Challenges of the Modern Fireground: Firefighting Operations

Challenges of the Modern Fireground

Editor’s Note: During FDIC 2010, FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach, along with Scott Shaw and Mike Kirby, both members of the Cincinnati Fire Department, teamed up with Firefighter Netcast to do a podcast on the challenges of the modern fireground. This article will focus on the key points of that presentation. To listen to the complete podcast, visit

Today’s fireground is not the fireground of yesteryear. It’s undergone numerous changes, and in response, the fire service has changed as well, but we still have some work to do.
These days, as we plan our attack on the scene of any structure fire, we must consider some of the challenges that we face on the modern fireground and adjust our strategy and tactics accordingly. These challenges include: building construction/fire behavior changes; tactics and training on new construction; communications; staffing; personal protective equipment (PPE); and the effects of the economy.

Building Construction & Fire Behavior
For years, the fire service fought the majority of fires in buildings constructed with solid dimensional lumber or a combination of dimensional lumber and bricks. When the components of these buildings became exposed to fire, as the fire went from a contents fire to a structure fire, we expected that they would hold up for some time.

Now, the dimensional lumber traditionally used as main supports within a structure has been replaced by engineered, glued beams and lightweight parallel cord trusses held together by 3/16" gang plates. When exposed to fire, these trusses are far more unstable than dimensional lumber.

In core urban areas, we still usually expect to find ordinary construction of brick and wood, and true wood frame. As we move beyond the urban centers into areas that were once rural farmlands, we often encounter or expect to find newer construction methods. Important: If your response area is primarily in an urban core, you can also expect to encounter engineered construction methods as a result of urban renewal and renovations. What appears from the outside to be a building constructed in the 1800s or early 1900s has oftentimes been completely renovated on the inside with TGI beams or parallel cord trusses.

To compound this problem, more dangerous buildings exist today than in the 70s and 80s, but firefighters have less experience fighting fires in lightweight engineered buildings. Unfortunately, most of our experience (and some of the experiences talked about in many textbooks) involves older, sturdier construction or urban buildings. Today’s firefighters, as well as future firefighters, must become students of fire behavior as the dynamics of the fireground change in relationship to fuel loads and building construction. Specifically, we must focus on the transition from a contents fire to a structure fire and be able to make critical strategic decisions, including the ever-important “go or no-go” decision.

Without training and education, firefighters won’t be able to determine a structure’s overall stability and may therefore put occupants’ lives, as well as their own, at risk.

Tenability & Viability
As we consider occupants in these buildings, we must also consider building tenability and victim viability. To successfully rescue a victim, they must be located in a tenable space. One portion of the building may be tenable, while another portion may be collapsing. Note: The tenability of a building is often determined from the outside by the incident commander, which is why it’s imperative to follow any and all orders to evacuate, even if you don’t feel you’re in danger in your current position.

In addition to tenability, the location and extent of the fire are other important pieces of the “go/no-go” puzzle (for more information, read “Go or No-Go?: 3 factors to consider when deciding your attack strategy,” August 2009, p. 36.). During size-up, always ask two critical questions: 1) Is it a contents fire or is it a fire that involves the structure, and 2) If it’s a contents fire, where is it exactly within the structure? If the fire involves the structure (i.e. structural components), you’ll likely perform defensive ops (no-go). But if it’s a contents fire, you’ll need to determine the exact location of the fire and then calculate, based on the type of building construction involved, the amount of time, if any, you may have to perform interior ops. It’s no longer acceptable to live by the 20-minute rule. We used this rule in old buildings; however, engineered structural components can fail in a couple of minutes. Burn time is no longer a reliable indicator for determining offensive or defensive strategies.

Tactics & Training, Then & Now
Rapid-fire progression continues to cause firefighter injuries and deaths. For years, standard firefighter training failed to put a great deal of emphasis on things like pyrolysis or flashover; even now, they’re a small part of the standardized Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 curricula. Thus, students don’t fully understand the importance of these concepts in relation to modern fuels and the fireground.

Fortunately today, more and more training academies and fire departments are focusing their efforts on teaching students how to understand changes in fire behavior and are training firefighters to recognize and survive hostile events. Research has also made its way to the fireground. This research is conducted locally and by federal institutions (i.e., NIST/UL research) and is invaluable to our service.

The modern fireground isn’t reflective of the previous fireground; therefore, it shouldn’t be treated with the same tactics. But we’re creatures of habit; our strong adherence to traditional tactics is a reflection of our long-standing training practices. For example, for years, we were taught not to apply water to smoke. Hopefully, we’ve learned (and began teaching) that smoke is fuel, and it’s not only carbon monoxide that’s flammable, but myriad other gases that have much lower ignition temperatures that set the stage for rapid fire development. Couple this with high ceilings and large open spaces, and the space you crawl into one day may be extremely hot and ready to light off violently.

