13 Fireground Indiscretions

Mark Emery details 13 indiscretions that have killed and injured firefighters and mistakes officer make.


Here’s the plan: None of your fireground operations will become the subject of a firefighter-fatality investigation report. If this plan is acceptable, you will appreciate this article, which introduces you to "13 Fireground Indiscretions" that have killed and injured many firefighters. By...


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Front loaded with pre-incident knowledge and experience, a strategically competent fire officer knows what to look for and understands the significance of what he or she sees. A strategically competent fire officer understands that the identification and classification of fireground problems is his or her primary responsibility.

Often, a superficial "windshield size-up" is all that is performed. Specifically, no fire officer took the time to identify and prioritize problems strategically. Pre-incident strategic development coupled with on-scene strategic information produces an informed strategist. (The antithesis of an informed strategist is an uninformed tactician.) The ability to draw from pre-incident knowledge and information during your out-of-cab "secondary size-up" is crucial to the development of a strategically competent fireground.

Because you are prepared, you know what to look for. Because you know what to look for, you know what the problems are. Because you know what the problems are, you know what needs to be done. Because you know what needs to be done, you have an incident action plan. Failure to perform a thorough secondary size-up, coupled with lack of pre-incident knowledge and information, triggers the third indiscretion.

3. Inappropriate operational mode.

Tactics is the easy stuff; strategy is the hard stuff. Autopilot offensive fireground operations will work – for a while. They work fine until that "threshold incident" comes along, catches your auto-deployed personnel in the wrong place at the wrong time and nails your fire department right between the eyes. No fire department investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) believed that a firefighter fatality would happen there – it certainly wasn’t planned.

Often, because of lack of knowledge and information (Indiscretion 1), as well as inadequate size-up information (Indiscretion 2) – leading to failure to identify the most significant problem (Indiscretion 3) – many of these fire departments were in the inappropriate operational mode. In other words, they were offensive when the fireground should have transitioned to defensive – or should have been defensive to begin with.

Civilian lives are best protected from offensive positions. Firefighter lives are best protected from defensive positions. What is disturbing about fatality investigation reports is that the majority of the incidents did not involve a civilian life safety problem. The life safety problem was delivered to the incident aboard shiny red fire apparatus.

4. No plan formulated or communicated.

Evidence of this indiscretion: Fire officers arrive and establish personal operational modes (strategic freelancing) and implement individual action plans (tactical freelancing). Even worse, firefighters implement their own action plans (task freelancing).

Operating in the offensive mode without an incident action plan is freelancing. Everybody needs to know the operational mode, the overall plan of action, and their role and responsibility within the margins of the mode and plan. Operating outside the margins of the mode and action plan is freelancing.

It takes time to develop and communicate an incident action plan based on strategic information – not a great deal of time, but it does require poise and confidence to take the time. By all means, you must take the time.

5. Insufficient personnel.

Here the autopilot, routine operation suddenly isn’t routine any more. Without sufficient resources available for the unexpected, the fire department becomes the victim. Often, a fire department will initiate a "big-city" fireground operation without the resources to support such an operation. Corners are rounded, such as ignoring the "two-in/two-out rule," no safety officer, no rapid intervention, utilities aren’t stabilized, no coordinated ventilation, no teams in staging, span of control out of control, no exchange teams ready for immediate deployment, etc.

Please don’t initiate a fireground operation that you don’t have the resources to sustain. If resources are limited, allow 10 or 15 offensive minutes – one self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinder. If the situation is not stabilized during that time, consider transitioning to a defensive operation. Better yet, if you haven’t done so, get to know your neighbors and use them.