4 initial fire attack missteps

These short-cut mistakes can quickly compound into bigger issues that compromise safety and the fire attack


Every department has its own idea of how to best approach the initial fire attack. Call it fast interior or offensive, arrival on scene begins with the implementation of apparatus and crew.

Regardless of standards, definitions or cultural norms, for many fire departments initial attack means limited personnel and equipment moving toward the front door.

With those challenges comes the potential for real problems on the fireground. And that means it is even more critical to avoid these four initial-response missteps to protect those who find themselves gearing up first.

1. No walk around
Upon arrival on-scene, the problem seems evident. What appears from the front corner of the house to be a "routine" kitchen fire distracts from the arson fire in the second floor back bedroom. Eventually, an explosion from the accelerated fire on the second floor traps interior firefighters moving toward the kitchen.

By not walking around the structure, the first officer on scene misses the evacuees on the balcony or the neighbors breaking windows and destroying any hope of thermal balance and giving the fire a steady source of oxygen.

Not having a complete view of the fireground, including structures, limits information necessary for solid decision-making. Crews need time to organize and officers need time to assess; a walk around accomplishes both without interruption.

Well-informed first-arriving crews will have a safer and more productive approach to the incident.

2. Incomplete size-up due to mobile command
Even before entry, a minimal crew with limited equipment, incomplete information from civilians and the traditional pressures of an attack philosophy, all contribute to an inaccurate overview of the incident.

Responding line officers routinely acknowledge the theory behind an incident-command structure complete with accountability and unlimited personnel. However, in reality and on the fireground they know that firefighters following their officer and going interior necessitate a mobile command.

This is a command diminished by interior crew movements, urgent fireground actions and an absence of clear communications.

With first crews going inside a structure, it falls to the second-arriving officer to establish a formal command structure. Accountability tags left on the front seat of the pumper do not a command post make. Unable to communicate effectively with a mobile command intensely working inside results in a delayed, divided or completely misdirected secondary evolution.

Effective incident command depends on a continuing and accurate overview as well as adequate resources to implement the correct change in tactics or strategy.

3. An assumed water supply
Not flushing a hydrant is certainly a deviation from most fire department procedures. But not having guaranteed pressure and flow for any reason can result in losing a structure regardless.

A winter freeze, a broken stem, a soda can in the discharge or a vehicle parked too close can render a hydrant inoperable. Having to go another 300 to 500 feet for another hydrant can significantly delay a water supply.

When exposure lines are added, a compromised water supply can escalate the fire by allowing it to spread to other structures without delay. Simple math shows that onboard water won't get the job done.

A 500-gallon tank filling its apparatus pump (35 gallons) and a 200-foot pre-connect (25 gallons) plus one exposure line (50 gallons) gives an entry crew less than 2.1 minutes of flow at 50 to 80 psi and 125 to 185 gpm at the nozzle (390 gallons/185 gpm). The water is used faster with a smooth-bore nozzle.

Add a backup line for entry and another 2½-inch exposure line on standby and you are cutting your extinguishing time even further — far less than 2 minutes. 

While tank water can begin an attack, crews in a structure will be caught short without a continuing water supply. This is especially true in rural areas where a water tender is the only secondary water source and can be miles away.

4. Entry crew progress is unsustainable
The lack of training or experience, malfunctioning equipment and inadequate or distant back up can put initial entry teams at risk. This is especially true in communities whose fire frequency is low but community expectations are high.

Small, but common mistakes can include an open SCBA bypass valve, straps hanging out, moisture in the mask, the wrong gloves, no entry/exit tools, a lost hood, a shortened hose line or radios dead or not turned on.

Once inside a burning structure, mistakes compound themselves. Not sounding floors or stairs, not checking doors for victims or fire, missing heated walls, opening windows at the smell of gas can instantly reprioritize entry-team actions and not always for the better.

Culture shifts
These initial-attack missteps are encountered by even the most experienced and well-equipped departments let alone small departments covering infrequent alarms over large geographic expanses. As one captain put it, "It's the little things over a long distance."

While these challenges can be seen throughout the fireground, their initial consequences become critical factors influencing any decision to enter a compromised structure, irrespective of policy and procedure.

Part of solving this issue is managing community expectations. Residents of every community need to understand exactly what we can do safely and effectively, and, more importantly, what we cannot do under the same criteria.

While the public may cling to the notion of breaking down doors and carrying victims through the flames, in reality, it is the responsibility of every fire department to instill and communicate the appropriate response values for its level of capability.

An internal re-examination of fire culture is needed. It must be one that creates a responsible approach to emergency response by listening to every firefighter on every department, especially those in smaller communities.

Defensive actions, exposure protection and safe evacuations are all acceptable initial responses in lieu of delayed or diminished manpower and equipment. For most small and rural fire departments throughout our country this should be the initial response criteria of the future if not right now.

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 Governor’s 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 six 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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