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In the Presence of Overwhelming Evidence: Self Awareness for Fire Commanders

Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

You might think that if a commander were faced with overwhelming evidence that the incident they are operating at was not going well they’d see it and do something different to prevent a tragic outcome. Yet, evidence to the contrary is well documented in the investigation reports. Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence, would a commander not change the plan?

One explanation is, they can’t see it. Not because they are physically removed from the incident and therefore cannot see the bad things coming (though that can be a contributor). Rather, they’re looking right at it and cannot see it. They’re blind to what is right in front of them.

It seems implausible. I know there are skeptics and critics. That is why I devised an exercise that I use in the Mental Management of Emergencies program where I have participants solve a simple problem. They write their answers down on a piece of paper and then raise their hand. I come around to see what they’ve written. Then I ask them if they are certain their answer is right. They look at the paper and affirm it is (often with a great degree of confidence).

The only problem is, their answer isn’t right and the instant I tell them it’s not and the reason its not, they immediately realize it. But right up to that point, they were blind to it. The overwhelming evidence that proved they were wrong was written in their very own handwriting and they were staring right at it. And yet they couldn’t see it.

This exercise serves as a powerful example of the stubborn nature of the human brain. You see what you want to see. You can lock on to a solution to a problem and refuse to see alternative solutions. And, sadly, in the presence of overwhelming evidence that you’re wrong, you may take a stand (even argue) that you are right. These human factor challenges can have catastrophic consequences for first responders. And sadly, you may never know you’re displaying these undesirable traits until it’s too late.

The key to working through these challenges is awareness. Not situational awareness. Rather, self-awareness. Understanding your own limitations and shortcomings as a human being and acknowledging these challenges exist. So when someone comes up to you and points out the overwhelming evidence that you’re on a path to catastrophe, you don’t reflexively argue and defend your position. Rather the alarm bells go off in your head and you seek to reconcile your error in time to change the outcome.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to his 30-plus year career in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters ( has enjoyed over a million visits since its launch in October 2011. He can be reached via e-mail at

Considerations for Smaller-Sized Departments Dealing with High-Rise Fires

Blog by Will Anderson
Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio

Serving as a Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio, there’s no shortage of work to do. Like most of you, our call volume is up, while our budget is down. In 2012, we answered nearly 8,500 calls for service with a staff of around 80 cross-trained firefighter/paramedics.

Euclid offers a little bit of everything. We have a major interstate (I-90) that allows more than 1 million vehicles to pass through each week. We have heavy and light industry, commercial buildings, two major rail lines, rapid transit buses, and a large Metro-Park, which all bring the chance for technical rescue and hazardous material incidents.

We also have an aging housing stock. More than 85 percent of homes were built before 1970, and thousands of these houses are nearing the century mark. Also, since the 1960s, the city has seen more than 30 high-rises built, all of fire-resistive construction (Type 1). Most are residential, a handful are commercial. Our tallest building is 21 stories and I’m told were home to the largest apartment complex for senior citizens between Chicago and New York City.

Daily, we’re faced with EMS calls, elevator emergencies, alarm activations, odor investigations, or some type of fire in these buildings. The personnel of the Euclid Fire Department have become very well accustomed to operating in our high-rise buildings.

This blog will cover a serious fire in a seven-story commercial building that I functioned as Incident Commander (IC). There were several lessons learned and reinforced from this fire that I wish to pass on. This isn’t to say I’m an expert, I haven’t seen it all, but there was a lot to learn from this experience that I’d like to share:


When I entered the fire service in 1995, it was taboo to talk about mistakes made at a fire. It was perceived as a sign of weakness. If you learned anything from anyone else, it was usually how to not do something. A little over a decade ago, however, I realized there was a better way to look at things. Professional development took on a new meaning for me. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough training. This belief still holds true today.

The fire I’m focusing on in this article occurred at 3 a.m. We received multiple calls for fire showing from a high-rise office building. It was only six months prior I was with a crew of firefighters performing a company inspection of this building. I remember thinking then that a fire in this 60,000 square foot building could be very bad. Now we were faced with fire showing from multiple windows on the second floor.

Prior to my arrival, I requested our Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) to be activated. We were responding with two engines, one truck and three ambulances. I was in a command vehicle. We knew all hands would be going to work based on what we were being told. The mutual aid request would bring an additional three engines, one truck, and one ambulance from neighboring cities. I should mention that our medics assigned to an ambulance typically function in a firefighting capacity at working fires unless they’re specifically designated to serve as an EMS crew.

On arrival, crews began receiving their assignments. Attack was the first assignment given. It’s been my experience that the sooner we get water on any fire, the better things seem to be. The fire was auto-exposing up to the third floor. Due to the size of the fire, I assigned a back-up line to protect the attack crew. The third assignment given was vertical ventilation of the stairwell. This process consisted of opening up roof doors and roof hatches.

