Sean Gray: Attack from the Burned Side: Is This the Future of Extinguishment?

By Sean Gray

After “Attack from the Burned Side Can Save Lives” was published in Fire Engineering in November 2011, a firestorm (no pun intended) of controversy ignited. The article was negatively criticized by the “Old School group” and was applauded by the “New School group.” Some folks told me, “We will just have to agree to disagree.” Well, that adage is fine if we’re discussing politics or religion in the firehouse. But when it comes to keeping firefighters safe and saving citizens’ property, I have a much more passionate opinion. I’m willing do the right thing, even if it means admitting that I have been doing it wrong for the past 20 years. Take a look back at where or from whom you gained your knowledge. It was probably from some old salty captain or chief you looked up to when you were a rookie. There is nothing wrong with that. All of us have had a mentor who took us under his wing. However, where or from whom did they get their knowledge? Probably from their mentors and their own experiences, and it continues to be a vicious cycle that is reflected in firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths LODDs. Is it possible that we have just been telling stories for all these years?

It has been said that the American fire service has 150 years of tradition that is unimpeded by progress. I’m tired of hearing this assessment because we’re better than that. It may be true that we are often not ready to change and that, unfortunately, it takes a death or a critical injury of a firefighter for someone to ask the question, “How could this have been prevented?”

With regard to attacking from the burned side instead of from the unburned side, we hear recent terminology like “softening the target,” “hitting it hard from the yard,” and “transitional attack.” Although all of these terms are appropriate, an argument could be made that an initial rapid exterior fire attack to knock down the bulk of the fire is actually an offensive tactic.

The interior attack doesn’t need an explanation because we’ve been doing it since the inception of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). However, most of us active in today’s fire service were not around when the attack from distance was used on a daily basis back in the 1960s-1970s. Firefighters then used the reach of the hose streams to attack the base of the fire.

Early in my career, I was sent to fill in for the day at the slowest station in the county. There were two old-timers less than six months from retirement, and we caught a fire. As we arrived, flames were showing from a window on the A/B corner. As I got off the apparatus and started to pull a cross-lay, the driver instead pulled a booster line and handed it over to the officer. He then proceeded to take the booster line, open up the fog nozzle, and throw it into the fire window. I was shocked and bewildered. He looked at me and said, “Okay, boy, go in there and finish it off now.” All I could think of was how wrong that was in comparison with what I had been taught in recruit school. Looking back on it now, it worked: The fire was knocked down quickly, and I can remember being disappointed because he had taken away the dark, hot, and smoky hallway I was looking forward to entering. Now that I’ve matured and learned that there is a safer and more efficient way to operate, I wish that I could go back and apologize to that officer for all the times that I told that story as if it were the worst tactic I had ever seen.

The Discussion

What is the definition of exterior attack? Is it an offensive or a defensive tactic? What if you were using an exterior attack in the offensive mode and pushing toward the fire? Would that be a transitional attack? This is a new tactic for the New Age fireground. One of the controversies being discussed is the exterior vs. the interior attack. A crucial part of the argument comes down to the possible victim and the placing of the initial hoseline on the interior vs. the exterior.

Interior advocates say that an interior hoseline must be in place because of the possible victim; there must be a hoseline between the fire and the victim. Their second concern is that applying the water from the exterior could steam the victim. Exterior advocates argue that by putting water on the fire as quickly as possible, the temperature will dramatically decrease, making the environment more tenable for the possible victims and firefighters.

What’s worse for the victim, extreme heat or being inside the structure for 30 seconds longer because you took the time to flow water through an exterior window into a room that had already flashed over? What about the hallway or room distant from the base of the fire where flashover was prevented because of the exterior application of water? A viable victim is likely to be found in the hallway or the distant room.

Interior attack can create a flow path from the front door because it takes longer—you need time to apply the SCBA mask, and it takes a minimum of two firefighters. Exterior attack takes only one firefighter, and he need not don an SCBA mask. Water can quickly be applied from the exterior and then moved to the interior. You must still enter the interior to finalize extinguishment and search for victims.

Exterior attack is not a tactic that you should use every time. It’s another tactic that can be used on today’s fireground. If you have fire showing from a first- or even second-floor window on the A-side, why wouldn’t you put water through the window on the fire shown in photo 1?


(1) This exterior-offensive tactic could vary because of staffing, obstructions around the house, and other circumstances, but it’s a valid tactic that needs to become part of every officer’s playbook. (Photos courtesy of author.)

