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

Jan. 2, 2004
While the interior fire attack is one of the most prominent tasks/assignments on the modern fireground, today?s fireground is littered with a number of hazards just waiting to swallow-up the overly aggressive-acting firefighter.


It's 02:30hrs, you and your crew are returning from your second call after midnight; you're tired and you have one thought in mind?sleep. Suddenly, the mobile radio blares an alert tone for your company to respond to a reported residential fire. Without hesitation, you and your crew become conscious to your surroundings and ready for action. The dispatcher confirms the address and you begin to realize, you're first due. Thoughts of an aggressive interior attack begin to pass through your mind as your driver activates the emergency equipment for your code three response. Now it's up to you to assume the responsibility of this ever so challenging task.

The aforementioned scenario is one that is repeated across the fire service nearly everyday. The aggressive interior fire attack is one of the most notable and rewarding tasks taken on by today's firefighters. Unfortunately, a number of dramatic changes in recent years have brought about some increasing hazards to this formidable task. Today's fireground continues to mystify even the most knowledgeable and experienced fire service experts. Changes in modern building construction (techniques and materials) coupled with the advancements in firefighting technology have brought about a desperate need to adjust our traditional fireground strategies in an effort to enhance our safety.

This, Part I of a multi-part series will address some critical actions to consider when initiating an interior fire attack on the modern fireground.


While the interior fire attack is one of the most prominent tasks/assignments on the modern fireground, today's fireground is littered with a number of hazards just waiting to swallow-up the overly aggressive-acting firefighter. In an effort to enhance our safety on the fireground we must first understand what has changed over the years to make this task so much more complex.

Changes on the fireground can be classified into three basic categories:

  • Firefighting gear and equipment
  • Building construction techniques and materials
  • Regulatory standards/guidelines


It has been said numerous times that the fire service is stern on tradition and slow to change. In some ways this is unquestionably true, in others it is far from reality. Firefighting gear and equipment research continues to bring about advancements that not only enhance the service we provide, it also changes the way we do business - or at least it should.

Advanced PPE technology has brought about much controversy in the fact that many will argue we have created a greater evil by enabling our firefighters to go in deeper and longer without the fear of thermal insult. This advancement coupled with techno gadgets (i.e. Thermal Imagers) allow us to navigate with a narrowed understanding of our surroundings.

While I agree our firefighters are at greater risk, I disagree with the accusation that technology is to blame. It is my firm belief that "we" (firefighters, fire officers and trainers) are truly the responsible party. It is our lack of cultural change, and less than aggressive efforts in the field of training that are truly to blame. The aggressive culture of the modern firefighter is unquestionably an asset to the fire service, but left unchecked it will undoubtedly bring about an increasing number of injuries and /or deaths amongst our members.

Firefighters and fire officers alike should be provided with continuous instruction and training applicable to the use and limitations of these advanced tools. We must firmly establish a job wide understanding that it is NOT acceptable to die in a burning building.


Today's building construction techniques and materials are based on two defining issues, economics and aesthetics. As the nations economy continues to struggle, and our society's demand for cosmetically pleasing buildings moves forth, firefighters will continue to face new and challenging hazards on the fireground (some of which maybe insurmountable). So how do we address this perceptual animal that continues to haunt us? The answer while simply stated is complex in nature. First we must aggressively educate our firefighters and fire officers in the changing building construction features which make-up our work environment. Secondly, we must ensure that our company officers conduct an evaluation/size-up of the involved structure(s) prior to making entry into the hazardous environment. And finally, we must instill a firm understanding amongst our membership as to the value and importance of fireground risk analysis based on these well-known rules:


In 1992, the fire service fought defiantly against the passing of NFPA 1500 (Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety & Health Program), which at the time was the most controversial document in the history of the NFPA (fielding in excess of 12,000 public comments). This document has since been surpassed by the infamous NFPA 1200, which is now known as NFPA 1710/1720. Our history of defiance towards regulatory safety standards has created a disturbing trend that jeopardizes our safety on the modern fireground. Case and point, compliance with the now aged OSHA 1910.134 - 2-in/2-out ruling still troubles fire departments across the country. Why, because we are men and women of action, we are trained to act, we are expected to act - so we think. Our tradition of "making due with a few" continues to put our members at risk. Today's fireground in accordance with nationally published regulatory standards/guidelines provides us with staffing parameters that have been established for our safety - it's up to us to comply with these standards 100% of the time. Selective compliance (when we want to) cannot be tolerated if we plan on creating a fireground dedicated to our safety and survivability.