What working incident could go without a problem or two, right? During the offensive firefight, interior crews communicated they were making progress, but they had low pressure. A few moments later the pump operator informed me we had lost our supply line. Suddenly, a large amount of water was seen bubbling up from underground. We had a water main break and lost our hydrant.

At that point, interior crews had made some progress, but I ordered all interior crews down to the first floor until a new supply could be established. Within a couple of minutes, we had secured a second water supply from a neighboring department (Willoughby Hills Fire Department), which also responded on the box. In the meantime, the assisting Wickliffe Fire Department, which was handling RIT duties, was redeployed to the exterior to set up a ground monitor on the Delta side of the building to prepare for a defensive attack. The team secured its own water supply to support efforts. Fortunately, we never had to go defensive on this fire.

Interior crews quickly went back to work on Division 2 of the building. Searches were being conducted on the upper floors, utilities were being controlled, and significant progress was being made. About this time I received a radio report that a large section of drop ceiling had collapsed on a crew of firefighters, but entanglement was being addressed. One firefighter was able to free himself and his crew with large wire cutters he carries for such an event. A “MAYDAY” was never called because this well-trained crew kept its calm and performed extremely well under pressure. A back-up crew was in place and RIT was standing by if either were needed. Fortunately, neither was.

This fire reinforced many different topics relating to our job and our safety. Here’s an overview of the key takeaways:

>> Small departments are initially at a disadvantage for serious fires in high-rises: We know high-rises are not relegated to metropolitan areas only. Smaller cities have these building, and despite limited staffing, need to be ready. We have a minimum staffing of three on each apparatus (one officer and two firefighters). Ambulances have a minimum of two. We typically arrive with 10-12 firefighters at a high-rise incident. We’re forced to rely on mutual aid from surrounding communities. Getting that first line in operation is extremely important. The saying is so true: So goes the first line, so goes the fire.

>> Training is paramount: Training issues in high rises can provide a department with opportunities to hone their skills. Pay attention during company inspections. Know the locations of the FDCs, standpipes, and boiler and elevator rooms. Are there compactor shafts in your high-rises? What’s your plan for a compactor fire? Do you know which type of elevator key is needed? Are the elevators hydraulic or electric? Do you know the numbering system of the apartments? Where is the Knox box location? If you open a standpipe but have no water, can you troubleshoot the problem? Are you hooking up on the fire floor or the floor below? Do your standpipes have pressure-reducing valves (PRV)? The opportunities to learn are nearly endless in a high-rise. Do your part to teach your younger, less-experienced members how to stay alive in these buildings.

>> Complacency: If we bring a 2.5-story wood-frame mindset to a high-rise building, were setting ourselves up for failure. Failure in our business means injury and maybe death. Our department has a good amount of experience with fires in residential high-rises. We lack experience with fires in commercial high-rises. As I was giving assignments to crews at this fire, I told each crew to slow down and think about what we were going into. I told them this fire was different than what were used to. After the fire, several members came up to me and thanked me for telling them that. It made them realize the seriousness of the fire and how a commercial high-rise differs from a residential high-rise. Residential high-rises of Type 1 construction are compartmentalized very well. It’s unlikely the fire will extend beyond the apartment of origin unless it auto-exposes to the floor above or the occupant leaves the apartment door open as they escape. By code, the doors are supposed to be self-closing. Also, the apartments are typically no larger than 700-800 square feet. Conversely, commercial high-rises cover large open areas. Each floor of the fire building we faced was nearly 8,000 square feet in size. Most are much larger than this. Also, commercial high-rises likely have increased fire loads, maze-like interiors, HVAC systems that can spread smoke and fire, and drop ceilings that may have illegally-stored wiring and conduit above the ceiling panels. When these drop due to fire exposure, they can trap and kill unsuspecting firefighters below. The point is to know your buildings!

>> Role of the Incident Commander: It’s easy for a new command-level officer to feel the need to help by pulling hose, propping doors, making a connection to a hydrant, etc. when staffing is limited in a small department. Don’t do it! Another featured contributor at TargetSolutions is Dr. Richard Gasaway. He is considered the subject matter expert on situational awareness and writes extensively on the topic and how it pertains to the role of the Incident Commander (IC). Please take the time to read his material. It will make your fireground safer! To provide crews with the best possible chance for success, an IC needs to be totally focused on his/her job. If an IC is pulling hose, how can he/she be focusing on the big picture? We face risk at each fire we respond to. As an IC, some risk can be controlled and some can’t. You owe it to your personnel to provide them with the best chance for success. You can do this by totally focusing on the needs of the incident, staying one step ahead, knowing your personnel, and delegating tasks to support officers or senior advisors.

This first article covered a lot of information. I hope it stimulates some discussion amongst your members around the kitchen table. Regardless, firefighters have a duty to pass on their experience to new members. Dennis Smith of FDNY (retired) once said, “a true mark of a leader lies in how he treats and teaches the lowest member of a department: the probie.” Officers have a duty and obligation not only to their firefighters, but also to their families. Company officers, you have to do your part to make sure your crew goes home safe and healthy at the end of their shifts.

