“Rules of Engagement” on the Fire Ground

By Ret. Chief Keith Padgett

Note: International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week is June 17-23. This article by Ret. Chief Keith Padgett highlights some of the IAFC’s Rules of Engagement for safety and survival on the fireground and how lessons learned at one incident demonstrate how these rules can alleviate a myriad of potential issues on the scene. 

A number of years ago a friend of mine, who is the local fire chief of a volunteer department, had a large apartment fire in his city. I sat that night listening to him run the fire as the incident commander and heard the event turn into almost total chaos. He had extreme difficulty in maintaining accountability as individual firefighters arrived on scene. Radio traffic became unreadable at times as communication escalated in the heat of the moment.

The fire started as an offensive fire attack but grew in size quickly, and my friend soon made the decision to move to a defensive mode. As he was attempting this transition, it became obvious that there was not a tactical level of supervision in place. This became an issue in his attempt to set up aerial ladders and water supply. He was finally able to gain control of the event as a defensive fire and complete the extinguishment with no loss of life or injuries.

I gave him a call the next morning just to say that he did a good job in protecting the members of his organization and extinguishing the fire. We talked about several things from accountability on the fire scene to supervision, and we both praised his firefighters and their task level ability at the fire scene. They had performed countless hours of training on many subjects and were highly proficient. As I look back on it now, it was one of the first occasions that I had ever discussed Rules of Engagement on the fireground.

With this year’s Safety and Health Week theme of “Rules You Can Live By” I thought it would be appropriate to provide some of my friend’s suggestions to alleviate a few issues that he encountered that night, as they all fall in line with the Rules of Engagement.

  • Rapidly Conduct, or Obtain, a 360 Degree Situational Size-Up of the Incident.
  • Size-Up Your Tactical Area of Operation.
  • Determine the Occupant Survival Profile.

As we talked about ways to improve, he said that one of the things he wanted the first arriving fire officer to do was to conduct a 360 size-up to gather the initial information needed to develop a plan of attack. However, in this situation, what happened was that the initial crew pulled attack lines and began a fire attack with very little other information. He made a point to say that it wasn’t until several units had arrived on the scene that they realized how much fire involvement there was on the “C” side, or rear, of the building. The additional information totally changed their plan of attack and they had to regroup, writing off a large section of the structure.

  • Go in Together, Stay Together, Come Out Together.
  • Ensure Accurate Accountability of Every Firefighter Location and Status.

He told me of the great turnout that he had from the members of the organization – that they were true volunteers, stakeholders of the community – and how proud he was to be associated with these people. However, one problem that he encountered was with keeping up with all of the firefighters that arrived on scene. He said that every member was there to do whatever they could to help save lives and property; however, it was difficult for him to get them organized.

His solution was to implement a new accountability program that would establish crews with a leader as firefighters arrived on scene. His department already had a passport accountability policy in place that would assist him in his goal. These crews would work together the entire time they were at the event, solidifying the accountability system. Also, he would incorporate a tactical level of supervision to which the crews would directly report, streamlining not only accountability, but tactical direction such as fire control and search and rescue operations. This tactical level supervision would report directly to the incident commander in most situations.

  • Maintain Frequent Two-Way Communications and Keep Interior Crews Informed of Changing Conditions.
  • Obtain Frequent Progress Reports and Revise the Action Plan.
  • Constantly Monitor Fireground Communications for Critical Radio Reports.

As we talked, he stated that there were times during the fire he could not understand radio traffic or even who was trying to communicate due to the amount of traffic. It was his hope that by establishing a tactical level supervisor, such as a division or group, with all of the crews reporting to that supervisor, it would reduce some of the radio traffic, allowing him to maintain control of the communication process. These division/group supervisors could also provide progress reports and advise of changing conditions as the fire scene develops.

My friend hit on a number of items that morning, and possible solutions for his department, or maybe any department for that matter. This year during Safety and Health Week, take the time to review all of the Rules of Engagement for safety, health, and survival to see how we can all improve.

Keith Padgett is a 30 year veteran of the fire service and is currently serving as Fire Science Lead Faculty at Columbia Southern University. Padgett retired as Chief-Fire Marshal with Fulton County Fire-Rescue in Atlanta. He also serves as director-at-large for the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section.