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Fighting the Fire Before The Fire

Officers should approach the preplan process with a tactical mindset and not merely as a data collecting task.

Oh no, not another preplan! How often has this been said? Why is it that preplanning activities are looked at as a necessary evil by some fire companies? It is often viewed as a useless, labor intensive process that is very routine and mundane.

Many times, preplanning becomes a fill-in-the-blank paperwork process that, once the information has been collected, disappears somewhere in a useless file or binder, never to meet its intended purpose. There is no question that preplanning is necessary, but how can company officers make it a functional and continuous departmental process?

The first challenge for these officers and their personnel is to understand the importance of effective preplans. Just filling in the blanks on a form is not enough. Officers should approach the preplan process with a tactical mindset and not merely as a data collecting task. This will ensure that the full potential of a living, functional preplan process will be reached. The following questions should always be kept in mind:

  1. What building features will hinder certain fireground activities?
  2. Does the layout of the building and parking area limit apparatus access?
  3. What limitations will the first-alarm crews face?

Elements such as roof construction are common on most preplan worksheets, but we must do more than just "identify" that the roof is flat metal with a rubber membrane. A tactical approach would be to ask such questions as:

  1. What methods work best for cutting vent holes?
  2. How will the roof react under fire conditions?

If apparatus access is an issue, identify how this will affect initial assignments. If the department's aerial device is unable to reach the B-side, will the terrain support ground ladders? Should a longer/taller aerial from another station or mutual-aid department be included on the initial assignment to this address?

Do we pre-plan residential occupancies? While we may not conduct traditional pre-planning for houses in our district we should be out discussing strategy and tactics. The best time to fight the fire is before the fire and the only time to legally access these occupancies is during the construction. Get your companies out of the station and conduct tactical preplans, make sure your pre-connects or hose lays will get to the fire, make sure your ladders reach the bedrooms of the houses in your first-due. Make sure we are prepared to serve the citizen and that everyone goes home.

Each of these elements (and many others) are all part of "fighting the fire before the fire." The key to a successful and functional preplan process is to spend time as a company identifying and discussing these issues, giving everyone the opportunity to present their ideas on how to tactically approach the situations found. Isn't this the way we capture and capitalize on the experience of those who have faced these situations? Isn't this the way we make it exciting and interesting for the new firefighters? If nothing else, personnel are now aware of these situations ahead of time, instead of finding them out during the actual event, resulting in the cost of firefighter and or civilian lives.

Building features that are in place to protect responding firefighters and building occupants should also be discussed. This will increase a firefighter's awareness of fire prevention and fire protection measures; thusly, increasing their understanding of fire codes and the reason for their existence.

The second part of the challenge is sharing the information. Frequently, the only ones who are aware of the preplan information are the members of the company who conducted the walk through. First-in companies on other shifts or from other stations, as well as second- or third-due companies may never be made aware of any issues that exist.

Often, making copies of the preplans and circulating them throughout the department only manages to fill trashcans or recycle bins. For firefighters to want to review a preplan, it must be interesting. In our technologically-advanced society, a useful, interesting preplan can be achieved with very little effort.

In order to accomplish this, simply carry a digital camera on the walk-through. Take a few standard pictures, (views from every side of the building) as well as, pictures of anything that others should know about, especially from a tactical standpoint. Once back at the station, one company member should input the "standard" preplan information, while another can create a simple slideshow of the pictures, inserting captions to identify key points.

You can try Google Earth for aerial views buildings. This aerial view can help you pinpoint exposures, water supply and other potential hazards. One is only limited by their imagination, and the more the presentations are played with, the better they will get. Remember, the point; however, is to share key building information with other companies so that they are prepared in the event of a fire.

As Chief Frank Brannigan said, "To know the building is to know the enemy." By adding a tactical mindset, a little technology, and a little imagination to our preplanning activities, we can "fight the fire before the fire", and better prepare ourselves and others for safe, effective fireground operations, so that "everyone goes home."


Brian Collins currently serves as a volunteer firefighter/paramedic with the Pleasant View Volunteer Fire Department, and a career engineer/paramedic with the Brentwood Fire Department, both in Tennessee. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Fire Protection Administration from Eastern Kentucky University. Brian also works with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and Fire Team USA, a fire prevention initiative designed to promote residential fire sprinklers. Brian may be reached at collinsb@brentwood-tn.org.

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