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USFS Fire Suppression: Foundational Doctrine

Sen. Maria Cantwell's April, 2005 statement on:
Wildland Firefighter Safety Act of 2005

Ed Hollenhead's March, 2005 proposal:
The Review of Fire Suppression Doctrine for the USDA Forest Service

Jim Cook's June, 2004 analysis:
Trends in Wildland Fire Entrapment Fatalities

Jim Saveland's 1995 Wildfire article:
Creating a Passion for Safety vs. Management Oversight & Inspection

Professional Status:
The Future of Fire Service Training and Education

USMC Doctrine: Warfighting


Foundational Doctrine

June, 2005


Purpose of Fire Suppression Doctrine

Fire suppression doctrine covers our fundamental beliefs on the subject of fire suppression. Doctrine establishes a particular way of thinking about fire suppression. It provides a philosophy for leading fire fighters in suppression operations, a mandate forprofessionalism, and a common language. Fire suppression doctrine does not consist of procedures to be applied to specific situations so much as it sets forth general guidance that requires judgment in application. Therefore, while authoritative, doctrine is not prescriptive. Doctrine is about tools, not rules.

The Nature of Fire Suppression

Fire is a complex, dynamic, and often unpredictable phenomenon. Fire suppression requires mobilizing a complex organization that includes management, command, support, and fire suppression personnel, as well as airplanes, vehicles, machinery, and communications equipment. While the magnitude and complexity of the fire itself and of the human suppression response to it will vary, the fact that fire suppression operations are inherently dangerous will never change. A fire fighter using the best available science, equipment, and training, and working within the scope of agency doctrine and policy, can still suffer serious injury or death. Any doctrine or policy that neglects this basic truth is incomplete.

Fire Suppression Preparedness Philosophy

Fire suppression preparedness is the result of activities that are planned and implemented prior to fire ignitions. Preparedness is a continuous process that includes developing and maintaining fire suppression infrastructure, predicting fire activity, identifying values at risk, hiring, training (interagency drills & scenarios), equipping, pre-positioning, and deploying fire fighters and equipment, evaluating performance, correcting deficiencies, and improving operations. Preparedness provides the basis for identifying required fire suppression capabilities and implementing coordinated programs to develop those capabilities. All preparedness activities should be focused on developing these capabilities and successful suppression operations.

As the hardware of wildland fire suppression improves through technological development, so must the tactical, operational, and strategic usage adapt to its improved capabilities to maximize our own capabilities. Standardization should be considered and implemented where appropriate, but not at the expense of innovation.

Fire Suppression Philosophy

Fires are easier and less expensive to suppress when they are smaller. When the management goal is full suppression, aggressive attack is the single most important method to ensure the safety of fire fighters and the public and to limit suppression costs. When the management goal is other than full suppression, or when conditions dictate a limited suppression response, decisiveness is still essential but a less aggressive attack is acceptable. Aggressive attack provides the Incident Commander maximum flexibility in suppression operations. Successful attack relies on speed and appropriate force. All aspects of fire suppression benefit from this philosophy. Planning, organizing, and implementing fire suppression operations should always meet the objective of directly, quickly, and economically contributing to the suppression effort. Every fire fighter, whether in a management, command, support, or direct suppression role, should be committed to maximizing the speed and efficiency with which the most capable fire fighters can engage in suppression action.

Fire Suppression Command Philosophy

It is essential that our philosophy of command supports the way we fight fire. First and foremost, in order to generate effective decision making on the fire line and to cope with the unpredictable nature of fire, command and control must be decentralized. That is, subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative, based on their understanding of their leader’s intent, coordinated efforts, and operational objectives. Further, a competent subordinate commander who is at the point of decision will naturally better appreciate the true situation than a senior commander some distance removed. Individual initiative and responsibility are of paramount importance.

However, this does not imply that unity of effort does not exist or that suppression actions are not coordinated. Unity of effort requires coordination and cooperation among all forces toward a commonly understood objective. Unified coordinated action, whether between adjacent single resources on the fire line or between the highest command level and the most subordinate fire fighter, is critical to successful fire suppression and is not incompatible with the philosophy of decentralized command.

Principles of Suppression Operations

The primary means by which we implement decentralized command and maintain unity of action is through the use of universal principles of suppression operations. These principles guide our fundamental fire suppression practices, behaviors, and customs, and are mutually understood at every level of command. These include but are not limited to the Standard Fire Suppression Orders, the 18 Watch Out Situations, LCES and the Downhill Line Construction Checklist. These principles are fundamental to how we perform fire suppression operations. They are not absolute rules. They provide guidance in the form of concepts and values. Using these principles requires judgment in application, which is intended to improve decision making and fire fighter safety.

Principles of Action

Additionally, the Principles of Action are a set of precepts that, as fundamentals, lend context in developing overall fire strategy. They help us frame the management and conduct of fire suppression operations. Again, these are not absolute, immutable rules. These four principles give us a consistent set of considerations with which to evaluate decisions, plans and actions in different situations.

Objective — The principle of the objective is to direct every fire suppression operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable objective. The objective of fire suppression operations is to achieve the suppression objectives that support the overall management goals for the fire.

Speed and Focus — Speed is rapidity of action. Focus is the convergence of resources at the desired position to initiate action. The principle of speed and focus maintains that rapidly deploying and concentrating fire suppression resources, in a calculated fashion, at the decisive time and place increases the likelihood of successful suppression actions.

Positioning — The principle of positioning maintains that rapid, flexible and opportunistic movement increases the effectiveness of fire suppression resources. Positioning ranges from single resource offensive or defensive reactions to dynamic fire conditions to pre-positioning of multiple resources based on predicted activity and values at risk. Positioning should always be undertaken with speed and focus in mind, and with sufficient time for positioning to occur before operations begin.

Simplicity — The principle of simplicity is that clear uncomplicated plans and concise orders maximize effectiveness and minimize confusion. Simplicity contributes to successful actions.

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