Defensive Operations: Learning by Experience: Insights from Fireground Commanders - Part 1

Firehouse Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner asks a group of veteran fireground commanders for their wisdom in reading conditions upon arrival.


Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner put this question to a group of veteran fireground commanders: From your experience, what type of smoke, fire or heat conditions concern you when you arrive at a fire to take command and warrant your pulling units from the structure and...


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Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner put this question to a group of veteran fireground commanders:

From your experience, what type of smoke, fire or heat conditions concern you when you arrive at a fire to take command and warrant your pulling units from the structure and going defensive? Here are their responses.

JOHN TIPPETT
Battalion Chief, Fairfax County, VA, Fire & Rescue Department

Any combustion products that are coming out of the building under high pressure have me considering defensive operations. Dark, roiling smoke that is pushing hard out of building openings (including cracks and joints) in thick, pressurized, pillows tell me the fire is burning hot somewhere in the building and still building to flashover.

TODD HARMS
Assistant Chief of Operations, Phoenix Fire Department

First, exterior visible conditions need to match interior progress reports. Fire conditions vary greatly between residential and commercial buildings. Residential occupancies are compartmental and interior operations have a longer time frame for extinguishment. These structures are easily ventilated and fire control is often achieved with a well-placed initial attack line. Heavy fire conditions with little change from the initial attack line leads to a defensive operation.

With commercial buildings, heavy pressurized smoke showing from the building with little change by the initial line will lead to a defensive operation. The amount of fire required to fill a large commercial building with smoke is significantly greater than that of a residential occupancy. If the first line at a commercial building can't immediately find the fire and begin changing conditions, the operation needs to change from offensive to defensive. From the exterior, conditions need to be improving upon my arrival. Any reported fire in the attic will also lead to a quick change from offensive to defensive.

JOHN HINTON
Deputy Chief, Phoenix Fire Department

Smoke, heat and fire are important considerations when making strategic decisions and about this there is no doubt. But these three "fire factors" alone are not enough to make a solid decision to fight inside or outside. The building size, structural characteristics and arrangement can be equally important. Access to the structure as well as within the structure is also a major consideration.

Of these three fire factors — heat, smoke and amount of fire — heat is a big-time red flag. With today's personal protective clothing, when I hear crews talking about heat, it's a major contributor to any decision I might make as to whether we stay inside or exit. Heat (the kind that makes firefighters talk about it) is a very late sign of the need to go defensive.

We hear a great deal in the fire service about color and pressure of smoke. These too are important, but with proper ventilation techniques, they can be dealt with in the process of a good firefight. As to amount of smoke, smoke down to the floor of large-span building is a loser. Exit to a safe position.

Fire is actually the easy one. Offensive fires should go out sooner rather than later with fewer rather than more hoselines. Extended firefights in big buildings are dangerous. If an inside tactical position (one that is taken in the right place) is not reducing the amount of fire in a hurry, correct the position. That is to say, leave. Don't take a knife to a gunfight, and if you are in a gunfight with nothing but a knife, don't ask for someone else to bring you an additional knife. It's that simple.

CURT VARONE
Assistant Chief, Providence, RI, Fire Department

It's not simply a question of smoke, fire and heat that drive my decision making. A number of factors go beyond those of smoke, fire and heat conditions: the size of the building; the construction of the building; how long the fire has been burning; the extent of involvement; the likelihood of occupants trapped inside; the likelihood an offensive attack will result in saving the building; the presence of hazardous materials or other special hazards; our ability to ventilate; water supply issues; exposures.

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