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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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.