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Firefighters have been killed while executing random and uncoordinated tactical activities at unoccupied, no-value building fires. Now, in many jurisdictions, firefighters stand back and let vacant buildings of no value burn. The "Four Box" strategic process is designed to provide the first on-scene fire officer with a logical strategic progression to help maintain poise and confidence.
Photo credit: Photo by Dennis Walus
Firefighters die when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Photo credit: Photo by Mike Meadows
Back in 2007, Firehouse® Magazine published the first installment of Mark Emery’s 11-part series “The Ten Command-Ments of Intelligent and Safe Fireground Operations.” The series began by identifying 13 “fireground indiscretions” that have injured and killed scores of firefighters. It is possible – no, it is likely – that a lot of our friends would be alive today had North American fire departments ensured that the 13 “fireground indiscretions” were not transgressed and that each of the “Ten Command-ments” obeyed. Although it is too late to change history, the acuity of hindsight provides an opportunity to influence the future.
The concept of value
When a firefighter dies because he or she is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the incident commander knew (or should have known) that the firefighter represented the most value on the fireground, was the incident commander making decisions that would ensure everybody goes home?
Beginning in the mid-1980s, and for the first time in history, American Heat videos became available that showed firefighters dying while executing random and uncoordinated tactical activities at fires in unoccupied, no-value buildings. At about the same time, again for the first time in history, fireground fatalities were investigated and reported by the federal government. Today, you can find a plethora of websites that offer video depicting random acts of tactical violence due to the lack of aggressive strategic frontloading. Within minutes, notification of a firefighter fatality arrives in your email inbox.
A brief history of strategic responsibility
Is aggressive strategy a contemporary concept? Decide for yourself after contemplating the counsel offered by Lloyd Layman in his book Fire Fighting Tactics (published in 1953):
“Success or failure of a commanding officer on the fireground depends upon his ability to estimate the situation, weigh the various factors, apply basic principles, decide what action should be taken, formulate a plan of operation, and see that the plan is executed promptly and efficiently. Regardless of the efficiency of the individual fireman and his tools, his efforts must be directed and coordinated by intelligent and capable leadership if satisfactory results are to be achieved on the fireground.
“On the fireground, it is not possible to tear a complicated situation into definite parts but it is possible to train the mind in the habit of surveying and analyzing a complicated situation in a systematic manner. Size-up is the responsibility of the officer in charge of the first alarm units and becomes the responsibility of any officer who may later take charge of operations at a fire or other emergency.
“A commanding officer must quickly survey and analyze the situation, weigh the various factors, apply basic principles, decide what action should be taken, formulate a plan of operation and exercise command. Success or failure on the fireground depends to a large degree upon the ability of a commanding officer to perform these essential functions in a practical and skillful manner. Unit commanders should be given definite assignments in compliance with the plan of operation. Each should know where his unit is to be employed and the objectives to be achieved.”
And, for you who advocate fast attack, we offer this final Lloyd Layman:
“Firefighting units should not be allowed to rush into action but should be assigned to definite missions in keeping with the plan of operation.”
What we are about to share is a structured and systematic process for the execution of aggressive strategy. What we will offer is a simple, quick, logical and meaningful strategic process that will address the tenets of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and will ensure compliance with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021, 1500 and 1561 standards. Keep in mind, though, that NFPA standards, NIMS and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) do not offer guidance on how to implement and comply; standards and mandates identify what you should do, not how you should do it. Interpretation and implementation are up to you, the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
The “Four-Box” strategic process
The “Four-Box” strategic process has been crafted so that you will nail your first-due strategic responsibility every time – even at 3 o’clock in the morning. The process is designed to provide you, the first on-scene fire officer, with a logical strategic progression that will help you maintain your poise and confidence. Just as firefighters must be able to execute tactical evolutions (water supply, hose, ladders, etc.), competent fire officers must be able to execute strategic evolutions. This means that your fire department must articulate strategic expectations that are practiced – and that are enforced.
Over time, the list of first-due fire officer considerations has grown and become unwieldy, exceeding an individual’s ability to function. This increased responsibility erodes poise and confidence, and increases the likelihood of choking. The “Four-Box” process emerged from the following realities:
1. During the evolution of a building fire, the first-due fire officer has the most pressure of any responding participant.
2. If the first-due fire officer blows the arrival radio report – and blows off the first-due strategic responsibility – risk increases and the subsequent operation is more likely to turn into a tactical mess.
3. Many first-due fire officers believe what they say while gazing through the windshield qualifies as their size-up.
4. First-due fire officers arrive with too many things to think about. Thus, they don’t think; instead, they default to the comfort of “fast attack” – often the result of possessing too much firefighter confidence and not enough fire officer competence.
5. Freelancing is tolerated because there is no (enforced) expectation of aggressive strategic frontloading. This includes institutionalized tactical freelancing in and around the hazard-area – often referred to as pre-assignments – before a size-up and action plan has been completed. Don’t believe me? If first-arriving companies are pre-assigned to tactical action, and then – at some point – a fire officer will arrive and do a size-up…need we say more?
