There has been some spirited discussion about the use of Standard Operating Guidelines for initial arriving fire companies versus case-by-case orders provided by the incident commander.
The disagreement involves the need to have clear and definitive directions before the alarm sounds or to have the capacity to receive operational orders "on the fly" as the response develops.
I am a strong proponent of the SOG-driven system to ensure that everyone knows the game plan long before the alarm sounds. The opposition says that having structured guidelines for responding companies takes away the critical-thinking part of the commander duties and replaces them with following prepared checklists.
Nothing could be further from the truth. An effective SOG system can be applied at structural fire incidents, while allowing the on-scene commander the flexibility to address changing critical factors. Here are two examples.
Case study 1
One bright spring Saturday afternoon, a standard commercial structural assignment was dispatched of four engines companies, two ladder companies, one heavy-duty rescue squad and two battalion chiefs to what turned out to be a significant fire in a one-story with a full basement, unprotected, ordinary constructed medium size church.
The staffing was adequate for the suburban response area and exceeded NFPA 1710 requirements. As the companies began to arrive, it was very clear that this was a major event and additional help would be needed.
One of the companies gave a very clear and discouraging conditions, actions and needs report from the basement area. The experienced company officer said that fire control would not be possible and suggested a defensive attack.
By this time, the IC had been upgraded to the senior fire officer on-duty, the shift commander. Realizing that the fire had control over the basement and an interior attack would be to risky in a building already heavily damaged by the advancing fire, the order was made for the several companies operating on the interior to evacuate and prepare master stream devices from defensive positions.
Danger on the roof
During the evacuation, command was advised that a company attempting to vertically ventilate was in great danger. The company was ordered off the roof as the products of combustion were being forced out of the roof assembly under pressure. As the last member cleared the roof ladder and was firmly on the ground ladder, the fire broke through the roof assembly.
This was a very close call — or near miss. Either way, it was unpleasant to watch. The second alarm had been sounded for about 10 minutes at this point.
Once the role call process accounted for everyone from inside the building and all hands were OK, it was time to mount a formidable exterior attack. That is when command discovered that not a single supply line was laid and the only water supply was the few 500-gallon water tanks on the pumping apparatus.
I was embarrassed for the IC and the department. How could a highly regarded fire department forget to have a reliable water supply established at a second-alarm building fire?
After critiquing the fire, it was obvious that the focus was on conducing a primary search and not on extinguishing the fire. Further, attempting to vertically ventilate at this location without an established water supply was unthinkable.
Case study 2
At about 0200 hours the phone played a familiar tune. The voice on the other end identified himself as the on duty lieutenant at the communications center. He said that the first-in engine was on location with fire showing from the roof of a five-story ordinary-constructed condominium.
The lieutenant believed that it was only a matter of time before a second alarm would be sounded. Upon transmission of a second alarm, the policy was to notify the executive staff to began their response.
As I headed to the building fire, I turned the 800 MHz radio on to determine what was actually going on at this incident. High on my list of duties would be to let the political leaders know that there was a significant building fire in our city.
However, the radio traffic seemed to indicate that this was a pile of trash burning on the roof of the recently renovated building, so I waited to punch up the direct dial for the mayor's home.
In high-density cities, the rooftops of residential buildings are sometimes used as outdoor spaces. With the response capabilities of the department, we should make quick work of a simple outdoor trash fire.
More than burning trash
However, it would turn out to be quite a bit different and a much more stubborn event to resolve, even with the full first alarm of 53 very capable firefighters.
Two engine companies and one truck company (total of nine firefighters) made the five floors of stairs to go out the rooftop door. The engine companies connected into the building standpipe and took their attack line to the roof to start extinguishing the "trash fire."
As the truck company members used their tools to expose the fire, they realized that the fire was burning through the roof from the cockloft below. The officer leading this operation relocated the roof division to the fifth floor.
As the crews began moving the charged hose line towards bulkhead stairway, fire erupted out of the same doorway, trapping all nine members on the roof. Further, the protecting hose line was being exposed to the fire coming out the bulkhead.
Mayday Mayday Mayday
The roof division leader called a Mayday for nine-trapped members and moved them toward the rear of the structure (side C) to get away from the fire.
This company commander knew that the second-due truck company was obligated by policy to ladder the rear of the building. Command 4 quickly reacted to the Mayday. A second alarm was sounded — all units except the three companies in the hazard zone were moved to another radio frequency.
By this time, the shift commander (the deputy fire chief) had arrived. The deputy chief took over fire operations and assigned the initial incident commander (battalion chief) to run the Mayday operation.
The second arriving ladder truck was blocked from taking its pre-assigned position on side C due to improperly parked vehicles in the alley. The truck company officer had his crew move ground ladders into position to ladder the fire floor and the roof.
Both are the written policy responsibilities of the second-in ladder truck at a structural fire. So, just like clock work, the 50-foot Bangor ladder was properly placed and the three company members exited the now well-involved roof area to the safety.
This fire would go to a fourth alarm due to critical need for building occupant rescues and water supply issues. After the building was cleared of trapped residents, the order was made to go defensive and the top three floors of the building were lost that night. There were two very minor firefighter injuries sustained, but not associated with the trapped members.
Like a sports team playbook
I am a firm believer in using a process to get the emergency incident response started correctly the first time — every time. Consider the SOG process like a sports playbook. Everyone is schooled in what to do on a certain play at a certain time. Everyone knows his or her part of the plan, and nothing is left to chance.
Yet we are not at a sporting event, and the consequences can be deadly for the firefighters or their customers if we miss a critical factor of the plan.
It is unreasonable to expect a responding command officer to guide the start of an incident until he or she arrives and has time to get organized. The SOG-driven system for the first-alarm companies allows the critical size-up factors to be evaluated and addressed by the SOG.
However, the SOG system must be flexible enough to change based on the conditions. When the situation is beyond the capabilities of the SOG, adjustments must be made.
An example would be for the responding companies to receive information that Class A explosives are involved in the fire. The plan has to be flexible enough to allow companies to change the plan, in this case taking advantage of time, distance or shielding.
When the decision is made to vary from the scripted plan, that information must be transmitted and acknowledged by all responding units to avoid confusion.
The SOG-driven system needs to be well thought out before implemented into your operations. Next, build a comprehensive initial and on-going training program for every member in the response system. Finally, provide feedback to ensure that SOGs are implemented properly and updated as needed.
This process needs to support and be focused on firefighter safety issues so that we can complete the task at hand without injury. Until next time, please be safe out there.