Shifting Gears: Making The Right Choices During Incident Operations

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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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 termination of the incident. In the emergency service delivery business, being predictable is good; we dread the unpredictable.

There is, however, a hidden danger in SOPs that all agencies and the people who operate in them must recognize. In order to cover the full gamut of incidents we are responsible for handling, we have SOPs for the common types of incidents that we respond to on a daily, or at least very regular basis. As well, we have SOPs for the larger and more rare incidents that occur very infrequently, and in some cases maybe only once in a firefighter's career.

As you would expect, we tend to become very familiar with those SOPs we use regularly and polished to the point of being robotic at implementing those procedures. But unless our fire department has an exceptional training program, we tend to be less polished and less proficient at knowing and implementing the SOPs for the larger, more complicated incidents, though they are precisely the incidents where we need to be at the top of our game.

Therein lies the danger of SOPs. It is simple human nature that we tend to gravitate toward the familiar when faced with decisions to make under stressful situations. However, in emergency operations, often the familiar, commonly used SOPs are not the appropriate choice when faced with an incident of a greater scale. In these cases, the company officer or incident commander's failure to recognize the difference between a routine incident (to which routine SOPs should be applied) and a major incident (requiring different SOPs) may put the organization in the position of playing catch-up throughout the duration of the incident.

Appropriate Measures

In many ways, the company officer or incident commander's ability to determine the appropriate SOPs to implement at a given incident can be compared to an apparatus driver/operator who is driving a manual transmission apparatus.

The driver/operator must understand the principles of gear selection and shifting before being able to efficiently drive the apparatus. Knowing what gear to be in and when to shift is essential to getting the apparatus to its destination in a safe, timely and effective manner.

The same can be said for the incident commander's ability to recognize the scope of the incident and apply the appropriate SOPs to handle the problem. If the incident commander fails to shift into a "higher gear" when the needs of the incident dictate such a requirement, the system will not run properly and the incident outcome is likely to be unfavorable.

Suppose your fire department operates engine companies that rely on a split load of three-inch hose as your primary water supply hose. In most communities, the most common type of structural fire incident we respond to is the typical single-family dwelling, room-and-contents fire. Your department's SOP for water supply on these fires is to perform a forward lay of a single three-inch supply line and operate off of hydrant pressure. Generally, one or two small (11/2-inch or 13/4-inch) handlines are used to attack the fire. The water supplied through the single three-inch supply hose is certainly adequate for this type of operation. As well, those small handlines are very adequate to extinguish most of these types of fires.

This is where the danger part comes into play. Most members of engine companies will respond to dozens or more of these types of fires over the course of a year or more, without responding to any larger incidents. Over time, we risk the possibility of developing an almost robotic mindset: See smoke … catch a hydrant … lay a single three-inch line … pull the 13/4-inch pre-connect.

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"

Of course, to this point in the article we have only addressed incidents that were drastically underestimated and attacked with insufficient resources. Equally as important is being able to interpret when an incident requires the incident commander to "downshift."

"Downshifting" needs to be considered when the current level of attack becomes unsafe or unproductive. This includes situations such as:

  • Switching from an interior (offensive) to exterior (defensive) attack on a structure fire.
  • Tying up inordinately large numbers of resources on lost-cause incidents.

Numerous firefighter injuries and deaths over the years can be attributed to an incident commander's inability to recognize the need to switch from the offensive to defensive mode at a structure fire at a prudent time in the incident. As a result, firefighters become the victims of rapid fire growth conditions or structural collapse.

Our training programs must reinforce the warning flags that signal the need to make this transition. As well, we need to reinforce in our officers that writing off a building at the appropriate time is not a shameful act. Getting personnel injured because they were in the building too long is, on the other hand.

We have spent considerable energy in recent years in teaching exotic firefighter safety and survival skills. Don't misunderstand me: I am all for firefighter safety and training. The more skills a person has, the better prepared they will be.

But are these new techniques sending the wrong message? Anyone who has to use these skills in the performance of their duties has flat-out been in the building too long. Shouldn't the message we send be that we need to recognize the danger signs that are present and get out before exotic, last-ditch maneuvers are necessary?

Recognize A Lost Cause

The other scenario that requires the incident commander to "downshift" is the lost-cause incident. This scenario is particularly common in small jurisdictions that face large fires very infrequently. In my personal experience, there is no better example than the hay barn fire.

Many of the well-intentioned, well-equipped fire departments that respond to these types of fires can go one or more years without seeing a large volume of fire on an incident. There is no doubt that a hay barn fire can produce a large volume of fire. So when this incident occurs, commonly the incident commander gets caught up in the moment and summons all the king's horses and all the king's people to respond. Mile-long hose relays or tanker shuttles involving a dozen or more tankers are set up to supply massive surround and drown operations. This for a barn that likely has no exposures and is fully involved upon arrival.

Nothing is salvageable, but resources are stripped from surrounding jurisdictions for hours on end to dump tons of water on a lost cause. On the other hand, the risk to the additional people on the scene, to the public driving among the shuttling tankers and the people in the jurisdictions whose resources have been stripped for a significant period of time far outweighs the benefit gained by the campaign-level effort to dump water on the barn. The incident commander must be taught to recognize situations that no amount of additional resources are going to improve and then tailor the attack to meet the need.

Key Elements

In conclusion, our company officer and incident commander training programs must reinforce the following key elements:

  • Being able to differentiate between small and large incidents.
  • Knowing the appropriate SOPs to implement based on the size of the incident.
  • Knowing when the time comes to adjust the effort being applied to the incident, in a timely manner, based on incident conditions.

Just as timely, skilled shifting of gears can save wear and tear on an apparatus transmission, we can save wear and tear on our personnel and the citizens we protect by knowing what gear to be in and when to shift gears in our emergency service delivery procedures.


Mike Wieder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a senior editor for IFSTA/Fire Protection Publications at Oklahoma State University. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in fire protection, safety and adult education. Wieder has written or edited over two dozen firefighting texts.

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