The Ten Command-ments Of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

Dec. 1, 2007
Mark Emery continues this series with Command-ment IX: Thou shall address three strategic priorities by supervising NINE primary phase tactical objectives.

The strategic priority Action Plan Template (APT) is an easy-to-learn tool that will quickly produce an appropriate incident action plan. A strategic priority Action Plan Template can be developed for virtually any type of incident.

It's time to discuss options for supervising and managing the "primary phase" of your square-foot fireground action plan. You cannot competently supervise and manage an action plan without appropriate strategic tools. These strategic tools will enable you to achieve and maintain tactical accountability. This article will introduce you to two strategic tools:

  1. The incident status board
  2. The Action Plan Template

During any incident, you have three strategic priorities: life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. During many incidents, property conservation is not an issue for the fire department (example: trench rescue). The order of these strategic priorities never changes; life safety is always number one. However, your tactical priority will almost always be incident stabilization. Recall the scenario described in a previous Command-ment article: Car-versus-pole collision, major damage, two unconscious teenagers trapped in the car, a power line draped over the hood, fuel leaking and traffic whizzing by.

  • Do you have a life safety problem? Yes, two "red" patients.
  • Do you have stabilization problems? Yes, traffic, the vehicle itself, the pole, the power line and the leaking fuel.

As mentioned, life safety is always your strategic priority. Given this scenario, your tactical priority is to stabilize the incident — you take care of your people before taking care of the car's occupants.

Phases of Incident Control

Recall from Command-ment VII that the "primary phase" of incident control includes all actions before the incident has been stabilized. The "secondary phase" includes all actions after the incident has been stabilized.

During the square-foot fireground primary phase, nine tactical objectives will address your three strategic priorities:

Life safety objectives

1. Rescue
2. Search and rescue
3. Primary search

Incident stabilization objectives

4. Evacuation
5. Exposures
6. Confine
7. Ventilate
8. Extinguish

Property conservation objective

9. Primary Salvage

Five of the nine tactical objectives comprise my (primary phase) standard offensive game plan:

  1. Primary search
  2. Confine
  3. Vent
  4. Extinguish
  5. Primary salvage

These five tactical objectives (and three support objectives) will always be addressed when the fireground operational mode has been declared "offensive." Should there be someone to rescue, civilians to evacuate and an exposure to stabilize, once the person has been rescued, the civilians have been evacuated and the exposure stabilized, the standard offensive game plan will always be addressed. The standard offensive game plan should be etched into a fire officer's brain.

Offensive Success

There are four benchmarks for success when the fireground has been declared "offensive":

  1. Exposures have been stabilized
  2. The fire has been confined (to the room, floor or perhaps even to the occupancy of origin)
  3. Primary search has been declared "all clear" by the command post
  4. Primary salvage has been completed

Of course, extinguishment is an offensive fireground objective; however, once the fire has been "confined," it will go away when the fuel is gone.

Once primary search has been declared "all clear," the fire department represents the most value. (I'd love to see someone's list of what is more valuable than a firefighter.) There is no justification for compromising the thing that represents the most value on the fireground.

Words (Should) Mean Something

In order to establish a strategic thread that extends from the command post to team members toiling in the hazard area, words need to mean something. The command post declares the overall operational mode and develops the incident action plan. The incident action plan includes tactical and support objectives that will address life safety problems, incident stabilization problems, property conservation problems.

Between the command post and task-level firefighters there are two important connections that ensure the strategic thread is not compromised: the team leader and a division supervisor. The team leader (usually a company officer) is always with the team (firefighters). Recall from Command-ment II that team leaders must C.A.R.E. for their team members by monitoring conditions, air, radio and egress. In addition, team leaders are responsible for personnel accountability.

Although the team leader is with the team, he or she should not be operating at task level. When a team leader is at task level, it's impossible for that leader to C.A.R.E. for team members. Except for training, it is unacceptable for a team leader to be at task level while team members watch.

So that the command post does not exceed a span of control of five, team leaders report to a division (or group) supervisor. Thus, the (figurative) strategic thread originates at the command post and extends to a division supervisor, extends from the division supervisor to assigned team leaders, and from team leaders to the members of each team. Establishing this strategic thread is essential if you are to achieve and maintain tactical accountability and eliminate freelancing — that's right, I said eliminate freelancing. Integrated tactical accountability eliminates both strategic freelancing and eliminates tactical freelancing.

So that words mean something, let's clarify a few common fireground role and responsibility words: strategy, tactic, method and task.

STRATEGY: Originates at the command post

Declare operational mode: "Main Street Command is offensive from side A on floor 2."

Determine stabilization strategy: Confine the fire to floor 2 and protect exposures.

