The Ten Command-ments of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

Aug. 1, 2007
Mark Emery continues this series with Command-ment VI: Thou shall operate within one of six operational modes.

Fireground Pre-Assignments

Your local high school football quarterback can call a play and 11 young athletes know where to go and what to do. Wouldn't it be great if you could call a fireground "play" and the first three or four arriving companies would know where to go and what to do?

In the offensive football huddle the quarterback calls a play. The play called is not a random selection; play selection is based on awareness of the current situation (behind 10 points, third quarter, second and eight at the opponent's 30-yard line). When the play is called, the quarterback doesn't need to explain to each player where to go and what to do ("left guard block number 75, right guard pull left and kick-out the defensive end, fullback you've got the middle linebacker, tight end, blah, blah, blah"). Trimmed of conversational fat, the quarterback calls a clear, concise play ("Pro left 34 trap on two"). The play selected is from a playbook, the play called is based on the current situation and each play in the playbook has been practiced many times.

Command-ment VI offers six fundamental fireground "plays" that will help you create your own fireground playbook. These six basic plays are:

  1. Transitional
  2. Rescue
  3. Investigating
  4. Preparing
  5. Offensive
  6. Defensive

You may have noticed that these basic operational mode plays form a nifty acronym: TRIPOD. After adapting the TRIPOD model to your organization, declaring the operational mode will convey more than whether or not firefighters will be operating inside or outside of the building. Command-ment VI will update and re-tool traditional fireground operational modes by adding contemporary strategic and tactical significance — including using the mode to call a fireground play. When a fire officer declares the operational mode, the officer is calling a play from a fireground playbook. The play selected is based on available resources and a thorough size-up of the "game" situation. The play called will inform the first three, four or five arriving companies where to go and what to do.

Traditional Fireground Modes

For decades the fire service has recognized these fireground operational modes:

  • Offensive — The offensive mode places personnel in or around the hazard area. An offensive fireground conveys that the fireground has value — life value, property value or both. An "offensive position" is any location where the incident can harm a firefighter. For example, if an exterior strip mall mansard were to fall and injure a firefighter, the injured firefighter was in an offensive position.
  • Defensive — A defensive mode simply means that there is no life or property value and no part of the incident will be allowed to harm a firefighter or the neighborhood.
  • Transitional — Using the traditional model, you can't simply declare that the fireground mode is "transitional." (Some will believe you mean offensive/defensive, while others will believe that you mean defensive/offensive.) Since there has never been a single transitional mode, you must clarify whether the fireground will be "offensive to defensive" (starting offensive, later transitioning to defensive) or "defensive to offensive" (starting defensive, later transitioning to offensive). Without adding words of clarification, your "transitional" fireground was susceptible to strategic and tactical confusion.

The world has moved on. It's time to add contemporary strategic significance to traditional fireground operational modes — in particular offensive and transitional. In a moment, I will dust off, re-tool and shepherd these modes into the 21st century.

Calling The Plays

There is a subtle difference between an autopilot pre-assignment and a play-assignment. An autopilot football pre-assignment would be to have the left guard do the same thing on every second down, no matter what the distance or game situation. This may work some of the time, but would not work most of the time. Calling a play means that each player's assignment is determined by which play is called (or transitioned at the line of scrimmage with an audible). None of the players freelance; even if a player is convinced he has a better idea, he will function as part of the team and obey the play (or suffer the wrath of a coach). Unless tactical assignments are based on size-up information and the determination of value, tactical pre-assignments can become institutionalized freelancing.

TRIPOD: More Than Mere Modes

TRIPOD conveys more than mere operational modes. TRIPOD can convey your "initial incident action plan." According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021 standard, the consensus standard for fire officer qualifications, the competent first-level fire officer — the company officer — must have the ability to:

  1. Analyze emergency scene conditions (elements of size-up)
  2. Develop an initial (preliminary) incident action plan
  3. Implement the (initial) action plan at an emergency operation

As with most standards and mandates, we are advised what to do, but not how to do it. In particular, as the first fire officer to arrive at a typical building fire, how do you develop an "initial" incident action plan? Is your strategic methodology consistent among all of your fire officers? Declaring a TRIPOD mode is equivalent to calling a football play; the play called can be crafted as your initial action plan.

