Building a Better Definition of Fire Attack: April

Building a Better Definition of Fire Attack

Culture of safety vs. culture of extinguishment. Offensive vs. defensive operations. Interior vs. exterior fire attack. The classrooms of fire service conferences, the pages of trade journals, and the kitchen table conversations of stations across the country have been filled over the past five years with a heated debate about the changing fireground and whether traditional tactics need to change as well. Some see the introduction of new tactics such as transitional attack as a failure to live up to the fire service’s sworn mission; others argue such tactics are not new at all. Bring up positive pressure ventilation and flow paths, and the conversation becomes even more complex.

“If you ask people what they mean by ‘fire attack,’ that can mean 20 different things to 20 different people,” says Chief Rick Mueller of the Waterford (Wis.) Fire Department, who retired recently as a battalion chief from the West Allis (Wis.) Fire Department. He sees the debate as less of a controversy and more of a misunderstanding. “If I qualify what fire attack means, now it locks me into behaviors that some people don’t necessarily want to be accountable for.”

For Mueller, defining what fire attack is—specifically defining its various stages—is essential to ensuring that the fire service doesn’t continue to lose and damage firefighters to preventable line-of-duty deaths. “Today, science has caught up to our tradition,” Mueller says. “Science is saying to us, maybe you should think about the way you think about fighting fires. Because that will in turn affect what we actually do; it will affect our behavior.”

Today at FDIC, Mueller will lay out his definition for fire attack strategy in the session, “Are You ‘Four’ Strategy?” I caught up with him last month to discuss his approach, which, as the title says, has four parts:

  1. Defensive
  2. Transitional
  3. Marginal
  4. Offensive

We tend to refer to a fire attack operation as being “defensive” or “offensive,” with some initially offensive attacks moving to defensive if conditions deteriorate—“surround and drown.” One thing to understand right away about how Mueller uses these terms: “It’s a progressive approach; it’s not all or nothing,” he says.

In fact, Mueller strongly believes every call should start out defensive. “The ‘first gear’ in the fire service is an aggressive offensive attack,” he says. “Our current aggressive offensive attack starts when the call comes in and is manifested by the way we drive. Too many firefighters don’t stop on red, drive too fast, and don’t wear seatbelts. Unfortunately, that produces a lot of collateral damage.”

So, Mueller flips that approach. “Instead, you start defensively, which means you protect exposures on the way to the scene, not just at the scene,” he says. “When the call comes in, you respond at a reasonable speed, wear your seatbelt, and stop on red. That alone—just thinking defensively during the initial response—could reduce firefighter injuries by 6% and LODDs by about 25%. Additionally, the civilian exposure to injury and death from collisions with emergency vehicles could be lowered from the current 200 deaths and 16,000 injuries each year.”

In Mueller’s strategy, the defensive stage ends when the company arrives on scene and decides to take on more risk. “Then you enter the transitional stage—you determine there’s something to save,” he says.

The transitional stage begins with a 360-degree assessment. Mueller identifies six “targets” that officers should be looking for during the assessment.

  1. Visible rescue
  2. Exterior attack opportunities
  3. Structural profile
  4. Where the seat of the fire is
  5. If we’re going to ventilate or not
  6. Wind direction/speed

“When I make my transitional strategy, I complete the 360 addressing those targets,” Mueller says. “If I see a target, that causes a behavior—you see a visible rescue, you save the person. See fire venting out of the building, you put water on it. If you determine the seat of the fire is in the basement, that affects where we’re going in.”

The transitional stage essentially involves taking steps from the outside to make the interior conditions less hazardous. “If we’ve cooled the interior, and controlled the flow path, we now have a much less hazardous interior when we do go inside,” Mueller says.

But it’s not a guarantee. That’s why the next state in his strategy isn’t offensive attack, it’s marginal.

Mueller’s strategy draws a strong distinction between interior conditions with good visibility and conditions with poor visibility. “When we go in and we don’t have visibility to stand or at least crouch—that’s marginal strategy,” he says. “Because the situation could go either way. [When you have poor visibility, the environment] contains the most deadly components of our profession—lack of visibility creates disorientation; smoke is fuel that can lead to flashover; and fire can in turn lead to floor or ceiling collapse. These are the three top killers of firefighters inside buildings.”

That’s why Mueller sticks to a strict 10-minute timeframe for crews operating interior under marginal conditions. “That’s based on the science of how long a building will stay together, how long a victim can survive and how long our air supply will last,” he says. “If you still have marginal conditions after 10 minutes, you must exit.”

The fourth and final part of the strategy comes when interior conditions allow crews enough visibility to stand. If you can see the floor and about 5–6 feet in front of you, Mueller says, that’s when the offensive strategy begins. “If I can see my opponent, the floor, the furniture, I can find the fire and put it out quickly,” he notes.

Again, Mueller stresses the importance of visibility. “Just imagine if you had two boxers in the ring and both were blindfolded—that’s what it’s like during marginal conditions,” he says. “The way those boxers would blindly swing at one another—that’s what we look like when we’re doing search, trying to orient ourselves to an unseen enemy. You can’t see when the punch is coming. Take the blindfolds off and you have a properly prepared and equipped fighter—that’s a huge powerful force. Now you place it against a fire with both of its hands tied behind its back (lower heat and less smoke), and we’re going to win.”

Mueller notes that during offensive operations, there is no strict time limit as with marginal conditions, mostly because there’s no need—most of the time, you’re going to find the fire and put it out quickly. “I was a battalion chief for 20 years; I had to sit in a car and trust what my people were doing,” he says. “In marginal conditions, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt; after 10 minutes we pull them out. Because after 10 minutes there’s no life safety issue except for the one that we put into the building. When the tables turn, however, and they have visibility, they have full control of the atmosphere, they can get to the seat of the fire and make the stop—then I rely on them.”

Use Your Head
Mueller has used his four-part strategy in his department for about 10 years, with great success. “In my department, 70 to 80 percent of the time we’re extinguishing the fire in 10 or fewer minutes after we go in—before we need to pull the crews out,” he says. “Many are extinguished in just a few minutes. Injuries are few and far between and when they do occur they’re not severe—turned ankle, elbow hit on a door jamb. We’ve had no smoke inhalation injuries in 20 years. That’s the result of thinking about how we’re going to do our job. This strategy defines the zones where we’re going to fight the fire. Your thinking has to match the zone.”

As Mueller has branched out beyond his department, teaching this strategy to firefighters across the country, he has received mostly positive feedback. There is some resistance, he notes, from firefighters who believe strongly that fire attack should involve an inherently aggressive mindset.

Although Mueller’s strategy is focused on reducing the risk of injury and death to firefighters during initial response and fire attack, he also points out that it addresses another big factor killing firefighters: cancer. “This strategy helps to protect firefighters from the exposures that cause cancer,” he says. “Firefighters masking up at the front door are inhaling the components of combustion. Studies have shown that hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide can exist 20 or more feet outside from a fire building, even if there’s no visible smoke. When you lessen the inhalation and thermal exposure on the inside and outside, the concentration of the toxic products is reduced.”

Mueller notes that his strategic approach to fire attack is not an exact science—but that’s OK, “because most firefighters aren’t scientists,” he says. “But it will protect them in our uncontrolled, unforgiving non-scientific laboratory—out in the real world.”


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