Draft stabilization action plan: Evacuate and stabilize exposures, confine the fire to floor 2, coordinate with ventilation, stabilize the attic, extinguish the fire.

TACTIC: Tactical objective assigned to a team leader by a division/group supervisor

Tactical objective: Ventilation

METHOD: How the team will accomplish the tactical objective

Ventilation method: Positive pressure

TASK: How team members will execute the selected method

Tasks to complete objective: Obtain and position gas blower on side A, start the blower, establish exhaust opening on side D, pressurize occupancy, determine effectiveness of ventilation, monitor side D exposure and soffit, etc.

Here's where fireground strategy breaks down: If you simply assign a team leader the objective "ventilation" and let the team leader determine the method of ventilation, this is method-level freelancing could easily produce an uncoordinated offensive operation. (Team leaders have a propensity to select an objective that offers the most tactical entertainment.)

Somebody at a strategic level needs to ensure that the method does not conflict with the overall strategy. In short, strategic-level freelancing begets tactical-level freelancing, and tactical-level freelancing begets method-level freelancing. Method-level freelancing often places firefighters in the wrong place at the wrong time. An example would be firefighters breaking windows while teams are inside a smoke-filled occupancy. The ensuing rapid fire growth is equivalent to opening the dampers on a wood-burning stove: once the dampers are open, the fire intensifies quickly.

Strategic Tools

Competent firefighters know how to use tactical tools: hose, rope, nozzles, axes, pumps, hooks, ladders, saws, fans, etc. Likewise, competent fire officers know how to use strategic tools. Two of the tools that I use are the Incident Status Board and the Action Plan Template.

The Action Plan Template is used by the incident commander at the command post. It is used as a quick reference during the heat of battle. (The Action Plan Template will be discussed in more detail in Command-ment X.) The Action Plan Template is used much like the laminated game plan used on the sideline by NFL offensive and defensive coordinators during football games. Photo 1 shows Seattle Seahawks Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Mike Holmgren with a ledger-sized, laminated offensive game plan. Does Mike Holmgren know the offense of the Seahawks? Absolutely, yes; you could say that he is unconsciously competent.

Why then do professional football coaches, who possess a wealth of knowledge and experience, need to use a strategic "crutch" on the sidelines during a game? Because, during the heat of battle, they don't want to overlook something important that could change the outcome of the game.

The purpose of the Action Plan Template is to make sure you do not overlook something important that could change the outcome of the fireground operation – or harm firefighters.

On the reverse of the Action Plan Template is a post-incident After-Action Report form. The after-action form asks four key strategic questions to answer and discuss:

  1. Was incident command competent (explain yes or no)?
  2. Was everybody tactically accounted for at all times?
  3. Was an incident action plan formulated and communicated?
  4. Were communications clear, concise, and disciplined?

The after-action form also has a checklist of the "13 Fireground Indiscretions" and each of the "Ten Command-ments." (More on the form and how it is used in Command-ment X.) Just like Coach Holmgren's offensive game plan, the Action Plan Template is structured and systematic yet flexible.

The Incident Status Board

The incident status board, which will be discussed shortly, is simply a rigid plastic board with two narrow strips of Velcro running the length of it (top to bottom) along both side edges. Between the Velcro strips are six empty blocks separated by black lines. There is a conspicuous (and intentional) lack of text or graphics. You will soon discover how this blank unassuming board can transform the strategic competence of your fireground operations.

Imagine that you are in the right front seat of the first apparatus to arrive at the multi-family fire shown in Photos 2, 3 and 4. The status of life safety is unknown if occupied. As the first on-scene officer, if you nail your strategic responsibility the rest of the incident will evolve smooth and tight.

Nailing first on-scene strategic responsibility takes 20 or 30 seconds, sometimes less. What fire officer does not have 20 or 30 seconds to identify problems, draft an initial incident action plan and declare the operational mode? A master craftsman fire officer takes the time to nail strategic responsibility; the reactive tactician fire officer jumps off the rig, ignores strategic responsibility, grabs a tactical tool and functions as a firefighter. It doesn't matter if the rig arrives with two personnel or five personnel; the first on-scene fire officer must fulfill his or her strategic responsibility. (We'll soon address the strategic responsibility of the first officer on scene using an incident status board.)

The standard offensive game plan will work at the typical "unknown if occupied" house fire. (Typical means no rescue, nobody to evacuate and no exterior exposures to protect.) You would address the strategic priority life safety with the tactical objectives:

  • Primary search
  • Secondary search

During a typical house fire, you will stabilize the incident by completing the tactical objectives:

  • Confine
  • Ventilate
  • Extinguish
  • Overhaul

During a typical house fire, you will address conserve property by completing the tactical objective:

  • Primary salvage
  • Secondary salvage

When life safety will be addressed with the tactical objective primary search, it could be said that the overall strategy is "stabilization priority." A stabilization priority action plan implies that firefighters represent the most value on the fireground.

