First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

Defense, Offense, Defense …. OK?

A Commentary

I recently listened to a fire department work a one-story wood-frame residential structure fire. The first engine company arrived to find heavy involvement and stated that an offensive attack and primary search were impossible at that time. After a few more companies and a BC arrived they decided to go offensive. This entailed sending crews in on handlines and having a truck company go to the roof to cut a hole. They went defensive again shortly thereafter.

This raises a good question about basic philosophy of strategic decision-making. Is it ever okay, short of a rescue, to go FROM a defensive strategy TO an offensive strategy? There are a number of foundational questions here: what indicated the need for a defensive strategy initially? Was it related to lack of resources? Was it related to conditions? Was it related to water supply or some other unexpected physical problem? Just asking this question can lead to an interesting discussion about our own departments’ philosophies.

(Bozeman Daily Chronicle)

I think it is safe to say that, in many places, the strategic offensive/defensive decision is predicated on the conditions found without much regard for resource availability. Brunacini talks about the imperative of not overrunning your resources in his Fire Command book, but I think this is often under-recognized in the heat of "battle." Let’s say your box alarm is the (traditional?) three-and-one response: three engines, a ladder, and a battalion chief. Your company officers (i.e., initial incident commanders) make strategic decisions in that context. Do they recognize, through their actions, the differing context when they are operating with only another engine company? The gist of this line of thinking is that operations that are advisable with a 3-1 response are not advisable with reduced responses, and decision-making should take that into account. In other words: conditions ARE NOT the sole, or even totally dominant, consideration in the strategic decision-making process. So maybe the defensive-to-offensive decision was based on the inability to extend an interior attack with just the one company on scene. Maybe they needed to meet up at the rally point (front yard) and bang it out with more than three guys.

Okay, that caveat out of the way, is it okay to go from defensive to offensive if your defensive strategy decision was based on conditions? If things were so bad that you couldn’t go in at the outset then why are they good enough three minutes later? That’s however many minutes of fire attacking the structure, smoke and heat building up in unburned spaces, and chances of survival of any victims precipitously declining. There are a ton of variables here: maybe the first-in company officer has a different idea of acceptable risk than the chief does. Maybe the size-up was incomplete and things weren’t as bad as they initially appeared. But still, is it a good idea? Is there liability that comes from reversing a decision to go defensive? How much property are you going to save if you wrote it off for however many minutes?

……… Patrick Mahoney

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