Strategy Decisions: Focus on the probable

Communicating clear objectives and knowing the building will help your command be effective and safe

There always seems to be a debate about Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs): which are better, which are worse, and does it even matter. For the most part, the legal eagles tell us that depending on how they are written they are pretty similar and if you deviate from them you’d better be able to explain why.

There is a need to try to remove as much ambiguity as possible from what we do during an emergency. And before we go any further, removing ambiguity from the fireground is a very good thing. But removing ambiguity is not as simple as well written SOPs and SOGs and it’s simply naive to suggest otherwise.

Operating guidelines and procedures certainly help convey what we want and when we want it. We definitely want to have our stuff together when we show up for our residents’ lousy day. Training like we fight (so we can fight like we train) also helps bring some standardization to our team’s efforts. Knowing what the rest of the team from other companies is doing allows us to operate without visual confirmation of their actions.

No cookie cutters
However, These operational standardizations do not mean that a cookie cutter approach can be taken with all strategic decisions. Now, don't confuse that statement with using a standard process to guide strategic decisions.

Mnemonic devices like COAL WAS WEALTH (Construction Occupancy Area Location Water Apparatus Street Weather Exposure Auxiliary Life Time Height) and the like provide good standard frameworks for making sound decisions. But each decision is dependent on the facts presented to you; decisions will change with each event.

When it comes to building-code adherence, the more standardization in the structure, the more uniform your strategy. And for many buildings, at least until occupants mess it all up with changes, some strategies are pretty similar from building to building.

Residential property, particularly one- and two-family homes, remains our fire side's primary place of business, or as many say, it’s our bread and butter. Yet from a building perspective, those same homes provide the greatest variation on what we’ll face. This variation requires a nimble reaction in strategic development.

On the fireground, as in Las Vegas, we need to focus on the probable, not the possible. The possible covers way too many variations — so many variations, in fact, that it can mire an incident commander’s thoughts to the point of indecision. Creating some level of standardization coupled with focusing on the probable allows for logical strategic choices in a timely manner — a strategy that the IC must convey to the entire team.

Communicate Priorities
Life safety and property conservation remain the top fireground priorities. These priorities are difficult to convey on the fireground. Those items are best conveyed during training and in the aforementioned operating procedures and guidelines.

This gives our members a chance to digest what's important and see those priorities played out during drills. During the heightened energy of the fireground, it’s too late to do anything but reinforce those beliefs through strategic action.

Also, if your actions on the fireground do not sync with what you say your priorities are or your written operational documents, then it’s time to head back to the drawing board. It’s not a failure when these don’t sync; it’s only a failure if you don’t review them and make the educational, operational or procedural changes to ensure that what you say and do are matched up.

At the end of the day, the development of your life-safety and property-conservation strategy needs to be translated into tactics and tasks. Again, these tactics and tasks are best taught via training, not in the unforgiving classroom of live incidents. Our cookie cutter allows us to remove many variables, but not the building that’s being demolished by fire.

Know your enemy
"The building is your enemy, know your enemy" reminds us to work in the probable instead of all the possibilities of what fire will do to a building. And if I have to tell you who coined that phrase, then you better spend some time to look it up and you shouldn't have bugles on your helmet. Learn about the author and read his (updated) book on our enemy.

Knowledge of the building provides us two invaluable tools for developing and amending our strategy (and therefore tactics and tasks). On arrival and after size up we conclude what we believe to be the construction type. Understanding what the building should do allows us to develop the most effective life-safety and property-conservation strategy. We should be able to create a course of action based on predictable expansion of the fire and its byproducts.

But, many will say, "It's too unpredictable; what if I'm wrong on my size up of the building construction" If so, you'll know when the fire stops interacting with the building the way it is supposed to based on its assumed construction type. If the fire isn't doing what you believe it should (again based on construction) then you need to pull back to safety, develop a new strategy and reassign units to carryout this new strategy.

Changing strategic direction takes a lot of control and practice, and often isn't practiced enough, even though it happens with some frequency. And keep in mind that not conveying those changes to the team often leads to simultaneous exterior and interior attacks, which leads to firefighter injury and death.

Ultimately it's up to us to remove as many variables as possible through training and education leading to practice and application on the fireground. We can’t remove all the possible, but we can make the probable much easier to understand and manage.

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