10 Step Action Plan For A Safer More Effective Interior Fire Attack - Part 3

Aug. 5, 2004
Entering an involved structure is one of the most basic aspects of fire suppression, and yet, each year firefighters are sacrificed needlessly to poorly planned and executed interior attacks.

Entering an involved structure is one of the most basic aspects of fire suppression, and yet, each year firefighters are sacrificed needlessly to poorly planned and executed interior attacks. In Part 2 of this three part series on Interior Attack, we concentrated on the proper ways to choose and advance a hoseline on the fireground, as well as how to better evaluate interior conditions.

In Part 3, we wrap things up with a discussion of the remaining three steps in the series, including how to orchestrate ventilation work, how to better manage fire streams, and the importance of accurately reporting the progress achieved during an interior attack.

This three part series is dedicated to the memory of firefighter Gary Staley of the Porter (Texas) Fire Department, who lost his life during an interior attack at a fire on January 18, 2003. The lessons to be learned from that tragedy are many and it's been the intention of these articles to ensure that we never forget firefighter Staley and the sacrifice he made that day.


The need for a coordinated ventilation effort is of critical importance to the safety and survival of interior crews. The failure to properly perform some adequate type of ventilation repeatedly puts our personnel at unnecessary risk. The key point to remember when ventilating for fire attack is that the effort must be coordinated. Premature ventilation may cause a fire to develop rapidly and overtake an advancing hose crew. Improper ventilation caused by the incorrect placement of the ventilation opening (a window or a hole in the roof) may trigger an immediate directional change of the advancing fire. And finally, the wrong type of ventilation may cause an unnecessary spread of the fire and potentially jeopardize the advancing crew.

The type of ventilation needed (i.e., positive pressure ventilation/forced, hydraulic, vertical, or horizontal) is strictly situation-dependent. In some parts of the United States, firefighters have grown accustomed to what is now an age-old tool of the ventilation trade--the positive pressure fan/blower. While some voices may continue to argue that the PPV fan has no place in the fire service, I believe that even more will argue that it's a tool that can be used appropriately and effectively. The critical point here is that it is a tool, not an absolute.

Nevertheless, regardless of the methods we choose, ventilation must be coordinated with fire-attack efforts. Here are some important questions to answer before requesting ventilation:

1. Where is the fire?

2. Is there a natural or existing opening?

3. How is the fire likely to react to the ventilation efforts?

4. What type of construction are you dealing with? Lightweight truss construction carries an extreme risk of collapse if using vertical ventilation. Likewise, tiled roofs are contra-indicated for vertical ventilation, because of the high potential for them to collapse on operating roof crews. Structures featuring balloon-frame construction present a high probability that concealed fires may advance undetected to the attic area, which means that PPV probably should not be used in those situations. Finally, buildings with tilt walls and limited lateral openings present a strong case for using vertical-or high-volume positive pressure ventilation.

5. In terms of time, what type of ventilation will provide the most immediate release of heat and smoke? Vertical ventilation, for example, is labor-intensive and is therefore likely to be time-consuming. Positive pressure (or mechanical) ventilation is less labor-intensive and should be quick to initiate. Finally, horizontal (or hydraulic) ventilation can be initiated by a nozzle crew.


The commonly used phrase "Putting the wet stuff on the red stuff" describes a rather simplistic approach to traditional firefighting. Today's fireground, however, is not likely to be so simple. As stated in our previous installments, the modern fireground is routinely littered with hazardous fuel loads and building features that constantly put our members at great risk. Initial attack crews must carefully consider fireground reactions (such as the potentially hazardous reactions of excessive steam production, disruptive thermal balance and decreased visibility) prompted by an applied fire stream and its ability or inability to suppress an advancing fire. Careful consideration and planning is an absolute necessity in choosing the method of fire attack.

Method of Attack: Are we attacking the fire for suppression purposes or are we attacking the fire in order to isolate it and control it? While this question may seem confusing, the issue isn't, and comes down to one simple question: Are we dealing with savable lives? If so, we need to take an isolation/control approach to our fire attack. Utilizing an approach that limits the amount of steam production and creates the least amount of disturbance to the thermal layering within the occupancy is a critical component in our effort to rescue trapped civilians. Failure to differentiate between the need for victim rescue and property preservation can certainly put lives at risk.

  • Direct Attack. This is the direct application of water to the base/seat of the fire, most often used for deep-seated fires that require penetration by the hose stream. Advantages to using this type of attack include a minimal production of steam and the least amount of disruption of the thermal balance.

  • Indirect Attack. An indirect attack involves a direct application of water into the overhead area to capitalize on the formation of steam, in an effort to smother the fire. Typical applications include an attack from a doorway (thus enabling a protective barrier for attack personnel) just outside the area of involvement. This method of attack relies heavily on steam production to smother the fire: Consider closing the door (if possible) to isolate/contain the steam within the area of involvement, in order to assist in the suppression effort.

  • Combination Attack. This is a two-pronged approach that begins with a direct application of water into the overhead areas to cool the gases found there, immediately followed by a direct application to the base of the fire (notable methods include the "O," "T," and "Z" formations). This method of attack--coupled with a coordinated ventilation effort--produces a minimal disruption of the thermal balance while at the same time directly cooling the involved fuel loads.


