By Jim Silvernail
The objectives of the Fire Service have been the same for the past 250 years:
- Save lives
- Protect property
- Reduce harmful impacts to the environment
This hold true for not only the American fire service, but for fire service agencies around the globe. It has stood the test of time and will continue to be the reason for our existence.
The methods for achieving these objectives; however, have changed. We formally know these actions as fireground tactics. Two of the big contributors to the evolution and change of fireground tactics are experience/knowledge and technology. Over time, firefighters have discovered through the experience of going to over thousands of fires how to effectively mitigate these challenges through the combined implementation of fireground functions to achieve the “coordinated fire attack.” The term mitigation in this context means the safe, effective, and efficient achievement of the set objectives (save lives, protect property, reduce harmful impacts to the environment). Technology has also advanced giving firefighters the ability to go further into IDLH atmospheres and to attack fire “head on,” while also rescuing entrapped victims. Predominantly, these advances can be seen through modern day personal protective equipment, self-contained breathing apparatus, and apparatus improvements.
Unfortunately, the advances in technology are not the only changes which we are experiencing. The buildings and environment have also evolved. We now fight fires in structures which are: bigger, have large open spaces, evolving fuel loads, increased void spaces, and are made up of perceived “efficient material” which do not hold up well under fire conditions. (Pic 1)
The evolving fuel loads have proven to produce a much higher rate of heat release, causing a much quicker flashover propagation. This time has been proven to occur the majority of instances before our first arriving apparatus.
Through UL-NIST testing conducted by Steve Kerber and Dan Madrzykowski, many scientific facts about fire behavior can be concluded:
- Today’s modern furnishings produce a higher rate of heat release
- Water alone will not push fire or the products of combustion (as once thought)
- Oxygen pathways (Flow path) created by firefighters increase the combustion process, thus increasing rate of heat release.
Why are these findings important for firefighting tactics? Before we answer this question, let us analyze firefighting strategy in relation to the priorities established by the firefighting objectives.
Firefighting strategy: in relation to priorities
The main fundamental principle of firefighting is that the highest priority on the fireground is life safety. Rescue is always prioritized over property conservations. This has not changed, nor will it change. As firefighters, we have accepted this mandate and have taken an oath to risk our lives to save others. This has not changed! We also understand that no structure is truly uninhabited until we determine that it is uninhabited through primary and secondary searches or the determination of non-tenability due to fire conditions.
The tactic of performing the fireground function known as rescue can be performed numerous ways and is circumstance dependent. Common forms of rescue include:
- Placing a handline in service at the seat of the fire and searching back from the nozzle
- Searching with a handline (slow and less efficient)
- Oriented searches either above/below/or on the same level of the fire (searching without directly having a handline)
- Contact rescues (ladders)
- Large area search
- Vent Enter Isolate Search
In many regions within the United States, a company may pull up alone (no available truck companies) and have to make a very important determination. What are my initial actions to effect a possible rescue? Often the answer is: place a handline into operation, either controlling or mitigating the hazard to allow for safe, rapid extrication of trapped occupants. This is the crossroad that causes confusion. Rescue is the priority; however, the immediate action which initiates the rescue is suppression efforts.
Even though tactics are perceived as altered or evolved, strategy has not changed. Our firefighting strategies remain constant:
Where does the strategy of rescue fall within this? The answer is sub sequential and immediate.
Bringing it home: prioritizing fireground functions and implementing tactics
After a thorough initial size-up, initial arriving company officers will be tasked with implementing a tactical action plan. Simply stated: implement actions which will affect strategy and achieve overall objectives. (Pic 2)
Often the action which makes the largest impact to any fireground situation is the properly placed initial attack line. “No other action taken on the fire ground saves more lives than the proper size attack line, stretched to the correct location, and placed into service at the proper time.” (Pic 3)
Three major components to this statement include the three “R”s:
- Right size
- Right place
- Right time
Evaluating UL-NIST findings in regard to tactics
As stated previously, our scientific friends have proven that (in layman’s terms): contents have a higher rate of heat release, increased air flow will make fires larger and increase heat rate of release, and water does not push fire or products of combustion if applied properly (straight stream/no air addition).
Do these findings change the comment: “No other action taken on the fire ground saves more lives than the proper size attack line, stretched to the correct location, and placed into service at the proper time?” ABSOLUTELY NOT. The three “R”s still hold true. Now, however, we place special consideration on the right place and right time.
The right time to effectively place an attack line has been “as soon as possible.” Wouldn’t the right answer be hit the fire as soon as you see it if it is consistent with strategy (locate, contain/confine, and extinguish)? The reason that we did not hit the body of fire from the exterior or before the room of origin in the past was the fact that we believed we were pushing fire. The scientific findings have recently stated that if a stream was applied properly, this was not the case (Note: fog streams will push fire and the products of combustion due to the introduction of air flow). Notice I also stated hitting it before the room of origin. Hitting the fire from a safe interior position is also consistent with hitting the body of fire quickly before entering the container. Therefore, the findings suggest re-evaluating the position of the initial attack line placement. If we are immediately decreasing the problem and not spreading the hazard, aren’t we doing the most good for the interior occupants, initially?
Another important finding is heat of release rate in relation to the time of flashover and our entrance into the structure. Our entrance into the structure is completing a flow path to the fire, giving the fire the much needed oxygen it needs to progress. Now, flashover has been proven to have occurred prior to our arrival in most modern structures. Completing a flow path would help a fire continue the transition and replenish oxygen starved environments by opening the flow path portal. Hitting the fire before completing the flow path chain make sense for faster and safer mitigation.
Finally, let us re-evaluate strategy. We do not simply go to fires and place the “wet stuff” on the “red stuff.” If we went to every fire with the strategy of simple extinguishment, we have the potential of losing whole, if not multiple structures. “What have I got, where is it going, how do I stop it?” Another important consideration from hitting a fire from the exterior is to support the “contain/confine” strategy. Often when initial arriving crews hit a volume of fire from an exterior opening or door it is to stop auto exposure and to “reset” the fire. This tactic “buys time” and helps prevent the fire from extending vertically to upper floors and attic spaces which are protected by cheap plastic soffits. Homes are not built like they were in the 60’s, 70’s, or even 90’s (especially type V). Their exterior finishing can be compared to gasoline.
The acronym SLICERS-RS was a tactical example used to incorporate the new scientific research on the fireground.
It is another tool for the toolbox to assist with safe, effective, efficient fireground operations. There are no absolutes on the fireground and the words “always” and “never” are not identified in this model.
The SLICERS-RS acronym should not be a synonymous term used with “hitting it hard from the yard” and “transitional attack.” These are mere components of the attack principles. SLICERS-RS is not simply an external use tactical plan. As mentioned before, cooling the space from the safest location may be from an interior hallway or adjacent room. The fire is not completely extinguished from a safe location. The fire is merely “reset” to allow for easier interior access and operations. Has every fire that you ever gone to presented itself from an external opening? Probably not.
The last myth which should be understood is that this tactic does not advocate reducing “saving lives” on the priority list or diminishing the importance of rescue. WE STILL GO INSIDE. The difference with this tactic is that we are attempting to mitigate the environment quicker for the entrapped occupants and to improve our conditions to support the rescue.
Keep it safe, effective, and efficient every time!