FIREGROUND OPERATIONS: How to Nail Your First-Due Strategic Responsibility

Warning: This article is intended to push your buttons; it may even offend you. The truth is often uncomfortable and meaningful change requires courage. It is time for the fire service to take a step back and ask: What are we thinking? This multi-part series provides a “fly-over” perspective of the structural fireground landscape that reveals problems, factors consensus recommendations and offers fresh solutions that enable you, the first-on-scene fire officer, to nail your first-due strategic responsibility.

Part 1: The Traditional Stampede to Tactics And the Glaring Omission of Strategy


If you read fire service publications and training manuals or attend conferences and training seminars, you have discovered conflicting information and that some instructors ignore standards and mandates – for example, some suggest that the initial incident commander operate on a hoseline. And for more than a decade, we have been investing training time and money to make sure firefighters know how to “save themselves.” Why haven’t we invested that time and money to make sure fire officers know how to keep firefighters from getting into trouble in the first place?

Why is the emphasis of the fire service on reactive tactics rather than proactive strategies? The answer is simple: aggressive tactics are easy; proactive strategy is difficult. It is time to recalibrate; to reboot the “system.” This series focuses on the concept of aggressive strategy, in particular aggressive strategy by the first-on-scene company officer. We begin by identifying “The Problem” and establish a case for changing how the first on-scene fire officer does business. We also identify the first-due company officer’s role and responsibility and plant the seeds for an “Aggressive Strategy Initiative.” Subsequently, we offer “The Solution to The Problem,” a structured and systematic “Four Box” first-due methodology designed so that you will nail your first-due strategic responsibility every time, provide scenario exercises that demonstrate “The Solution” and finally address the issue of command as it pertains to the first-due officer.

We assure you that “The Solution” will solve “The Problem” and comply with applicable National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandate.


Aggressive Strategy

Imagine a fire service today that for generations had cultivated a proud history and tradition of aggressive strategy. If imagination were reality, many fine people would be alive today. The reason that a proud history and tradition of aggressive strategy does not exist is simple: The execution of good strategy is much more difficult than the execution of great tactics.

Not convinced? Revisit the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports on firefighters who died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (exclude apparatus-related and physiologic fatalities.) Notice that botched tactics do not kill firefighters; it is always inappropriate strategy – no size-up, no risk-benefit analysis, no action plan, no accountability, no incident commander at a command post, nobody watching the clock, inadequate resources, span of control out of control, failure to factor building construction and fire location, failure to factor escalating fire conditions, etc. Being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time has strategic roots. Doing the same thing again hoping for a different outcome is the definition of stupid.

The fire service must embrace and nurture a proud tradition of aggressive strategy. The only way to make this happen is for your fire department to ensure – through clearly articulated expectations backed up with training – that your officers function as officers (leaders, supervisors, mentors). Laissez-faire tactics are much easier than disciplined supervision.



Before getting started, let’s warm up the brain with a Command-O-Quiz:

During the progression of a structural fireground operation, from dispatch to termination of command, select the one action that will have the greatest influence on a successful outcome:

a. Ladder and hoseline selection and placement.

b. Strategic action by the first-due fire officer.

c. Four firefighters arriving on each engine.

d. Battalion chief with a driver/aide.

Answer: b, strategic action by the first-due fire officer.

If you agree with the premise of that question, it is likely you will find value in this series. It is not a revelation that the actions of the first-on-scene officer will determine how the subsequent operation will unfold. If the first-on-scene officer nails his or her strategic responsibility, the ensuing operation will have the best chance of progressing intelligently and safely. Should the first-on-scene fire officer blow (or blow-off) that strategic responsibility, there is a good chance the operation will evolve into random acts of tactical violence. It is no wonder the first fire officer to arrive at a building fire is the most stressed person during the entire operation.

Chasing tactics with strategy is not how the system is supposed to work; chasing tactics with strategy generates anxiety that can be alleviated only with aggressive strategy. If you have ever experienced chasing tactics with strategy, you know it can be like herding cats. Many fire departments institutionalize hazard-area freelancing by dressing it up with an official title: pre-assignments. Here is a not-uncommon example of chasing tactics with strategy:

1. No strategic front-loading has been conducted by the first-on-scene company officer.

2. Pre-assigned tactics are already underway and “command” is inside the building on a hoseline.

3. The battalion chief arrives to the uncomfortable situation of attempting to chase the underway tactics with strategy.

4. The battalion chief assumes command and scrambles to support the freelancing with bits and pieces of strategy.

5. At some point, the battalion chief will try to determine where everybody is and what they are doing – and why they are doing what they are doing when and where they are doing it.

