Strategic philosophy question: Defensive to offensive

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. Not long after that attempt, they went defensive again.

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 springboard us into an enlightening discussion about our own departments’ philosophies.

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? What about the liability that comes from reversing a decision to go defensive? And of course, how much property are you going to save if you wrote it off for however many minutes?* I’m not here to answer any of these questions; these are debates we should all have in our heads and around the kitchen table.

* I am of the opinion that property is important and I reject the notion that we should only take risks for confirmed threats to life.

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3 Responses to Strategic philosophy question: Defensive to offensive

  1. Dave LeBlanc says:

    Good thoughts brother. I can see situations where defensive to offensive is ok, even if based on conditions. Several minutes of “big” water may change the tactical picture enough to allow for an interior attack. And as you said more manpower may have arrived as well.

    I like your asteric……

  2. Josh says:

    I have struggled to envision a scenario where I as an incident commander would feel comfortable reversing my decision to go back to an offensive attack. Not only do I believe this would increase risk to firefighters and risk of liability, I also believe there would be little to gain by this decision.

    I do see a distinction between making the decision to go defensive and utilizing a transitional attack. I personally see the decision to attack from the outside while waiting for more resources as a transitional attack rather than a defensive operation. Once resources are on scene to safely support an offensive attack, I think that would be appropriate. However, once an offensive attack has been initiated and the decision is made to switch to a defensive operation, I think that decision should be final.

  3. Dave LeBlanc says:


    I think we are saying the same thing. You just said it better.

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