Know when to go on a defensive attack

Continual size-up is still the most important tactical safety factor on a fireground and can help you decide when to go defensive

Quite often in our careers we come on scene to a fire that is beyond the point of making an offensive attack. The words offense and defense can be used in all types of fire attacks.

As an incident commander you could determine that an aggressive offensive attack on a car fire is necessary because there is a life hazard involved. On a different run you may determine that a defensive attack is warranted on a dumpster fire because there is no life hazard and the contents are unknown.

I say this to remind firefighters that we are not just talking building fires when we refer to an offensive or defensive attack. An initial and continual size-up will determine how you adjust your attack on any type of fire.

For the point of this article I will be discussing some major points in a defensive attack on a building structure. I will also highlight these points with videos. You will see in the following videos departments that got punished and rewarded for their defensive operations. You will realize that continual size-up is still the most important tactical safety factor on a fireground.

Defining 'defensive attack'
NIOSH defines a defensive attack as an "exterior fire attack with the emphasis on exposure protection. The commitment of a fire department's resources are to protect exposures when the fire has progressed to a point where an offensive attack is not effective."

What is NIOSH telling us? The decision to transfer from an offensive to a defensive attack is a fluid process.

Continual size-up will assist the IC in determining a strategy. The IC may determine that there is a need to abandon an attack as a result of a high potential of collapse, or the structure involved is conceded as a total loss.

Firefighter personnel safety is the critical factor in determining our attack. As an incident commander you must take all the size-up basics into consideration with your decision.

Understanding building construction in your area will give you an advantage on understanding the buildings performance under fire.

NIOSH reminds us that, "Modern building components such as lightweight trusses are not predictable. Today these tactical decisions must be based on construction risk versus construction type and must be carried out in a manner that accounts for presumed fire behavior. Engine company operations and fire suppression theory for today's firefighters needs to develop beyond the pragmatic approach of automatically making an offensive attack on every fire with the 'Big Fire-Big Water principle.'"

We must also remember that protection of life is the highest priority in the fire service. We as firefighters are included in this priority, and firefighter lives shall take priority over fire containment or property conservation at any job.

Videos show danger
When operating at a fire we must remember that there is a potential for collapse during and after any fire. We must get in the habit of establishing a collapse zone immediately. If we are proactive with this, we are not putting ourselves in a position to play catch-up later on. Remember when creating your collapse zone we want to be 1 ½ times the building height.

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Above is a video from a taxpayer fire in the Bronx, N.Y., in March 2009. There was a partial roof collapse, followed by a collapse of the front parapet and exterior wall. Operations at this fire were changed from an offense to defensive attack because of heavy fire and concerns about the structural integrity of the building. Prior to the collapse, all units were withdrawn and collapse zones were established. An announcement was made over the tactical and command channels by the Incident Commander. Suddenly, without warning the front parapet and exterior wall collapsed. There were no injuries as a result of this collapse because collapse zones were established early on and all members remained out of the collapse zone. The video is courtesy of FDNY and

We also want to be extra careful of operating in or around the following construction details or hazards:

  • Parapet walls, awnings, overhead signs, overhead electrical services, truss construction, etc.
  • A building is demonstrating signs of collapse or structural failure
  • A building is known to be structurally unsound
  • The risk to firefighters' lives and safety outweighs the possible benefits of an offensive attack
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Firefighters in the above video narrowly escape a front wall collapse on a commercial fire. Luck prevailed in this fire and no firefighters were seriously injured.

How we can protect ourselves
These tools will assist you in knowing when the war isn't worth fighting. Your continual assessment of risk factors will indicate the need for establishing a collapse zone and defensive operations.

The best way to protect ourselves is to have a risk management plan, policy, or guideline in place that will set forth an action plan based on your department's resources. You want to make sure your plan is in writing and allows for the ability to react to changing fireground conditions. The plan should be implemented and trained on.

During operations it is important for firefighters to report conditions and hazards to your officer so that the incident command is aware of evolving conditions and hazards as work is performed. No fire is the same and the event is quite fluid in nature.

As mentioned in previous articles, understanding your response area is critical. You can work with local agencies and building owners to create preplans which will note key elements such as: type of construction, materials used, known hazards, roof type, exit routes, water sources, etc.

Firefighters, officers, and incident command should wear appropriate PPE and utilize the proper equipment for the task at hand. Incident commanders and safety officers should clearly mark and enforce collapse zones at fires, and keep in mind that this area may expand. Knowing your collapse zone early is critical because your apparatus placement may be adjusted initially to prepare for the worst. It is easier to place apparatus correctly early than it is after the fact.

Depending on the incident IC may want to adjust the amount of manpower that is committed to the operation, and may determine that any operation inside of the collapse zone will be an offensive attack. Officers need to remember that your crew discipline is critical and freelancing should be avoided at all costs.

Fire departments should have a RIT or FAST team dispatched automatically on structure fires, and have EMS in place in case of an accident. If manpower, budgets, and equipment are limiting your attack and response do not hesitate to call for additional manpower.

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The video above features a house fire that transitions from an interior to an exterior attack.

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This video features a well-off fire on arrival. Firefighters attempt an interior attack but are forced to back out.

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This video shows an apartment fire in March 2011 with a roof collapse.

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