Your engine arrives at what appears to be a single-family dwelling with smoke and fire evident from the second-floor window on side A. You and your crew advance a hoseline and the arriving truck company conducts a search of the building. As more units arrive, additional duties are assigned, and within 15 minutes the fire is declared under control. During overhaul, it is determined that this seemingly mundane single-family dwelling has been divided into four separate apartments. Once final extinguishment is completed, units take up and return to their quarters to ready tools and equipment for the next one. As the officer of the first unit, you must complete the report and write a narrative memorializing the actions of the company.
Fast forward six months, and you receive a call from the law office of your jurisdiction advising you that there has been a lawsuit filed regarding the illegal modification of the building and complaints from residents about the damage done to their living area and possessions. The law office has your report and sets up a meeting to discuss what happened during the incident. Does your report accurately reflect what happened during the incident, and is there sufficient detail in the report to allow you to recall the details of that day? For many, the answer would be no.
Report writing is one of the dreaded duties that all firefighters and officers must deal with on a daily basis. As much as we dislike the duty, we must make sure to write factual, defensible, and accurate reports that clearly describe our actions and provide sufficient detail to stimulate our memory months or even years later. The F.I.R.E.S. method of writing will assist you in capturing the incident in a narrative form that meets all of these requirements.
F = First observation/Findings: From the time the alert is sounded, data begins to be gathered and evaluated. What information was given at dispatch? What were the weather conditions? Were you given any additional information, such as people trapped or multiple calls, en route to the scene? Once on scene, what was your brief initial report? Did you take or pass command? What other observations did you make about the initial views of the scene? This sets the foundation of the report and helps you recall some of the details that might have seemed insignificant at the time but later turn out to be valuable. For example, all of us are ingrained to look for cars in the driveway indicating that there may be someone home; however, noting the number of vehicles in the driveway on your arrival may be an important fact when questions about the number of people home at the time of the fire are raised at a later date.
I = Investigation/Initial actions: Although not every incident is a working fire, such determination can only be made after the first-arriving company completes an investigation. Whether it is a 360-degree walk around of the building or looking in the windows during an automatic fire alarm response, a determination of what is happening must be conducted. I know of a recent incident where a door was forced in a commercial multiple occupancy retail establishment during a fire alarm sounding response. Significant damage was done to the door and a complaint was lodged with the local jurisdiction. By the time the investigation of the complaint made it down to the company level, several weeks had passed. The narrative of the report contained no information about the reasons used to make the decision to force entry into the store. The days of saying, "We forced entry because the alarm was sounding," are dwindling rapidly. Fire officers must be able to articulate their reasoning behind a decision or face enhanced scrutiny from their superiors.
This is also the area where initial actions are noted. What assignments were given to responding units? Did crews need to force entry to investigate or mitigate the emergency? On working incidents, what size attack line was used? What was the status of the need for rescue or any injuries to occupants that required immediate care? These questions begin to hit the details that we need to capture in our report. A quick Internet search reveals multiple fire departments that have been involved in litigation because a homeowner asserted that the first-arriving unit failed in some aspect to control the situation. Accurately detailing initial actions will go a long way toward defending your work when being questioned two years later about what size hose was initially used.
R = Response to Actions: This portion of the narrative becomes the meat and potatoes of exactly what you did throughout the incident. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, and such circumstances need to be documented. Did you make a rescue or lead occupants to safety? Was suppression of the fire achieved with the handline that you selected? What happened to the smoke conditions once ventilation was established? These are just a sampling of the questions that the narrative should answer.
If questions arise at a later time, the details of your actions may be the only trigger to get accurate information about the incident. Don't ever underestimate when this inquiry into the incident may happen. I handled an incident at the beginning of 2014 that required a review of reports from eight years earlier. When I approached the providers and asked them for details about the prior incidents, the most common answer was, "I don't remember." The reports written during these incidents consisted of single paragraphs with the units that responded and the number of personnel. To say they were lacking details would be an understatement.