Chief Officers have the same job, but also the additional responsibility of doing their part to make sure these same firefighters go home safe and healthy at the end of their careers. By working together, we can make that happen.

Thanks for reading and stay safe!


About the Author

Will Anderson is a Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio. He’s in his 18th year in the fire service and is certified as a State of Ohio Firefighter 2, Fire Instructor, and Paramedic. He recently completed his Fire Officer 1, 2, and 3 training in addition to his Blue Card certification. He has an Associate’s degree in Fire Science, another in Emergency Medical Services, and is nearing completion of his Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science Administration.

Fire Service Needs Leaders Who Are Willing to Do the Right Thing

Blog by Richard Blackmon

Captain, Fulton County Fire Rescue Department (Ga.)

Have you ever noticed that doing the right thing takes more work than not doing the right thing? Sometimes, it would just be much easier to just turn a blind eye, right? But in our profession, it’s essential we never turn that blind eye. Reason being, someone might get hurt or killed.

Doing the right thing starts with rookie firefighters and goes all the way to the top. When the new firefighter is doing their regular daily routine, such as house work, do they always do the right thing?

Sometimes it might be easier to look past the item that needs cleaning, but why not just take that extra step and clean it? When the driver is checking off the equipment and sees that something needs attention, it’s on them to do the right thing and get it done. If someone’s life ever depends on that equipment, it will be too late to go back and do the right thing.

As a fire officer, doing the right thing is critical to the department. Holding personnel accountable and to a high standard is essential. If you make a practice of turning a blind eye, you might as well wear blinders to work.

Once you let something just go by failing to take action you have set a low benchmark for yourself. Trust me when I say it takes work to always do the right thing. You have to set your standards early in your career and stay focused and dedicated.

Sometimes it will take courage. But be strong. Don’t ever be afraid to do the right thing. You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the person you’re looking at. Not your boss or subordinates or peers, but you!

You can never get in trouble for following your departments SOPs. Set your bar high, stand tall and do the right thing. You’ll be better for it and so will your department and the community you serve.

About the Author

Richard Blackmon is a captain with the Fulton County Fire Rescue Department in Georgia. He has worked in the fire service for more than 15 years and is a training officer for his department. Before joining the fire service, he served as a master sergeant in the US Air Force and saw combat in Grenada, Panama and the first Gulf War.

Riveting Documentary ‘Burn’ Serves as Reminder About the Heroes We Serve Every Day

Blog by Rich Miron
Marketing Manager with TargetSolutions


BURN – Official Theatrical Trailer (2013) from BURN on Vimeo.


I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen in 32 years of firefighting.
Dave Parnell, Detroit Fire Department

These chilling words open the gripping new documentary Burn, which puts audiences up close and personal with the unbelievable challenges the Detroit Fire Department faces on a daily basis.

Before this review goes any further, it should be noted Detroit Fire Department is a client of TargetSolutions and has been since 2006. It’s not pandering to say, it’s impossible to watch this film and not be completely inspired by the courage of these incredibly brave souls who serve this city during its darkest hours.

Here at TargetSolutions, we have a slogan used to motivate employees: We Serve Heroes Every Day. Those five words posted throughout our office walls will never be truer than after watching Burn, subtitled One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit.

Soon after Parnell’s grizzled voice opens the film, which played last week at Horton Plaza in San Diego during Firehouse World, filmmakers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez put the city’s dire situation into context. Consider these facts reported in the movie:

>> Detroit’s total population has been slashed by more than 60 percent since the 1950s

>> Poverty has reached 33 percent

>> Unemployment is 29 percent

>> Approximately 80,000 homes are considered vacant

In 1954, Detroit staffed more than 1,800 firefighters. In 2010, that number had been slashed in half while facing 300 percent more fire calls. In fact, the department is tasked with 30 structure fires per day, and as one firefighter in the film estimates, about 95 percent are caused by arson.

To put those alarming numbers into perspective, Los Angeles, a city of 4 million, sees 11 structure fires per day. Never mind the fact its population is more than five times larger than Detroit’s.

It’s all preposterous, but true, making it a story audiences need to see, not really for the entertainment value, however, it’s incredibly well shot, featuring intense action scenes orchestrated with gritty rock blaring as a backdrop and skillful storytelling about several of the departments most relatable characters, but to gain a true appreciation for what this department is up against.

The film is focused on Engine Company 50, which is located on Detroit’s blighted east side where emergency responders risk their lives every single shift. One of the films characters, Brendan Doogie Milewski, demonstrates this unfortunate reality. Milewski, 30, was trampled as a building crashed down and is now paralyzed, confined to a wheel chair. He was one of the lucky ones, however, as several firefighters died in the collapse.

