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I will admit it right it off; I may be splitting hairs or simply consumed in the symantics of it but as a naturally aggressive firefighter the term that "we are going defensive" just gets under my skin in most cases.

Let me explain my position on why I feel this term is used incorrectly many times which I think may hamper operations at the truely "defensive" operations.  The term defensive in my mind is just that, we are not attempting to score (put the fire out), we have agreed to lose ( and I hate to lose),

I have responded to fires that were reported with heavy involvement and "defensive" as the operational mode.  The actual operations that were taken on the scene however were exterior offensive operations.  We were actively working to extinguish the fire but due to questionable structural integrity we were forced to do from the exterior until conditions improved enough to make entry for overhaul and final extinguishment. (Some people are now refering to this as a "transitional attack" as though it is brand new idea.  Most departments I know of my in area which are mostly all volunteer have been employing  this tactic for many, many years.  This was normally just doing what you could with what you had at the time.  Often the Engine would arrive with minimal staffing of 1-3 people and they would initiate an exterior attack, especially if the driver was the only one on the truck; until more help arrived, usually by POV.)  But this is hardly a "defensive" attack.  On the other hand I have also responded to fires that were truely defensive.  Responding to a vacant structure or in one case a commercial building that was scheduled for demolition.  These fires were truely and completely defensive in the truest sense of the word with the main objectives being to protect exposures more so then extinguish the fire.  Although I noticed at a couple of these incidents that firefighters would still want to "fight the fire" more so than protect the exposures which ended up wasting time, manpower and water.  Of course these firefighters were directed to return to the original operation of protecting exposures.

The reason this comes to mind again is a recent mill fire in my state that according to the pictures was an obvious defensive operation, I think anything short relocating Niagra Falls to the scene would have been useless.  The departments that responded appeared to have handled the incident quite well.  But I wondered as a I looked at one picture of a homeowner spraying his house with a garden hose and heavy steam coming from the house, if they had a difficult time keeping people on task of protecting exposures instead of focusing on the fire.


I look forward to hearing some your thoughts on the matter.

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  I attended a class where the instructor broke it down to 2 categories; interior and exterior. It goes along the same lines as what you mentioned, you can fight an offensive exterior fire. He stated that there were multiple different tactics including offensive-defensive(aggressive interior, protect exposure), offensive-offensive(aggressive interior, aggressive exterior to stop spread), defensive-offensive(no entry, aggressive exterior using master streams), and defensive-defensive(no entry, only protect exposure).

As you can imagine, this can get confusing quick.

Isn't anything doing anything doing something, Although we may not be attacking the main fire directly Containment is an office strategy in my book.  Anytime you stop the fire from spreading you are offensive.

I think a little semantics and a little reality…we do have singular attack mode fires ex: interior and exterior. Some of this depends on when we arrival, some depends on what we find – late notice on a barn fire or a vacant structure would warrant a defensive posture. But in any case we are going to actively try to extinguish the fire – that’s what we do.

I think some of this stems from where the fire service currently finds itself….shorthanded and in many cases undermanned. We “want” to be aggressive but common sense and the current position of well respected leaders in the fire service are telling us to watch out for ourselves more than we have in the past. I have to agree. So this mindset brings out our ever evolving ability to adapt to what we are faced with and that I think produces things like offensive exterior operations. I don’t this this is a new concept, heck many years ago this was routine. I have heard it several ways: marginal, transitional, OEO and I think departments west gave us “resetting the fire” from an exterior position.

We are also faced with hotter and faster fires caused by changes in the composition of our furnishings and let’s not even get into the lightweight thing. These are the things that cause us to question and change the way we do business. Safety becomes the key. The fire service works in an area full of grey rarely is our job so clear that we can distinguish all the lines especially those that separate offensive and defensive. . And that brings us back to your point; we will always put water on the fire regardless of the chosen attack mode defensive, offensive or OEO. The important things to take away are safety, if there are no lives at stake let’s not introduce any. If the officer correctly sizes up the situation and interior operation are in order – do that. But if an exterior position is the best choice,  don’t think of it as defensive think of it as taking care of your people and still addressing the fire.

I've been in this situation several times. I agree, if we are going "defensive", then stay "defensive". I've been to old farmhouse fires where there was no hope to save the structure or any contents and structural integrity deteriated quickly. Yet, hoses were sprayed on the exterior walls and through windows for four hours. If you're going to put it out....put it out..if not, let the thing burn. There is no sense in risking injury and tying up resources if you are "letting it go". The longer you are on a fire scene, the more time somebody has to get injured. Great article. -B

Ron, great article!  You will definitely stir up some discussion with this. 

NIOSH defines a defensive attack as an "exterior fire attack with the emphasis on exposure protection. The commitment of a fire department’s resources is to protect exposures when the fire has progressed to a point where an offensive attack is not effective."

I've often challenged others with this same question.  It's understandable that when it gets to the point that an interior attack is too high of a risk exterior operations are the only option at hand.  Staying with the basics of the question, imagine being on the defensive line in a football game.  Our goal is to keep the other team from crossing the line of scrimmage.  Agreeing with Ron, our job is to protect anything around the fire building.  Directing teams to take “Defensive” positions, covering all exposures and contain the fire to the fire building.  Some of you mentioned barns, I know high-rise.  At this point we would contain the fire to the fire floor and keep it from spreading.  In conventional firefighting we would then designate companies to “Offensive” operations attacking, gaining control and extinguishing the fire.  In a high-rise “Plan B” or an “Offensive” exterior attack has not been an option until recently.

