Engine Operations: Locating the Fire

When starting operations at a fire in any occupancy, it’s not always apparent where the fire is located from the exterior. With no visible fire on arrival, for the most part the location and extent of the fire are usually uncertain. Often in larger occupancies, you may not see anything on arrival or only smell something. The stretching and operation of hoselines are dependent on the location and extent of the fire. You must first know where the fire is located to determine the size of hoseline needed and the location in which to stretch and operate this hoseline initially.

When responding to a report of fire in any occupancy, you have many size-up points you can run through before you ever arrive on the scene and implement a plan of action for attack. Before the alarm ever sounds, you should know the following: available and responding apparatus, available staffing, preplanned operations or procedures, available water supply, and weather conditions. Most of these size-up points are determined well before the fire occurs and shouldn’t be a surprise. Knowing the responding apparatus to certain types of alarms, the number of firefighters expected to respond, and preplans or response procedures and water supply for your response districts should be common knowledge to all-especially those in charge! Weather can change during the course of a shift or day; however, you generally know if it’s going to be hot or cold, rainy or snowy, well before the alarm sounds and what operating in or responding to a fire in these conditions involves.

Location and Extent

When you arrive at the fire, you must perform a size-up to stretch and operate a hoseline. This size-up involves many key components and the most important is probably the “location and extent” of the fire. This will lay the groundwork for all decisions and operations to be taken from the time you arrive. The “location and extent” also play into where firefighters are going to search and the likelihood of a successful search based on conditions encountered.

The location and extent allow you to initially determine “offensive” or “defensive” operations. In a fully involved building fire, the defensive option is fairly easy to ascertain. In a well-involved fire with limited apparatus and staffing, a quick knockdown (transition attack) with larger streams or master streams might be appropriate. When a fire is impinging on another occupancy and directly impacting the other occupancy, it is likely most important to put a hoseline on the occupancy initially. All of these decisions are based on the “location and extent” of the fire, and the decision to operate defensively, offensively, or transitionally is made based on this size-up factor.


When you arrive on the scene and the location and extent of fire are not readily identified, someone must investigate. Typically, we try to pull the engine past the structure, which allows for a three-sided view before you ever leave the apparatus. This three-sided view can provide you with a lot of information and sometimes all the information you will need to start an attack on the fire. If you cannot successfully determine the type of building, terrain issues, layout of the building, entrance and exit points, hazards, presence of below grade areas, and presence of smoke or fire from three sides, then you need to investigate a little further either by walking to the rear or going to the interior to determine what is going on.

The last thing you want to do is stretch a hoseline to the wrong location and waste time repositioning the line. Water on the fire in the quickest time possible is the most important task an engine company can perform. If you stretch into an entrance in an occupancy that doesn’t lead to the fire, you’ve wasted precious time. When it’s not obvious, always have the company officer investigate. The rest of the firefighters remain at the engine and await an order to stretch and where to stretch. This doesn’t mean you sit idly in the apparatus; you can get hose on your shoulder and be ready to deploy it. It takes training and discipline to operate in this manner. For most multiple dwellings and residences in our response area, the firefighters working for us can get the line to an entry point without the officer’s help. Again, this comes down to not wanting to waste time and stretch to the wrong location. Another tip is to use quick information gathered from people on the scene by asking: “Where is the fire and what is the quickest way to get to it?” This can provide the officer and nozzle team with valuable information to facilitate a quicker stretch.

When there is smoke and no fire visible, you need to determine where the smoke is coming from. You should not bypass any area or floor where there is smoke without looking for the fire. Typically, when looking at three sides of a residence with a basement, you can tell if there is fire in the basement from the basement windows on the exterior. There will be smoke pushing from around the frame or at the base of the exterior framing or you can identify the presence of smoke by simply knocking the window well before entering the building. This may lead you to stretch to the exterior basement entrance (if present) with the first line, since the presence of smoke on the lowest level indicates this is where the fire is located. Be aware of the presence of balloon framing in residences. A fire may start in the walls or levels below where it presents on arrival; ensure you don’t pass fire before committing to the upper floors.