The exterior fire attack has been shown to decrease temperatures by approximately 1,000 degrees. This can vary, but a consistent 1,000-degree decrease was found in the fire room after applying water from the exterior for 15 seconds during the National Institute of  Standards and Technology/the International Society of Fire Service Instructors live burns in Spartanburg, South Carolina, last year. The technical aspect of this tactic is to apply water in a straight stream to the ceiling of the fire room, allowing the stream to bank down off of the ceiling. No steam was pushed when using solid or straight streams. However, in a test conducted on Governors Island, New York, a steam path was seen exiting around the first-floor doorway when using a solid bore nozzle whipped in a circular motion through the second-floor window. While steam was pushed, there were minimal temperature spikes of 10 degrees to 20 degrees outside of the fire room. We know that it’s possible to push a steam path when incorrectly applying water. Is it possible to steam a victim? Maybe. It’s just too difficult to answer at this point. There are no available sensors or monitors to measure humidity inside a fire environment because the carbon builds up too quickly to give an accurate measurement. However, the moisture content within synthetic materials on couches and chairs make it plausible that the humidity could be relatively high already. What’s the difference between a steam burn and a thermal burn? Other than for the mechanism of the burn injury, there is no difference—a second-degree burn is a second-degree burn. With that said, are we really going to turn a victim into a lobster? Is there a difference between interior water application that creates steam vs. exterior water application that creates steam?




(2) Imagine a fire in the second-floor window near the A/D corner.





(3) The photo illustrates the proper technique for applying water from the exterior: Bank the stream off the ceiling for 15 seconds with a smooth bore or straight stream nozzle on a fog nozzle.


Scenarios and Tactic Changes

Let’s review a couple of scenarios that are classic examples of fire tactics that should be changed. Many of us have been on fires similar to these and may have made the same mistakes. It’s not that we have been doing a bad job or that we’ve have been doing it wrong. We’ve just been doing what we were taught in the past.


Scenario 1: C-Deck Fire

Photo 4 depicts Scenario 1, which is a C-side deck fire. The initial size-up showed smoke in the attic. The first hoselines were sent through the front door after forcible entry. By the time firefighters pulled ceiling and attempted to extinguish the fire in the attic, the roof was beginning to collapse. The point here is that it takes time to force entry, hump hose to the second floor, and then pull ceiling to start extinguishment. It’s much quicker to pull a line to the C-side exterior and extinguish the fire on the outside, which is extending into the attic. During this time, more units should have arrived. The forcible entry could have occurred while you were extinguishing the C-side fire. Maybe, even a secondary hoseline could be headed to the attic, possibly avoiding the need for aerial master streams.













 (4) Scenario 1.


Scenario 2: Initial Hoseline Placement

The fire shown in photo 5 is an easy scenario–right? Knock down the bulk of the fire on this C-side deck, and then enter through the front door. Unfortunately, because attacking from the unburned side has been drilled into our heads for so many years, the initial hoselines were stretched through the A-side door to cut the fire off in the attic. How do you think this looks to the citizen standing next door watching this fire?



(5) Scenario 2.

The fire in photo 5 also has multiple dimensions, depending on when you arrive. Think about initial hoseline placement.

1. Water applied directly to the deck at its current stage, would probably take care of this problem, but …

2. What if the fire broke through a window or an exterior door and has ignited some interior contents? Now, where should the initial line be placed? And then …

3. What if the fire has extended up to the soffit vent and into the attic space? Where should the initial hoseline be placed then?

A soffit vent attack (photo 6) may be applicable to extinguish the exterior fire, and water will penetrate through the soffit to partially extinguish the attic space. The firefighter is sweeping the hose stream from side to side along the soffit vent where fire has entered the attic space. Also, parts of the stream will divert down onto the exterior siding fire, helping with extinguishment.



(6) Soffit vent attack.


It’s simple. Put water on the fire as soon as possible. You can make all the excuses in the world for not putting water on the base of the fire–there was a fence or a firefighter-eating dog or the rookie did it! Sure, there can be extenuating circumstances; that’s the nature of our business, but recent studies have shown that anytime water is applied, the hostile environment gets better. It doesn’t matter from which direction the water is applied. Our hose streams have plenty of reach. Knock the fire down from a distance, and then go inside and finish it off. We are paid to make sound decisions in a moment’s notice. If we make poor decisions, we look unprofessional to the people we protect.


Our fire tactics need to be constantly reevaluated. Let’s get away from the burned vs. unburned or the smooth bore vs. fog nozzle arguments. There will always be questions that need to be answered, but there is no reason to argue because the engineers can give us the answers. Thanks to the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, we don’t have to rely on those stories anymore. The American fire service is changing and is now taking a dynamic research-based approach to firefighting, similar to what our brothers in other parts of the world have been doing for years. The prestigious Fire Department of New York (FDNY) is arguably the most respected fire department in the world. If it is willing to bring the science to the streets and make changes in the way they operate, maybe the rest of us should follow suit. Things do change. Prior to 9/11, Lt. Andy Fredericks-FDNY Squad 18 said, “If you put the fire out right in the first place, you won’t have to jump out the window.” Andy was ahead of his time. Although I did not know him, the firefighters I have spoken with who knew him, say, “Andy Fredericks would have been right in the middle of this revolution and leading the charge for change.” Embrace the scientific information, and apply it to your New Age fireground tactics and tasks.


Sean Gray is a 22-year veteran of and a lieutenant in Cobb County, Georgia. He is an FDIC instructor and has been published in Fire Engineering magazine. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire safety engineering and an advisory board member of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute.


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