It cannot be denied that poor fireground communications continue to be a contributing factor to firefighter fatalities each year. Effective progress reporting can ultimately solve two of the most notable problems responsible for firefighter fatalities over the past 10 years or more: communications and accountability. Our failure to provide effective progress reports (and monitor those reports) given by exterior commanders continues to put firefighters at great risk.

So what should be included in a progress report? Following the loss of firefighter Brett Tarver, the Phoenix Fire Department developed an easy-to-remember acronym we can all use in an effort to standardize our progress reports.

That acronym, CAN, means:

C - CONDITIONS ("Fire Attack to command, we have one room heavily involved in fire on the second floor.")

A - ACTIONS ("We have water on the fire.")

N - NEEDS ("We need a back-up line stretched to the second floor landing.")

If we use this simple acronym and provide this information in a timely manner, the Incident Commander will immediately have the data needed to review and revise his or her strategy as needs dictate. A CAN report, followed by a quick PAR (Personnel Accountability Report) report, enables the accountability officer to adjust the accountability board to reflect the exact position of the involved crew; thereby providing a direct account of personnel and their geographical locations. This is critical information to have, especially if a hazardous event suddenly occurs.


As previously stated, the success or failure of an interior fire attack is not the basis of any one individual's performance on the fireground, but rather the result of the concurrent acts of many firefighters. To enhance the safety and effectiveness demanded by this daunting task, we must encourage and perhaps require support crews to create a fireground that is fully supportive of our safety. The following recommendations will not be new concepts to most firefighters, but without question you won't find these recommendations in use on the vast majority of firegrounds across the country.

Contrary to many widely held beliefs, the responsibility of interior-condition recognition and survivability goes way beyond the actions or inactions of interior crews. The Incident Commander and his extended cast of support personnel play a distinct role in firefighter survivability when a hazardous event (i.e., a flashover) suddenly occurs. The proactive actions of an aggressive Incident Commander can prove to be the deciding factor that stands between life and death for those involved in a sudden hazardous event. The need for Incident Commanders to properly forecast fire spread and rapid-fire development cannot be overemphasized.

The following is a list of essential responsibilities that an Incident Commander must either handle or delegate in support of firefighter safety any time an interior attack is waged:

2. Proper accountability of all personnel operating in the hazard zone:

  • Mandatory PAR reports and role calls at 10 to 15 minute intervals
  • Mandatory PAR reports and role calls upon completion of assignments
  • Mandatory PAR reports and role calls upon recognition of sudden hazardous events (i.e., flashover, collapse, back draft)

3. Assignment of a dedicated Safety Engine/Rapid Intervention Team early in the incident.

4. Required deployment of back-up lines. Back-up lines should be deployed to blocking positions in hallways and stairways to ensure the control of egress of working members.

5. Require timely progress reports (C.A.N. Reports) throughout the operation. Progress reports become the eyes and ears of the Incident Commander.

6. Forecast changing fireground conditions based on progress reports and external warning signs (i.e., cues such as lingering smoke changing to pressing smoke).

7. Proactively require the deployment of ground ladders as a secondary means of egress for firefighters operating on upper floors.

8. Proactively require that security bars be removed from windows and doors be forced where firefighters are operating. (Again, this creates a secondary means of egress for operating crewmembers).

9. Proactively require exit point lighting coupled with four-point scene lighting. This creates visual orientation for lost or disoriented members while external lighting enables the Incident Commander to visually forecast potential development or spread of fire.

10. Call for help early (i.e., forecast the need by sounding an extra alarm during staging).


While this series is in no way the last word on the subject, the 10 steps we've outlined should be considered critical actions and recommendations that can result in making a safer, more effective fire attack. Although no interior attack can be initiated without the assumption of some amount of risk, it has been the intent of this series to highlight a few simple actions that can be implemented by the initial fire attack crew (and those supporting this effort) to assist us in providing a response that is reflective of firefighter safety and survivability. It goes without saying that our actions or inactions on the fireground ultimately decide our fate. With that in mind, let's learn from the past and not repeat it.


Tim is a 17 - year student and educator of the fire & emergency services, a former Assistant Fire Chief for Missouri City Fire & Rescue Services, Texas and a former Firefighter/Paramedic with the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department. Tim has earned B.S. degrees in Fire Administration, Arson and an A.S. degree in Emergency Medical Care from Eastern Kentucky University. Tim is a contributing editor to numerous publications including the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) monthly publication The Voice and the Fire & Emergency Television Network (FETN) in which he is the writer/developer of the featured "SURVIVAL!" program. You can contact Tim by e-mail at: [email protected].
About the Author

Timothy E. Sendelbach | Editor-in-Chief

Timothy E. Sendelbach is a 30-year student and educator of the fire and emergency services, and former editor-in-chief for Firehouse. He has served as an assistant fire chief with the North Las Vegas, NV, Fire Department, as the chief of training for Savannah (GA) Fire & Emergency Services and as assistant fire chief for Missouri City, TX, Fire & Rescue Services. He is a credentialed Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer and has earned a master’s degree in leadership from Bellevue University, bachelor’s degrees in fire administration and arson and an associate’s degree in emergency medical care from Eastern Kentucky University. 

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