One of the most debated decisions the incident commander (IC) can make relates to transitioning from offensive to defensive strategy. If the IC stays offensive and something goes wrong, he’s castigated for not going defensive earlier or not caring about the firefighters. If the decision to go defensive ends without a definitive “told you so” outcome (i.e., catastrophic collapse), then the IC is pilloried for “losing his nerve” or “making the job too safe.”
It seems that there are always representatives from both camps, simultaneously pulling the IC in both directions. It’s “Give us 5 more minutes and we got it, Chief!” vs. “I don’t like the looks of this, Chief; we should pull everyone out.”
Making the “right” decision (controlling the incident without exposing members to unnecessary or indefensible risk) is born out of adequate and proper training, experience, strong and decisive leadership, and a healthy layer of thick skin. The decision to transition from offensive to defensive can be a smooth one, but the IC must stay focused on processing the information from inside the structure and then cross-referencing it with what their own senses and instincts are telling them.
Case Studies & Comments
Consider the actions of the IC in Near-Miss Report #05-070: “We responded to a structure fire at an abandoned supermarket. The first-arriving crew reported very light smoke visible with a small fire in the rear corner of the market. They advanced a hoseline to the interior to make an offensive attack. The officer from another engine company reported heavy smoke and flames that began to appear in the area where a mezzanine existed over the fire area. He relayed this information to the IC, who immediately ordered all interior crews out of the structure. An accountability check was made, and the operation was changed to defensive. Within a couple minutes of crews leaving the building, the roof collapsed. There were no injuries.”
The IC faced conflicting situation reports. However, he was able to overcome indecision because he processed the information and conducted a proper size-up of his own. In the end, an evacuation was ordered and all were saved.
Near-Miss Report #10-345 gives us an alternate view: “After some outside operations and knockdown of most visible fire, a change back to offensive interior operations was discussed by command and some ranking fire officers. It was decided that a limited group would enter from ladders to the second floor (interior stairs burned out), and a different group would enter the first floor to complete overhaul and extinguishment. After a short time and with some reports for holes in floors and other safety issues, everyone was pulled out again and exterior operations commenced. Later, again, the decision was made to re-enter and put the fire out. Approximately 5 minutes after re-entry of the first and second floors, there was a total lean-to collapse of the bedroom over the living room. Four firefighters rode the collapse down and were injured.”
The crews in this report shifted from offensive to defensive several times. This practice suggests that the structure was under tremendous assault from two of nature’s most powerful elements: fire and water. It sounds as if stubborn fires persisted in the structure, and the firefighters embarked on a path that resulted in catastrophic collapse.
Both reports convey the message of firefighter safety. In the first report, everyone goes home unscathed because of good coordination, an appropriate read of the building and conditions, and the IC’s “gut feeling” about the situation. The lessons from the second report are equally important and come with a powerful punctuation mark. So, given the opportunity to select the outcome of your next offensive to defensive shift, which outcome would you prefer to be discussing at the kitchen table?