Train Like You Fight: Rules of Engagement

Video of the Rules of Engagement from John Buckman

This is Safety and Health Week and the theme is “Train Like You Fight.” The theme captures two angles of responder safety:

  1. Safety on the training ground and reduction of training-related injuries and death
  2. The importance of adequate training to prepare for safe fireground operations

For more information on Train Like You Fight, go to 2014 Safety and Health Week

3 keys to managing the incident when things go wrong

Faced with the unexpected, company officers must be able to manage their crews when the incident doesn’t go as planned.

The best time to know emergency procedures—and the worst time to learn them—is in an actual emergency. Normal emergency scene confusion becomes even more complicated when something unexpected happens. Very rapidly, the familiar can become unrecognizable, as the incident becomes more complex. In such situations, a company officer’s leadership is more important than ever.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate: Like many mechanical failures, this one begins with a minor flaw that either went undetected during routine inspections, or wasn’t taken seriously. One small nick in the SCBA mask strap spawned a tear that migrated radically until the strap’s design strength was seriously reduced, which caused it to fail. The weakening of the strap had occurred over many hours of use, but the catastrophe that followed the strap failure developed in just seconds.

During those seconds, the strap separated and smoke began to fill the firefighter’s mask. In an instant, the firefighter was breathing smoke and became visually impaired, which caused him to become disoriented. At one moment, the firefighter was deep in the building helping advance a hoseline with another firefighter and the company officer. The next moment, the firefighter was in trouble, frantically trying to find fresh air. The company officer quickly realized that a member of the crew had a problem, but couldn’t immediately identify the source of the problem.

It’s the company officer’s responsibility to ensure that every firefighter on their crew is familiar with basic firefighter survival skills—in other words, what to do when you get into trouble. Crews must prepare and practice, together, for these events to facilitate a successful outcome.

Managing an unexpected event in a safe and efficient manner requires that the company officer manage three essential elements: people (starting with yourself), information of all sorts from all sources and the event itself.


Managing an unexpected event in a safe and efficient manner requires that the company officer manage three essential elements: people, information and the event itself. Photo Glen Ellman

Manage People
Manage yourself first. You can’t help anyone else if you become a victim. The first priority for a company officer, when your crew is in trouble, is to manage yourself. You must quickly orient yourself to the situation. This is where your personal preparation should begin to kick in. By knowing and practicing the basic self-survival techniques, you can respond systematically to an unexpected event, instead of wasting valuable time trying to come up with a response plan.

Determine the following: What is the status of your air supply? Where are you? What were you doing when the emergency happened? Make a conscious effort to stay calm, conserve your air and begin to control the situation. Your command presence will help you and your crew work together to overcome the problem.

Manage your firefighters. If one of your firefighters is in immediate danger, you must react appropriately and quickly. Who has a problem? Is it a personal behavior problem (sometimes firefighters do crazy things in a dark, hot building) or an injury? Was there an equipment failure or is the firefighter out of air? Is your crew intact or have you lost a firefighter?

Quickly assess each individual, including the following: breathing status (air exchange), SCBA air supply, level of consciousness and mechanical malfunction or entrapment. You and your crew must stay together and communicate as a team; this will enhance your chances of solving of the problem.

Manage Information
Many sources of information contribute to a successful outcome during a crisis situation, but the most critical may be your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) that identify the steps required to cope with such emergencies. SOPs help to maintain focus and expedite the workload. Fire crews that practice mayday SOPs before the event will respond more effectively during an actual emergency.

The company officer must have the ability to size-up the situation (problem) and quickly implement a survival action plan. You must ask many questions to correctly identify the situation, but two questions are vital:

• What’s the fire doing? You and your crew originally entered the structure with a specific objective in mind. The fire doesn’t get put on “pause” just because your crew has a problem.
• What are the current conditions surrounding you and your crew? The current and future conditions will dictate whether you stay and attempt to solve the problem or move to safer location.

A vital link to overcoming an unexpected event is the effective exchange of information between the crew in trouble and command. Remember the LUNAR acronym to quickly relay information to command: Communicate your last known LOCATION, your UNIT identification, your NAME/Number, your AIR SUPPLY and any RESOURCES you need.

Manage the Event
Surviving the unexpected emergency in a safe and efficient manner requires the company officer to quickly but systematically troubleshoot the problem, develop a survival action plan, communicate the plan to the crew and command, and then execute it as quickly as possible. The following are some suggested survival actions that company officers may consider.

Alert command that you have a problem. Even if you think you can solve the problem, don’t wait until it’s too late in the emergency to call for help. If this is a serious situation, such as a lost or trapped firefighter, you must report a mayday to command, which will immediately redefine the incident objectives to include you and your crew.

If it’s a problem that can be solved by you and your crew, or possibly with the assistance of another crew working nearby, then request “emergency traffic.” Relay to command your unit identification and personnel accountability report (PAR), your location, your problem, your actions, your crew status including available air, and what you need (give solutions, not just problems).

After communicating with command, which should be brief, take action on dealing with the problem. If you can solve the problem, then communicate that to command and exit the structure. Once you’ve exited, communicate your PAR and any further needs or information to command.

If you can’t solve the problem, report a mayday immediately! The most important factor in calling a mayday is to actually make the mayday call. You should know, before engaging in firefighting operations, when and how you will make this important decision.

