A Decade of Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival

August marked the 10th anniversary of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' (IAFC) adoption of the Rules of Engagement to improve firefighter safety and survival on the fireground at the August FRI conference in Chicago, 2010.

The IAFC's Safety, Health, and Survival Section (SHSS) first initiated the project at a section meeting in January 2007, where the section moved to develop a set of "Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting."

A project team was created, consisting of section members and representatives of other interested fire service organizations. These included representatives from the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA), the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and others. Also included were representatives of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) who were developing the joint IAFF/IAFC "Fireground Survival Project." Additionally, many elements of the IAFC's Crew Resource Management project were inserted into the Rules.

The concept was based on a rudimentary, nine-point set rules of engagement that this author developed in 2003 while fire chief for Seattle. The project team also looked at law enforcement and the military for models. These organizations long ago developed rules of engagement that defined critical rapid assessments and decision points to justify firing their weapons. The rules have proven to be highly successful by both disciplines.

The "Rules of Engagement of Structural Firefighting" are intended to guide individual firefighters and incident commanders regarding risk analysis and safety decision making when operating on the fireground. The objective was to develop a "model procedure" to be made available by the IAFC to all fire departments as a guide for implementing their standard operating guidelines. That objective has been achieved.

The direction provided by the section leadership to the project team was to develop rules of engagement with the following conceptual points:

  • Rules should be a short, specific set of bullets
  • Rules should be easily taught and remembered
  • Rules should define critical risk issues
  • Rules should define "go" or "no-go" situations

·A companion lesson plan should be provided

Early in the Rules of Engagement project, it was recognized that two separate sets of rules were needed – one set for the firefighter and another set for the incident commander. One was titled "Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival," and the other is "The Incident Commanders Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety." Each set of Rules has some individual crossover Rules, but each Rule's objectives are described somewhat based on the level of responsibility (firefighter vs. incident commander).

Over nearly four years, the development of draft Rules was posted on the section's website, and many comments were received. Section members also delivered the draft Rules of Engagement to attendees at multiple fire service conferences, resulting in many comments to review. The section's project team inserted these comments into six different, evolving drafts of the Rules before the IAFC Board of Directors adopted a final document in August 2010.

The project team continued work on the Rules following adoption and developed a 400-page lesson plan for teaching the Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting. The lesson plan contains multiple firefighter fatality investigation reports from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health as case histories – one or more for each Rule to explain the Rule's objectives and purpose. The final and adopted Rules of Engagement are posted on the section's website, along with the lesson plan.

The original goal of having mass adoption of the Rules by fire departments internationally has also been achieved. Additionally, the Rules have also been inserted into many fire service books and referenced in National Fire Protection Association standards.

One example of how important the Rules have become is reflected in the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's firefighter fatality investigation reports. For many years, that organization has referenced the Rules of Engagement in their investigation reports, citing the lack of application of individual Rules as a contributing factor in the firefighter(s) fatality. There's also anecdotal evidence that the Rules have saved several firefighters' lives.

If your fire department has not yet adopted the Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting, go to the IAFC's website, and click the Safety, Health and Survival Section's box to locate the Rules and associated training lesson plans. Adoption will increase your firefighters' survival on the fireground.

You can also download a PDF of the Rules here

Gary Morris is fire chief Pine Strawberry Fire District, Arizona. Chief Morris was appointed to the IAFC's "Safety Committee," which consisted of 12 members in October 1988, while a deputy chief for the Phoenix Fire Department. He was the last chairman of the committee before it transitioned to the now 1,000 plus member section.

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