Slow Down! There Is Only So Much You Can Do...

There was a time when I first became a company officer that I used to sit there and imagine my strategies and tactics for a whole host of horrors that might await my crews.

The practice of thinking through 'what to do' for various scenario's with in your response area is not a bad one. It all adds up to good pre-planning, one of the essential ingredients of incident command. However, I used to get deeper and deeper into these scenarios with "what ifs" and "why's" until I got to a stage where I doubted my own ability to do the job.

Inevitably then the call comes in, and you find yourself on the spot where you deal with the incident. Unfortunately your dreams of how you were going to put this one in the bag went straight out of the window, as you caught a glimpse of the smoke column in the sky. After the job you start to analyze again, I could have done this, I could have done that and there we are, a vicious circle.

When I first joined the job, the London Fire Brigade was still full of great "Post-War Fire Commanders." We would be running ourselves into the ground trying to stay one step in front of the job when these 'seen it all a million times' chiefs, would roll up in their cars. They would casually get out of the car, stand there watching, light up their pipe and slowly get rigged in their turnouts. On the way to the command point they would take time to nod at people, ask a firefighter how his new baby was, ask another how the move to the new house was going and so on.

What?? Were these guys mad! No, they were taking there time to see what was happening and bringing deliberate calmness and stability to the fireground. As time went on these old guys began to disappear. The company officers became chiefs and some of us firefighters became company officers. So then the mantle began to fall to my generation. London was being re-developed like no time before, post WWII. Many of the old buildings we cut our firefighting teeth on were re-developed or pulled town to make way for offices and loft apartments. We still got the jobs but not in the way we did in the 80's.

I was a company officer in my mid 20's who had gained a lot of firefighting experience but never received that type of exposure as a commander. Then things started to change again in the mid 90's. Following A couple of hot summers and a recession; you guessed it, the fire duty started to increase again. We got to the point when every week or so we would pick up a substantial fire and I learned to cope, but I was still missing something. Running headlong into the battle right there beside the nozzle man or the first team inside, no wonder I was missing out on the full picture. Sure, things were taking care of themselves but they were going on in spite of me, not because of me.

Then one day the revelation came, I remembered the old guys who I used to see on the ground. That day I took a conscious decision to slow down, shut up, and take in my surroundings?.and I never looked back.

So now we roll up and no matter what you are faced with, there is only so much you can do with the initial attendance, don't waste it. If you arrive and the job requires a multi alarm attendance they are not with you at that moment, they are still in the various stations in the surrounding area. So use the time to gather information and set the stage for the job that this is going to become.

A couple of weeks ago we got called to a fire in a block of flats, (apartments) when we got there the occupant of the flat was in the road franticly waving us down. Most of the other residents were self evacuating and smoke was showing from a couple of windows. As we pulled up the crews were off. Gathering gear, laying out hose, running toward the block with the occupants buzzing around them, I took a good look at the smoke condition, read it for the signs of backdraft, ensured that we were pulling the correct size of line for the attack and saw the drivers heading for the hydrant, so far the incident is going well.

I approached the occupant;

"Hi mate, what's going on?"

"Up there?fire flat.. QUICK"

"OK fella, anyone in there"

"Nope' just me?but quick you gotta"

"Alright, what's burning?"

"It's the bedroom, room at the back?.smelt smoke opened the door..oohhh!"

"No problem, we got it, where is it from the front door?"

"Through the door turn right first on left"

"Good, what's in there?"

"Well it's a spare room, just my PC a bed and an armchair"

"Brilliant, we'll get this sorted in no time. Now, you're my eyes around that flat so I need you to remain real calm, remember anything that's important and stay over there by the Fire Engine. Your input could make all the difference"

"OK, Officer, It will be Ok won't it?"

"Sure, we'll have it in no time"

I passed the information onto my deputy who by this time was on his way up the stairs with the attack team, now armed with up to the minute considered information about the job. We had the job controlled and the place vented in about 10 minutes. Isolated the power supply to the flat, checked the electrics then just pulled a fuse for the lighting circuit in the room that had been damaged and our friend was able to remain in his property awaiting repairs from the local authority.

The lesson here? Had I have jumped off gone running toward the front door I would have missed vital information on the fire condition, not had a detailed conversation with the occupier and we'd have gone not knowing what we were doing or where we were going. My crews would have been agitated by my urgency, the occupier and other residents would have become excited, all in all not a good day for anyone.

If we then apply this scenario to a bigger job, let's say in a larger commercial building with a considerable fire front well beyond the capabilities of the first attendance. Again, all the running screaming and hooting in the world will not change things. If we go all out to get a line to the fire what are we going to save? Not a great deal. Get an attack going by all means, ensure you have an adequate water supply and start planning.

The wind is blowing this way, we will need an aerial in there, that will need a dedicated pump with its own water supply. I'll position this other pumper over by that hydrant to feed the aerial when it arrives. I'll need another 4 pumps and an aerial, get the message off for that, set up for the incoming crews, I want this street kept clear for the aerials, I don't want to have to start moving trucks if we lose this one and so on.

In conclusion. We all work with different incident command systems that are tried and tested by each of our countries, regions or departments. They all have their pro's and con's and I'm not about to re-invent the wheel on this one. However, as fire ground commanders we all need to be calm and confident no matter what is facing us.

If you are at home watching a movie, you are generally sitting comfortably, maybe with a beer taking the whole film in. Tell me, how much of the movie would you see if you were running around fielding telephone calls getting the kids a drink and reading a newspaper?

Not a lot right?

Simply apply this analogy to the fireground. When you roll up, issue your immediate instructions, then take a deliberate approach on your actions. If you take time to walk around the ground to re-assure and talk to occupants and fire crews, you will find the quality of information gathered is much better. Your plan will match the requirements of the fire and at the end of the job the result won't be far off what you have planned.

  • Walk don't run. If you look like you are panicking how will that look to the crews and occupants?

  • Talk quietly and slowly as much as possible. Screaming irate orders do very little for the confidence.

  • Gather information slowly and deliberately, this way the chances of overlooking something are greatly reduced.

  • Build your plan around where you see the job going and what resources you will need to handle the incident. Don't limit your plan to what you have with you at the time. Use those resources as building blocks to the overall plan.

  • Be dynamic, look at where the fire will be in 15 Minutes, 30 Minutes and so on. Plan for where you think you will be in the future not right now, because right now is already in the past.