Burn documents Milewski’s story, showing some of his most personal moments, including when he meets with a doctor who offers his long-term prognosis. It’s just a miracle more guys aren’t killed or hurt on the job, he says at one point — a statement that couldn’t be more precise.

Milewski is not the only sympathetic character. Parnell is followed during his final days on the job after 33 years of loyal service. Some might wonder why Parnell and the others are willing to risk their lives in these conditions. But for Parnell, Detroit is home and always will be. He’ll fight until the end for it.

The film doesn’t really have an antagonist, but new fire commissioner Donald Austin is tasked with the unpopular mission of making the departments shrinking budget manageable. In an increasingly difficult environment, with malfunctioning equipment, a need for more manpower and compressed resources, it’s a tall order. Austin could have stopped production of this truth-telling documentary with a social conscience at any point. He didn’t and should be commended.

Burn is unique in that it mixes the kind of powerful imagery that would make a summer blockbuster proud with the larger, political issues the city of Detroit faces. The film was shot mostly during 2011 and was funded entirely by tax-deductible donations by corporations and individual supporters, most notably General Motors. These contributions allowed the film crew to tell this important, independently-made story that is only playing on select dates, in select theatres.

To them, thank you. Here at TargetSolutions, we serve heroes every day. Realizing just who some of these heroes are, and what they’re really facing, can only help us take our jobs a little more seriously.

About the Author
Rich Miron started working with TargetSolutions in April of 2010. He serves as the company’s marketing manager. Before joining the team, Rich worked as a journalist and editor for several publications, including The Camp Pendleton Scout and the North County Times. Rich has a degree in journalism from San Diego State University.

Discovering the New Norm for EMS Providers

Blog by Tim Holman, BA, EMTP, CFO, EMSI
Chief of German Township, Fire & EMS (Clark County, Ohio)

EMS services across the country are discovering the New Norm for EMS providers. Business as usual is out the door and the challenges facing managers and providers have never been tougher. Here are a few issues to consider.

As budgets shrink, staffing issues will increase. Shifts will be running with fewer people. Complicating operations, even more back-to-back calls will place greater demand on the service. Mutual aid is an option but many services will be unable to assist due to their own call volumes and short staffing issues.

Call volumes in general will continue to rise. Some citizens will use EMS as their only source for entering the healthcare system. New healthcare laws will make this worse, not better.

Ambulance manufactures will see a trend of downsizing units. The large medium duty ambulances will be bypassed for smaller, less costly units that are more economical to purchase and operate.

Threats to EMS providers will continue to escalate. Emergency scenes will become more violent as citizens become more and more frustrated in the economy and social issues. Assaults and attacks on responders will increase at an alarming rate.

EMS systems will search for new and better ways of doing business. This will require significant change and many providers will dig their heals in to resist the change.

This may appear to be a bleak picture for EMS. But organizations can position themselves to thrive. EMS is made up of problem solvers. There will be no room for those who are negative and constantly complain. You will either be part of the solution or part of the problem. If you are part of the problem you will probably be asked to leave the organization.

There should be no room for those who just get by. Organizations should staff themselves with the very best. EMTs will be forced to decide if they truly want to contribute. When hiring, managers will need to select the best of the best. They can’t afford to settle for a warm body with an EMT certificate. They will need to select those that will help prepare the organization for the demands of the future.

It’s imperative that leaders train their staff, not only in EMS tactics but, in leadership, communication, change management and customer service. They will need these skills to help improve the organization. In addition EMTs will need advanced training in situational awareness, de-escalating skills, personal defense and yes, even firearms training.

New approaches for dealing with non-emergency calls will need to become more innovative. Providers must take a stake in finding solutions to these problems and help promote the change process. No longer can it just be placed in managements lap. Everyone in the organization must work-together, stay positive and work for the common good of the organization. The new norm is here. How will you respond?

About the Author
Tim Holman speaks and trains on a variety of business, fire and EMS management and leadership issues. Holman specializes in providing fire and EMS officer development programs. He was the Fire Chief magazine Fire Chief of the Year for 2002. He has also been appointed to the commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. For more information on Holman, please check online at

The Predictability of Occupancy Performance and Tactical Patience

Blog by Christopher J. Naum
Executive Producer of

Today’s incident demands on the fireground are unlike those of the recent past. They require incident commanders and commanding officers to have increased technical knowledge of building construction with a heightened sensitivity to fire behavior, a focus on operational structural stability and considerations related to occupancy risk versus the occupancy type.

There is an immediate need for today’s emerging and operating command and company officers to increase their foundation of knowledge and insights related to the modern building occupancy, building construction and fire protection engineering. There is also a need to adjust and modify traditional and conventional strategic operating profiles in order to safeguard companies, personnel and team compositions.

Strategies and tactics must be based on occupancy risk, not occupancy type, and must have the combined adequacy of sufficient staffing, fire flow and tactical patience orchestrated in a manner that identifies with the fire profiling, predictability of the occupancy profile and accounts for presumptive fire behavior.