6. Many first-due fire officers don’t know what their strategic responsibility is. (NFPA 1021, 1500, 1561, OSHA and NIMS; also refer to the January and March 2012 issues of Firehouse®.)
7. Many first-due fire officers do not rely on a structured and systematic arrival process nor do they have strategic tools that enable and support the process.
Rather than arrive with one “big box” filled with an assortment of actions and considerations, most of which you will forget after the adrenal glands infuse your body with adrenalin, we have rationed the considerations, announcements and actions of the first-due fire officer into four boxes.
Arriving with one “big box” generates sensory overload that exacerbates stress, thus making you more likely to choke. We want you to be successful; we want you to nail your first-due strategic responsibility every time.
The “Four Boxes” are, of course, figurative; we are not suggesting that you respond with four boxes lined up along the dashboard of your rig. Each box contains five items:
Box one: Arrival radio report
1. Type of occupancy and what is showing
2. Designate side Alpha
3. Capture responding units
4. Initiate command responsibility
5. Declare investigation mode
Box two: Aggressive and focused strategy
1. Set the table (get team going at task level)
2. Find someone to talk to (occupant, security guard, etc.)
3. List “big six” problems – fire-smoke-verified occupants-possible occupants-exposures-access (F-S-VO-PO-E-A)
4. Identify hazards
5. Determine value-time-size (V-T-S)
Box three: Size-up report
1. Building snapshot
2. “Big six” problem report
3. Update the operational mode (call the play)
4. Draft the initial action plan
5. Assign the objective of the Initial Action Plan (IAP)
Box four: Establish command post
1. Name and locate the command post
2. Achieve and maintain tactical accountability
3. Coordinate tactical and support objectives
4. Obtain status reports
5. Manage strategy, resources and risk
“Be quick, but don’t hurry”
This article focuses on the contents of and rationale for the contents of box one. Again, the purpose of the “Four-Box” process is to slow things down strategically so that appropriate tactics will be assigned from the right place and at the right time. In other words, as legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to remind his players: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
You don’t want to hurry strategy; hurrying strategy makes it likely that you will miss something important. Many of you have viewed the video showing college students passing a basketball. Viewers are directed to count how many times the basketball is passed among three students wearing white shirts.
About halfway through the video a student wearing a gorilla costume enters from the right side of the screen, pauses at mid-screen, faces the viewer to pound its chest, then turns and exits the left side of the screen. Although the student-gorilla is on-screen for nine seconds of the 80-second video, half of all viewers fail to notice the gorilla. It is as if the gorilla was invisible.
The point is this: Even though viewers are comfortable, relaxed and 100% focused on a small on-screen viewing area (the video clip), they do not notice the gorilla. How can something so obvious go so completely unnoticed? However, once they are told that there was a gorilla and seeing the video for a second time, everybody sees the gorilla. If you know you are supposed to count basketball passes and look for a gorilla, it is likely you would notice the gorilla. If your strategic focus does not narrow during size-up, you will often miss the “gorilla.” Missing the “gorilla” during a fireground operation has killed and injured scores of firefighters.
The “Four-Box” process provides a focused, yet simple and quick process designed so that you do not miss the “gorilla” on your fireground. The progression will begin with the “psshhh” of the apparatus airbrake; prior to the sound of the airbrake, the first-due fire officer will initiate the strategic process during the “final approach,” perhaps as you roll by three sides:
Final approach: Get things going
1. Final crew consultation (“Does anybody know or see something I should know?”).
2. Survey the approach area for debris, victims, bystanders, occupants, security guard, wires down, wind-driven embers, etc.
3. Address water supply (approach cues would be smoke showing from a block away, the dispatcher reports receiving multiple calls, etc.)
4. Take care of housekeeping stuff such as police for traffic control, utility company, arson investigator, the Red Cross and a bus for multi-occupant shelter.
5. Confirm that the dispatched address is correct (“Approaching 123 Main Street”) or that the dispatched occupancy is correct (“Approaching Golden Years Retirement Home”). Now, open box one.
Box One: Arrival Report
1. Occupancy and "showing."
After announcing “on scene,” confirm that you are at the correct address and it is the correct occupancy. If the address or occupancy is different from that dispatched, make a correction. Be sure to use your unit designator. Identify the type of occupancy – house, multi-family, strip mall, church, school, commercial.
“Showing” refers to one of three possible arrival situations: fire, smoke or nothing. Examples: “Church with nothing showing.” “Strip mall with smoke showing.” “Multi-family with fire showing.”
Based on the concept that what you see through the windshield does not count as size-up, don’t try to paint a verbal picture until you have seen as much of the picture as possible. You will paint the picture in box three after you have completed your box two size-up. (It may appear to be a two-story building from the street, but there is a basement that is visible only from side C, which makes it a three-story building.)