Addressing the Fire

Fires on lower floors are typically easier to get to; however, they can be more dangerous for others above the fire. Quick work by the engine company stretching to and operating on these fires will save more lives than any other action taken. Fires on top floors are also easier to fight because you can come from below them in a relatively safe manner as you begin your attack. The difference is the upper-floor fires can extend to or be located in attic spaces, cocklofts, or knee wall voids and conditions can quickly deteriorate with rapid fire progression, smoke explosions, or backdrafts.

In large buildings or occupancies, you might have to come in an entrance other than the front door. The stairwell on the sides or rear might be the best route for the hose stretch. The side door on a residence might be the best access to the stairwell. When the location of the fire isn’t obvious, search for the location before committing hoselines to the wrong location. If you work in an engine and truck system, often the truck company can search for the fire while lines are getting positioned to avoid wasting time searching while stretching. Ensure communication occurs between these companies!

Sometimes smoke will identify what is burning. Brown smoke usually identifies structural members burning. Black or dark smoke is usually contents burning. Smoke can also identify how large or dangerous the fire conditions are. Very fast moving, nasty, turbulent smoke is looking for oxygen and is signifying a free-burning fire remote from the exit point, which can quickly lead to flashover and involvement of those spaces in the path of smoke.

When you are entering a structure and don’t know where the fire is, you must search for the fire as you are advancing. You don’t want to take the line into and around every room, so use your senses to determine where the fire is located. If you are fortunate enough to have a thermal imaging camera (TIC), it is invaluable for helping you locate the fire. When you are advancing into the occupancy, stop periodically and listen for the sounds of burning. Look up and around you; don’t get tunnel vision, as you don’t want to miss flashes of fire or rollover above your head as you advance. If you feel heat, you are probably getting close. Often on the engine, turning on flashlights hampers the ability to see a fire in the smoke. The flashlight, while a beacon of safety for some, just lights up the smoke and makes seeing fire above or next to you more difficult. Flashlights are invaluable for search, victim assessment, and packaging and overhaul but often hamper firefighters moving a line.

As the officer, you shouldn’t go into a room in a residence or other occupancy and have the line follow you. Go into the room, stop, listen, look, and feel, and you should be able to tell if the fire is in that location by this simple size-up. Now realize if the room is not 10 feet by 15 feet, this might not always work! If your senses don’t tell you the fire is there or your TIC doesn’t show fire there, move on to the next room or space. Sometimes it’s easy to get turned around. Pay attention to where the fire and smoke are venting and, as you go into a building, navigate rooms, make turns, and then go up the stairs, realize the direction you were facing initially may be different. Straight run stairs directly inside a residence’s front door with fire out the front upper windows usually indicate a 180-degree turn at the top of the stairs; however, with additions, remodels, and some modern residences with elaborate floor plans, it’s easy to get turned around when going up or down-so pay attention as you advance!

In multiple dwellings, if there is smoke in the hallway, then you are likely going to the door or apartment where the door is open or burned through. Doors opening toward you are generally work areas, storage, laundry, trash chutes, or elevators. Doors opening away from you are generally the apartments or stairwell doors. If you get to a hallway in a multiple dwelling from the stairwell and have to determine to go right or left, then look at the smoke at the ground. Usually whatever direction it is going down low is the direction of the fire as it’s pulling in the cool air from the bottom and exiting it from the top.

Training and Practice

Focus on disciplined fireground operations and communicate with your crew and other crews to determine the location of the fire. Once it is located, all efforts of the engine company should be placed on getting the line into service on the fire. Practice discipline on every run. When investigating odors or alarms, go to work like you would at a fire. When we go investigate an odor of smoke, our personnel have hose on their shoulders waiting on the order to stretch and though which door. Lastly, make sure you identify the type of stairwell or any obstacles to those stretching when calling for the line to be deployed.

Training and practicing skills are always the keys to success on the fireground. Ensure you are ready to operate at the next fire by practicing today!

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