TRIPOD: Contemporary Fireground Operational Modes

The acronym TRIPOD represents six operational modes. ("Say what? Six?" Hang in there, it really is simple and easy to remember — not to mention that it works.) The TRIPOD modes are:

T — Transitional
R — Rescue
I — Investigating
P — Preparing (a new mode!)
O — Offensive
D — Defensive

The first officer to arrive uses the TRIPOD model to identify and convey the initial operational mode. As subsequent officers arrive, the TRIPOD mode can be changed (transitioned). Using the TRIPOD model, your fireground operation will always be in one of the six TRIPOD modes. By declaring the fireground operational mode, you have also declared your "initial incident action plan."

TRIPOD is more than just "modes" of operation; establishing the TRIPOD operational mode also calls a fireground "play." For example, announcing that the fireground is "transitional from side A on floor 2" conveys what first-arriving companies will be doing — unless an audible is called. During size-up, if a rescue or threatened exposure is discovered on side C, the fire officer can call an audible: "Rescue from side C at floor 3 balcony, need assistance."

T = Transitional Mode

First of all, let's retire the traditional dual-meaning of transitional. Dusted off, streamlined and with contemporary fireground significance attached, "transitional" becomes a standalone fireground mode of operation: defensive to offensive. A master craftsman fire officer must "analyze emergency scene conditions" (size-up) and develop a preliminary, "initial incident action plan." Finally, because of two-in/two-out, recall that the contemporary fireground is a legal fireground. That said, even if nothing else is communicated, declaring the operational mode as "transitional" conveys all of the following:

  1. "Transitional" identifies a horizontally venting, fuel-controlled fire growth situation. Fire (or superheated, pressurized smoke) is venting through a horizontal opening such as a window or door. The fire grows unchecked with each tick of the clock.
  2. There are fewer than four firefighters on scene.
  3. The status of life safety is unknown if occupied (or perhaps unlikely if occupied).
  4. Life safety will be addressed with the tactical objective primary search.
  5. Because there is not a rescue (exemption) situation, a two-out standby team must be deployed for the offensive transition to occur.
  6. The operation will start defensive and, once at least four personnel are on scene, will transition to offensive. (TRIPOD transitional is a single operational mode: defensive to offensive.)
  7. The initial offensive component of the action plan will be described when the "O" of TRIPOD is discussed.

For example, consider the following "bread-and-butter" Main Street scenario:

Resources — Your three-person engine company is first to arrive. Also dispatched were two additional three-person engine companies, a four-person truck company, a two-person medic unit and a battalion chief. (Don't be distracted because your numbers are different. What matters is that you understand what each word of TRIPOD means. You can make adjustments based on your depth chart.)

Size-up information — You're looking at a two-story, balloon-frame house. Fire is venting from a floor-2 window on side C. The status of life safety is unknown if occupied. There are no exposures and no basement. You notice increasing smoke from the attic. There's a hydrant across the street.

Given this situation, you (Engine 1's company officer) would report: "Engine 1 on scene. Fire venting from side A on floor 2. No basement, floor 1 clear and stable. Attic smoke increasing. Unknown if occupied. Engine 1 has a hydrant and is Transitional from side A on floor 2." Thus, you (Engine 1) have communicated the following information and your initial action plan:

