Fire command: Going defensive

Knowing when and how to shift from an offensive fire attack to a defensive attack is critical for firefighter safety


Editor's note: This feature is intended to spark the sharing of ideas, information and techniques to make firefighters safer and more effective. The following video and discussion points must not be used to berate, belittle or criticize those firefighters. Rather, in the spirit of near-miss reporting, please use this feature as another teaching tool to help you better do your job. Please leave your comments below and use this material in your own department. I hope you find this Reality Training valuable; stay safe and keep learning.

The safe and efficient transition from an offensive mode of operations at a structure fire to a defensive mode of operation is a transition with which many departments and their personnel may not be experienced in doing. Here are some key behaviors for making such a transition.

The first-arriving incident commander must make a good initial size-up of the situation with clear and concise tactical assignments to the next arriving fire units. This must be followed by a continuing size-up of the situation by the incident commander working from a stationary exterior position that immediately begins evaluating the effectiveness of the initial offensive strategy.

The commander needs to make a conscious decision to pull the plug and call for the immediate transition to a defensive strategy when their exterior observations of fire behavior are worse than those interior observations by interior tactical leaders. In the words of Chief Alan Brunacini, "Good fireground commanders are pessimists."

All tactical leaders must conduct a personnel accountability report to ensure that all personnel have safely exited the structure. An incident action plan for the defensive strategy must be implemented. Most departments don't do defensive operations very often so everyone needs to be on the same page.

The following video provides an excellent opportunity to observe several key pieces of information about this incident as initial resources are arriving and preparing for tactical operations.

Discussion questions

  • Listen to the first few minutes of the radio traffic. What's the impact the communication between first-in engine, dispatch, etc., on the operations?
  • What's the difference between an order to remove personnel from the building to change modes of operation and an order to evacuate the building because of rapidly deteriorating conditions?
  • After the incident commander orders personnel out of the fire building, are the actions of those on the fireground congruent with a defensive mode of operation or not? 

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