Two-Phase Action Plan

Fundamental to the concept of strategic priority action planning is the separation of an incident into two distinct "phases of incident control": the primary phase and the secondary phase. An incident divided into two phases streamlines action planning. During the "primary phase" of the fireground Action Plan Template (APT), there are just nine "tactical objectives" that will directly address each of your three strategic priorities. Along with nine tactical objectives, there are important "support objectives" to consider.

These nine tactical objectives and accompanying support objectives can be classified as follows (thus the link to your Big Six Size-Up!):

The APT is a guide, not a playbook. (You won't see Coach Holmgren thumbing through the Seahawk playbook while pacing the sideline during a game.) The APT requires that you determine required gallons per minute, how many search teams will be required, how the building will be ventilated, which exposure is the priority, which floor/area to search first, how many ladders, number of hoselines needed to confine and extinguish the fire, and other details.

During the primary phase of incident control, there are three tactical objectives that will directly address a fireground life-safety problem:

  1. Rescue
  2. Search and rescue
  3. Primary search

If there is nobody to rescue, and there is no compelling evidence indicating the need for search and rescue, your primary phase life-safety plan is simple: primary search.

There are five tactical objectives that will directly address problems that you have classified as incident stabilization problems:

  1. Evacuation
  2. Exposure protection
  3. Confine
  4. Ventilate
  5. Extinguish

If there is nobody to evacuate and no exposure to protect, your stabilization plan is a piece of cake: confine, vent and extinguish.

During the primary phase, there is just one tactical objective that will directly address property conservation: Primary salvage, which means that salvage will be performed before the incident is stabilized. For example, if the fire is on floor 2, a team would enter floor 1, quickly deploy salvage covers and then promptly withdraw. Primary salvage is performed expeditiously; in other words, in-and out, no fooling around. Nothing is moved or sorted. During primary salvage, it's OK if a lamp is knocked over while throwing salvage covers. Using the phases of incident control "system," fireground planning couldn't be easier; once tactical and support objectives have been selected, all that remains is to assign the objectives to teams and to supervise the plan.

Once all primary phase tactical objectives have been declared "complete," the incident commander will announce: "Dispatch, Main Street Command primary phase complete."

Scenario Demonstration

Situation: Tuesday, 2:30 in the afternoon; two-story multi-family on Main Street; fire venting from sides A and D on floor 2; smoke venting from the attic; exposures on floors 1 and 2, unknown if occupied (Photos 2, 3 and 4). On the status board keep it simple and quick; you don't need to list the details. (Because you identified the problems, you've got the details in your brain.) The point is to capture the problems and to nail your strategic responsibility.

The problems listed would be: fire floor 2, smoke floor 2, smoke attic, possible occupants floor 2, possible occupants floor 1, exposures floor 2 and exposures floor 1. Problems would be listed on the status board (on the front or along an edge). Listing the problems using this simple method takes about 10 to 15 seconds. If you are poised and have confidence in you strategic ability — and you know how to use your strategic tools — this will be the most important 15 seconds of the entire fireground operation.

So far, so good. Given the list of problems, your primary phase strategy for this scenario is fairly simple (this is your thought process; it's not listed on the board.):

  • Life safety — Ensure that the building is unoccupied
  • Stabilization — Confine fire to the apartment of origin; stabilize the attic; evacuate and stabilize the exposures; protect the neighborhood; extinguish the fire
  • Property — Conserve property on floors 1 and 2

Commensurate with an initial operational mode of transitional from side A on floor 2, the initial primary phase action plan is drafted by the first officer on scene. Notice that Engine 34's officer stepped off the apparatus with Engine 34's passport affixed to the status board.

What follows is an explanation of the initial action plan drafted on the status board. The initial plan includes tactical objectives and support objectives. Abbreviations are used on the board to make the process quick and easy (listed counter-clockwise starting at the top left block):

  • Block One — Confine and extinguish from side A on floor 2, water supply, natural and hydraulic ventilation
  • Block Two — Standby team that will transition to backup from side A on floor 2 once a rapid intervention team is deployed
  • Block Three — Primary search, from side D at floor 2 window (the only survivable area in the fire apartment)
  • Block Four — Confine and extinguish the attic from the A-B corner using a penetrating device called the "Water Lance"
  • Block Five — Evacuate and stabilize floor 2 exposure B-1.
  • Block Six — Rapid intervention team on side A and stabilize utilities

If you know how to use your strategic tools, drafting this plan takes no more than 15 to 20 seconds. This initial action plan is not the entire action plan; notice that floor 1 has not been addressed. However, as an initial action plan, it's a pretty good one. Sure, you may address some of the problems differently, but the value of knowing what the problems are and having this initial plan provides enormous strategic value.