The following steps are recommended actions to be performed or conducted prior to the initiation of an interior fire attack:


Prior to initiating any fireground assault one must consider where to place the arriving apparatus for a safe and effective attack. Company Officers should take a pessimistic approach when placing apparatus on the fireground. While a request for pessimism in the fire service may appear on the surface to be counter productive to our efforts, a pessimistic approach to apparatus positioning is quite the contrary. Apparatus operators should be trained in the skills of fireground forecasting and cue-based decision-making in hopes that they will predict what "could" happen based on the cues presented at the time of their arrival.

Consider this, the first arriving apparatus (attack unit) is suddenly over run or impinged upon by an advancing fire that is now extending to multiple exposures. Meanwhile, initial attack crews working off lines being supplied by the attack unit are suddenly faced with a limp attack line due to a loss of water (pump operator forced to abandon his/her position) or other catastrophic event (wall collapse on the apparatus) following the loss of the primary apparatus. The critical importance of "worst case" planning allows the apparatus operator to position in an effective, yet defensive position on the fireground.

Fireground cues for proper apparatus positioning:

  • Three-sided approach if possible, attempt to leave the front face open for truck company access. Consider positioning just past or just short of the involved structure to allow for frontal access of later arriving truck crews.

  • Fire location, type of occupancy, contents (Common combustibles versus hazards materials and/or volatile substances)

  • Involved structure - height (Collapse zone positioning - corner placements) and radiant heat factors if totally involved, avoid becoming an exposure.

  • Overhead hazards (Electric, trees, etc.), also consider obstructions such as parapet walls or overhead signage that may affect the use of master streams or other defensive based tactics.

  • Run off potential (Up hill if possible)

  • Smoke/wind conditions (Up wind if possible)

  • Type of fire attack - Position for defensive coverage, but not to a point that is counterproductive to an offensive fire attack.

  • Defensive fire attack on arrival, forecast fire spread and potential exposures

The success or failure of an effective fireground operation is dependent upon the actions of those first arriving crews. Proper apparatus placement is the first step for a safe and effective interior fire attack.


The importance of an effective fireground size-up and radio report cannot be overstated. To ensure that first arriving company officers provide the necessary information consider the following acronym:

I - IDENTIFY Identify unit or apparatus ("Engine 104's on location?")

Describe those visible conditions that are applicable to the strategy and tactics to be deployed. Simply stated, if it doesn't affect the operational deployment, DON'T SAY IT. Long-winded detailed building descriptions lend themselves to further confusion and unnecessary interpretations. ("?with a two-story residential structure, smoke and flames visible from a window on the second floor.")

Establish command with a geographical identifier. It's extremely important to include the geographical identifier to avoid the confusion in cases of multiple incidents that may be run on the same frequency. ("Engine 104 will be establishing Fox Cover Command")

Describe the actions of you and your crew. Traditionally this has been defined as one of three modes: Investigative, Fast-attack, or Command Mode ("Engine 104 will be in the fast attack mode.")

This effort can be further enhanced by adding critical information as it pertains to 2-in / 2-out compliance. Example: "Engine 104 confirming all occupants are out of the building, awaiting arrival of the second due company for IRIT." By communicating this information you immediately inform responding companies of your needs and related operations. Secondly, you create a means of compliance and accountability amongst first arriving crews in that in that they are now responsible for their described actions as it pertains to 2-in / 2-out. (Example: A company arriving with three personnel advising they are initiating a fast-attack should immediately send up a red flag).

The following are some examples of "operational modes" that describe compliance with the parameters of 2-in / 2-out:

  • Rescue Mode without an IRIT
  • Rescue Mode with an IRIT established
  • Fast Attack Mode with an IRIT established
  • Standby-mode awaiting an IRIT

STEP 3 - SIZE-UP (360? Evaluation of the involved structure)

A critical lesson learned and reinforced across the fire service has been the importance of an early 360? size-up. Today's fireground requires a thorough evaluation of the involved structure and the potential hazards that exist. It is strongly recommended that it become a standing operating guideline/procedure (if not already) that the first arriving company officer perform a rapid 360? survey of the building while his/her crew prepare for the initial fire attack. By initiating a rapid 360? survey, the company officer is able to accomplish the following:

  • Isolate utility feeds - By turning off the utility feed to the building we create a safer working environment for interior crews. As the company officer circles the building he or she simply turns off the gas feed valve (using a spanner or other suitable hand tool) and if accessible throws the exterior electrical breaker (This is NOT to suggest that you pull electrical meters).

  • Determine building size and construction features - A quick assessment of the building perimeter provides the company officer with a rough understanding of the general size and complexity of the occupancy and any potentially unique building features (i.e. parapet wall, indicative of a flat roof, truss construction with weighted utilities overhead - DEATH TRAP WHEN EXPOSED TO FIRE).