Communication & Staffing
Communication issues are very common on the fireground. The concept of transmitting and receiving messages isn’t that complicated, but we continue to have failures on the fireground.

Communication problems are often compounded by the type of building, particularly Types 1 and 2, newer radios, SCBA and a noisy work environment.

We must become better communicators and understand that many times, our survival depends on an exchange of information. This exchange is often best executed via effective progress reports or CAN reports (Conditions, Actions, Needs). It’s important to give CAN reports not only from the inside of the building, but from all sides of the building, inside and outside. Good communication of what’s occurring inside the building and good size-up reports reinforced with any available technology supportive of the recon process (i.e., thermal imaging) will all increase fireground safety.

Of course, communication wouldn’t take place without the proper number of personnel on scene. Having the same number of people and apparatus respond to incidents is ideal, because it creates standardization and predictability of operations. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible for the majority of fire departments in this country, because volunteers make up the majority of the fire service. In other cases, multiple agencies respond to incidents through mutual/automatic-aid agreements, making it difficult to coordinate staffing across departments.

To create some level of standardization and predictability in this environment, we must create consistency, and the fire service must adopt or support some level of consistency on the fireground (i.e., standardized actions for each unit as they arrive at the fireground). The only thing that changes from fire to fire is the container (i.e., the structure). Everything else related to the fire is generally consistent, which allows us to determine which tasks must be completed and by whom.

Strategic decisions should therefore be influenced by staffing levels, because the number of people on scene can dictate the tactics you use. In other words, you fight the same fire in different ways, depending on whether you have 3–5 people on duty or 30 people on duty.

Basically, if you belong to a small department, you must adjust your procedures and expectations based on your staffing level; don’t try to perform like an urban fire department that may have 30–40 people on every alarm assignment.

Standard actions produce a standard outcome. When you don’t have standardization (constant staffing) or predictability (performing the same actions), you must develop a formalized process to create consistency in operations.

Firefighter PPE
With better protective ensembles, we must also have better training. When we feel heat through our PPE, or feel hot air in our SCBA, we know it’s hot and we’re in a dangerous environment, so we must react accordingly. We must either cool the environment or get out when these warning signs are present.

We also maintain the fallacy of “the blackest PPE makes me the baddest firefighter in the fire department.” After much scientific testing and evaluation (as well as common sense), we now know that dirty, wet PPE doesn’t afford you the same level of protection. The dirtiest PPE may make you look like a hero, but you may not be fully protected to perform heroic acts.

On the modern fireground, your SCBA and PPE are your lifelines; they are the only things protecting you from serious burns and/or smoke inhalation. In other words, they are the only things keeping you alive in an environment that can reach 300–600 degrees or higher. They are your protective barrier against newer construction materials, plastics and chemicals that produce more energy and get hotter faster, releasing toxins and gases that weren’t always present on the fireground. The point: Take special care of your PPE to ensure it functions properly.

Economic Challenges
The effects of the economy can be seen and felt on the modern fireground. We’re all most likely responding to more fires involving hazardous, vacant and unoccupied foreclosed homes. Because of the number of copper thefts and vandalism that occur in these homes, firefighters have a greater potential for becoming trapped or injured. Holes in walls and other voids also allow for increased likelihood of rapid fire spread.

Determining when to search and when not to search is a major issue in these buildings. Making strong decisions based on construction, life hazards, location and extent of fire, and available staffing is therefore extremely important; however, keep in mind that some homeowners now install increased security systems to these structures, which might affect our access and egress, but more importantly, our prioritization for initiating a search.

How to Overcome Fireground Challenges
So how do you deal with all of these challenges? One word: training.

Training is key for fire departments big and small. Experience is the best teacher—as long as it’s the right experience at the right time. Having 20 years of bad or “lucky” experiences doesn’t make you an effective firefighter/fire officer. Often, good luck just reinforces bad behaviors. For example, if you use a preconnected 1 ¾" handline on every fire, you may do well if most of your responses involve residential structures. But your luck could run out when you try to use the same line on a commercial fire.

You need high-quality real-world training that includes taking the time to learn about your district, the buildings in it and how best to fight fire in them. When construction projects are occurring, look around to see what’s going on.

Supplement that training with networking, socializing and learning new things. Attend fire service conferences, read professional periodicals and blogs, listen to netcasts, etc. All of these things will help you prepare for the challenges you’ll encounter on today’s fireground and in today’s fire service.

The message: Don’t get complacent. Care about the fire service and about being a firefighter. Your company and your community expect nothing less from you.

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September 2016
Volume 11, Issue 9