Shifting Gears: Making The Right Choices During Incident Operations

Mike Wieder points out why an incident commander must be prepared to shift into a "higher gear" when the needs of the incident dictate.


I don't think anyone can disagree that sound, established, always-followed standard operating procedures (SOPs) are one of the keys to a successful, well-run fire department. SOPs provide the foundation for predictable actions on the emergency scene and equally predictable outcomes at the...


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This is fine and dandy if the smoke we see is coming from a small, single-family dwelling. But suppose it's 4 o'clock in the morning and the smoke is coming from a large apartment building or commercial occupancy. As well, the nearest hydrant is 600 feet away.

As the engine company approaches the scene, the company officer (wiping sleepy dirt out of his eyes) sees smoke. What is his instinctive reaction? See smoke … catch a hydrant … lay a single three-inch line … pull the 13/4-inch pre-connect.

After a few minutes of the attack team getting beat up by insufficient water flow to control the fire, a cruel realization sets in: we need to use larger handlines or master streams to control the fire. However, the single three-inch hoseline we laid and are operating off of hydrant pressure 600 feet away will not give us the ability to switch to the larger guns. As well, in the time it took to make this realization, the other apparatus have all arrived at the scene and now are blocked in.

Maybe, if the incident commander realizes the need to "shift gears" (too late, by the way) and an apparatus can get unblocked, another hoseline can be reversed to the hydrant, a pumper can connect to the hydrant and pump the lines to establish a more feasible water supply to the attack pumper. Unfortunately, in many cases the attack simply progresses using the smaller lines and small water supply until the fire burns down to the level at which the attack effort is capable of putting the rest of it out. And another parking lot is born.

Familiar Vs. Appropriate

The sad thing is that this entire situation could have been avoided. Your department has excellent SOPs for commercial and other large structure fires. The SOPs call for an immediate dual lay of supply lines and for the second-due engine to catch the hydrant and pump those lines. Unfortunately, neither of the company officers ever had a fire of that magnitude since being promoted several years earlier and in a moment of sleepiness they succumbed to the familiar, as opposed to implementing the appropriate. This put them in the position of playing catch-up for the duration of the incident.

Obviously, there is a simple solution to this problem: equip all the engines with large-diameter hose. This eliminates the need to decide on one supply line or two. However, making these types of changes requires time and money. In many cases the department has the luxury of neither of these options. There may be insufficient funds to go out and make this type of purchase. Given the funds, it will still take time to make the purchase, equip the apparatus and train the personnel. Another major incident could certainly occur during that time.

Also keep in mind that the water supply/structure fire dilemma described above is only one of an endless number of similar possibilities. You could easily substitute any of the following:

  • A car that strikes a residential gas meter versus a backhoe that strikes a 12-inch high-pressure gas main.
  • A single-vehicle, single-occupant motor vehicle collision versus a tour bus carrying 47 passengers that rolls down an embankment.
  • A few round bales of hay burning in a field versus 5,000 tons of stacked hay burning in a feed lot.

While it may be possible to solve some of these issues with technology (i.e., buying large-diameter hose to replace three-inch hose), there simply is no replacement for common sense.

Training programs must reinforce the differences between small incidents and large incidents and the various SOPs that are appropriate for each. We must ensure that our line officers have the ability to differentiate between these incidents, take the appropriate actions for each and understand why they are doing it.

In addition to training, these issues must be reinforced during post-incident analysis sessions (critiques). It must be pointed out to the company officer that laid a single three-inch hose on a large fire and commenced an attack with under-sized lines that these actions led to an unfavorable outcome and were not consistent with SOPs for incidents of this magnitude. Only then can we hope to modify behavior in the future.

When To "Downshift"