  • Evaluate the need for occupant rescue - A quick 360? survey allows the company officer to check for any outward signs of occupants (x 4 sides), cars in the parking lot or driveways, visible signs of occupants via the windows, etc. This evaluation will ultimately determine our mode of operation Rescue or Standby which coincides with our risk analysis - What to gain, what to lose.

  • Assess the exterior of the occupancy for signs of early collapse - Cracks in exterior walls, smoke seeping through the mortar, etc.

  • Determine general fire location and extent of involvement - Validation a frontal attack versus approach from the rear - unburned to burned.

  • Determine points of access and egress - Where can I get in and equally important, where can WE get out?

  • Evaluate ventilation needs prior to the initiation of a fire attack - What type is best suited for the situation, vertical, horizontal, forced?


One of the most disturbing trends recently identified as a contributing factor to firefighter fatalities, is that of firefighters entering a burning building ill equipped for the job at hand. While this may seem elementary to some, I believe that our aggressive nature and strict focus on an expedient fire attack has caused us to overlook some of the medial task that support the actual fire attack.

So how do we solve this problem? First and foremost we need to identify what needs to be taken inside, what tasks need to be performed and who needs to accomplish each. Secondly, we have to develop an understanding and culture that promotes preparedness and strict adherence to the assigned task. As company officers charged with the responsibility of crew integrity and accountability, we cannot afford self-initiated, free wheeling efforts amongst our personnel. Each member must be assigned a task and related tools in an effort to support the overall strategy. (Example: Nozzle person - Initiates hoseline deployment to the point of entry - no tools assigned, Back-up crewmember, responsible for forcible entry, assisting with hoseline advancement and opening up the concealed spaces in the immediate fire area - assigned: forcible entry/exit tools and short pike pole, Company officer - responsible for overall direction and control of the fire attack crew, assigned: thermal imager (TIC) for immediate interior assessment and continuous evaluation of changing conditions.

The use of tool assignments is nothing new in the fire service; fire departments across the country have done this for years and reaped the rewards, while others have been less fortunate. It's time to face reality; strict discipline and firm rules of engagement create predictable actions, and with predictability comes manageability, which is undoubtedly one of the most critical items for fireground safety and effectiveness.


As mentioned earlier, the development and subsequent adoption of regulatory standards in recent years has changed the way we do business. Included in these changes are the way we initiate an interior fire attack. Prior to making entry into and IDLH atmosphere we are required to have four members assembled on the fireground - two of which must enter together and two of which are positioned outside for firefighter rescue if the need arises.

When asked how many departments comply with this standard/regulation 100% of the time, few in a crowd of many can honestly raise their hands. Why? Again, I refer to the desire to act, action-oriented, action-driven mentality of the modern firefighter. We MUST slow down, see the big picture and allow the required personnel to arrive before we dive into an operation that puts our members at risk. We must begin to understand that a building with no outward signs of an occupant rescue is worth the risk of an understaffed fire crew.

Fire departments with limited staffing, prolonged response times and/or questionable day time response crews ultimately will present the argument that by allowing the building to burn, more property is lost and that prolonged burn times increase the risk potential once entry is made. While these are all points of concern, they are points that we must put into perspective as we consider our departments potential. If we are department with optimal staffing - we still have limitations in what we can do. The same holds true for a department that has less than optimal staffing, you have limitations and it's up to us to acknowledge the fact that our capabilities might be less than what is required to safely initiate certain actions.

I'll ask you, is there not enough evidence available today to solidify the fact that we have limitations, some of which are insurmountable with individual brute force, strong will and adrenal courage? If not, standby, history tells us 100 more reasons are forthcoming.

The rules of engagement are very clear and must be adhered to: An Interior fire attack shall not be initiated prior to the establishment of an IRIT (Initial Rapid Intervention Team) consisting of no less than two members. Exception: A known life hazard exists where immediate action could prevent the loss of life.


The strong traditions of the fire service in certain areas continue to bring us rewards and admiration, while others seem to lead us down a path of destruction. It's up to each of us to evaluate the way we do business to ensure that we continue to focus on those critical steps that support our safety and effectiveness. While the five steps mentioned in this article are by no means rocket science, they at least ask the question - Is what we're doing safe and effective? It's this question that I ask each of you to consider as you work to enhance your operations on the modern fireground.

In our next segment, we will address the five remaining steps in our action plan for a safer more effective interior fire attack including: hoseline advancement, evaluation of internal conditions (risk assessment, and what efforts can be made to minimize risk potential), coordinated ventilation efforts, fire stream management and progress reporting.


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].

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