The dramatic changes in buildings over the past 10 years have resulted inadequate fire suppression methodologies based upon conventional practices that don’t align with the manner in which we used to discern — with a measured degree of predictability — how buildings perform, react and fail under most fire conditions.

We predicate certain expectations that fire will travel in a defined manner and it will hold within a room for a predictable given duration of time. We also assume the fire load and related fire flows required will be appropriate for an expected severity of fire encountered within a given building, occupancy and structural system. We expect that with an appropriately trained staff will be able to perform the requisite evolutions and safely and effectively mitigate a structural fire in any given building type and occupancy.

Past operational experiences, both favorable and negative, gave us experiences that define and determine how we expect similar structures and occupancies to perform at a given alarm in the future. This formed the basis for the naturalistic decision-making process.

Implementing fundamentals of firefighting operations built upon nine decades of time-tested and experience-proven strategies and tactics continue to be the model of suppression operations. These same fundamental strategies continue to drive methodologies in our training programs and academies of instructions.

But are you aware of the defining changes in structural systems and support, the characteristics of materials and the magnitude of the fire-loading package in today’s buildings and occupancies? When was the last time you were out in the street with the companies, or spent some time doing a walk-through of construction or renovations site? Have you asked your commanding officers for insights into what operational demands and risks are being imposed upon them while operating in the street and within the buildings, occupancies and structures that comprise your jurisdiction?

The structural anatomy, predictability of building performance under fire conditions, structural integrity and the extreme fire behavior; accelerated growth rate and intensively levels typically encountered in buildings of modern construction during initial and sustained fire suppression have given new meaning to the term combat fire engagement.

The rules for combat structural fire suppression have changed. It’s no longer just brute force and sheer physical determination that define structural fire suppression operations, although any seasoned command and company officer knows that at times, that’s exactly what gets the job done.

However, from a methodical and disciplined perspective, aggressive firefighting must be redefined and aligned to the built environment and associated with goal-oriented tactical operations that have been defined by strategic processes and executed under battle plans that promote the best in safety practices.

The demands and requirements of modern firefighting will continue to require the placement of personnel within situations and buildings that carry risk, uncertainty and inherent danger. As a result, risk management must become fluid and integrated with intelligent tactical deployments and operations. Today’s incident commanders need to think about the predicative strategic process.

Here are some action steps to consider:

>> Read, comprehend and implement the IAFCs Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival and The Incident Commanders Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety.

>> Take a tour of your response area, district, community, or city. Take a good look around and begin to recognize the apparent or subtle changes that are affecting your incident operations.

>> Read up on the latest research and technical literature on wind-driven fires, extreme fire behavior, structural ability of engineered lumber systems, fire loading and suppression theory.

>> Take time to personally read a series of the latest NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program LODD reports and relate them to your organizations.

>> Start thinking in terms of Occupancy Risks vs. Occupancy Type and align your operations and deployments to match those risks.

>> Increase your situational awareness of today’s fireground and refine your strategic and tactical modeling.

>> Implement both strategic and tactical patience. Slow down and allow the building to stabilize. Increase survivability ratios while meeting the demands of conducting fire service operations.

>> Reprogram your assumptions and presumptions on building construction and firefighting operations. The buildings have changed, our firefighting has not. What are you going to do about that gap?

If you don’t fully understand how a building truly performs or reacts under fire conditions and the variables that can influence its stability and degradation, then you will be functioning and operating in a reactionary manner that is no longer acceptable within many of our modern building types. This places higher risk to your personnel and lessens the likelihood for effective, efficient and safe operations.

You’re not doing your job effectively and you’re at risk. These risks can equate into insurmountable operational challenges and could lead to adverse incident outcomes. Someone could get hurt, someone could die. It’s that simple. It’s that obvious.

It’s all about understanding the building-occupancy relationships and the art and science of firefighting. At the end of the day, building knowledge equals firefighter safety.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on and

About the Author
Christopher J. Naum, SFPE, has more than 37 years of field and operations experience and previously worked in command, operations and training capacities. Currently serves as the executive producer for several fire service websites, including

Why SOPs Are Harmful to the Formation of Situational Awareness

Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

During my “Fifty Ways to Kill a First Responder” program, I discuss how standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) can be helpful in the formation of situational awareness and in making critical incident decisions. Much to the chagrin of the policy makers in the audience, I also discuss how SOPs and SOGs can be harmful to the formation of situational awareness and cripple good decision making.

The former seems easier to comprehend. When employees have SOPs or SOGs to follow their performance is consistent and predictable. When a crew arrives at an emergency and performs according to a standard, then everyone arriving after them knows what to expect. There are few surprises when all the crews using the same playbook. To this end, SOPs and SOGs are a great tool to build consistency and predictability into operations. In fact, developing and using SOPs and SOGs are one of my top 10 situational awareness best practices.

