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Tactical Firefighting
by Jim Spell

How timing can make or break a firefight

Every firefighter should have an internal clock to assess their tactical operations

By Jim Spell

Firefighter tasks are by design, singular in nature. They have a beginning, middle and an end.

Combining tasks advances the tactical objectives on the fireground. Understanding how long a task will take gives you the ability to calculate progress and the overall success of the tactics you have employed.

Maintaining a timeline allows officers and firefighters to advance the overall fireground strategy in a predictable manner. Extreme deviation from this marked progression could mean a flawed strategy or worse, a crew in trouble. This is why it is imperative to learn how to measure your tasks.

Tactical timing is as important to command as it is to firefighters. From their experience as firefighters, officers have a mental library of tasks and tactics and are constantly evaluating the fireground relative to these duration segments.

Poorly timed operation
Staying within an expected timeframe from their point of view means the overall strategy is progressing and that all crews are working effectively. A subsequent PAR count should be routine.

If you doubt the validity of tactical timing, reflect back on a fireground run by an inexperienced or newly advanced officer, especially one promoted from outside the line.

You will remember radio traffic issuing orders and asking questions ahead of schedule. Sequencing of tasks gets distorted and as a result there begins the futile attempts to rush the various evolutions to a strategic conclusion.

Now crews are overlapping assignments and missing updates. The concept of a coordinated fire attack is breaking down because of interruption and delay.

So how do you create a tactical timer?

External clock
Some firefighters simply use a stopwatch that beeps every 10 or 15 minutes. It serves as a simple reminder of actual time, not the distorted sequencing of an emergency. Full of adrenaline and focused on process, it is easy to become absorbed in the job at hand and simply lose track of time.

Regardless of where these firefighting timekeepers are in an evolution, the beeping reminds them to assess, review and evaluate. This makes for recognition of forward progress or a determination to reconsider tactics.

Either way, it increases safety as there is a repetitive reminder that demands a summary of headway. This is a very functional tactical timer for newer firefighters.

More knowledgeable firefighters have a catalogue of tasks based on experience wherein they evaluate the environment, the physical obstacles, and the end goal into a pattern of success. As long as the task follows their tried-and-true configuration of accomplishment, they are satisfied.

Such evaluation criteria is rooted in time on the job and allows for obstacles and mistakes so long as they are not linked together causing significant postponement of the tactical objective. These are the firefighters you learn from.

Well-timed attack
A kitchen fire means a coordinated fire attack of an initial line at an entry point opposite the location of the kitchen with a ventilation crew standing by either on the roof or near a window outside the kitchen itself. Here's how the timing can play out from the time of arrival.

  • 3 minutes: the interior crew has assembled outside and entered the residence.
  • 8 minutes: one crew is on the roof and ready for ventilation; exposure lines are ready.
  • 8 minutes: interior crew is at the seat of the fire and extinguishment begins with help from the ventilation crew.
  • 15 minutes: overhaul commences.

These kinds of experienced-based task parameters allow for an accurate size-up at any time throughout the strategy.

The only challenge encountered in using a tactical timer, is the temptation to exceed expectations by initiating a new task based on the accelerated completion of the first. In other words, you got the job done in a hurry and so now you have time for another.

Communicate status
Remember, you must notify command of task completion. This is the foundation of incident command.

It allows officers the option of initiating a new assignment based on circumstances that you may not be aware of, or ordering you and your crew to exit to staging to wait for another assignment for the very same reason. Failure to heed this simple tactical principle can spell disaster.

Take for example you are in charge of the ventilation crew on the roof. You have opened up a four-foot square and have light smoke drifting out of the hole.

Instead of radioing command of task completion and a visual size-up, you decide to remove the soffit trim on the windward side as there appears to be small puffs of grey and yellow smoke coming from that direction. Your fellow firefighters fail to notice the vents under the soffits as they pull down the trim.

Pressurized gasses explode with the inrushing air. The crew that you didn't know about in the cockloft is now engulfed in flame and their exiting is in jeopardy.

There is a reason they call it a coordinated attack, synchronized by having a tactical timeline. Having your tasks measured to your tactics allows for better coordination of the fireground.

As you become better at accomplishing tasks and moving tactics forward you will begin to see this sequence of events as strategic markers — rescue, exposures, containment, extinguishment and overhaul. This understanding is the bases of a successful and safe fireground, and tactical timing is its foundation.

About the author

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colo.) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governorís Safety Committee. Today, Jim serves as an adjunct instructor with his hometown combination fire department. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Jim advises business and industry on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. As a writer, Jim has won four IAFF media awards since retiring from active duty. Jim has an associate's degree in fire science and a bachelor's degree in communications. He can be reached at Jim.Spell@FireRescue1.com.



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