Defensive Operations: Learning by Experience: Insights from Fireground Commanders - Part 1

Nov. 1, 2007
Firehouse Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner asks a group of veteran fireground commanders for their wisdom in reading conditions upon arrival.

Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner put this question to a group of veteran fireground commanders:

From your experience, what type of smoke, fire or heat conditions concern you when you arrive at a fire to take command and warrant your pulling units from the structure and going defensive? Here are their responses.

Battalion Chief, Fairfax County, VA, Fire & Rescue Department

Any combustion products that are coming out of the building under high pressure have me considering defensive operations. Dark, roiling smoke that is pushing hard out of building openings (including cracks and joints) in thick, pressurized, pillows tell me the fire is burning hot somewhere in the building and still building to flashover.

Assistant Chief of Operations, Phoenix Fire Department

First, exterior visible conditions need to match interior progress reports. Fire conditions vary greatly between residential and commercial buildings. Residential occupancies are compartmental and interior operations have a longer time frame for extinguishment. These structures are easily ventilated and fire control is often achieved with a well-placed initial attack line. Heavy fire conditions with little change from the initial attack line leads to a defensive operation.

With commercial buildings, heavy pressurized smoke showing from the building with little change by the initial line will lead to a defensive operation. The amount of fire required to fill a large commercial building with smoke is significantly greater than that of a residential occupancy. If the first line at a commercial building can't immediately find the fire and begin changing conditions, the operation needs to change from offensive to defensive. From the exterior, conditions need to be improving upon my arrival. Any reported fire in the attic will also lead to a quick change from offensive to defensive.

Deputy Chief, Phoenix Fire Department

Smoke, heat and fire are important considerations when making strategic decisions and about this there is no doubt. But these three "fire factors" alone are not enough to make a solid decision to fight inside or outside. The building size, structural characteristics and arrangement can be equally important. Access to the structure as well as within the structure is also a major consideration.

Of these three fire factors — heat, smoke and amount of fire — heat is a big-time red flag. With today's personal protective clothing, when I hear crews talking about heat, it's a major contributor to any decision I might make as to whether we stay inside or exit. Heat (the kind that makes firefighters talk about it) is a very late sign of the need to go defensive.

We hear a great deal in the fire service about color and pressure of smoke. These too are important, but with proper ventilation techniques, they can be dealt with in the process of a good firefight. As to amount of smoke, smoke down to the floor of large-span building is a loser. Exit to a safe position.

Fire is actually the easy one. Offensive fires should go out sooner rather than later with fewer rather than more hoselines. Extended firefights in big buildings are dangerous. If an inside tactical position (one that is taken in the right place) is not reducing the amount of fire in a hurry, correct the position. That is to say, leave. Don't take a knife to a gunfight, and if you are in a gunfight with nothing but a knife, don't ask for someone else to bring you an additional knife. It's that simple.

Assistant Chief, Providence, RI, Fire Department

It's not simply a question of smoke, fire and heat that drive my decision making. A number of factors go beyond those of smoke, fire and heat conditions: the size of the building; the construction of the building; how long the fire has been burning; the extent of involvement; the likelihood of occupants trapped inside; the likelihood an offensive attack will result in saving the building; the presence of hazardous materials or other special hazards; our ability to ventilate; water supply issues; exposures.

Given the same smoke, heat and fire conditions, I will react differently if the fire is an occupied high-rise building versus a vacant single-family residence. Given the same smoke, heat and fire conditions in a lightweight wood-frame building compared to a stick-built wood-frame building, I would be more inclined to go defensive sooner with the lightweight.

Battalion Chief (ret.), Los Angeles Fire Department

Recently, there has been an emphasis on the ability of fireground personnel to "read the smoke" and for good reason. The fires of today are burning faster and hotter in combination with an increase of flashover conditions. First, when looking at smoke, there is always the common denominator of pressure, color and density being an excellent indicator of interior conditions. An additional factor to consider is the dynamics of smoke. Either smoke is static (minimal problem), there is pressurization and quantity (how much is an indicator of the amount of fire), or the smoke is being drawn inward (now you are feeding the fire oxygen, and there will be a problem unless something is done quickly).

When considering fire (from a simplistic viewpoint), how much fire is there, where is it (is it easy to get to and extinguish?) and how long will it take for extinguishment (time). Reading interior heat conditions from the exterior of a building is not easy and in most cases is dependent on communications from the interior. Basically, the higher the interior heat conditions, the slower the advancement and the greater the chance of flashover. Therefore, when considering defensive operations, take into account the size of the structure (time for deployment and amount of fire), amount of resources for deployment (ability to extinguish), type of construction (time you have before collapse), smoke conditions (visibility and extent of fire), amount of heat (speed of advancement, potential for flashover), and has ventilation or can ventilation improve the environment to an acceptable condition?

