Lost and Found: Lessons from the Fireground

By Joe Pronesti, FASNY Convention Presenter

My mistake of getting “sidetracked” on arrival could’ve led to a serious problem on one of my fireground commands. Don’t let yourself be sidetracked at your next serious event.

Although I am not a military veteran, I have tons of respect for veterans and am an avid reader and student of military leadership and command. One particular book from a former Marine who fought in World War II describes the term “lost in the fog of war.”

According to this author, this expression describes both the literal fog created by the dust, smoke and debris of the battlefield and, more importantly, the mental fog of confusion and uncertainty created by a lack of knowledge of the enemy.

As my own worst critic and in a continuous effort to improve, I am always studying fires, my own and others, from around the country. While doing so, my mind continues to review the lessons from one fire in particular that I commanded and became “lost in the fireground.”

I share this experience with the intent of helping responders and future command officers not make my mistake of getting “lost.” After serious thought and study, I created a list of ways in which firefighters can become lost and some quick tips to help avoid these traps.

My Getting ‘Lost’ Adventure

Wednesday, December 30, 2009, was a cold and snowy day in my city of Elyria, Ohio. The day began as a typical shift during a holiday week. Administrative duties and lots of leftover Christmas goodies and coffee.

At approximately 1125 hours, the Elyria Fire Department received a call of a house fire at the corner of West River and Tattersall Court. This is an older area and the house was a typical area residence – a 21/2-story wood-frame building of balloon construction built at the turn of the century. An addition had been built at some point, which added to the difficulties of this fire.

As I was responding, dispatch advised me of multiple calls. The first indication of my “fog” was already upon me. Weighing heavily on my mind was the fact that our department was amid drastic personnel cuts and demotions, station closings and minimum staffing was eliminated. We staffed companies based on whoever showed up. This day, our staffing was 11 members with two engines, a truck and me in the shift commander vehicle.

Mutual aid was on my mind. Yet, after going to years and years of fires with adequate staffing to handle most fires like the one we would face this day, it wasn’t hard for me to make the mistake of thinking that whoever showed up could handle every type of fire.

On arrival, I was faced with a working fire on the first floor and the problem that would totally envelop me in a “fog”: a trapped viable victim. I say “viable” since numerous civilians on the scene were attempting to rescue a single resident inside. The civilians were speaking to the victim in the side doorway of the residence on the D side. All of this was being recorded by a news photographer and reporter from a Cleveland television station who happened on the fire while going to cover an unrelated event.

The video also assisted in my critique, as it documented fire spread and, although not on the radar quite yet in 2009, it was an excellent example of wind-driven firefighting and horizontal ventilation discipline. You can see one of the attempted rescuers knocking out windows with his shoe prior to our arrival.

The Fog Traps Me

The urgency of the situation, along with the citizen rescuers, kept me from doing an adequate size-up and, most importantly, a 360-degree walk-around of the residence. This critical mistake and not coordinating the ventilation of the rear windows almost caused the incineration of my nozzle firefighters.

They escaped unharmed but only because their protective gear held up even though it was damaged to the point of needing replacement. The heat also melted the remote microphone of the engine officer, causing the metal solder to ooze out of the top, rendering his radio unusable.

Yes, we flowed lots of water, as the video shows. The crews were spectacular and performed their duties flawlessly and with professionalism.

The truck crew found the victim not far from where the citizen rescuers were talking to him in the C-D area on division 1, but it was too late. He had expired.

If I had completed a 360, I would have had a much better view of the entire residence and its size and I would also have been able to read the smoke and conditions much better. The lack of arriving resources kept me from getting crews to all necessary areas. The firefighter assigned to outside ventilation did his job of venting ahead of the line, but my not recognizing the vents made by the citizen’s shoe and not coordinating the ventilation event caused more headaches.

I might also have been able to see the clues of a possible hoarding condition inside. Members in the attack said that conditions were made even worse by the excessive clutter. It wasn’t until a mutual aid Chief arrived that I got a good idea of the conditions and pulled members out to go defensive for a while to gain the upper hand.

The survivability profile of the victim deteriorated rapidly after my arrival and I failed to take that into consideration. I kept going on the fact that since the victim was seen alive by witnesses he must still be viable. However, the change in fire conditions dictated otherwise and I failed to compute that along with where I was going to place the first attack line.

We were lucky that day. All my crews went home even though the tragic fire killed the homeowner and I allowed the fog to envelop me.

Avoiding the “Fog” Trap

Following are some of the prime issues that can entrap us in a “fog” on the fireground:

Failing to complete a 360. I think we can all agree that the 360 must be performed on the fireground. There may be times when it is not feasible to do so, but when you can do it and know what to look for: basement issues, smoke, fire and victims. You will get lost in the fog when, as I did, you get caught up in civilians yelling or victims in distress. When a 360 is not done, adjust your attack thoughts and be pessimistic in your approach until a 360 is completed.

Not listening to dispatch information. How good of a listener are you? When responding, we must consider all the information given to us by dispatch en route. Some dispatchers are better than others. When dispatch gives out updated information such as multiple calls received or a very common one, “PD on scene reporting a working fire,” do you compute the information given to you? When receiving it, take the time to let the information sink in and ask yourself if the new information changes your size-up or tactics.

