Indicators for Switching from Offensive to Defensive Attack

One of the most courageous decisions an incident commander (IC) can make is to pull their crews out of a burning building to go defensive. Firefighters want to be where the action is; they want to “go in and get it” so they can puff out their chests and say, “We got it.”

Pulling out of a building seems downright cowardly to some firefighters, who may go as far as to pretend they didn’t hear the IC’s order to retreat. But there are plenty of examples of companies that thought they were making good progress when deteriorating conditions elsewhere on the fireground put their lives directly at risk. This is why all crews should listen to the IC–it’s the IC’s job to recognize all fireground dangers and make the difficult decision to evacuate the building and go into defensive mode.

Under What Conditions?

One major challenge lies in understanding which conditions necessitate going defensive. If we know a life is at risk during a structure fire, we obviously won’t abandon a building as readily as we do when we know everyone is out. If we know the occupants are out (I know that sometimes it’s hard to be sure everyone is out) or if we’ve already made the rescues, the only life hazard left is the firefighters inside the building. Therefore, we must consider what really happens after a home or building is subjected to an intense fire. My experience is that the structure either gets torn down or extensively rebuilt to be nicer than before the incident. (Of course, you can argue that these things don’t happen in every neighborhood, and I’ve seen that as well.)

That said, how much risk should we expose firefighters to when performing an interior attack? To manage any level of risk on the fireground, a number of conditions should be monitored and constantly considered during the incident.

Building Conditions
As you arrive and set up on the fireground, take a good look at the building. Are there obvious safety problems? Is structural damage or collapse evident? Are the stairs solid or are they beginning to weaken? It’s still very difficult in many cases to know exactly when a building will fail or become unsafe for firefighter occupancy during an incident. Some conditions are apparent, but successfully judging them requires training and experience. Efforts are being made on several fronts to develop real-time, computerized simulations during an incident (or better, before the incident occurs!), which will give us a close estimate of when firefighters must withdraw and go defensive; however, this will require further engineering and solid preplanning. Note: To better understand how structures are put together–and how they might come apart–enroll in classes on building construction and read “Building Construction for the Fire Service” by Frank Brannigan.

What color is the smoke upon arrival, and does the smoke color change during the attack? Black or brown smoke and blackened windows are signs of serious fire conditions inside. And if that smoke doesn’t change from black or brown to white during the attack, or if visible fire is spreading, the fire is continuing its assault on the building’s structure. Failure to achieve smoke color change indicates that crews are not making progress, even if they report otherwise.

What about means for ingress and egress for responders? Can firefighters get into the building safely, and are there adequate, clear paths of egress so crews can escape the building quickly if something goes wrong? Are doors equipped with multiple, challenging locking mechanisms? Are windows boarded up or barred? If so, can these obstacles be quickly removed to provide escape routes? If not, the danger level to interior operations increases significantly.

Wherever possible, firefighters should maintain two means of egress from operating areas. In many cases, this means ensuring that ground and aerial ladders are placed quickly and effectively. If manpower doesn’t allow for this, interior operations should proceed with caution.

In addition, if the incident presents the following threats, the IC will most likely need to withdraw the attack crew:

  • The ventilation crew is struggling with efforts to open up the building.
  • Fire is spreading over the head of the attack crew or spreading underneath them (to read more on basement fires, see “Fire Down Below,” June 2008, p. 30).
  • The incident involves flammable liquids, gases or solids, poisons, radioactive materials or other hazardous materials.
  • One or more explosions occurs at the incident.
  • Building safety features, including protective stairway railings, sprinklers or other fire and smoke control features, fail to operate properly.

Equipment Conditions
Many equipment issues can drive an operation toward the defensive mode. Problems with pumps on engine companies, as well as water supply problems, can make it impossible to continue an offensive attack. A hydrant evolution may not go off smoothly, a hoseline may become damaged and break, or a tanker may not arrive in a timely fashion. Important: All engine company driver/operators must ensure that, if they start operating on scene with tank water, they top off the tank as soon as a water supply is established. The tank supply protects the interior crew if and when they need to back out of a building, even if the water supply to the fireground fails. However, when the attack line fails, there is no protection for the interior crew, and they will need to bail immediately.

If manpower is light, exhausting the attack team’s breathing apparatus may signal the need to go defensive. Most breathing apparatus will last 30 minutes or less under intense fire-attack conditions, so if crews haven’t made a great deal of progress by that time, they must change tactics.

Staffing Issues
Staffing can also determine interior or exterior operations. If you have only two firefighters on scene, interior operations will be impossible to perform safely. A few additional firefighters might be just enough to attempt a quick rescue if needed, but they will quickly become exhausted, eliminating the option to perform an interior attack.

Other difficulties may also exhaust crews, creating the same scenario. These difficulties may include a firefighter going down on the fireground, which will focus the efforts of remaining scene personnel on rescuing the responder. Firefighters may also be exposed to unusual conditions, such as civil unrest, building occupants using various weapons or highly hazardous contents.

Fireground Conditions
Finally, the incident may simply be too large for handlines and interior firefighting. Large-scale fire conditions require larger and longer application of water that generally cannot be accomplished with handlines. If the incident requires the application of a master stream, even for a quick knockdown, it must be confirmed that all firefighters are clear of the interior area into which master streams will be trained. Remember, 500 gpm is more than two tons of water per minute being discharged into the building.


The safety of any fire crew on the fireground lies in the hands of the IC, which is why ICs must consider going defensive on almost any incident and be ready when the time comes to switch tactics. This means they must prepare and effectively position exterior attack weapons, including deck guns, aerial master streams and the like, as well as prepare water supply options for this equipment.

All the conditions I discussed concerning the building, the equipment and the manpower must be continually monitored by the IC to determine if they can continue an effective interior attack. The IC must also continually monitor all sides of the building, as well as conditions on each floor to ensure they are safe for interior operations. This requires an effective command post and communications system, along with additional command officers in place who report conditions regularly to the command post.

Fire can be and is fought safely from inside the fire building every day across North America. However, ICs must have the courage and determination to remove their firefighters to the exterior when the safety risks to those operating inside become too great. Firefighters must also respect the order to leave the building and transition to an exterior attack to maximize their own personal safety.

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