  1. Life safety — Your size-up has produced no compelling evidence of a civilian life-safety problem. "Unknown if occupied" means that this is (more than likely) not a rescue situation, thus the strategic priority life safety will be addressed with the tactical objective primary search. (Addressing life safety with the tactical objective primary search means that a two-out standby team must be deployed prior to offensive entry. Primary search is not synonymous with search and rescue.)
  2. Incident stabilization — Since there is not an exposure, confine, vent and extinguish are the stabilization priories. Thus, calling the play "transitional," Engine 1 has assigned itself the objectives water supply, confine and extinguish from side A on floor 2. If Engine 1 decides to ventilate using positive pressure, the members could initiate that as well.
  3. Offensive delay — Because Engine 1 is a three-person company, and the status of life safety has been deemed "unknown if occupied," by law they cannot enter offensively until a two-out standby team is deployed. While waiting for the two-out standby team, two handlines are stretched to side A (one for Engine 1, the second for the two-out standby team).
  4. Offensive benefit/defensive position — A straight or solid stream (not fog) will be briefly directed (a five- to 10-second squirt, whatever it takes) into the side-A horizontal opening from which fire/heat is venting. Accurately aimed, this defensive squirt will turn back the fire growth clock, perhaps even stabilize the fire. So long as there is no fog effect, this action will not push fire. (The hose stream must penetrate the horizontal opening, not fill the horizontal opening.) I refer to this proactive squirt as "achieving offensive benefit from a defensive position"; achieving offensive benefit from a defensive position is smart firefighting. (Strategic reality check: Where firefighters are located when the water mingles with the heat is irrelevant; what matters is that the water mingles with the heat as quickly as possible. Water mingling with heat provides strategic benefit; firefighters mingling with heat provide no strategic benefit.)
  5. "Transitional from side A" assigns the second engine to arrive as the (two-out) standby team on side A — Once the second engine arrives and deploys, the officer will establish the Main Street command post and (once the standby team is in position) announce that: "Main Street command is now offensive from side A on floor 2." Thus, the transition from defensive to offensive has occurred. (Important note: "Transitional from side A" does not describe from where the fire is venting. "Side A" designates, literally, where the transition to offensive will occur.) All of this happens by calling the play "Transitional from side A on floor 2" and later transitioning to "Offensive from side A on floor 2." The play called is based on the status of life safety, fire conditions, building conditions, the determination of value and available resources.

R = Rescue Mode

Declared by itself, "rescue" mode conveys that you are exercising your two-in/two-out exemption and entering the hazard area to perform rescue (or search and rescue). Exemption means that you are entering the hazard area with fewer than four firefighters on scene. Thus announcing "rescue" mode means:

  1. You have determined that there is a civilian life-safety problem.
  2. Probability of viability has been determined.
  3. There are fewer than four personnel on scene.
  4. You are exercising the two-in/two-out exemption because there are fewer than four firefighters on-scene, but at least two.
  5. You will be performing rescue or performing search and rescue.
    1. Rescue — You (or another firefighter) identify the location of the victim (at a window, balcony, moaning behind a door, etc.). Viability is confirmed by members of the fire department.
    2. Search and rescue — Compelling evidence suggests that the hazard area is occupied by a viable victim. Victim location is unverified. You must search for the victim before executing the rescue, thus the tactical objective "search and rescue."

The two-out rescue exemption is for the first company to arrive. It does not mean that the entire incident is exempt from two-in/two-out. Once additional personnel arrive, the subsequent operation must be in compliance. As with other offensive-position modes, the word "from" and "on" (or "at") must be included; for example: "Rescue from side C at floor 2 balcony, need assistance." (Thus, even though nobody else has arrived, Engine 1 is providing some degree of tactical accountability.) Anybody listening to this transmission would know that there are fewer than four personnel on scene and that firefighters know exactly where the viable victim is located.

(Exemption significance: NFPA 1500 stipulates that the fire officer exercising the exemption deliver a "written report" to the fire chief detailing the circumstances for the decision.) Search and rescue mode would be conveyed as follows: "Engine 1 search and rescue from side A on floor 2."

I = Investigating Mode

Remember these four words: "Investigating, update to follow." Uttering these four words in a clear, calm, news-anchor voice will sound like you have everything under control — even if you have nothing under control. Which is precisely the point of the third TRIPOD mode: Investigating. "Investigating, update to follow" will frequently be the initial mode for the first officer to arrive.

The investigating mode gives you time to identify problems, determine value, think, plan; fortified with information and a plan enables you to be poised and confident. Investigating means (literally) that you are performing a thorough size-up and you don't want to be bothered; you are telling apparatus descending on the scene to leave you alone. In the context of "Investigating, update to follow" you should not hear "Engine 12 is a block out, where do you want us?"

