Initial responding companies to the scene of a working fire have a huge responsibility when it comes to setting the stage for a successful suppression operation. When it comes to tasks on the fireground, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) “Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments” has identified 22 key fireground assignments that are completed during a residential structural fire; the big question that faces the initial Incident Commander (IC) is: What tasks need to be done first?
Decisions on the emergency incident are reached as incident managers consider three main incident priorities: Life Safety (both the occupants and the responders), Incident Stabilization and Property Conservation.
These priorities are what tactics are based upon, and the deployment of companies and resources are made to support the best “solution” while keeping these priorities in mind (see Photo 1). However, it is not solely based on having the correct number of resources; the apparatus, personnel and equipment on-scene must be capable of handling the needs of the incident. Personnel must be well trained, disciplined, efficient and well experienced in the tasks at hand.
Many times, the tactics employed at an incident may be suitable for the operation, but for various reasons, fall short in the delivery of the desired outcome. Some of these shortfalls include:
Lack of Pre-Planning – Knowing as much as possible about the building prior to the emergency significantly arms the IC with the best information to reach a positive outcome at the scene. It is imperative that pre-planning be a crucial part of member training and communications.
Incorrect Operational Mode – Simply put, this author has witnessed many times the attempt at offensive operations at an obviously defensive incident. Operational modes are directly related to apparatus/personnel/equipment needs and what is available on scene. Keep in mind that offensive operations save victims, and defensive modes save firefighters. If there aren’t enough resources on scene for offensive tasks, consider a defensive position until they arrive (see Photo 2).
Poor Fire Behavior Considerations – Fuel loads facing responders in today’s structure fires are putting them at greater risk for injury and death. The hydrocarbon fuels found in the furnishings of modern day homes are significantly increasing the amount of energy and heat release rates during fires, leading to significant fireground dynamic events shortly after the arrival of the first-due units. Consider the possibility for these events prior to committing forces to an aggressive interior attack.
Officers at Task Level – While it is understood and accepted that no one on-scene is above rolling hose, during the actual firefighting operations it is critical that officers direct the operations, not perform them. Company officers serve as the eyes and ears for the IC inside the structure during the fire. Progress reports and company updates during interior operations are what drive the IC’s decisions; if no one is reporting conditions back to command, the commander cannot possibly make decisions with all of the facts.
The “Strategic Six”
Considering the amount of decisions that will be made during the incident, none are as important as the ones that will be made in the first five minutes upon arrival. During this period, there are six considerably important tasks that I refer to as the “Strategic Six” for the incident. These tasks are done immediately upon arrival and are best done simultaneously:
Command – The initial IC has the responsibility of directing the arriving companies by performing a thorough size-up and reporting the conditions through a Preliminary Size-up Report (see Photo 3). This report should include who has established command; structure conditions such as type of construction, occupancy, location and extent of fire and potential exposures; actions to be taken by arriving companies; and any other resources needed to deal with the emergency.
Forcible Entry – Gaining access into modern buildings is not as simple as forcing a single lock on a door; many times the entry crew will have to deal with multiple types of locks on doors, along with ornate “homemade” styles of security devices. Furthermore, it is not sufficient to only force one door; many times multiple doors in multiple dwellings may need to be forced, along with the rear doors of the building. There should always be at least two ways out of a structure, and taking the rear door can provide another avenue of egress, especially if the initial entry becomes blocked by debris or fire.
Search & Rescue – A rapid search must be done immediately upon arrival for victims to have the best chance of survival. The amount of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide produced during structure fires is staggering, and these “toxic twins” are responsible for many fire deaths. A good rule of thumb to employ for search crews includes at least two search team members for every 2,000 square feet of floor space to be searched.
Water Supply & Suppression – When we talk about water at the incident, we are talking about both an adequate supply and fire flow for maximum BTU absorption. This must include at least two different sources of water supply by two engine companies, along with a minimum of two initial attack handlines stretching into the building to locate, confine and extinguish the fire (Photo 4). In most cases, a third handline will be stretched into position by a company arriving on a separate alarm, but at least two handlines need to get through the door in the first few minutes.
Ventilation – Reading the smoke and fire conditions upon arrival will help identify the best method for tactical ventilation. Consider the air track and natural exchange of air in the building; for the most part it is being replaced by the smoke and an increase in pressure from the fire. Now the initial attack lines enter through the door, providing the fire with a path of least resistance to fresh air to support combustion. In reality, the attack companies are standing in the horizontal vent opening, trying to push in as the fire is trying to push its way out for more air. Without a vent opening somewhere else in the structure, the entry point serves as a vent point as well; notably, the wrong location for a vent point. Conversely, the vent opening cannot be opened until there are charged hoselines in place, ready to stretch in and get water onto the fire, or the fire can grow beyond the capabilities of the initial companies.
Rapid Intervention Crew – Both the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have standards that state there must be a crew positioned outside the structure during interior structural firefighting operations, or any other Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) atmospheric conditions, to provide rescue for a lost, down or disoriented firefighter within a structure fire. This crew should be staffed with a minimum of four firefighters, but optimally should have six members: Rapid Intervention Crew (RIC) Officer; Navigation Firefighter; Two Search Firefighters; and Two Support Firefighters. Many case studies have proven that two firefighters on a RIC company are not enough to rapidly extricate a downed firefighter from inside a structure fire.
These “Strategic Six” functions that are to be performed in the first five minutes will require an adequate amount of manpower to complete (see Photo 5). Considering all of the above tasks, approximately 18 to 20 firefighters are needed on the first alarm to complete these assignments, not considering the exchange of empty self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinders with full cylinders on working firefighters. Without an adequate amount of firefighters, one or more of these tasks are not getting done.
Being successful on the fireground requires initial arriving companies to identify the needs of the incident at the onset and provide adequate, capable resources to handle the emergency. Consider the alternative; which one of the above listed “Strategic Six” tasks would be acceptable to not perform during the initial phase of the operation? The real question doesn’t involve not performing the tasks, but how to make sure there are enough resources on hand to get them done. Without them, the incident priorities will not be achieved.
Until next time, stay focused and stay safe…