Strategy and Tactics for Large Enclosed Structures - Part 1

Documented experiences of some of the nations' finest and most progressive departments objectively illustrate how ineffective and unsafe traditional strategy and tactics were when used at enclosed structure fires.

This series of articles are based on analysis of The United States Firefighter Disorientation Study and implements The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 3. This initiative calls for "focusing greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities."

The magnitude of the firefighter fatality problem in the United States can only be described as tremendous. According to analysis of the latest information from the U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Data Center, "There have been 444 firefighter fatalities from Jan. 1, 1990 through Dec. 31, 2006, while on the scene of structure fires." Of these, 176 were traumatic firefighter fatalities. Of even greater significance, 135 of these fatalities or 77% occurred in enclosed structure fires where a quick and aggressive interior attack was utilized.

In light of the large percentage of deaths occurring in enclosed structure fires and with a greater understanding of their causes, a different approach to prevent future fatalities must seriously be considered. Although the basic philosophy used in managing an enclosed structure fire is the same regardless of the type of enclosed structure involved, the focus here will be on the tactics to consider for larger enclosed structures defined as those measuring 100-foot by 100-foot or greater in size.

Universal Sign of Danger

To help prevent fatalities, firefighters must learn a new universal sign of firefighting danger during the initial size up and based on a structures' appearance. If, according to the disorientation study, line-of-duty deaths, serious injuries and narrow escapes are directly linked to an enclosed structural design and use of traditional tactics, then an enclosed design should serve as a warning to avoid traditional tactics if unfavorable outcomes are to be avoided. This recommendation is based on what has been learned concerning the safety and effectiveness of traditional strategy and tactics when used at opened and enclosed structure fires.

For example, while a fire in an opened structure, which is one having a sufficient number of windows and doors for ventilation and emergency evacuation, can in the vast majority of cases be safely and effectively extinguished using traditional strategy and tactics, this is not always true in the case of an enclosed structure fire. In fact, analysis shows that quickly and aggressively advancing an attack line to search for the seat of the fire, although traditional, logical and well intentioned, is an approach which does not always yield the expected results at enclosed structure fires.

During past enclosed structure fires, traditional tactics would work but only if conditions were right. For instance, if the seat of the fire was visible and located near the point of entry, firefighters would quickly and aggressively advance a handline to the fire and simply put it out. In other instances, firefighters in zero visibility conditions may have advanced deep into the structure, located and extinguished the fire, luckily, without running out of air or encountering any of a number of hazards that were present.

However, when conditions were right for disaster, unsuspecting firefighters would instinctively, confidently and aggressively execute the same standard operating procedure, which had never let them down before, only to become involved in a sequence of events which resulted in disorientation, serious injuries, fatalities and defensive operations. The problem is; it continues today. Substantial evidence of the use of this tactic resulting in unfavorable outcomes at enclosed structure fires is supported by historical and current data available from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH , the United States Fire Administration, USFA, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Different Strategies and Resistance to Change

Analysis of fireground operations examined during and after the study period indicated that opened structure fires and enclosed structure fires called for different types of strategies and tactics. While fires involving opened structures can, in the vast majority of cases, be safely managed with a quick offensive strategy, operations involving enclosed structure fires require different tactics resulting from safety-based decisions following a careful assessment of the existing risk. Although adoption of this type of approach may save lives and property, it will require consideration, approval and encouragement by fire service leadership because achieving operational change in the fire service, even to prevent line-of-duty deaths, will not be easy.

Throughout the fire service there is a prevailing tendency for firefighters to adhere to traditional strategy and tactics because they have effectively extinguished fires in the past and no one has ever been seriously injured using them. It is difficult to argue with that reasoning, however, evaluations such as these are primarily based on local experience with opened structure fires and lucky experiences with enclosed structure fires. However, when viewed nationally and historically, the clear fact of the matter is that entire enclosed structures have been completely destroyed and conscientious firefighters have been seriously injured and killed using identical offensive strategy and tactics firefighters in other parts of the country continue to embrace and utilize.

