Managing The "Room And Contents Syndrome"

David P. Fornell describes a common and sometimes fatal mistake involving departments that utilize insufficient flow for big-loss fires.


The fire had been burning for about an hour before headquarters received an automatic alarm for smoke in a store two buildings away from the fire building. The two first-arriving engine companies quickly located the source of the fire in the basement of a furniture store. So far, so good...


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Unfortunately, in too many departments, this thinking has created a gap in between a 1 3/4-inch handline designed for interior operations by a limited staff and elevated master streams, effectively eliminating high-flow 2 1/2-inch handlines as an option for incident commanders. It must be remembered that master streams are relatively slow to deploy and experience has shown that if a fire is too large that is, generating too much heat for a 1 3/4-inch line's flow rate to suppress fire losses might be much higher as the fire continues to burn while heavy streams are put into service, than if a high-flow handline was used in the first place.

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Photo by Jim Regan
The room and contents syndrome in action. Because of limited large-fire experience, it is common for a first-arriving company officer to order a line stretched that does not have the capacity to either extinguish or contain the volume of fire present. Stretching the line shown is a waste of time and will require plenty of "catch up" by companies arriving later.

While most of the research by individual departments is usually relegated by the chief to training officers or possibly a committee of company officers, top-level management must share in part for the blame for allowing room and contents tactics to creep into standard operating procedures for large volumes of fire. More important, many departments are finding that traditional excuses such as "we didn't have enough staffing on the initial response" or "we ran out of water" may not hold up in court if a building owner or insurance company decides to let a city or fire district help pay for its loss by suing for negligence.

It also seems that a trend is developing in the nation's fire service to diversify and offer other services such as EMS, hazardous material incident management and confined space rescue that, to be safely mastered, require large amounts of training time, equipment and supply expenditures, as well as additional on-scene staffing. These needs may tend to shift a department's focus away from primary fire protection, usually because of financial restraints. Indeed, in many departments, response records indicate that they are primarily medical service providers and perform fire suppression on the side.

Departments exist to serve the public, and if the public demands more medical service than fire suppression, then that is where an organization's substance will tend to lie. The lack of suppression knowledge and training, however, can lead to large fire losses, the explanation of which by the chief to the public and elected officials could prove embarrassing and, in some cases, career shortening.

In most departments, the most common fire occurs in one or two rooms of a private dwelling. Since a department's service delivery priorities may lie elsewhere, it stands to reason that given a limited amount of research and training time, a department may tend to develop tactics and equipment that focus on handling their most commonly faced fire. Unfortunately, the law of averages will catch up with all departments and at some point, they will face a fire that involves a commercial building, factory or multiple occupancy, beyond the control capabilities of their standard suppression tactics.

In 1988, the U.S. Army commissioned a study to research how it could better train its company officers to make the right decisions while under the pressure of combat. They found that combat officers and experienced fire company officers made tactical decisions under pressure based not on consideration of the various pros and cons, then choosing a course of action (analytical decision making), but by first identifying a situation (sizing up), then deciding on a course of action based on what they had experienced before. They called this process "Recognition-Primed Decision" making, or RPD.

For example, say a company officer has experienced a number of fires that have been successfully handled by 1 3/4-inch handlines. When faced with a large fire, if the officer has not experienced the consequences of battling a similar fire nor has been trained as to what course of action to take, he or she will take a course of action that has worked in the past.

This theory may explain why officers with limited experience almost always choose to deploy smaller lines when conditions dictate a larger line is needed. They simply have never had the experience of successfully attacking a fire with 2 1/2-inch hose. In their experience, when the 2 1/2-inch line was finally ordered into operation, the fire was of such magnitude that it was already beyond the capabilities of even the 2 1/2-inch stream.