With modern construction techniques and the predominant presence of plastics in the interior of most structures, the decision to go defensive is simplified when the aforementioned conditions are not acceptable! It's that simple.

Commissioner (ret.), Boston Fire Department

On a few occasions, as I was approaching the scene of a serious fire in a multi-storied building, usually in a congested area, I could observe heavy black smoke and fire emerging from the upper floors, either front or rear, which observations could not be clearly seen by the officer in command at street level from his position. I would notify him and the fire alarm office to commence giving instructions to evacuate the building and pursue an exterior attack even though I had not yet reached the front of the structure.

Such instances were extremely rare. My usual instructions to abandon an interior attack were based on the location and extent of fire that I could observe personally, from my position at the front of the fire building, or buildings, but more frequently on information I was being provided from aides and officers operating in the interior who could inform me of the lack of success being achieved with the personnel attacking the fire. This information was usually coming from areas I could not personally observe.

Occasionally, this decision to abandon the interior attack may come after the firefighting operation had been in progress for some time and I determined it was not succeeding based on my own and subordinates' information.

Deputy Chief (ret.), FDNY

Smoke and heat would not warrant my defensive actions. Fire — more specifically, flame — is an indicator that has prompted me to order defensive operations. When I arrive and units are already operating in the building and there is still flame fully involving two or more floors, despite the firefighters' efforts, I would consider ordering defensive operations. This would assume all occupants have been removed.

A size-up of fire principle I use: When fire is on one floor, the fire officers inside the building have the best size-up opportunity. When fire is on two or more floors or one floor and the roof, the fire officers outside the building (including me) have the best size-up view. When fire is on two or more floors, firefighters inside may believe they only have one or two rooms left to extinguish (tunnel vision) when actually they have two or more floors or a truss roof burning above them. They cannot see this with the inside size-up, but the chief at the command post can.

Deputy Chief (ret.), Philadelphia Fire Department

It is difficult to generalize. I do a 360-degree walkaround of a fire building on arrival and observe among other things the smoke and fire conditions. I identify the size of the building and try to find out what is involved in fire. I then decide from my observations what I would do if I were the initial incident commander. I then go through the information needed for a transfer of command with the current incident commander and find out exactly how the fire is being fought and progress reports that have been received from the interior divisions and groups. During a transfer of command, I expect a review of life-safety factors, divisions and groups already established, and the progress and prognosis of the incident by the initial incident commander. A continuing offensive attack is often predicated on the report of people still reported to be in the fire building.

If I decide to take command, I then have to decide whether to continue with the current plan or change it. Heavy fire and smoke conditions can often lead me to an immediate decision to withdraw firefighters if the life safety of the occupants has been accomplished. These conditions can be heavy fire that is in my estimation beyond the ability of handheld hoselines to be effective, or heavy smoke conditions that are of such a nature that I realize that they will replicate the same heavy fire conditions once sufficient air or ventilation mixes with the smoke. (Heavy fire through the roof of a commercial building is another red flag.)

Large commercial buildings with high ceilings (20 feet per floor and higher) in multiple-storied buildings or high one-story buildings need to be monitored from the exterior for fire and smoke conditions. Too often, a serious working fire in a building with high ceilings does not create the same nature of urgency to units operating on the interior. This is due to the fact that the smoke and heat conditions may be contained in the overhead areas and not be noticeable to interior operating crews at floor level. This can create a very dangerous situation since the progress reports being received from these units may not be reporting any serious problems. The problems will need to be recognized from the command post or other exterior units.

Battalion Chief (ret.), Newark, NJ, Fire Department

In those cases where I faced heavy fire and/or dense dark (dark-brown/mustard yellow-brown or black) smoke, I always took an extra moment to decide whether in or out was the way to go. Reading smoke is something that one learns over time. Dave Dodson's course on reading smoke has helped to set this in people's minds.

There is a line in the late Bill Clark's text Firefighting Principles and Practices which says not to be afraid of smoke. However, the manner in which buildings are built today makes me wary of any sort of interior attack.

Today's incident commanders do not always have the luxury of fighting fires in buildings built before 1940. I am a lot more leery today than when I was a battalion chief going to fires in Newark. Brannigan and Clark were right when they taught that it is not worth the lives of firefighters to save property. You also need to keep an eye on the condition of the building. Obvious cracks and separations with smoke pushing out of them are also good clues to the need for evacuating a building.

Deputy Chief, Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department

Some of the conditions after arrival that may warrant withdrawal and a defensive attack are heavy smoke being forced from a building under pressure, roof unattainable for ventilation, heavy black smoke that ignites outside the structure, reports from interior crews of extreme heat conditions; and inability to locate the fire in a commercial building.