So how can SOPs and SOGs be harmful? In training, responders should use the standards. It’s a simple premise. Train to the standard. Perform to the standard. However, there are times when the standard way of doing things won’t work. The circumstances of the incident are not covered by the standard. When this happens, what is a member to do?

Essentially, they have two choices. First, follow the standard, regardless of the circumstances. Or, improvise a unique solution to the novel problem. Which will they do? The answer, surprisingly, will be based on how rigid the organization views their standards and how much resiliency the organization has built into their decision making processes.

Let’s run through a couple of made-up fire scenarios to see how this plays out.

Scenario 1: The fire is in the back of the structure. The standard says attack from the unburned side, meaning the crew is going to advance the hose line through the front door. It’s a drill they’ve practiced over and over again at the burn building. Fire in the back. Attack from the front. But the front door is barricaded and fortified. Attempts to force entry are not working. Because the policy says attack from the unburned side, additional efforts are given to making entry. The process takes five minutes. All the while, the fire is growing in the back of the structure. Crews are not willing to veer from the standard because they fear the consequences.

Scenario 2: The fire is in the back of the structure. The standard says attack from the unburned side. During training, the crews practiced in accordance to the standard until they were good at the skill. However, the instructor then created scenarios that did not fit the written standard. The scenario of the barricaded and fortified door was built into the drill. During the exercise the students were encouraged to improvise a solution. Then they were encouraged to improvise a second solution, then a third. This creative problem solving, performing on purpose in ways that does not conform to standards, builds resiliency into decision making. And this is a critical skill to develop in responders. Standards can’t cover everything and responders need to be taught how to resolve issues where the standards don’t work. They also need to practice the deviations. And they need to be encouraged and rewarded for their creative problem solving efforts.

Unless you can develop and implement standards that cover every possible scenario responders will face, you may want to work in building resiliency into your members’ decision making. It will improve their situational awareness and their safety.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to his 30-plus year career in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters ( has enjoyed over a million visits since its launch in October 2011. He can be reached via e-mail at

Alternative Fire Training Methods Think Outside the Box

Blog by Brian Ward
Officer with Gwinnett County Fire Department in Georgia

Looking outside the box is critical when a firefighter is implementing training. For instance, learning from other individuals in different geographical locations can greatly influence how we mitigate certain situations. We may never be able to use 100 percent of the expertise we’ve learned from an individual operating 1,000 miles away, but we can take parts and use them in our own department.

Working in a fire department is similar to a scavenger hunt. There are pieces of the puzzle lying all around us. It’s our job as training officers and instructors to find the pieces that will make our departments stronger, the things that will keep us safe and reduce injuries and deaths.

In 2008, Chief John Salka came to our department at my request to speak on rapid intervention and to deliver a hands-on training day. This small idea of mine to have Salka come down turned into the first Gwinnett County Leadership and Safety Conference. Chief John Norman, Chief Rick Lasky, Chief Kelvin Cochran and others have since come and brought their own area of expertise to the conference, which not only benefited my department, but many others throughout the Atlanta-metro Area.

Something of this magnitude had never been attempted before in our region and it took a tremendous amount of help and determination to put together. The financial need for this endeavor was not allocated by the department during budget time, and finding sponsors was a tough task. One of the greatest benefits of bringing speakers into a central area is that it allows multiple departments to become involved and share the cost.

If your department is interested in putting together an event like this, here are some of the lessons I learned in the process:

>> Create a plan that includes who, when and where. It’s very important to answer all of the obvious questions prior to soliciting sponsors or buy-in from outside departments.

>> Look at all possibilities and combinations, especially when considering time of year, speaker times and event sites. You may choose to run two separate locations: one for classroom and one for hands-on-training.

>> The first mistake I encountered was time frame. I was under the impression this conference would be up and rolling within four months. About nine months later we had our first conference.

>> When looking for sponsorship, think way ahead. Potential sponsors have an annual budget similar to the government. Sponsors cannot allocate money at the drop of a hat. Get on their radar prior to their conference scheduling and budget meetings.

>> Advertising is key, especially if you are looking for participants to help share the cost. Look for mutual benefits with publishing companies, such as cross advertising for each other. They have a very large distribution system, use it. Also, advertise with all local fire department associations.

>> Get help. Lots of it. The smartest thing I did was entice one of our administrative assistances to help keep the financial documents and registration. This allowed me to look at everything else and get the big picture of what was going on. You can expect problems and questions to come your way. You need to be ready to handle them.

>> Don’t be afraid to follow through. Big risk equals big reward. The greatest accomplishment of that conference was receiving e-mails six months later saying how a firefighter changed their way of thinking or operating because of something that was said by a speaker.

As always, train hard, take care and be safe.

About the Author
Brian Ward is the training director for Georgia Pacific in Madison, Ga. He previously was an engineer/officer with Gwinnett County Fire Department in Georgia.

