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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Conduct a Risk Assessment and Implement a Safe-Action Plan

Conduct an Initial Risk Assessment and Implement a Safe Action Plan

Objective: To cause the incident commander to develop a safe action plan by conducting a size-up, assess the occupant-survival profile and completing a risk assessment before firefighters are placed in high-risk positions on the fireground.

The incident action plan lays out where the incident commander intends to go. The foundation of a good action plan is the completion of the 360-degree size up and the occupant survival profile. The first priority of the action plan is to ensure firefighter safety. Ultimately, the action plan should select the correct strategy and build a command organization that covers all of the fireground’s critical areas with adequate resources.

A number of critical factors must be assessed in developing an action plan:

  • Building size
  • Arrangement and access
  • Fire location and extension
  • Wind speed and direction
  • Ventilation profile
  • Savable lives and property
  • Resources
  • Adequate firefighter staffing 
  • Water supply

All seven sides of a structure must be evaluated: four sides, interior, top and bottom. Evaluating these factors allows an incident commander to forecast future conditions.

The risk assessment parallels the size up and determines what level of risk is acceptable based on conditions and resources available. Key elements to the risk assessment include applying the fire departments existing risk-management plan (SOPs/SOGs), which guides the evaluation of the critical factors based on national and local past experience.

Once the risk and critical factors are considered, the appropriate strategy can be selected: offensive, marginal or defensive. The strategy determines the objectives and tasks to be assigned to crews to obtain incident stabilization.

Selecting an offensive strategy with defensive fire conditions puts firefighters at extreme risk.

A marginal strategy would be used only when fire conditions unexpectedly and rapidly deteriorate following initial offensive operations (caught by surprise) and its purpose is to allow firefighters to exit the building as soon as possible in a controlled fashion. It may also be used (very short term) when a savable life is confirmed (for example, if a victim is hanging out a window) where defensive conditions exist.

Conditions will be deteriorating rapidly and the window of success will be very short and this operation must be very closely monitored by the incident commander. A marginal strategy should never be used for any other purpose. “Hail Mary’s” should be reserved for church and football games.

The development of an incident action plan begins with the initial incident commander—most often a company officer. This is generally a basic and limited plan based on limited intelligence collected within the time before a chief officer arrives on scene. The plan must have the correct strategy (offensive – defensive).

As a chief officer assumes command, that officer must confirm the correct strategy (or change it if needed) and continue the size-up process to refine and broaden the plan. The plan improves with the incident commander’s ability to collect progress reports and build an effective command organization.

As the fire progresses, fire conditions will either improve or worsen. If conditions deteriorate, the incident commander must be prepared to rapidly evacuate the building before firefighters are harmed.

The incident commander must recognize that an action plan is fluid and changes with fire conditions and information. It’s important for the incident commander to maintain ongoing situational awareness and stay ahead of the fire. To accomplish this, the incident commander must obtain frequent progress reports from all points on the fireground.

Until the proper strategy is confirmed and a solid action plan is developed, the incident commander should be very cautious about assigning a crew to what may be considered a high-risk position.

Bottom line: If the incident commander doesn’t have a risk assessment or action plan, he or she is freelancing and firefighters are put at great risk.

Chief Gary Morris is a director at large on the Safety, Health and Survival Section board of directors and was the team lead for the Rules of Engagement project. He was formerly chief of the Rural Metro Fire Department in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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