Here’s the point not to be missed: You are that battalion chief. You arrive to an offensive operation that is already underway. No focused size-up has been completed, no action plan developed, tactical accountability has not been achieved and teams are busy doing moth-to-flame pre-assignments. You are not 100% sure where everybody is or what they are doing, and nobody is aware that the main body of fire is beneath them in a basement. Are you ready to own the potential consequences? What will you do to make sure that everyone goes home?

Arrival Report Vs. Size-Up

Often, on-scene-arrival reports, or “initial radio reports,” are framed as if they qualify as a size-up. Let’s make this perfectly clear: What you see through the windshield does not qualify as a size-up. Here’s an on-scene arrival report based on one found in a respected incident management manual:

“Engine 54 is on the scene of a one-story building with a working fire. Engine 54 is going in with a handline for fire attack and search and rescue. This is an offensive fire attack. Engine 54 will be ‘Main Street Command.’ ”

Does Engine 54’s officer nail it? Close examination reveals that the arrival report encourages aggressive tactics and discourages aggressive strategy. The example lets Engine 54’s officer ignore the following:

Size-up. There is no evidence that Engine 54 performed a size-up before “going in with a handline.” In fact, there is ample evidence Engine 54 did not complete a size-up; “on the scene” means Engine 54 had just arrived and the officer was looking through the windshield. Engine 54’s officer gave a tidy speech, exited the apparatus and defaulted to aggressive tactical recreation.

Engine 54’s aggressive tactical action conjures compelling strategic questions:

• Did the officer identify problems such as fire location, fire-growth phase and the status of life safety?

• What does “working fire” mean? Is smoke showing or is fire showing?

• Did anybody check for a basement? What if the main body of fire was in the basement? What if the side-C basement fire was venting horizontally and heating an exposed LPG tank?

• What if there was a victim dangling from a side-C window?

• What does “one-story building” mean? A garden shed or a Wal-Mart?

Initial Action Plan. Did Engine 54 develop what NFPA 1021, Fire Officer I, calls the Initial Action Plan (IAP) based on size-up information? Short answer: No. What do subsequent arriving companies do? Freelance? If pre-assigned, are the pre-assignments appropriate based on the location of the fire, the status of life safety, type of building construction, determination of value and the condition of exposures?

Water supply. Before “going in with a handline,” did Engine 54 establish an uninterrupted water supply?

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.134(g)(4). How many personnel arrived on Engine 54? If the engine arrived with fewer than four personnel, the entry of “Main Street Command” violates the OSHA two-in/two-out mandate and the direction of NFPA 1500. (Engine 54 was not in rescue mode; the officer declared the mode “offensive.”)

Ventilation coordination. Did Engine 54 coordinate its entry with ventilation?

Operational mode. Isn’t “going in with a hoseline for fire attack” the same as “this is an offensive fire attack?” Is “fire attack” the same as “confine and extinguish”? Consider this: The term “fire attack” has zero strategic value.

Assume a battalion chief arrives and broadcasts, “Engine 54 from Battalion 1, progress report.” Engine 54 reports, “Fire attack in progress.” What is the strategic significance of that report? Is Engine 54 winning or losing? Short answer: don’t know. What if declaring “offensive” means Engine 54 is doing “confine and extinguish”? Now, when the battalion chief asks for a progress report, Engine 54 reports, “Fire confined, extinguish in progress.” Is Main Street Command winning or losing? Short answer: winning. We believe declaring the mode “offensive” communicates “confine and extinguish” coordinated with ventilation while complying with the two-in/two-out OSHA mandate (and NFPA 1500, 8.5.7, which aligns with the OSHA mandate).

Search and rescue. As if offensive attack and being the incident commander was not enough on Engine 54’s plate, the officer added a side order of “search and rescue.” Is “search and rescue” the same as “primary search”? Short answer: no. “Search and rescue” conveys compelling evidence of a viable occupant to be located and rescued. “Primary search” is assigned when the status of life safety has been declared “unknown if occupied.”

What the Engine 54 arrival report describes are factors that NIOSH investigation reports identify as contributing to firefighter injuries and fatalities. Look at Engine 54’s arrival report again. What do you think Engine 54 really did after entering the building with that hoseline?

1. Fire attack?

2. Search and rescue?

3. Incident command?

4. All of the above?

(Hint: The smart money is on the activity that involved the most recreation.)

Engine 54’s offensive entry is illegal in the 22 OSHA-plan states and thumbs its nose at NFPA 1021, 1500 and 1561. n


Next: What the standards recommend