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MFA #35: Small Times - An ideal strategy for the minimally staffed

It can be demoralizing to learn that something to which you had dedicated a lot of time and effort studying, practicing, and promoting has been rendered irrelevant, or at least less relevant, and I speak from personal experience.  The tactical modifications inspired by fire dynamics research that have incited the most rancor are those regarding initial water application targets and ventilation timing, with the proponents of still bypassing showing fire in favor of immediate entry, and of exhausting smoke before the cooling of the interior, providing the noisiest protests.  Like many of those who are clinging to familiar, but outmoded, methods, I too spent a considerable portion of my fire service career refining techniques that are, in light of the new approaches based on the new information, likely to become little more than a footnote in firefighting tactical history (if even that).  

You should know that I have been a student of fireground management for the better part of four decades, and not just for the obvious desire to improve my skills as an incident commander.  Ever since I had the privilege and challenge of leading a small town volunteer fire department (Lookout Fire Company No. 1, Pen Argyl, PA), where getting a driver and two members qualified for interior firefighting to show up was considered a “good response”, and mutual aid companies, located miles away, had similar staffing limitations, I have labored over how to provide the most efficient and effective fire attack with minimal resources.  I coined the term "Single Company Operations" (SCO), wrote articles and gave presentations at FDIC and other venues on the subject, and even penned a rough draft of a textbook that explained its principles and procedures.  When I started writing about this topic for Fire Engineering, the title was changed to "First-In Tactics" (FIT), both in an effort to avoid the appearance of promoting inadequate staffing (which, of course, it did not), and to reflect the reality that even firefighters in a large, urban department might find themselves on the scene of an incident with only a small team to initiate operations (See “First-In Tactics: Dealing with limited staffing” at http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2011/05/first-arriving.html; “Accepted Practices: Taking the best, and leaving the rest” at http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2011/06/accepted-practices.html; and “(Fire)Ground Rules: Addressing Laws and Limitations” at http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2012/05/first-in-tactics-fi...;).  

During the many years I spent refining this system, the basic model I followed was to divide and prioritize standard fireground actions amongst the available personnel.  While it is a given that a few firefighters cannot perform as efficiently as can many, successful fire control requires that all of the same tasks be completed regardless, and quickly enough to make a difference in the outcome.  That is, before the fire has its way with the structure.  One of the obvious challenges in a resource-limited setting occurs when confronted with multiple complex tasks requiring near simultaneous completion, such as any combination of ventilation, search and rescue, and interior attack.  Ironically, it was my desire to integrate vertical ventilation into our standard firefighting approach that first inspired the search for an all-encompassing strategy (we in Pen Argyl were great at stretching hoselines and flowing water, but openings in roofs almost never occurred unless the fire itself made them), but it was the labor-intensive nature of that tactic that proved the most difficult to address.  We usually had enough personnel available to either get into or onto a burning building, but not both.

Now, after spending over half my lifetime trying to figure out how to squeeze a dozen firefighters-worth of work out of a 4 or 5-member company, the burden I had been trying to manage has been significantly reduced.  While structural fire control remains a complex, hazardous, and difficult endeavor, fire dynamics research has demonstrated that our prior efforts might best be, shall we say, “redirected” for more efficient results.  There are two primary recommendations: 

1. Cooling from a safe location, as in spraying water into the fire compartment as soon as possible; 

2. Limiting ventilation until #1 is accomplished.  

No longer is it acceptable to delay water application so that the crew can approach “from the unburned side”, nor necessary to be concerned that the effects of extinguishment will be harmful to any occupants remaining within the structure.  As importantly, the need for ventilation prior to, or even concomitant with, water application has been disproven.  (I have gone on record to suggest even that vertical ventilation is no longer a valid tactic, and might best be abandoned altogether, but that’s just me extrapolating the insight provided by the new data - “coloring outside the lines”, so to speak - and I’ll leave that topic to debate another day.)

Speaking from the perspective of someone who has dissected and analyzed fire control tactics down to their smallest components in my quest to better manage their completion, this revision of immediate fire control measures based on the latest data has resulted in a series of maneuvers that is much more manageable for smaller firefighting teams.  Further, not only have initial fire control activities been simplified, they have been reorganized, in the form of SLICE-RS (See FF for Dummies at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1219672%...).  Though this format was created to enhance training, recall, and performance, it has also effectively eliminated the need for much of the SCO/FIT techniques I worked so long to perfect.  Using this evidence-based approach, offensive fire control measures can be initiated immediately, even if only one firefighter is present, while all of the effort that been previously spent on ventilation can be redirected, at least during the earliest minutes of fire control, to more pressing needs, like size-up or interior search.  Some scenarios I had planned for required the Incident Commander and/or Pump Operator to take on the responsibility for addressing ventilation, so de-emphasizing its completion is more than labor-saving; it allows those individuals to instead better focus on their primary roles.

Though no one technique is successful, or even applicable, in all settings, using the SLICE-RS method provides a greater chance for effective fire control, both by "allowing" the early application of water to immediately and significantly reduce fire intensity, and by removing the "burden" of first performing ventilation.  Furthermore, despite this blog post being focused on limited-personnel situations, that statement holds true for even resource-rich departments; it merely has more impact when there are only a few firefighters to accomplish the work, where every assignment must be calculated to obtain the maximum effect.  Of course, many other pressing tasks remain to confront and confound us on the fireground, often more than we can manage simultaneously, even with more robust staffing numbers.  The responsibility of commanding a few resources can be as challenging as that of many, if only for the related necessity to choose between equally vital and basic tactics to first address. 

My "loss" of the SCO/FIT niche is the fire service's gain, as small companies now have a an effective and realistic strategy in the form of SLICE-RS.  As for myself, I have plenty more to write about regarding the many facets of MFA, and there remains to explore and address the wide variety of other situations besides residential fires that can confront the “First-In” company with the necessity to initiate complex operations.  Veteran firefighters and instructors faced with a similar “loss” of their favored tactic need merely look to the many other firefighting techniques that remain to be taught and mastered, and re-focus their passion and attention on those topics. 

 

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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