Proactive Decision-Making At a Structure Fire

One night at a fire in the Bronx, I was the incident commander and my friend Dennis was the operations battalion chief searching for fire in a large, two-story commercial building. I had responded to the scene after Dennis transmitted an all-hands-working signal. There was a heavy smoke condition when I arrived. I radioed, “Division 7 to Battalion 56, Dennis, what do you have?”

He responded, “Battalion 56 to Division 7, we have a heavy smoke condition. We are still searching for the source; we have two charged lines inside. I think we can handle it when we locate the fire.”

I had great respect for this chief officer and friend, but the smoke coming from this large wood structure looked bad from the outside. A few minutes later, looking for a progress report, I radioed, “Division 7 to Battalion 56, Dennis, how does it look?”

He responded, “56 to Division 7, we’re still searching.”

I looked around. I had a tower ladder and pumper standing by. I walked over to the tower ladder chauffeur and asked him to move the apparatus, then set up and get the bucket ready for use. Then, I walked over to the pump operator and asked him get a hydrant and stretch a line to the tower ladder, “but don’t start water until I give the order.”

At the command post I requested another progress report. Dennis responded, “Battalion 56 to Division 7, we located the fire and are knocking it down. You can give a probably will hold.”

The word “proactive” has become a buzzword for planning ahead. I was being proactive at that fire by anticipating that I might need the tower ladder and pumper that were standing by. In the fire service, we agree that the strategy of an incident commander should be proactive, but what does that mean? How does an incident commander be proactive when giving orders at a structure fire? The following are concrete examples of proactive order-giving at a fire.


1. Being proactive with the first attack hoseline stretch.

After announcing arrival and setting up a command post, an incident commander should be proactive by observing the fire company stretching the first attack hoseline. If there appears to be any problem, such as a defective hydrant, broken centrifugal pump or burst hose length, that could possibly delay getting water on the fire from the first attack hoseline, the incident commander should call for additional resources to compensate for a delayed hose stretch. Other companies will be ordered to assist with the stretch so at least an additional engine and ladder beyond the full assignment should be called to the scene. These extra units will not arrive in time to assist with the first hose stretch problems, but they will be needed to fill in for companies that have been redeployed to fix the problem.


2. Being proactive with the second hoseline stretch.

Even when there is no problem with the first hoseline stretch and a second engine company reports to the command post, immediately have that second engine stretch a line to back up the first line, as long as there is no exposure problem. In a multi-story building, the second hoseline goes up the same stair as the first hoseline. Engineers call this duplication of a critical function a “fail-safe” strategy or “built-in redundancy.” The first attack hoseline stretch is the most important action at a fire. It must be successful and should be backed up. It is important because the water from this initial hose stream stops the flame, heat and smoke that kills people. It is important because when it extinguishes the fire, searching and ladder rescues go smoothly. Statistics show it is successful 95% of the time. If the first line discharges water on the fire, you probably will not need the second line, but stretch it to be proactive in case the first line is delayed.


3. Being proactive with the third hoseline stretch.

After the first and backup hoselines have been stretched and a third engine company reports for an assignment, the incident commander should not just order that company to stand fast. Instead, the incident commander should be proactive and order a third line stretched to the front of the building, and then stand fast. By ordering the company to stretch a line and stand fast in front of a fire building, the incident commander is being proactive – with the third company with a dry hoseline in front of the fire building, if there is a sudden need for a third line, that fire company has completed most of the hose stretch and this third hoseline can be placed in operation quickly.


4. Being proactive at a Mayday signal for a trapped firefighter.

At every working fire, an incident commander must order a rapid intervention team to stand by at the command post. This team’s assignment is to be ready to respond to a call from a trapped or injured firefighter. Members should be ordered to assemble search, rescue and medical equipment on arrival, and not wait for the Mayday to prepare the equipment. This team must not to be used for firefighting. If more resources are needed and if a life-and-death event requires the use of the rapid intervention team, the dispatcher must be notified and another company assigned to rapid intervention duties.

If a Mayday call is received, the incident commander must ensure that only the rapid intervention team responds to the rescue. All other firefighters at the scene continue with their assigned firefighting duties. They should not join in with the rapid intervention team rescue. This is a difficult decision and it takes strong control by the incident commander and discipline of the firefighters at the scene. It is not easy to continue firefighting while a firefighter is trapped, but that is the reason for the rapid intervention team concept. Before rapid intervention teams were assigned, there were instances where a disciplined approach was not followed and trapped civilians died while firefighters abandoned their duties to search for a firefighter calling for help.

All firefighters understand that a rapid intervention team is a formalized, proactive rescue team exclusively for trapped firefighters, but some do not understand that the plan requires other firefighters at the scene to continue the mission of firefighting to save civilians trapped in a fire. Extinguishing the fire will save a trapped firefighter too.