Here’s a sample of how the address, occupancy and “showing” report would sound: “Engine 54 on scene at 1235 Main Street. House with smoke showing.” Short, simple and succinct.
2. Declare side Alpha
Next, you will designate side Alpha: “Main Street is side Alpha” or perhaps “The address is side Alpha.”
Here’s the rationales for the declaration of side Alpha:
• The designation of side Alpha is often overlooked or confusing
• Many commercial or multi-family complexes are given the address and each building within the complex is designated with a letter or number
• Many commercial and multi-family occupancies have no front (there are separate, back-to-back occupancies with parking on each side)
Considerations for designating side Alpha are:
• The location of side Alpha must be crystal clear to everybody responding
• Side Alpha is where you say it is and should not be changed
• Even if side Alpha is logical and intuitive (the house at the end of a cul-de-sac), declaring the location of side Alpha must become a strategic habit
• Side Alpha is often declared as the address side – “Side Alpha is the address”
• Side Alpha is often declared as the street side – “Side Alpha is Main Street”
• Side Alpha could be designated as your apparatus – “Ladder 31 is side Alpha.” – if your apparatus is actually parked on side Alpha and not on the building corner
3. Park responding apparatus.
One of your command responsibilities is to herd the cats by capturing all responding apparatus. This is accomplished by parking responding apparatus: “Apparatus park at Second and Main.” Another option is to simply direct all apparatus to park. The important concept here is to slow things down and for responders to chill. If you know you are going to park for 30 seconds, there is no need to get hyped-up or drive like a maniac.
Herding the cats has benefits:
• Because everybody has been given an assignment, nobody can freelance
• People will be quiet and leave you alone
• People will remain in the cab of their apparatus with engines idling
• This prevents the address-area from becoming clogged with randomly positioned apparatus
• All of which frees you to complete a master craftsman size-up
• Addresses a resource reality – you need more people than apparatus at the address
You can customize the order to park to suit your response profile. For example, at a typical house fire, you should not need more than two engines, a ladder truck, a chief and perhaps an EMS unit at or adjacent to the address. On the other hand, you do want a bunch of firefighters at the address.
If smoke or fire is showing (and you haven’t already done so on your approach), address water supply. This can be a non-hazard area pre-assignment for a subsequent engine, the first-due tender or it can be assigned: “Second engine bring a hydrant.” Or, if you are 100% certain of the actual arrival sequence, you can assign a specific apparatus: “Engine 42 bring a hydrant.”
Once a company has decided it will establish the supply, that should be announced through the dispatcher: “Dispatch from Engine 2. Water supply in progress.” The dispatcher repeats this announcement, letting other responding units know they will not lay hose. The point is this: If smoke or fire is showing, water supply will not be delayed or assumed.
4. Initiate command responsibility
Initiating command responsibility is different than establishing a command post. You may think this is splitting hairs until you examine what is really going on with “command.”
Command responsibility that has been initiated is informal, mobile and perhaps tactical (outside the hazard area). This frees the fire officer to do things like view the rear of the fire building and deploy a hoseline. (More on this when box four is discussed in a future article.)
Can we agree that incident commanders do not function as team leaders? If a company officer has one foot in team leader responsibility and the other foot in command responsibility, there is no reason to change the officer’s designator. If Engine 1’s officer changes her company name to “Main Street Command,” where did Engine 1 go?
When a fire officer is ready to place both feet in command responsibility – at a command post – command will be established (named and located) and the officer anchored to that command post. In other words, no more wandering around or doing task-level engine or truck stuff. Any person called “command” has committed to doing 100% command-level pursuits at the command post.
5. Investigation Mode
Virtually all incidents will (should) begin in the investigation mode. Our “Four-Box” process has been designed to reduce stress and eliminate talking to people who have not yet arrived; we want the first-due fire officer to focus on an aggressive size-up. As such, and perhaps most important, the investigation mode conveys this nugget: stop talking and leave me alone. In the investigation mode you should never hear “We’re a block out, where do you want us?” or “We’re approaching, what’s our assignment?”
By front-loading agency-specific expectations, declaring the investigation mode can provide an optional method to herd the cats. For example, if you declare “smoke showing” or “fire showing,” all apparatus will park except the first-due ladder truck, second-due engine and first-due chief. On the other hand, if you declare “nothing showing,” all responding units will park. “Nothing showing” may also reduce responding units to non-emergency mode (no lights or no siren), whatever your department decides based on time, distance and the size of your response.
That was a lot of words describing the contents of box one.
In practice, the box one arrival report would be brief: “Engine 54 on scene at 1234 Main Street. House with fire showing. Side Alpha is Main Street. Responding apparatus park. Engine 54 initiating command in the investigation mode.”
Clear, concise and meaningful. It’s important to remember that the box one arrival report does not qualify as a size-up (that’s in box two) nor is it intended to be your size-up report (that’s in box three).
Next: Focused strategy.