It is often said that no other organization is more deeply rooted in tradition than the American fire service. Bugles indicating rank, the Maltase cross, red fire engines and bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” are just some of the many examples of traditions that have withstood the test of time.
Traditions extend into our tactics as well, as many traditional methods of operation are passed down from generation to generation. Occasionally, a progressive instructor—perhaps deemed by some to be “over-energetic”—will attempt to influence a recruit with a new approach, only to have their fact-based ideas overturned on the fireground by a die-hard, traditionalist officer who explains their reasoning using the well-known logic, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Let me state for the record that not all traditions are bad—quite the opposite is true. In fact, we often fail to teach our recruits some important traditions like honor, pride, history, sacrifice and service that have shaped our profession. However, it is not these principles or traditions that are putting firefighters in harm’s way. With that in mind, the purpose of this discussion is to challenge a basic tactical idea that some say has defined who we are in the eyes of the public we server—and ourselves!
But before we delve into that, I want to share a story about my early brush with traditionalist thinking—a story that will probably date my time in the fire service.
Confronting a Traditionalist
About 25 years ago, our department was involved in updating our suppression capability by switching all of our 1½" attack lines to 1¾" hose, while 95-gpm nozzles gave way to modern 50- to 350-gpm variable-flow versions.
I remember one senior, retired firefighter constantly complaining about all the water damage we were now going to be responsible for with our new technology. I could have gone into a long, involved rebuttal about how fuel loads have changed since he advanced a line into a burning structure, or explained BTUs produced by modern fuels versus needed water flow. But I chose a more personal approach. I’m still not sure where my response came from, perhaps just a younger officer’s attempt to avoid using logic that would only be lost on someone clearly stuck in a traditionalist’s world. I decided to fight fire with fire.
One afternoon at the station, after listening to one of his rants on the subject, I looked directly at him and called him a hypocrite. It suddenly became very quiet around the table where several of his also-retired but somewhat-less-vocal supporters had been talking. “What the hell do you mean?” he demanded. My reply was simple and phrased as a question, designed to make a point and yet avoid a prolonged debate. “If you’re so opposed to upgrading and changing the past, then why did you ever use those red 1" booster lines for fire attack, wasting water and causing damage, when those before you simply used buckets?” As I turned and walked out of the room, I was surprised by the sound of silence. I never heard another word on the issue. It seemed as though my point had been accepted.
The Building Construction Issue
Forty years ago, a leader in the fire service, Francis Brannigan, brought the complicated world of building construction to the forefront of fire service training. Brannigan educated many on topics such as construction types, fire behavior and a building’s reaction to fire. He was known for saying that gravity always wins. But perhaps his most prophetic teachings were those related to the dangers of lightweight construction. In the time since Brannigan’s first warnings on the issue, I have come to believe that the scope of the lightweight construction problem and its impact on the fire service would surprise even Brannigan himself. Further, it is my firm belief that no other single issue has impacted—or will continue to impact—firefighter safety more than the continued use and development of lightweight construction techniques. If this is true, then the next question we must ask and answer is: How can we, as a profession, combat this serious life-safety risk? This is where tradition comes back into play.
Two Strategies: Offensive or Defensive
For years we have been taught two basic tactical suppression strategies: offensive and defensive. Offensive tactics defined us. Remember, “we run in when others run out.” It was a macho, heroic photo op for nightly news action reels that led many to respect us—or even join the fire service themselves.
The adrenaline rush of a successful offensive fire attack has caused more than one seasoned fire officer to extend his stay in an involved structure. Historically, older structures allowed fireground commanders a greater margin of error in deciding their tactical strategy. This is where the 20-minute rule was born, as full dimensional lumber was much more forgiving to those who dared to linger in buildings that ultimately became a lost cause.
In the event that a building’s survival was beyond even the most brazen firefighters, the fallback position was a defensive operation. But a defensive attack meant loss of the building and conjured up identifiers like “basement savers.” This “defeatist operation” (as defined by those who strongly committed to traditional offensive interior attacks) involved the placement of large-diameter delivery devices to simply guide the building back into itself while protecting surrounding structures.
This offensive/defensive battle has raged for years, with little changing related to the associated tactics and outcomes. Today, most incident commanders (ICs) still prefer to save the building through an offensive attack; however, with the proliferation of lightweight construction, the timeframe for safe operations has decreased to a point that traditional offensive tactics must catch up. The 20-minute rule is virtually nonexistent, as truss failure can occur with flame impingement in as little a five minutes. I know that we’re better trained, better equipped and, therefore, better prepared than ever before, but I do not know of a single fire department that can respond, set up and begin flowing water on the fire using an offensive interior attack within five minutes of the fire starting. In fact, in many cases, the fire has burned beyond the five-minute limit prior to our notification. It is in this world, and with the desperate need to provide for the safety of our operating firefighters, that the concept of offensive exterior operations (OEO) was born.