5. Being proactive in transmitting alarms to bring additional resources to a scene.

When all the companies on the initial alarm have been given assignments and it appears the fire will be contained, the incident commander should special call an extra engine and ladder for staging, just in case something unanticipated occurs. Even if the assigned companies are not needed to extinguish the fire, they can provide temporary relief for exhausted companies or to perform overhaul or salvage after the fire is extinguished. However, when the incident commander’s size-up reveals doubt as to the ability of the assigned firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the fire, a greater alarm or call for mutual aid should be transmitted. These second-alarm units should be staged nearby and assigned as needed to reinforce or relieve the fire companies working at the scene. To be proactive, at every working fire, at least one engine and one ladder should be standing by in staging; at a major-alarm fire, the incident commander should have a full assignment staged.


6. Being proactive in positioning an aerial ladder for rescue.

The first use of an aerial ladder at a fire is for rescue of victims trapped at upper-floor windows. The incident commander should ensure that the street in front of the fire building is clear for positioning an aerial ladder. The incident commander should order the driver of the first-arriving aerial ladder to position the turntable in front of the building to reach the maximum number of windows. This could be at a corner or side of a burning building. Even when the fire building is unoccupied and no persons are trapped, the aerial ladder should be positioned at the most effective location because a firefighter may suddenly become trapped at an upper floor and need rescue from a window. If the fire is spreading on several floors and the potential for a ladder rescue is high, the stabilizing jacks should be set and the ladder then raised from the bed by the chauffeur and ready to swing into the building toward a window. Trapped fire victims often suddenly appear at a window of the fire room, at a window next to the fire room and at a window on the floor directly above a fire apartment. Until the fire is extinguished, a firefighter should remain on the turntable, at the controls, ready to rescue a victim or firefighter trapped by fire, explosion or ceiling collapse.


7. Being proactive in positioning an aerial ladder for master stream use.

When there is no potential life hazard at a fire, the incident commander should order the driver of an aerial ladder to position the turntable for possible master stream use. Even if the interior attack appears to be successful, the incident commander should be proactive and order an aerial or tower ladder set up for a defensive steam attack. An interior hoseline attack is successful more than 90% of the time, but things can go wrong and strategy must be changed to defensive operations.

Proactively positioning an aerial ladder apparatus for master stream use is the same as stretching a backup hoseline. As far as offensive/defensive strategy is concerned, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff tell us, “There is no single war strategy that can guarantee victory”; the same applies for the firefighting strategy. The incident commander must not plan for an offensive or a defensive strategy; rather, the incident commander must plan for both.


8. Being proactive venting of fire buildings.

Venting is the most complex strategy an incident commander must order. Venting incorrectly can spread the blaze, cause a flashover or create a wind-driven fire that can trap a firefighter. An incident commander can be proactive when ordering roof venting of skylights and scuttle covers in low-rise buildings such as tenements, rowhouses, strip stores and private dwellings, but must restrain horizontal venting of smoke and heat through doors and windows. Horizontal venting of doors and windows to a fire area must be timed and coordinated with the advancement of the attack hoseline. There must be control and a plan when venting doors or windows to a fire area.


9. Being proactive in conducting a secondary search for fire victims.

As soon as a fire is knocked down and interior conditions permit, the incident commander should order fire companies to conduct secondary searches. The incident commander must assign specific companies to specific areas of search and the incident commander must record and document company radio reports of search results. These results should be documented on a fire report in case there is a legal question about a fire victim. Fire departments have been sued for failing to conduct secondary searches; if there is no documentation, a department can be found negligent.

Two searches are conducted at a fire. The primary search is the most dangerous, but the secondary search is the most important. A victim may not be discovered during a primary search while a fire attack is underway due to the smoke, heat and fire danger, but must be discovered during the secondary search. No excuses.


10. Being proactive in ordering a cause-and-origin investigation.

After a fire is extinguished, a fire officer must be ordered to conduct an investigation to determine its cause and origin. If this initial investigation determines cause of the fire is accidental, then overhauling can begin. If the cause is suspicious or possible arson, overhauling is delayed. The area of origin must not be disturbed. A fire investigator or fire marshal should be called to the scene to conduct an in-depth examination of the scene and collect evidence. An incident commander is responsible to determine whether a fire is accidental or suspicious and to safeguard the scene if a fire is suspicious or arson. If arson is suspected, an investigator is called to the scene to confirm or refute this belief.


11. Declaring a fire under control.

The one time when an incident commander should not be proactive is in declaring a fire under control. That decision is made only after a size-up of the scene and consultation with all the sector officers at the scene. After a size-up from the command post or a tour of the building, or both, the incident commander confers with the operations officer and sector or division officers about the status of their areas of assigned responsibility before declaring that the fire is under control.


VINCENT DUNN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 42-year veteran of the FDNY and a deputy chief (ret.), serving as a division commander for midtown Manhattan. A nationally renowned lecturer, he is the author of the best selling text and DVDs Collapse of Burning Buildings and textbooks Safety and Survival on the Fireground, Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies and his new book Strategy of Firefighting – How to Extinguish Fires. Dunn has a master’s degree in urban studies, a bachelor’s degree in sociology and an associate’s degree in fire administration from Queens College, City University of New York. He can be reached at 800-231-3388 or at