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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Consider a Defensive Strategy

If You Don’t Have the Resources to Safely Support and Protect Firefighters, Seriously Consider a Defensive Strategy

Objective: To prevent the commitment of firefighters to high-risk tactical objectives that can’t be accomplished safely due to inadequate resources on the scene.

Simply put, having a lot of resources equals a lot accomplished; having few resources equals little success. Incident commanders must recognize the limits of their desired action plans based on available resources to fight the fire.

Resources include the number of firefighters on scene and when other resources will arrive, apparatus capabilities, proper size and the number of hoselines or apparatus-mounted monitors required, and a secure water supply. Available resources will also have a great influence on which strategy is selected. Firefighters will be placed at great risk with an offensive strategy if resources are too little or arrive too late.

Even large, urban fire departments experience fires that are beyond their capabilities. Smaller suburban or rural departments with limited resources and facing a significant fire can’t possibly expect the same firefighting success as the larger urban departments and should never attempt to apply large resource tactics with little resources.

Two or three fire companies, with two or three members each, along with longer response times can’t be expected to complete the same work as the NFPA 1710 standard recommendation of 17 members on scene as part of the initial response to a structure fire. The action plan must be adjusted to fit this reality.

To obtain adequate resources when encountering a significant fire, an incident commander must immediately request additional alarms or equivalent mutual aid without delay, necessary for current and projected needs to safely achieve incident stabilization.

The incident commander should never special call just one or two fire companies at a time. A structured multiple-alarm process brings a known and predictable package of resources to the scene. Too much resource on scene is better than too little. A wise incident commander will maintain one or more companies in reserve at staging until the incident is deemed stabilized.

Clearly, incident commanders must limit firefighter risk exposure to what can be accomplished safely, including the write-off portions of, or all of, the building and concentrating on what can be saved. In many cases, going to an early defensive strategy is the only choice.

Conducting search and rescue, along with interior firefighting operations, where there is significant fire in a building and inadequate resources on scene places firefighters in the interior at extreme risk; the incident commander must seriously consider a defensive strategy. Search and rescue operations can resume after fire control is achieved.

Compliance with the OSHA’s two-in, two-out rule should never be violated at a working fire, and the establishment of a fully staffed rapid-intervention team beyond the simplest fires is a must to maximize firefighter safety and survival.

Bottom line: The incident commander must match resources to fire conditions. If there is more fire than resources, the incident commander must consider defensive operations.

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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