Battalion Chief, FDNY

Smoke, fire and heat are three of the conditions that need to be monitored while firefighters are deployed inside a burning building. From my perspective outside the structure, I can usually see both the smoke and fire, and I receive reports from operating units on the heat conditions. Without oversimplifying it, I usually allow units to continue an interior attack when smoke is pushing from the building in its "normal" or usual manner. This normal manner is smoke that appears to be rolling or exiting windows and doors at what I would describe as slow or medium rate of speed. It can be light brown, dark brown or even black smoke, but the density and speed that the smoke is exiting the openings often is a telltale indicator of the conditions further inside the building where the fire attack is taking place.

Smoke that is boiling out openings at a high rate is an indication of rapid flame development and heat production. When I observe this condition from the front of the building, I can only assume that conditions have worsened at or near the interior units or that fire has extended or spread to other areas inside that we may not be aware of yet. If I observe this boiling smoke condition, I will contact the interior units for a report on their conditions and progress. If I hear anything in that report other than positive productive headway, I will back units out of the area, regroup and adjust our attack strategy.

Fire Chief, Rural/Metro Fire Department

In general, if the initial attack crews are not making progress in controlling the fire, and the fire continues to advance with deteriorating conditions, I would seriously consider withdrawal. Our "Rules of Engagement" for interior operations state: "Risk and safety assessment is a continuous process for the duration of the incident. When the "All-Clear" is given (initial search completed), the incident commander shall evaluate the progress towards locating and extinguishing the fire. If there is no progress, consideration for withdrawing from the building must remain a priority element during decision making."

Further, I'm always concerned about dark smoke, down to floor level and under pressure that may be present on arrival. These conditions indicate the potential for rapid spread of fire, including flashover or a backdraft. These are always high-risk conditions to firefighters. My department uses the following "Rules of Engagement" for decisions on the fireground: "What is the survival profile of any victims in the involved compartment, or adjacent compartment?" For the conditions described above, no victims could survive. In this case, fire crews would take a cautious approach in the initial attack.

Deputy Chief, Loveland Symmes, OH, Fire Department

On arrival and continuously, we monitor the smoke and fire conditions and weigh that against the life hazard. Initially, that's the civilian life hazard and as companies arrive, the firefighters' life hazard and risk. If there are no indications of civilian life issues, then we determine what risk we are willing to put our firefighters in to save property. If we can determine that our firefighters can go interior to fight the fire, then we do that. If we determine that whatever is in the building is not worth the risk to our firefighters, then we don't.

All smoke, fire and heat/no-heat conditions concern us. In some cases, light smoke showing can be a bigger problem than heavy fire and smoke conditions on arrival. Don't let a little smoke fool you into thinking it's a little problem; it is often a warning sign. Naturally, heavy, thick, "pushing" smoke as well as the color of the smoke adds more information for us to determine what risk we are willing to put our firefighters in. In many cases, we know firefighters are willing to do just about anything and take numerous risks. Our job as officers and incident commanders is to determine what risk we are willing to let them take. We decide — they don't get to vote on it.

Deputy Chief, Philadelphia Fire Department

On arrival, it is essential to obtain an accurate 360-degree view of the situation for effective and safe decision-making. Many times, energy-efficient features of a structure will disguise interior conditions. It is important to gather information from several sources. A common approach is to talk to exiting occupants or find an annunciator panel. As companies/crews begin to systematically deploy, an attempt to scan the property for entry and egress challenges is mandatory. Whenever bars cover windows or metal grates protect doors, there is a delay and danger of implementing an offensive mode. Discovering the exact location and determining the severity of the situation is another factor in picking the proper mode.

Smoke conditions that are a combination of colors such as gray, yellow and black will normally indicate that the blaze is no longer just in the content, but beginning to attack the structural members. Collapse becomes a safety concern. Any increase in pressure of the smoke or "feeling" heat in the smoke is a true indicator of an increased the risk to responders. My experience as a chief officer, for over 18 years, is based on working in an urban setting. I believe that commercial buildings without automatic sprinkler protection are target hazards. Statistically, structures that do not have adequate fire-resistive protection on columns and joists are susceptible to quick failure due to the high rate of heat produced by the various synthetic materials.

District Chief, Worcester, MA, Fire Department

One of the harder things for firefighters to deal with is the order that mandates that they ratchet down their aggressive approach at an escalating fire incident. The presentation of smoke under pressure, especially the yellowish-brown variety, should be one of many red flags that every firefighter on the fireground should be looking at during the size-up. Other factors that influence decisions are the presence of lightweight construction (be it wood or steel), bowstring trusses, the occupancy, the fuel load, large-area construction and high ceilings that can disguise the conditions of accumulated gases.

