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...


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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?