determine whether an attack is made from the original point of entry, whether an attack will be made from a different side of the structure that is closer to the seat of the fire or whether a defensive attack will be initiated. Precisely, what the officer assesses on the interior are the hazards present. Is there a lot of clutter in the structure that may cause firefighters to trip and slow an emergency evacuation? Is the seat of the fire a reasonable distance from the point of entry or is it deep in the structure (which would make it difficult and hazardous to advance to the fire, attack it long enough to achieve knockdown and still have enough breathing air to exit at the point of entry)? Is the fire impinging on structural members, perhaps involving lightweight trusses supporting a roof that may collapse at any time? Or is heavy fire consuming a large amount of the contents or the structure making it impossible to control with multiple handlines? When these and other factors of concern are assessed, the officer will decide, with clearance from command, which type of attack would be safest and most effective to implement. The choices include: 1. An interior attack from the initial point of entry; 2. A short interior attack; and 3. A defensive attack.

Model Enclosed Structure SOG and Checklist

When executing the Enclosed Structure SOG, it should be implemented in the sequence of company or resource arrival. This allows the plan of action, understood by all responders, to unfold while simultaneously providing the incident commander with the opportunity to continue the size-up process, to consider the existence of other hazards such as the adverse effects of the wind or the need to call a greater alarm. This more structured and predictable operation also allows for an accurate accounting of firefighters who will be entering the structure and their locations in the structure, and lets command monitor and listen carefully to their radio transmissions.

All recognized national safety standards and practices and use of the Incident Command System (ICS) should be incorporated during implementation of the Enclosed Structure SOG. One key underlying risk-management policy, understood by all involved before and during the incident, is that firefighters will not needlessly risk their lives for any structure, especially enclosed structures or spaces of the type that have been taking the lives of firefighters for decades.

Fire Showing, Evaluate and Update

For safety and effectiveness, recommended actions to be taken during a certain possible enclosed structure scenario must be clarified. Classic enclosed structure fires typically present with only smoke showing. No fire will be visible on the exterior even with the aid of a thermal imaging camera. This historically, and in keeping with established procedures, was cause for firefighters to initiate a fast and aggressive interior attack in search of the seat of the fire or to conduct a primary search. However, during those enclosed structure fires where fire is actually showing along the perimeter, whether detected during the 360-degree walk-around or as companies arrived on the scene, and once firefighters have identified the structure as an enclosed structure having no life hazard involved, companies are to immediately and aggressively attack the visible fire from the exterior using solid streams while an attempt is made to cut off any fire from extending through the structure.

Students of strategy and tactics have probably noticed that this strategy runs counter to traditional teachings. However, it has become evident that traditional strategy and tactics seem to apply mainly to opened structure fires where life safety is an issue. In this scenario, firefighters are dealing with an enclosed structure fire having no life hazard. This tactic is also used since, historically, firefighters who conducted aggressive interior attacks into enclosed structure fires from the unburned side suffered from disorientation, which led to fatalities, serious injuries and narrow escapes 100% of the time, according to the U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001, and we should no longer unnecessarily risk the lives of firefighters to save structures. As is customary in the fire service, following an enclosed structure operation, firefighters must evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the operation while implementing the guideline. When necessary, adjustments to the guideline must be made in the never-ending goal of achieving the safest and most effective enclosed structure operation possible.


Observing a structure fire from a new perspective, which includes a greater understanding of the hazards associated with opened and enclosed structures of all sizes, and by understanding that consistent safety and effectiveness is not provided by use of traditional tactics, firefighters can avoid the fatality linked to enclosed structures and spaces. In retrospect, although initiating a quick and aggressive interior attack from the unburned side is logical, traditional and often results in a relatively safe and effective operation, extensive research has shown that this is generally true for opened structure fires but not always true in the case of enclosed structure fires.

Additionally, in the past, in deciding when to pull interior forces out of a working structure fire, incident commanders often had to depend on gut instinct when all other size-up factors gave no indication of deteriorating conditions or tragic events to come. This was a very stressful and highly subjective method of risk and incident management for all concerned. However, times are changing.

With the sacrifices and valuable clues left behind by those who served before us, we now know how to identify the structures that are extremely dangerous before and during a fire, how to interpret the size-up factors at those structures and when to implement a different tactical approach to safely manage them. Hopefully, this will give current and future firefighters the tactical advantage needed to eliminate firefighter disorientation, one of the deadliest hazards of interior firefighting.

WILLIAM R. MORA retired as a captain after a 33-year career with the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. He is a fire safety consultant concentrating in strategy and tactics and prevention of firefighter disorientation. He is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001 and Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database 2007. Mora can be reached at Part 1 was published in the July 2008 issue.