Like Everything in This Profession, Preparation Is Critical When Ventilating a Metal Deck Roof

Blog by Ed Hadfield

As firefighters, we are often faced with challenges out of our control. When tasked with vertical ventilation, we must deal with the roof assemblage we are dealt with. In the case of the metal deck roof, (also known as Robertson decking, or Q-decking) specific challenges are thrust upon the ventilation group. Obviously, if we had the opportunity to completely pre-plan all of the occupancies we might face in a commercial structure fire, we would have some prior knowledge of the roof assembly. But we don’t, so we must be prepared to react to the circumstances we encounter.

In most cases, once the ventilation group identifies the roof assembly is a metal-decked roof, a number of actions must occur for the mission to be safe and successful. The first item would be to indicate to command and interior operations that the structure has a metal deck roof assembly. This is important for all personnel operating within the structure due to the potential of a catastrophic collapse as the heat generated from the fire weakens the roof assembly, and support structures. The second key factor is to identify to all interior companies where specific heavy machinery on the roof may be located. This additional load may be critical in firefighter safety and survival.

Heavy Machinery Poses a Hazard to Interior Crews
The ventilation group supervisor may want to readily identify natural, or man-made ventilation points, such as skylights, and other openings that may assist in the ventilation of the structure without the need for actual cutting of ventilation openings in the roof. Of course this would be incident driven, and based upon the need, and amount of ventilation required to accomplish the task.

Cutting an Inspection Hole Four Feet from an Exterior Wall
Of course the ventilation group may not know the roof assembly is metal decked until we place an inspection cut into the roof itself. The inspection cut is the single most critical element to the vertical ventilation operation on a commercial or industrial occupancy. It will give the ventilation group five key elements in the vertical ventilation operation:

1. Roof covering
2. Roof decking
3. Rafter or truss type and direction
4. Conditions immediately underneath the ventilation group at that moment
5. Determines the operations of the ventilation group

Once the inspection cut is placed into the roof assembly the formal process begins to take action. In the case of the metal deck roof, a number of critical factors come into play. The first is the ability of the ventilation group to be successful in performing vertical ventilation on this type of roof assembly. The metal deck roof offers certain specific hazards and inhibitors to the ventilation group. The first is the ability to successfully open the roof up with the equipment on hand.

In most West Coast Fire Departments, the chainsaw, with a 20-inch bar and carbide tipped chain is the tool of choice for vertical ventilation operations. Although the advent of the newer Terminator and Raptor type chains has increased performance in this area, they still provided limited ability to be successful in the vertical ventilation operation on the metal deck roof. The primary problem occurs when firefighters run the chain into the metal trusses that support the metal deck roof.

Generally, no matter how experienced and careful the firefighter may be, the inability to feel the truss until it is too late causes the loss of multiple teeth on the chain, and in many cases causes the chain to be thrown from the bar itself, thus rendering the saw useless.

Utilization of a Rotary Saw with a Metal Cutting Blade
It is important for the ventilation group supervisor to acquire a minimum of two rotary saws immediately for the operation to be successful. As stated, most west coast fire departments don’t normally take rotary saws to the roof. This lends itself again to the need to spot your apparatus close to the occupancy so it doesn’t delay the operations longer than necessary. If the ventilation group is staffed well enough to send a runner back to the truck company to acquire the rotary saws, this would allow the ventilation group to possible begin ventilation operations on skylights, or other man made ventilation openings.

Pulling the Plug with a Rubbish Hook
As stated, the chainsaw is not the tool of choice in most cases. However, often times it is needed to skin the roof covering to expose the metal decking itself.

The best method of removing the top roof covering is to simply cut ventilation plugs the area or size of the ventilation hole the ventilation group wishes to accomplish. To accomplish this task utilize the chainsaw and make a plug cut the area or size of the ventilation opening.

If needed, the plug can be diced into smaller portions to make it more manageable for the pullers to handle. Be careful not to allow the chainsaw to sink into the metal decking, as this might cause the chain to be thrown, and thus rendered useless for further operations.

The goal is to simply skin the roof covering in an effort to expose the metal decking. Once the plug has been established, the best method of opening up the metal deck roof is with the use of rotary saws utilizing either a metal cutting blade, or for greater use the multi-cut or DAX type of blade. The use of the multi-cut blade offers longer duration of operations, without the repeated needed for changing blades.

Working Toward Your Means of Egress
When performing the cutting operations, always work back toward your means of egress. The ventilation group supervisor or Company Officer should remain in an EYES-UP position. This simply means the company officer should refrain from becoming actively involved in the ventilation cutting operations if at all possible. Of course this will be dictated by the staffing levels of the company.

If it is necessary for the officer to become involved in cutting operations he/she should limit the amount of cuts necessary to accomplish the task and then return to the EYES-UP position. This size and location of the ventilation opening is incident driven and specific to the location, and volume of fire within the structure.

A good rule of thumb is to operate in an area nearest to the fire without being directly over the involved area. It is important to note that heat will affect the structural stability of the roof assembly, and operation over the involved area may place the ventilation group in extreme danger.