Some examples of possible mayday conditions you or a member of your crew may encounter include:
• Becoming entangled or stuck with low air remaining;
• Falling through a roof;
• Being caught in a flashover;
• Falling through a floor;
• Becoming disoriented and losing connection with other firefighters and/or the hoseline;
• Your primary exit blocked by fire or a collapse and you’re unable to get to a secondary exit; or
• Your low-air alarm begins to sound and you’re not near an exit, door or window.

When encountering any of these conditions, you must immediately call a mayday and report your status to command. Keep the crew together and continue to attempt to solve the problem and/or search for an exit and get out of the building.

Help them find you. Activate your portable radio emergency distress button and your PASS device, when appropriate. Continue to monitor the radio and update command. You may have to turn your PASS devices off to talk, and then back on once you’re done. If conditions deteriorate, retreat to an area of safety.

If you and your crew are still unable to get out, then get into a horizontal position on the floor, which will maximize the audible and visual effects of the PASS device. Aim flashlight beams toward the ceiling and use tools to make tapping noises to assist rescuers in locating you.

Are You Ready?
Fighting fires today is more hazardous than ever before. Fire crews must be prepared for the unexpected. As a company officer, you will face no greater challenge than managing an unexpected incident where a crewmember’s life is on the line.

Ask yourself, “Have I properly prepared myself, and my crew, for an unexpected, challenging event?”

Posted by Fire Rescue Magazine on December 1, 2009

Margin: Is There Room For Error?

What is margin and how does it impact operations in a complex and dynamic environment?

Watch this video from WildlandFire LLC to learn how margin looks to us in the field, and if we understand it, how we can use it to be safer and more effective.

We all have the power to control margin. What actions can you take to build margin?

Dust-Devil Becomes “Firenado”

Rocky Mountain firefighters were surprised by the unexpected collision of a dust-devil and a brush fire. It became a “firenado.”

Watch the CNN story here.

Thinking FAST and SLOW Influences Our Decision Making

Our brains process information in two very distinct ways: One way is FAST thinking which acts automatically based on our experience or what we see, and the other is SLOW thinking where our body speeds up (our muscles tense, our pupils dilate, and our heart rate increases) but our brain slows down. Both FAST and SLOW thinking influence our reactions and drive our decision making.

Depending on the complexity of the situation and the risk involved, firefighters must be able to use either FAST or SLOW thinking.

Watch this short video from AsapSCIENCE for important information about how we make decisions.

How do you practice decision making in complex situations?

Want more information on decision making? Read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow which describes in detail, with several examples, how our brains have two systems, or speeds to help us make decisions. Also a must read is Gary Klein’s Streetlights and Shadows which sums up his take on rapid prime decision making in complex situations.

Our Brain Matters

Brains need exercise too!

Our brain is powerful and mysterious. It performs simple, routine tasks everyday. It can create entertaining music and art, construct compelling stories, and solve intricate problems and equations. Weighing in at approximately 3 pounds, our brain is our most important asset.

Here’s some “thought-provoking” points about the brain from Laura Helmuth in the July/August 2012 Smithsonian Magazine. In it you’ll discover that your brain can store more than computers, that it doesn’t require a lot energy to work, that chewing gum messes with your recall, and that chimpanzees can remember more than most people.

I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.  ~Dr. Seuss


Somehow, the brain is greater than the sum of its parts

100: Number, in billions, of neurons in a human brain

100: Estimated number, in terabytes, of information it can store

1: Estimated number, in terabytes, of information a typical desktop computer can store

2: Percentage of the body’s weight represented by the brain

20: Percentage of the body’s energy used by the brain

95: Number of diagnoses in the 1952 DSM-I, the first edition of psychiatry’s manual for diagnosing mental illnesses

283: Number of diagnoses in the 2011 DSM-IV-TR, the most recent edition

303: Highest number of random digits memorized at the 2012 USA Memory Championship

10: Approximate percentage drop, in one study, in the accurate recall of random letters as a result of chewing gum

50: Percentage of times that human volunteers successfully recalled a sequence of five numbers presented briefly on a computer screen

80: Percentage of times that a chimpanzee named Ayumu succeeded at the same task

What does this all mean? It appears to me that we carry around in our heads a very powerful, yet little-used tool. Maybe we should exercise and work our brains more. Call it mental workouts. We should be smart and manage our brains better – it’s our most important asset!

Here’s a few sources to help you with your brain workout:

Creative Thinking Exercises with Michael Michalko

120 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power

Optimizing Brain Fitness: Free Video Lecture on How Your Brain Works

How’s your brain working these days? How do you exercise your brain?

Book Review: Warrior Mindset

Fighting wars, policing the community and saving lives and protecting property is hugely important. The fates of our nation and our communities, often rests on the mental toughness skills of our peacekeepers, law enforcement and emergency responders. The Warrior Mindset is a new exploration of thought when confronted with stressful situations.  It begins with the observation that up to 90% of a successful performance is attributed to psychological skills. It’s not simply physical-ability that gets an individual through a stressful incident, but the mental attitude of the individual involved. The authors, all authorities in the field, contend that what is missing from today’s warriors is the ability to master their own minds. The following quote in the book from General Patton says it all:

“If you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do …”

The book offers a why, how and what approach to mental toughness, designed for use in any stressful situation. Why are some soldiers, airmen, policemen or firefighters far more effective than others? The Warrior Mindset examines the mind and body under stress and seeks to explain it.

The Warrior Mindset is an absolute must-read for anyone trying to survive in a complex and dangerous environment.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”