The investigating mode communicates the following information and initial action plan:

  1. You will be performing a strategic priority, Big Six size-up (see "Command-ment IV," Firehouse®, June 2007.) In other words, you need more information. (Strategy must always happen before tactics.) To initiate tactical accountability, you would announce "Engine 12 investigating four sides, update to follow." You have just communicated who you are, what you're doing and where you'll be. You've also told people that you need time to identify problems and to select the appropriate fireground play. Most important, because you haven't completed a Big Six size-up, you're not sure what needs to be done.
  2. Except for the second engine, third engine, battalion chief and first-due ladder truck (or tender or whatever you decide), responding units will not descend upon and clog the scene. "Investigating" is a mode and is also calling a play of sorts. At this point in the incident, think of the first-due officer as the quarterback standing behind the center scanning (investigating) the defense, looking for problems. Nobody moves until the quarterback is ready for the center to snap the ball. Approaching units will park as close to the address as possible without obstructing apparatus access, preferably adjacent to a hydrant, and from opposite directions. (If you don't have hydrants, you may want tenders/tankers to automatically initiate a water supply.) Parked apparatus will await your Big Six report and for you to call the play.
  3. If the situation is stable (smoke from "food on the stove") and you are going to enter the occupancy to investigate, you would announce where you will investigate from. For example, "Engine 1 investigating from side C on floor 1." Or, at a more complex incident, "Engine 1 investigating from Commercial Avenue on floor 12 from stairwell B."
  4. After obtaining necessary strategic information (identifying problems), the mode will be updated from "I" (investigating) to T, R, P, O or D (or the incident has been terminated).

P = Preparing Mode

The preparing mode means the same thing as transitional mode, with one important strategic difference. The preparing mode describes a ventilation-controlled fire situation; there is evidence of heat and smoke, but insufficient oxygen to sustain fire growth. The preparing mode conveys that fire/heat is not venting horizontally, the only evidence of a working fire is smoke. An example would be a strip mall occupancy charged with low-velocity smoke and no visible fire.

The preparing mode is always announced including the words "for," "from" and "on" as in: "Engine 1 preparing for offensive from side A on floor 2." Notice that by calling this play Engine 1 is tactically accounted for. Even if no other information is conveyed, "preparing for offensive from side A on floor 2" communicates the following information and initial action plan:

  1. Fire growth is ventilation-controlled and static. Thus, using a wood-burning stove analogy, the "dampers" will remain closed until more resources arrive. (Strategic tip: Air is the governing component of fire growth; when you control horizontal ventilation, you control fire growth.)
  2. There is not a verified rescue or search and rescue situation; the status of life safety is unknown if occupied, thus life safety will be addressed with the tactical objective primary search.
  3. The first company to arrive will literally "prepare" the fireground for a coordinated offensive transition. (Establish water supply, shut gas off at the meter, stretch two charged handlines to side A, prepare for coordinated ventilation, gather entry/overhaul tools, etc. In short, be ready to pull the offensive trigger. Take care of your people first; time is on your side when the dampers are closed.)
  4. Once additional resources have arrived and the fireground has been prepared, the offensive transition would evolve just as the transitional mode did after subsequent resources arrived.

O = Offensive Mode

Offensive mode means what it has always meant, with the addition of one important contemporary caveat: two-out. Thus, on the contemporary fireground, "offensive" means that at least four personnel are on scene. Four personnel is the absolute minimum required by law for an offensive operation during a stabilization priority fireground. (Stabilization priority tactically; life safety is always your strategic priority.)

Strategic consideration: Although four personnel (providing two-in/two-out compliance) may be legal for hazard area entry, when the fire department is the most valuable "thing" on the fireground, it may not be prudent. An "offensive from side A on floor 2" operation with two engines and six personnel on scene would imply the following initial action plan:

  1. Engine 1 — Delegate or establish water supply, Initiate Command and declare the "investigating" mode.
  2. After investigating (size-up), Engine 1 declares the mode as "offensive from side A on floor 2."