So can we define “Offensive” in firefighting as… Define our objective, use of all companies as a whole, combining all our efforts, “Defensive and Offensive” available for achieving success to our objective, extinguishing the fire?  An "Offensive" water attack from the exterior is the only way to achieve the objective or take "Defensive" positions only and consider the fire building or area a loss.


Being the chief of a small volunteer department I must agree with the definitions that have been stated.  But, if we are to determine the cause of a fire we must have evidence remaining.  To simply "write it off" often does not keep the evidence intact.  We must make an attempt to preserve the evidence.  But, in all things the safety of my firefighters and civilians must be a priority.

Being an Fire Investigator on the private side, I cannot agree with you more. In my 20 years of volunteer firefighting, I have only been to two structure fires where all operations to save the building were withdrawn. In my years of insurance work, I have been to parts of the country where "letting it go" seems like more of an initial attack rather than last resort. Yes, there definitely needs to be an emphasis on preserving what can be saved. My point in my earlier comment was geared more towards making a decision and sticking with it. Not go back and forth. I very much appreciate your comment. Stay safe!  -B

David Hardin said:

Being the chief of a small volunteer department I must agree with the definitions that have been stated.  But, if we are to determine the cause of a fire we must have evidence remaining.  To simply "write it off" often does not keep the evidence intact.  We must make an attempt to preserve the evidence.  But, in all things the safety of my firefighters and civilians must be a priority.

I find all of these responses open minded and intelligent and i agree with your views. The only thing I would add is that when I started, our gear at the time sometimes made us slow our interior offensive attack down by requiring us to darken down the fire from the outside first and then we would work our way in as the interior conditions improved. With the gear we were wearing then, to operate diffently, would have resulted in more injuries. Nice comments, nice article.

To me it seems simple to understand, but for others not so much.  For some, going defensive means you have given up. If that’s the case then why show up in the first place. To me either way if you fight it offensive or defensive, if the fire goes out then you’ve won.

 Whether you call it offensive / defensive or interior / exterior as long as everybody on the scene knows what you are talking about, it doesn’t matter. Defensive doesn’t mean you have given up, it means you are making a stand and not moving forward.  Offensive means you are moving forward in your attack. Either way your goal is extinguishment. You can also transition from one to the other with little difficulty. Technically, if you are in a structure and make an attack from a doorway without moving into the room, you are defensive, but in the fire service the term defensive means you are on the exterior.

I heard someone else already mention Semantics. I think the misnomer regarding “Offensive” vs. “Defensive” is that Offensive is a “direct fire attack” while Defensive is not. Another is making it too simple – Offensive is on the inside while Defensive is on the outside.

Instead, we need to see Offensive and Defensive in terms of being a “Strategy” (in fact, we call it a Strategy and require our ICs to announce their strategy on arrival, and repeat it throughout the incident), and make it the overarching platform to which all operations work under.

For instance, if I were to list the differences between Offensive and Defensive, I would do this as follows:

Offensive Strategy: Interior attack, pre-connects (1 ½” or 1 ¾”), ventilation, ground ladders, RIT, Search and Rescue, SCBA (on air and on the clock), Accountability, utilities, Rehab (set up sooner and used sooner), and solid ICS structure to include Divisions and Groups.

Defensive Strategy: Exterior attack (collapse zones considered), larger hose lines (2 ½”, ground monitors, etc.), aerial ladders, SCBA optional (required if in smoke or possibly in smoke), accountability (we vary the need for continuous PARS however), utilities, rehab (our operational clock is extended and rehab times are dependent on workload and/or use of SCBA), solid ICS structure (but more reliant on Division than Groups).

Neither of these are all inclusive, and remain flexible. However, I often view LODD reports and watch You Tube videos or other resources where I see no clear lines between these two strategies – this is how we kill our people! Strategy should never be ambiguous! ICs need to announce their strategy then work from its “Playbook” (if you will). If we can figure out the clear distinction between these two we’ll simply be more safe and more effective. 

I tend to argue with anyone about anything so please don't take offense and get defensive on me at the same time... 


When a defense scores in football we don't call them an offense even though they transitioned from one strategy to another.  Different scenes call for different tactics and all are gonna evolve and change.  I think the main idea when a incident commander announces a defensive strategy is to heighten staff's awareness for things like no possible rescue of victims due to conditions, protection of exposures, water supply, larger sized hose, master streams, aerial devices, structural integrity, or simply that the risk of an offensive strategy is not worth the reward of aggressively seeking and destroying the fire.  On the flip side, when an offensive strategy is called for you're gonna have to prepare for potential rescue of victims, smaller hoselines, hand tools, ventilation, and so on.  At any point any scene can transition from offensive to defensive and vice versa.  However, when you start a scene defensive, most of the time it would be unsafe or not worth it to then switch to an offensive strategy. 

Hi Ron,

This is a discussion that comes up from time to time. Especially during company officer promotional exams and bigger incidents. I've questioned myself and other crews putting water on a big fire due to "structural conditions" and then made entry to finish extinguishment. As I reflect on that I guess I say "huh"? What happened to the concern about structural conditions once the fire is out? Isn't it still there? We've already decided that we'll "risk nothing to save nothing" but then decide we're going to "risk everything for.........nothing?". I mean it's a structure that we've already written off and now we're not writing it off? I think once the decision is made to go defensive, it's a one way valve, there is no going back.

Putting water on a fire from the exterior to make entry to perform firefighting and a search is not going defensive, it's a smart tactic! But it should also be on a timeline. If it's necessary to put water on a fire from the exterior for longer than 1-2 minutes (this may even be too long!) then we should question if we should be entering at all.

Just my two cents.....great discussion.  

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