What Are Offensive Exterior Operations?
OEO—if you say it to yourself a few times, it just might remind you of the chant recited by a group of guards marching around the witch’s castle in “The Wizard of Oz,” which, by the way, ended with one well-placed bucket of water. OEO places firefighters in a safer position, still able to attack the fire with the goal of extinguishment while satisfying those three important incident priorities: life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. It is implemented when no immediate rescue is needed or possible, and conditions lead the IC to believe that there is or may potentially be fire involvement of lightweight structural supports, making an interior operation potentially deadly. OEO does not involve any vastly new suppression concepts—just a change in mindset and the implementation of a few seldom-used tools that are often regulated to the back of the apparatus compartment.
The biggest change occurs in the understanding that traditional offensive and defensive strategies can, or better yet must, be altered, and that absent a true rescue situation, placing a firefighter over or under lightweight elements is an unacceptable risk with no meaningful benefit. If you find yourself hesitating with the thought that our job is to save the building and we can only do that by going interior, then ask yourself this simple question, “At what cost?”
Aggressive but Safe
OEO combines the aggressive nature of an interior attack with the safer operating position of a defensive operation. As an example, let’s examine a typical involved first-floor fire. Upon arrival, your 360 size-up indicates little likelihood of survivability. (For assistance assessing survivability, you may want to examine this study by FDNY Captain Stephen Marsar: www.usfa.fema.gov/pdf/efop/efo44310.pdf). You know from the age of the structure, preplanning or size-up observations that lightweight construction is potentially involved. As the IC, your traditional strategic choices would leave you with two options: offensive or defensive. The first relies on your confidence in the ability of your crews to mount an offensive attack and extinguish the fire quickly and safely; the second involves relegating on-scene resources to a defensive, exterior surround-and-drown operation.
OEO is the third choice—a choice that allows us to attack the fire but takes into account the uncertainty and impending danger of lightweight structural collapse. It is our middle ground, a blending of offensive and defensive strategies. By assigning OEO tactics, fire crews aggressively seek to apply water to the fire but from an exterior position.
One might ask how this differs from the typical defensive operation. That question is answered in two ways. First, it’s about mindset. OEO is taught with the understanding that we are still committed to saving whatever we can. Unlike the historical view that defensive positions are designed to protect exposures while the fire building burns down, OEO seeks to protect the building. Through training we instill an attitude that by using OEO tactics, we can still “win.” This will help fire crews buy into this “new” philosophy for success. After all, nobody wants to be defeated, let alone labeled as “giving up” on a fire. Second, instead of taking up defensive positions and merely lobbing water onto, into and over the burning structure, OEO tactics involve opening up the structure and applying fire streams tactically in order to gain the upper hand on fire control and extinguishment.
Examples of OEO tactics include using vent saws to turn exterior windows into doors. By cutting window sills out and down to the floor, leaving the header in place to help maintain structural integrity, firefighters now have a direct entry path into a room of origin through which they can apply water or, once determined safe, eventually enter a room for overall or secondary search without having to crawl through the entire building in hostile conditions.
Other tactics might include the use of the infrequently called upon piercing nozzle, breaching a wall or roof, deploying a cellar or distributing a nozzle in order to put water (and lots of it) on the fire. Basement fires may be controlled and vented through holes cut into the rim joists. Use of Class A or high-expansion foam enhances knock-down capability. OEO still involves the use of ventilation tactics to remove heat and fuel from the building, and scene safety is still a concern as ICs, safety officers and the firefighters themselves must remain vigilant of a host of issues, including collapse zones, burn time, utilities, exterior air quality, safety equipment and opposing hoselines directed through the building.
Strategically, OEO should be implemented through the development and coordination of controlled tactical assignments. A strong command system with reliable fireground communications is needed. ICs, crew leaders, and division and group supervisors must maintain the flow of critical information through regular progress reports.
OEO is a blending of two historically opposed strategic options: offensive and defensive. Through training and implementation, traditional tactical skills can be modified and assigned from safer exterior positions and often-overlooked tools and appliances can be employed to apply water more effectively, all in the pursuit of those three primary goals:
- Firefighter safety
- Rapid incident stabilization
- Saving savable property
To remain mired in traditional strategic thinking limits the IC’s options and places firefighters in increasingly dangerous positions. Today’s modern building techniques demand revisions to old ways of operating. OEO is just a new twist on two traditional operating positions. You can call it anything you want, but you owe it to those under your command to include it on your list of tactical options.