This initial action plan will serve as the strategic roadmap for the entire operation; it will also serve as a strategic baton that can be passed from the first on-scene officer to the first formal incident commander (and could be used later by a division supervisor).

Notice that Engine 34's company officer ("Lieutenant Bill Ding") chose to remain Engine 34's team leader and assigned his team as shown in Block One of the status board. This decision means that Lieutenant Ding initiated command responsibility rather than to establish (name, locate and manage from) a formal command post.

Here's the cool part of this initial action plan: The second officer on-scene, Engine 11, would grab the board (found leaning against the stairs, with Engine 34's driver, or at the hoseline deployed for the standby team), establish a command post, transition the mode to offensive and continue with the plan.

When a chief officer arrives with his command rig, the chief can assume and relocate the command post or (this is the cool part) make the former incident commander a division supervisor. The division supervisor will use the same plan (board) to supervise that piece of the overall action plan. The new incident commander says to the former IC: "You keep this piece of the plan as Division 2. I'm going to assume command and send you three teams to complete your piece of the action plan. I'll take care of floor 1."

Once each block on the board has a team's passport plugged in, the tactically engaged span of control of the division supervisor would be one to five (one to six if you count the rapid intervention team).

By using this strategic tool, notice that tactical accountability has been achieved. The division supervisor will know who, what and where for each team assigned to the division. By now, you should recognize the significance of the first on-scene officer nailing his or her strategic responsibility. Those few seconds during size-up will produce enormous strategic value.

Don't Forget Those Support Objectives!

Commensurate with the needs of the incident, there are support objectives must be addressed. These objectives support your life-safety, incident stabilization and property-conservation efforts.

Support — Water supply, standby team (two-out), access (including forcible entry), utility control, rapid intervention, backup team, lighting, rehabilitation, alternate egress, etc.

Once the primary phase has been declared "complete" by the command post, an overhaul safety survey will be performed, personnel will receive rehab and then the secondary phase will commence. During the secondary phase, there are three tactical objectives that will address your three strategic priorities.

Once all secondary phase tactical objectives have been declared "complete," the incident commander will announce: "Dispatch, Main Street Command secondary phase complete."

"Secondary phase complete" informs anybody listening that all secondary phase objectives are done and all that's left to do is to finish (or initiate) the cause and origin investigation, perhaps deploy a fire watch, ensure occupancy security, assist occupants with their needs, demobilize resources and terminate Main Street Command.

Final Thoughts

As the first officer to arrive at an incident, you must identify problems, determine value and quickly develop a meaningful initial incident action plan. Your initial action plan must dovetail with the plan developed by whoever establishes a formal command presence. When everybody is on the same page, passing the strategic baton to another officer will be simple, quick, consistent and logical. I believe the incident status board and the Action Plan Template offer the most simple, straightforward and consistent square-foot fireground action plan "system" available. Because both are based on strategic priorities, it is unlikely that important objectives and strategic considerations will be delayed or overlooked.

Although no fancy action plan will do the actual work, using this structured and systematic process will ensure that you know what and where work needs to be done. Once a team is plugged into your plan (literally), that team is immediately tactically accounted for: who, what and where. Passports (and accountability) will become more that a tool for identifying missing and dead firefighters; integrated into the management and supervision of the incident, the humble passport quickly becomes an essential strategic tool that will help you manage strategy, resources and risk. Passports and accountability will become an integrated and essential component of a competently managed incident. Used in tandem with Command-ments I through VIII, you now have the ability to reinforce the strategic competence of your square-foot fireground operations.

MARK EMERY, EFO, is a shift battalion chief with the Woodinville, WA, Fire & Life Safety District. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and an NFA instructor specialist. Emery received a bachelor of arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and is a partner with Fire Command Seattle LLC in King County, WA. He may be contacted at [email protected] or access his website

THE PRIMARY PHASEStrategic Priorities & Commensurate ObjectivesRIT = SB + BU UtilitiesLIFE SAFETY
FDC support
Fire extension
Traffic control
(Add your own) Rescue
Search and rescue
Primary search Evacuate
Extinguish Primary salvage Water supply THE SECONDARY PHASE
Strategic Priorities & Commensurate ObjectivesLIFE SAFETY
Secondary search Overhaul Secondary
salvage Rehab
Cause and origin
Customer support
(Add your own)

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