Not listening to on-scene reports and conditions, actions, needs (CAN) reports. Good company officers are the eyes and ears of a command officer. When I say “not listening,” I do not mean purposely disregarding what they are saying. I mean are you computing the information they are giving you?

“Bars on the window,” “appears to be a basement fire,” and “Chief, the hydrants in the area are bad” are all pieces of information on which the Chief will base his strategies. We must listen and decipher the information. FDNY Deputy Chief (Ret.) and author

Vincent Dunn says that life-threatening information on the fireground is not discovered by the incident commander (IC) but by firefighters. Sometimes, Dunn explains, their information can be vague or in bits and pieces. It’s up to the IC to put the puzzle together quickly.

Practice listening by playing audios of fires from your department or other departments. While listening to the reports to the IC ask yourself if you had received that information how you would have reacted to the communication. It may sound silly but it works. Try it.

Delay in getting water on the fire. By now, most of the fire service is aware of what is commonly called the “modern fire environment.” An environment in which furnishings release their heat faster than ever and our training must be geared toward getting water on the fire as soon as possible. When a delay occurs, things can go south in a hurry. Command, as well as all members on the fireground, must have a clock in their head. A delay in getting water to the seat of the fire has been cited as a factor in many firefighter Line of Duty Deaths.

The old rule of 20 minutes before you reevaluate things on the fireground does not exist anymore. It has gone the way of the landline phone and CDs. When your crews are having a tough time getting water on the fire within the first minutes, you are responsible for having a plan B. A recent Line of Duty Death report from a large Midwest fire department noted that crews failed to get water on an apartment fire for more than 15 minutes.

Lack of discipline in the collapse zone. Most of our work is done in one- and two-family dwellings. Even when faced with the Type II strip mall or stand-alone commercial building fire, we rarely set up collapse zones completely around the building. Sure, we are concerned about a facade collapse at a strip mall but for the most part, the fog gets thick when we are faced with Type III ordinary construction.

Disciplined sector officers need to hold members in check. A good rule to follow is if you go defensive, go with big streams and lines only – no small handlines. Members want to get close. They want to check a door or investigate a window. Command must take into consideration buildings separated by narrow alleys and streets. Crews can easily get sandwiched in between them, causing a big problem if a building collapses.

Exposure buildings are included. Two Philadelphia firefighters died while operating in an exposure building when the main fire building collapsed on top of the building in which they were operating. Set up your zones, announce them over the radio, establish sector bosses and make sure these zones are adhered to just as zealously as seat belts and the use of self-contained breathing apparatus.

Failure to sector the fireground. Cut up the pie! Today’s fireground is no place for a single Chief with a portable radio running laps around the building. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t get the fire under control within the first 15 minutes, and you have laid multiple lines and called additional alarms, begin sectoring the fireground. The fog can be thick and can lull you into thinking you can see it all. If your department does not have the resources, start researching now for ways to get command-level officers on additional alarms to use as sector bosses.

Note: think twice before assigning company officers to sector positions. Remember, these officers are programmed to handle (supervise) three to five personnel. Asking them to oversee three to five companies will overwhelm them, causing more headaches. If you must use company-level officers, train them in handling sectors.

Hoarding conditions. An increasing issue facing firefighters is hoarding conditions. There has been a plethora of articles and information disseminated on this situation. The company officer or commander who is advised of hoarding conditions by the crews, or who sees these conditions, should be prepared for a defensive firefight. We are obligated to protect our crews. These conditions can be impossible to overcome. Study up on this issue and plan accordingly. Normal tactics such as search and hose line advance will be struggles.

If you are from a smaller department like mine, and don’t see the number of fires a big city department may face, preparation and practice are the keys to success. Prepare yourself mentally as a fireground boss. Play the “what if” game constantly, use simulation software, read everything from all types of viewpoints and truly engross yourself into the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports detailing previous Line of Duty Deaths.

Be open and honest with yourself and always strive to get better. There are no experts on the fireground. The fine line between success and failure can be razor thin and an engaged, educated leader makes all the difference sometimes.

After the Fire

June 17, 1972, was a deadly day in the Boston Fire Department, when nine firefighters were killed during a collapse that occurred roughly 58 minutes after the fire was declared under control. The cause of the original fire was not known. The subsequent collapse was attributed to the failure of an overloaded seven-inch steel column whose support had been weakened when a new duct had been cut beneath it. The extra weight of water used to fight the fire on the upper floors exacerbated the situation.

Never let your guard down after flowing hundreds of gallons of water into a building. Continually assess conditions. Crews will be tired and in a hurry to get back to quarters. Also, be alert for ice buildup in cold weather. Be pessimistic when evaluating a fire-damaged building.

Joe Pronesti is a 30-year veteran of the City of Elyria Fire Department in Northern Ohio. He is currently serving as an Assistant Chief in the role of shift commander of the B Platoon. He has written extensively for Fire Engineeringmagazine and online platforms. Pronesti is an instructor at the FDIC and also a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Executive Officer Program.