E = Evaluation: An evaluation of the incident scene and the final outcome is your next step. Exposure building information should be included here. Exposures become equally important to the overall scene. A fire in a garden-style apartment easily results in two, five, or 10 additional exposures that drive the dollar loss substantially higher. We must capture the basic information for this damage. Simply including address, occupants, owner, and a brief description of the damage is sufficient.
External factors also have an impact on the final outcome. Did you encounter a hydrant that failed to function (severe weather or damage)? Were there parking or access issues, crowd control, hydrants across six lanes of busy traffic? The list goes on. Noting these external items that affected the mitigation of the incident not only describes the incident but creates a historical reference for issues encountered that require code or legislative changes. When your legislative body is being told by a construction lobbyist, "It was an anomaly," your response of, "I remember it happening more than once," carries substantially greater weight with written documentation.
S = Special Statements: Last but certainly not least is the section on special statements. At some point, the incident will end. What did we do prior to leaving? Who did we turn the scene over to? Was it the police, the homeowner, or fire investigation? Someone accepted the responsibility, and here is where we make note of it. This is also a good place to list any issues, good or bad, that didn't directly have an outcome on mitigation at the scene but still played into the overall incident. Keep in mind that the perception of the public may be slightly different from the actual actions that the responders have taken. A simple statement that services of the American Red Cross were offered to all displaced residents validates your actions when the media runs the story from a local citizen claiming the fire department "abandoned" them after the fire. It happens, and when it does happen, written documentation assists in keeping the positive public image intact.
In the Detail
The use of the F.I.R.E.S. system of report writing undoubtedly adds work to the fire officer's duties. This system is meant to put the necessary documentation in place for an inquiry about the incident at a later date. This report is not designed to be written as a post-incident analysis but rather a factual statement of what occurred on the incident scene. This is not the place to write about your opinions of what could have been done better. This system is for documenting the facts of the incident.
This report format can be in a paragraph form or written with a bulleted list of statements that cover the areas. Whichever method is employed, proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be used. Don't be ashamed or embarrassed to ask someone to proofread your writing.
Submitting a complete, correct, and accurate report shows professionalism and transparency while providing historical documentation of an incident. Many of us have heard the saying "Keep fire in your life" when it comes to being prepared for battle; keeping F.I.R.E.S. in your reports will keep you prepared after the battle has been won.
Robert Howarth is a 29-year veteran of emergency services and a captain and commander of the Fire/Explosives Investigation Unit with the Anne Arundel County (MD) Fire Department, where he has served for 24 years. He spent nine years assigned to the Special Operations Division and served as a rescue specialist with Maryland Task Force 1, a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team, and a rescue squad officer with Maryland Task Force 2, a state level asset. Howarth has instructed for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute since 1991 and is a nationally certified fire officer, instructor, fire investigator, and technical rescue specialist. Howarth is pursuing a bachelor's degree in fire and explosives investigation from Eastern Kentucky University.
House on fire presents a very sorrowful sight. Last Sunday I was sleeping at night on the roof of my house. At about midnight I was suddenly awakened by cries of 'fire fire'. Looking outside, I found that a house was burning nearby. I rushed out with my two brothers and soon reached the place. I found that the house of Chand Kumar Mahato was burning. People were throwing water from buckets and sands in their hand, but a strong wind was blowing, and their efforts were in vain. The Fire Brigade, however, came there soon after and the fire was brought under control in an hour. By that time half of the home had been burnt down.Shri Chand Kumar Mahato suffered a heavy loss. It appeared that he would have to rebuild his home once again. Afterwards, it was found that the fire had been caused by the negligence of Ramu, the servant of the home, who had gone to sleep with a burning cigarette on his lips. Later on, the cigarette fell on his bed, and the clothes caught fire. This fire spread and soon the whole building was burning. The owner of the home suffered a significant loss.
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