    (Important note: The word offensive means that there are at least four personnel on scene, water supply has been established, the status of life safety is unknown if occupied, entry will be coordinated with ventilation, and that there is enough value to deploy firefighters in and around the hazard area.)

  3. Engine 1 — Perhaps coordinated with positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) from side A, two members conduct confine and extinguish from side A on floor 2 with the third member at the pump panel. (By calling the play "offensive," the first company has assigned itself to confine and extinguish.)
  4. Engine 2 — Two members deploy as the two-out standby team on side A. The Engine 2 officer would establish a command post and direct responding apparatus to park, base or continue to the scene. When resources are ready and coordinated, Main Street command would pull the offensive trigger. Engine 3 arrives, perhaps establishes its own water supply, and all three personnel would deploy as rapid intervention and stabilize utilities.
  5. Once Engine 3 has deployed as the rapid intervention team, Engine 2 would don facepieces and enter as the backup team. As the backup team, Engine 2 would follow, but never quite catch, Engine 1 and protect egress.
  6. To ensure there are teams available in staging, a second alarm would likely be called. Second-alarm apparatus would be directed to base and (more than likely) personnel would be directed to remain at base with their apparatus, effectively placing these resources in your back pocket. (Recall Command Caveat 1: If you need it and it's not there and available, it's too late.)
  7. Personnel from subsequently arriving apparatus would move from their parked/based apparatus and report to temporary staging at the command post for assignment and to harvest passports (see "Command-ment I," Firehouse®, February 2007). This procedure establishes tactical accountability and eliminates freelancing!
  8. Exchange teams would be retained at temporary staging or assigned to the division supervisor.
  9. Truck 1 — Unless otherwise directed, Truck 1 would continue to the scene, spot its turntable and provide ventilation or be assigned floor 2 primary search or floor 1 primary salvage.
  10. Battalion 1 — The battalion chief updates the size-up, meets face to face with the incident commander, ensures a 10-minute clock has been started, and assumes and relocates the command post. The former incident commander (the Engine 2 officer) would be assigned as a division supervisor (probably as division A) or as incident safety officer.

Should you have a rescue situation with four or more personnel on scene, "O" and "R" modes could be combined: "Offensive search and rescue from side A on floor 2." Words should mean something; as declared, "Offensive search and rescue" communicates that the search and rescue will be performed with a two-out standby team deployed.

D = Defensive Mode

Defensive retains its traditional meaning. The defensive mode identifies the familiar "risk nothing to save nothing" situation. In the context of the contemporary fireground, defensive is defined as "performed so as to avoid risk, danger or legal liability." Thus, a defensive operation always includes two strategic fundamentals: nobody gets hurt and the neighborhood (exposures) will be protected. "Defensive" conveys that firefighters are the most valuable "thing" on the fireground. Always preserve and protect whatever you determine has the most value.

Mixed Modes

Just as "offensive search and rescue" mixes two modes, it is possible to mix offensive and defensive on the same fireground. For example, one building could be declared defensive and the building next door declared offensive. Depending on scale and complexity, in such a situation it may make sense to establish one branch for the offensive occupancy and second branch for the defensive occupancy. Establishing a branch for each occupancy would allow the assignment of divisions, groups, and companies/teams to each branch director.

The rules of engagement have changed; the rules (laws) of the contemporary fireground cannot be ignored with business-as-usual words and operational modes. Without your action TRIPOD will quickly fade from memory. (Send an e-mail request to [email protected] and I'll send you a handy one-page TRIPOD chart and a two-out Rescue Exemption Decision Report form.) The rules of engagement have changed. Were you aware that NFPA 1500 requires a two-out rescue exemption report be submitted to the fire chief?)

Congratulations! Woodinville, WA, Fire Explorer Post 2144 posted combined scores that gave it sole title as the nation's top Fire Service Exploring Post during the June 2007 national competition at the Illinois Fire Service Institute in Champaign.

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

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