Lessons Learned

Documented experiences of some of the nations' finest and most progressive departments objectively illustrate how ineffective and unsafe traditional strategy and tactics were when used at enclosed structure fires. Some of these fires, occurring over the last decade, involved larger structures such as the cold storage warehouse incident in Worcester, MA, the paper warehouse fire in Kansas City, Mo, the Southwest supermarket fire in Phoenix, the Family Dollar Store incident in Memphis, TN, the commercial structure fire in Los Angeles, CA and the auto parts store fire in Coos Bay, OR. Collectively these large enclosed structure fires took the lives of 14 dedicated firefighters after encountering light smoke conditions and implementing a quick and aggressive interior attack.

The major lessons learned from these tragedies have included: Learning the identity of the type of structure that repeatedly takes the lives of firefighters, the conditions they encountered on arrival, the tactics that were used and the life hazard present at the time. Based on analysis of these and other large enclosed structure operations, the lessons learned have been carefully translated into safer firefighting tactics for you to consider.

Guidelines Applied Equally

Due to the sheer size of larger enclosed structures, flexible guidelines to safely manage them are necessary and should be used at every large enclosed structure fire. Additionally, although the initial size up may show that the structure is protected by an automatic sprinkler system, for safety, all large enclosed structures, protected or unprotected, should be managed in the same manner. The reason for this being, as firefighters have learned, the sprinkler system may be inoperable. For example, if for any reason, a sprinkler valve controlling the water supply to a section of the structure has been shut down, that section will be unprotected and will be extremely dangerous. Firefighters have become disoriented and have died in such a scenario.

A protected enclosed structure may also be extremely dangerous if discharging heads are working to control the fire but are creating zero visibility conditions caused by conversion steam. This type of scenario has also resulted in cases of disorientation at fires which have both injured and killed firefighters in the past. In still other large enclosed structure cases, the heat of the fire was simply not great enough to cause the heads to activate. Although the unprotected enclosed structure, which is usually an older structure constructed prior to modern code requirement for the installation of automatic sprinklers, is more dangerous than a protected enclosed structure; Until proven otherwise, firefighters must play it safe by assuming the sprinkler system is inoperable.

Since one of the most dangerous situations firefighters can encounter is disorientation or the loss of direction due to the lack of vision within an enclosed structure, the key to survival is not in the use of traditional quick and aggressive strategy and tactics or having too many firefighters simultaneously searching for the seat of the fire but rather, with disorientation and fatality prevention which utilizes a safer, more cautious and calculated approach based on hard lessons learned. This can easily be accomplished in every department in the country with appropriate training and technology and with use of safer tactics and risk management policies which do not allow firefighters to enter or to be placed needlessly into extremely dangerous environments.

Special thanks to: The National Fire Data Center; U.S. Fire Administration; The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program


has dedicated 32 years to the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department as a firefighter, engineer, paramedic and training officer. Captain Mora is currently assigned to the firefighting division. He serves on technical advisory boards for the University of Kentucky, Lexington and has studied educational methodology and hazardous materials in depth at the National Fire Academy. The firefighter disorientation problem has compelled Captain Mora to provide assistance to fire officials, safety educators, grant writers, and fire industry professionals with valuable researched information. He has been active in the effort to prevent firefighter disorientation and traumatic structural firefighter fatalities. Working towards that goal, Captain Mora conducted an analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities, identifying a large percentage of line-of-duty deaths occurring at enclosed structure fires where offensive strategies were used. He served as a participant at the 2004 and 2007 National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Summits and currently serves as an advocate for the Everyone Goes Home Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program for the state of Texas. Captain Mora is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001 which appears in the United States Fire Administration's annual report: Firefighter Fatalities in the U.S. in 2003, 2004 and 2005. You can contact William by e-mail at: