It seems that everyday across America firefighters are being asked to handle a larger number of incidents, with a greater variety and with fewer resources. There are many great instructors across this country that instruct you how to get yourself out of trouble during incidents however, I would like to discuss preventing yourself from needing self-rescue or worse. Surviving the initial offensive attack is designed to get you thinking about how you the company officer can most effectively and safely prevent loss of life and conserve property and return safely.
To begin any offensive attack, you must arrive safely! As the company officer you must ensure the apparatus operator drives in a safe manner, controlling the speed and making sure intersections are clear before proceeding through them. Yeah, I know everyone wants to be first in, first water and that entire ego boosting crap, but no one wants to miss a fire either, especially because of an accident. Get there safe and make a difference! Upon arrival you need to determine where to spot your apparatus that will allow your company to operate effectively yet, still leave room for other rigs i.e. (truck companies). Either pulling past or stopping short of the involved structure should leave adequate room for others to spot and operate effectively.
Life Safety is the First Priority
Now that you're on the scene, your first and utmost priority is life safety! As the company officer determining where to place your first attack line, you have to know what life safety issues you're being faced with. At a minimum you should see for "yourself" three sides of the structure. Look for any occupants hanging from windows, signs of occupants in windows or doorways. Where is the smoke coming from, what does it look like? Does the structure have an obvious back entrance that has nothing showing from it? You will learn a lot by spending less than 30 seconds giving a quick look, and if it takes longer because of the size of the building, it's worth your time and life to spend the time doing so.
Once you've determined any life safety hazards and abated those, you now turn your attention to the construction of the structure. It is critical that you know basic building construction and if you don't or are fuzzy about it, go now and get a copy of Building Construction for the Fire Service by Francis L. Brannigan. This book will save your life and give you the mandatory knowledge to effectively operate inside structures that are being attacked by fire. Balloon-frame versus platform styles of wood-frame (type 5) structures, non-combustible masonry exterior with wood interior walls (type 3) ordinary construction versus fire resistive (type 1) construction, they all provide unique challenges and opportunities if you have the basic understanding of their construction.
Reading the Smoke
Next, let's read the smoke and understand what it's telling you. If the smoke is light in color and hangs around the opening or underneath the eaves, the light color is telling you most likely it's non-carbon based products that are burning (contents and not the structure) and the smoke hanging indicates there's little heat to the smoke, in other words the smoke is pressure driven. This should be a small incipient stage fire you can locate quickly and extinguish.
A darker black and/or brown smoke that's rising quickly into the sky when it exits the structure indicates the fire is much larger. The smokes color indicates carbon based products are burning and the structure's framing is most likely being attacked. The smoke rising indicates its heat driven and you should be prepared to flow larger amounts of water to control this one. Once you're inside the structure, determine what the smokes movement is. If the smoke is all the way to the floor and appears to be rising, the fire is below you. Likewise, if the smoke is heavier at the ceiling and appears to be pushing down, the fire is likely above you.