Situational Awareness on the Fireground for Incident Commanders and ‘the Inside Man’

Blog by Ed Hadfield
Situational awareness is a term we often hear about as a trait needed for our incident commanders. However, all personnel must develop their own situational awareness based on the task or objective they’re given. In this article, we will identify some very basic concepts of situational awareness based on the specific task or assignment as part of the overall fireground component.
Incident Commanders
As incident commanders, we are often tasked with assuming command of an active incident that has developed prior to our arrival. We’ve all experienced a second alarm from the bunk room based off reports from dispatch, only to discover it was a dumpster fire behind an industrial building, not a working fire in an industrial building.
We use this as an analogy to shed light on actions based on perception, not actions based on reality. Often we find individuals who lack situational awareness skills, base their decisions on a very limited view of the situation, rather than a global or comprehensive view. Therefore, the old “360 degree” philosophy becomes an important ingredient to our success model.
It is important for all incident commanders to capture a complete “360” of the structure. Having said that, one item of extreme importance is to capture the “360” yourself, or delegate to others and receive accurate feedback, within the first few minutes of establishing your action plan.
This continuous size-up of the structure and incident must become a component of the comprehensive action plan. However, adjustments may need to be made based upon the feedback you receive. Remember, the building has seven sides: the four exterior walls, the roof, the basement (if applicable) and the interior.
This view and information input will provide the basis to establish a comprehensive action plan. Often, due to the size of the structure, we rely upon our field personnel to provide the information to us as accurately and timely as possible. This is why structure identification and an understanding of building and rescue profiles are critical for all personnel on the fireground.
Given the dynamics of today’s fires and the events of extreme fire behavior that we operate within, the understanding of hostile event recognition and pressure as it relates to rapid fire progression is important information to be relayed to the incident commander. Particularly in high volume, big box and wide-rise type structures, where hostile events occur in the overhead at explosive levels that can create structural failure in the roof assembly.
Interior Situational Awareness Officer or “The Inside Man”
As a member assigned to the truck or engine, you will be tasked with a variety of objectives. Many of which require you to operate somewhat independently of the crew. Case in point, the “Inside Man,” or as I like to commonly refer to as the Interior Situational Awareness Officer. Yes, this is a mouthful, yet the concept is more important than the name.
In general, the “Inside Man” is responsible for bringing a blower to the door, pulling ceilings in the immediate overhead, coordinating the use of PPV with vertical ventilation, and working with the fire attack team to do search as extension or with his/her own company on secondary search or salvage operations. This job is really an important task for overall success. However, in today’s fires we must look at building upon this job and utilizing their ability to become a direct link between the changing dynamics of the interior and the Incident Commander; to provide him/her with accurate data to capture a better view of the situation than one from the exterior of the structure from a block away.
Changes would occur within the duties and responsibilities of the Interior Situational Awareness Officer. First, this individual would be responsible for conducting an exterior scan and size-up of at least two sides of the structure; primarily, the division or side where the primary attack team made access to the interior, and the division of approach.
Second, any identifiable structural collapse considerations, hostile events recognition factors, or roof assembly exposure would be immediately communicated to the I/C and companies operating internally. Additionally, Building Profile identification is key, and would include the age and type of the structure.
NOTE: This will determine fire spread and strengths and weaknesses based upon the building profile, and construction components and features.
Next, the conditions at the point of main egress must be taken into consideration and read, meaning reading the rapid development and increase of pressurization at the access point. All of which should be considered and communicated if recognized as a threat to the safety of personnel inside.
The use of a TIC should also be considered as a tool, to detect fire in the overhead and potential collapse in the area of main egress from the structure. While making that determination, it is important to identify the proper use of PPV. Remember, there are five recognizable elements in determining if PPV is appropriate or not. If any of these five exists, PPV should NOT be considered as the primary source of ventilation.
1. Imminent or confirmed rescue of a civilian or down firefighter
2. Unknown location of fire or inability to locate the fire by interior crews
3. Inability or lack of an adequate sized exhaust portal for PPV usage
4. Working attic fire or fire in an overhead concealed space that would impinge upon roof assembles features while personnel are interior the structure
5. Structure which is over-pressurized for the use of PPV or rapid fire development
All of the above considerations are generally seen by the Inside Man as they are performing their exterior task and job assignments.
The understanding of these elements allows this person to make adjustments to their action plan and provide a higher degree of safety for interior personnel with concise communications to the incident commander.
Once the Inside Man, or Interior Situational Awareness Officer, transitions to the interior of the structure, their job assignment and analysis of situational threats greatly increases. First, the understanding of the roof assembly features and the destructive effects of fire and exposure to fire on these features needs to be a high priority of this person.
In addition to pulling ceilings in the immediate overhead of the main access, point with a scan of the assembly both visually and TIC assisted, it is important for this person to identify the number of hoselines through the access point and the number of personnel assigned to the hoselines.
NIOSH Firefighter Data and Injury Report Data has shown that two or more hoselines through on access portal create a spaghetti like effect that will greatly increase the odds of personnel failing to egress out of a structure in the moment of a hostile event. Corrective action should be taken to minimize this potential.
Keeping hoselines pulled straight and tight, while providing ample egress portals will reduce the risk of injury and entrapment of interior personnel. The Inside Man’s ability to identify rapid fire development within the structure based on changing interior conditions, the reports from roof division as to progress and conditions of ventilation heat holes and firefighter access holes in common corridors or center hallways, along with the exterior size-up communications from the I-RIC companies determine the next course of action.
One simple task is to first determine the location of interior crews, then identify both accountability and air management of those personnel while sizing up the area in which actively involved in firefighting, search procedures or fire extension activities. Along with the normal assigned task, the Inside Man becomes the interior eyes and ears for the incident commander. Historically this has been tasked to a senior Company Officer assigned on a hoseline or an interior position.
However, with split-company operations in limited to zero visibility environments, the Inside Man can double the effective safety envelope by following the actions stated above for the Incident Commander. Also, those assigned to interior crews may be limited in their ability to identify critical safety factors previously discussed due to task overload.
Although, it may seem like a task overload situation for the Inside Man to accomplish all these objectives, bear in mind, it’s a simple algorithm to follow based upon FACTS, PRESENTATIONS, INPUT & INFORMTION, and TASK EXPECTATIONS AND OUTCOMES.
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


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