From the seat of the apparatus to the seat of the fire, it’s critical for first-due firefighters to operate efficiently and with maximum effort to get the job done.
Every day in North America, fire departments respond to structure fires involving residential buildings. The bulk of the workload for the fire department tends to be residential home as statistics show that every 86 seconds a fire department is responding to a residential fire (1). Once a fire department arrives on scene, firefighters must act quickly, as the number one priority on the fire scene is life safety. This involves the occupants inside the residential building as well as the responding personnel.
From the seat of the apparatus to the seat of the fire, it’s critical for first-due crews to operate efficiently and with the maximum effort necessary to get the job done. These are your first-due fireground essentials.
The time a fire department’s first-arriving officer and crew must effectively size up the situation and decide on what action to take to address the life safety priority is less than one minute. Within that timeframe, many factors need to be considered, evaluated, processed, and then decided upon, based upon priorities. The first five minutes are crucial to any fireground operation and sets the tone for the remainder of the call—either successful or otherwise.
Studies have shown that fire grows at a rate that doubles in size every minute (2). Modern fuel loads and heat release rates add to the fire’s intensity. Every minute that we are indecisive on scene is another minute of rapid-fire growth. By using information gathered during preplanning and from dispatch updates, coupled with situational awareness and a strong size-up, the incident commander should be able to formulate tactical decisions that have positive influence on truck placement and task assignments. This should take into consideration the staffing constraints experienced by many smaller fire departments.
Whether career, part-time, volunteer, or combination, staffing issues are considerable and there is a need for more helping hands on the fireground. The number of tasks that are expected to be done within the first five minutes of arrival surmounts the available pairs of hands able to accomplish it. We are finding ourselves having to do more with less–which is why we need to start findings ways to figure out where we can take advantage of time that is available to us so that we can be better prepared for the arrival.
Aggressive interior operations start with correctly sizing up an incident scene and then clearly and concisely getting this information to incoming units. As we all know, size-up begins when the call comes in and ends when all are back at the station. How can we prepare ourselves ahead of time so that our size-up is streamlined and efficient when arriving? We accomplish this by sizing up our response districts during our downtime or when we are driving around in our response areas. By observing the clues presented to us daily, we can build a data bank within our minds of what we know exists within our boundaries.
Know your response district and the types of residential buildings that comprise it. Familiarize yourself with the common construction types, the common layouts, and the average age of the homes. This will help you create different rescue profiles, which in turn allows firefighters and company officers to gauge ahead of time what exactly they are dealing with. When the call comes in, they will have a better understanding of where they are going to and whether to employ any aggressive interior operations.
The fire service is encountering VLFs on a regular basis as newer building construction increases. As buildings become more airtight for environmental efficiency, they become death traps for the responding fire department and for the occupants trapped inside. As available air is used up, the fire then decays or hibernates until another supply of air is introduced into the environment. What does not dissipate during this time is the heat, the products of combustion, the heat release rates, and the fuel load. When air is introduced, there is a rapid ascent to flashover conditions, which can be deadly for both the occupants inside and for the responding firefighters.
The goal of an aggressive fire attack with VLFs is to coordinate ventilation with fire suppression efforts to put the fire out and to rescue occupants. We do not want to create a new flow path to provide the fire with two things: fresh air to fuel the black fire and create a flashover, and a space for fire to travel to the new vented opening. When opening the door to make entry, the team will only have about a minute to take aggressive actions before conditions will change for the worse. Ventilation must be employed in some manner prior to or at the same time to reduce the chances of flashover from occurring in VLFs. 
When the door is opened to the structure to make entry, the firefighter needs to remember the three “L’s” to assist in the aggressive operation: Lift, Life, and Layout.
Lift: As the door is opened and venting is starting to occur at the door, there should be a “lift” in the black smoke as it exits the structure to the low-pressure zone. The lift will occur from the floor rising up towards the mid-plane of the room or even the top of the door. The lift of smoke could be four feet or a few inches off the floor depending on where the fire is located on the inside. If the fire is in the basement, the lift may only be a few inches. If the fire is on the main floor, the lift can be as much as a foot or two. If the fire is on the second or third floor, the lift could be as much as four feet or to the top of the doorway.
This requires firefighters to put their head down to the floor of the structure to see below the smoke layer. If there is no lift at all, then apply a straight stream to the ceiling for a quick hit to see of water rains down to the floor or evaporates at the ceiling level. If no water falls to the floor, the door needs to be closed, and Plan B needs to be enacted. This may involve establishing ventilation first, then interior fire attack. The lift sets up the other two “L’s.”
Life: As the smoke lifts due to the immediate venting, the entry team can look for life on the floor of the immediate area. Many occupants are found by the door of the structure and can be rescued immediately if they are seen/located. Should there be an occupant right by the door, the entry team can reach in or enter, grab the occupant, and pull them out. This will be an immediate rescue.
Layout: With the smoke rising and the visibility at the floor’s bottom increasing, the entry team can get a look at the layout of the interior. This will assist the entry team with the aggressive attack–by getting a look at where they need to go once inside. It may also show where the fire location may be giving the team the advantage.  
As soon as the team makes entry, they will need to do two things: control the door opening and cool off the environment quickly. Controlling the door can be done by the backup firefighter as he or she feeds hose into the structure or by the pump operator. If neither can be done, then the crew can take the battery powered rotary saw and cut a triangle section off the bottom of the door. This will allow the door to close while providing a channel for the hose to advance.
Cooling off the environment involves painting the environment. Using a straight stream or a solid stream of water, the stream needs to be applied at the ceiling, walls, and floor as the team advances into the structure. This will cool off the surfaces from the radiant heat so that the team can make their way into the seat of the fire to supress it.
While making the advance, the team needs to continue cooling off the environment until they reach the seat of the fire. While making their way in, the team can also search the immediate area to locate any viable occupants for rescue. Once at the fire location, one firefighter can conduct a quick primary search of the area using the nozzle firefighter as the orientated person.
Searching off the hoseline is not impossible for any two- or three-person team making an interior push. Based on statistics of where we find occupants inside residential structures, the interior team will most likely come across them. These common areas will include hallways, doorways, the bottom of stairs, the top of stairs, the middle of stairs, and at the fire location. 
What has been described above sounds like this situation requires numerous hands on deck to perform the duties of both the engine and truck company. The reality is that the majority of the fire departments will accomplish this using the first-arriving and/or second-arriving units on scene. This may be the engine and a quint or two engines, since not every department will have a dedicated truck company responding. The actions of both types of companies must be blended to achieve this outcome.
Training can also strengthen the combination of both truck and engine company functions. Firefighters must train in the same manner they will perform on the fireground – if only three people are going to be arriving first, then train that way. If only two people are going to be arriving first, the train to that reality. This is where fire departments can identify what gaps may exist and what actions can be accomplished or combined to become both effective and efficient when arriving on scene.
(1) Karter, Jr., Michael J. “FIRE LOSS IN THE UNITED STATES DURING 2009,” August 2010, NFPA.
(2) U.S. Fire Administration, “Residential Structure & Building Fires,” October 2008, FEMA.
Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot (MI) Fire Department. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, and India, and at FDIC. He is also the lead author of Residential Fire Rescue (Fire Engineering Books & Video). He can be contacted at
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