The goal is to increase visibility and tenability by reducing the rapid build-up and spread of fire within the location. This can safely be accomplished from an area not directly involved in fire activity.

Teamwork and communication with interior crews is essential, and important for overall fire ground safety and survivability. As for the amount of ventilating required, this is incident specific. A good rule of thumb is to communicate with interior crew on their ability to suppress the fire and make headway on the assault. Also, heavy pressurization from a ventilation hole, or fire self-venting is generally an indication of inadequate ventilation, and further ventilation needs to occur.

The key items to remember when faced with metal deck occupancy are:

>> Vertical ventilation on metal deck roofs requires addition equipment in the form of rotary saws, and often multiple blades.

>> Vertical ventilation operations on metal deck roofs do not follow the same type of cut procedures as conventional and light weight engineered structures.

>> Vertical ventilation operations on metal deck roofs take greater time to accomplish. So plan wisely.

>> Natural and man-made openings should be the first choice in vertical ventilation openings.

>> Communications with the interior crew is essential for safe and efficient operations.

>> Preplanning of commercial and industrial occupancies is the best way to lessen the surprise of the metal deck roof on structure fires.

About the Author
Ed Hadfield has more than 26 years of fire service experience after rising through the ranks from firefighter to division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. For more on Hadfield, please check online at

Extrication: Back to the Basics

Blog by Jacob Johnson
Lt. with Pearland Fire Dept. in Texas

The expression, “back to the basics” is often stated during training, but what does it really mean? Is it a quick 30-minute review of a topic, or is it an in-depth, eight-hour class? To really answer that question, your department needs to complete a needs assessment. This will explain what people know and don’t know.

In most cases, getting back to the basics means refreshing and strengthening your foundation or knowledge on a given subject. Quite too often firefighters forget the basic tools that helped us reach the point we have in our career. The basics will never go away and should never be forgotten.

When dealing with high-risk, low-frequency type calls, it’s the basic material or maneuvers we don’t utilize that impact us negatively on scene. It’s the basics we forget when we are caught in a tight situation and need help.

So, how do we make sure to remember the basics?

Simple train.

We need to train on the basics of every aspect of the fire service. This will strengthen our foundation, and since we are talking about the basics, let’s discuss the foundation of extrication.

Stabilization, or cribbing, is the foundation for a successful extrication of a patient from a vehicle.

To start, review the basics of cribbing by simply taking your crew/department to the truck and going over what type of cribbing there is in the department. Is it plain wood cribbing? Is it fiberglass cribbing? Do you have struts and jacks on the truck? If so, how do you use them? That will start the needs assessment for the department.

Once you have established what you have on the truck, go over it. Pull it out of the compartment and demonstrate uses for a wedge, a step chalk, a strut, jack and discuss, all of which you’ve probably done for cribbing in the past. Set up simple scenarios in the back of the station or at the training field and use practical applications to refresh the memory on how to use cribbing.

One thing with all training, especially when getting back to the basics, is some people think it’s boring and some people think they are too smart to train on a particular subject because they already know it all. My suggestion would be to embrace that attitude and don’t forget about it. If there is a person like that try to utilize them in your training. Have them teach the class and spread their knowledge to the others.

A good portion of those people will realize they needed a refresher, and by teaching the class themselves; they will learn or remember more because they are involved instead of them just sitting in the back of the class updating their Facebook status.

Cribbing must be stressed as one of the most important parts of extrication. If you can’t crib, you can’t cut!

Safety is the goal and the only way to extricate safely is to have a stable vehicle to cut on. Sometimes it’s hard to fully stabilize a vehicle, but your goal is to be as stable as possible.

As for training on cribbing, there are a few ideas that may work for your department. The first thing you will need is a vehicle. Call your local tow truck drivers and junkyards and ask them for a car.

It will be a donation from them and a tax write off for giving you the car. Most of them will drop the car off where you need it or they will allow you to come to the junkyard and use the yard for training. This will accomplish two things: First, you will start a working relationship with the drivers, which could potentially help make scenes go more smoothly in the future. Secondly, tow truck drivers can help with your training. They know how to stabilize a vehicle and you can incorporate some scenarios where a tow truck is used to crib so the extrication can proceed.

Remember, extrication requires thinking outside the box and using critical thinking skills. Use all tools needed to help your department. Whether it’s using tow truck drivers or wood cribbing, make sure you try and cover all sorts of different situations that could occur on the fire ground. Most importantly, make sure you train on getting back to the basics.

After all, it’s your foundation for success.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December of 2010.

About the Author
Jacob Johnson currently works for Pearland Fire Department as a driver/operator. He has been in the fire service for more than 10 years. He has taught at extrication schools, recruit academies, and several suppression schools throughout the years. His certifications include: FF Intermediate, Driver/Operator, Fire Officer 1, Fire Instructor III.