Assuming that an offensive operation is launched, accountability and control of personnel are critical. All members must be connected to an easily followed escape route via a hoseline or a "lifeline" that is secured outside their entry point. Location and progress of crews must be closely monitored. Progress must be rapid and noticeable. Any negative change in conditions that puts us on the losing side of the battle indicate that it is time to retreat with honor and establish a defensive operation. Even if the building burns to the ground, it is still a win for us because "Everyone goes home at the end of the shift."

Division Chief, Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue

One of the most important pieces of information or feedback is any direct communication that comes from the inside crews about the level of heat, smoke and fire conditions they are encountering. Absent any rescue priorities, upon arrival and concurrent with a size up of the structure and conditions:

Smoke conditions — Observations of dense volumes of smoke that is "pushing" or being forced from various areas of the structure.

Fire conditions — Observations that the fire conditions are overwhelming the offensive attack lines, the fire conditions are attacking the structure in additional areas and the structural components of the building.

Heat conditions — Any direct communications back from inside crews concerning the heat being intense or that the heat requires them to be completely down on the floor, obvious sagging of roof components or structural components due to heat, discoloration of building materials (bubbling, melting etc)

Other conditions —Wind! Significant wind is also a critical factor as a determination to go defensive if the wind is "driving" the fire inside and or outside the structure. Wind is a huge factor as it is "positive-pressure O2 or fuel" for the fire, as I characterize it. This is a major issue and the incident commander has to include this in their initial and ongoing size up of the fire conditions as it affects smoke, heat and fire conditions dramatically.

Deputy Chief (ret.), District of Columbia Fire & Rescue

My first item is the pressure and volume of the smoke or flame and the construction of the structure. I know I have more time in a Type I than a Type V. I also look at the number and size of hoselines that are presently deployed and the estimated time that they have been in service. For example, if four 1¾-inch lines have been operating for 10 minutes, then we have delivered 8,000 gallons of water with apparently little or no result. Any structure with trusses or is vacant to me is a no go when it has more than three or four rooms. Lastly, I look where the fire is located. If it is in a large cavernous structure (a church or warehouse) and the units have led off with standard 1½ -inch or 1¾-inch hoselines, it's time to regroup because we most likely are getting to the fire in insufficient amounts.

Deputy Chief (ret.), FDNY

I have a problem with the term "aggressive interior attack." I think the word "aggressive" gives the wrong impression. Our interior operations are based on training, pre-planning, tactics, SOPs (standard operating procedures), risk analysis, building construction, etc. I think it should be simply: interior operations — meaning a planned, coordinated internal attack; and exterior operations— meaning a planned, coordinated external attack.

Being a fire chief requires, unfortunately, putting firefighters in harm's way. No matter how careful you are, there will always be injuries or possibly a firefighter death; it's part of the job. It is impossible to have zero deaths or injuries in the fire service. At times, it also requires you to make split-second life-and-death decisions. If something goes wrong, you can be sued or arrested and all the Monday-morning quarterbacks will pick your operations apart.

In New York State, a career firefighter is required to have 239 hours of training, a company officer is required to have 160 hours of training and a chief officer is required zero hours. A hairdresser in New York State is required to have 1,029 hours of training. Chief officers must receive formal training. Every chief officer should attend the 160-hour Chief Officer Training Course developed by the National Fire Academy.

One must never forget the effect a career-ending injury has on a firefighter and his family. These injuries have left firefighters crippled or in daily pain for the rest of their lives. It affects their family life. They may be unable to participate in family activities, etc.

In regard to exterior operations, some suggestions and ideas to help make this decision: When you arrive at a very large fire (for example, fire on all floors of a vacant five-story building), the decision is basically made for you that it will be an exterior operation. It is the other fires where the chief officer must determine the type of operations. Building construction is one of the most important items you must consider in determining your course of action. Is the building FP or NFP? Is it truss construction?

Heavy smoke under heavy pressure pumping out of a taxpayer store or smoke that is a black crushed-velvet color or, as Ray Kiernan calls it, "black cotton candy." Some vacant buildings have been vacant for 30 or more years. Rain or snow storms have caused collapses in some of these buildings. When using tower ladders at fully involved building, start at the lowest floor and work up if possible. The rising steam helps extinguish fire on floors above. Many times, if you start at the top, the fire burning below reignites the fire when you move the stream to another area.

The wind may force you to alter your operations. If the wind is blowing against a handline attempting to move in, you may have to back out and attack the fire with the wind at your back. You may have to operate from a ladder, fire escape, or balcony or breach a wall.

Truss construction was basically found in commercial buildings years ago but today it is found in all types of occupancies. Many new and renovated NFP residential buildings have truss floors and roofs. Backdrafts can also occur in residential buildings.

I do not agree that the incident commander cannot move from the command post. He has a radio. Stay in the rack and prevent the unsafe act!

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