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Let's Talk Fire: Retreat and Rethink

Updated on March 12, 2019

To bad to make entry.

This is one of the moments we need to pull away and think of a better tactic.
This is one of the moments we need to pull away and think of a better tactic.

Not another catch phrase

Our service is one that is filled with quirky little catch phrases and acronyms we use to better help us remember tactics and procedures. Hit it hard from the yard, try before you pry, and smooth bump bump back to the pump come to mind. These friendly reminders make it much easier to get that task in your head and keep it there. This time in Let's Talk Fire we will look at a new catch phrase that will not only help you remember a tactic but it will also possibly save your life.

What is this miraculous concept you ask? Retreat and rethink. I know those two words scare the day lights out of aggressive firefighters. we are not to keen on being told to back away from a fire but let's remember that aggressive does not mean stupid. sometimes plan A gets compromised and we need to go to plan B or even plan C. Retreat and rethink is all about utilizing that mentality that when a plan is not working we need to re-evaluate it and come up with a new directive.


  1. Incendiary devices or explosives
  2. Booby traps
  3. Building stability
  4. Drastic fire change

These are four relatively common occurrences in the fire service.

Some tips

Incindiary Devices and Explosives

Let's set up an imaginary scene shall we? This scene will serve to help us better understand how the idea of retreat and rethink works.

Tones drop for a working structure fire on main street. Firefighters Morris and Slater are assigned interior attack. As they make way to the seat of the fire Morris notices what appears to be the inner workings of as clock sitting on the kitchen table. He is instantly concerned and alerts firefighter Slater to the object of his concern. Slater brushes off his partners concerns and encourages him to continue to advance the hose line. 'It's just a hobby project." he continues to say.

Again they start to advance when from nowhere the "hobby project" explodes. Both firefighters Morris and Slater are trapped under the debris of the explosion. They will die in this mess created by what may or may not have been a bomb upon first inspection. They were not saved by the bell!!! What could they have done differently?

If our firefighting duo had been trained in the ways of retreat and rethink this scenario would have played out much differently. So plan A is to engage the fire at it's seat. Upon entry and advancing the two men discover what may be clock guts on the kitchen table. Firefighter Morris has a bad feeling and alerts Slater that this could be an explosive device. RETREAT- Pull yourself away from the situation. Once you have distanced yourself from the potential explosive, RETHINK- what can you do now to handle the fire? What resources do you have at your disposal that may assist with that task?

Remember explosives, particularly those of a home grown nature are often unpredictable and can be disguised as anything and everything. Sure maybe you just pulled out of the fire because of some innards to an old grandfather clock. You may get some heat from the crew but what if it was a bomb. I would rather get some slack from my guys at the station than be in a million pieces all over main street. RETREAT and RETHINK



Anything can hide an explosive.

This coffee will do much more than perk you up in the morning.
This coffee will do much more than perk you up in the morning.

Booby Traps

No guys I am not talking about the objects of your affections during down time at fire school. I am talking dangerous obstacles set up to keep you and me from doing what we do best, fighting fire. Today's torches (arsonist if we are being PR) are much more creative than they were way back when a pipe bomb or some tissue soaked in kerosene would do for a good fire. Even a simple homeowner down on his luck and in need of that quick cash a good insurance policy can provide need only make a few clicks online and they too will amass the knowledge needed to not only burn down their home but prevent us from doing anything about it.

Remember any bit of the structure we save can provide clues that may lead to arrest and incarceration so those who go that far are going to take precautions to keep us from getting them caught.

Unfortunately booby traps are all to common in houses and structures that are being burned for illegal reasons. We have to prepare for the reality that eventually we will come upon one of these devices. These traps are designed to slow down our advances toward the fire or in some extreme cases kill us completely. It does happen and it is something we can train to avoid.

Some traps are as simple as trip wire in a door way while others can be as advanced as motion activated explosives that send fire racing through the structure and us. So what do we do if we see a potential booby trap? RETREAT and RETHINK.

Again let's visit our fake fire on main street.

Firefighters Hall and Oates are making entry down a long hallway looking for the seat of the fire. Hall sees some yarn hanging down in several places and than notices it is tied to several folding chairs up ahead that are blocking their way. He tells Oates who gets a bit disgruntled and tells him to continue with the task. It is just yarn no big deal.

As they move one of the folding chairs it pulls a gallon of gasoline off the bar above them covering both men in the dangerous fuel. You can imagine what could happen next I assume.

What if Hall and Oates had been trained up on Retreat and Rethink?

They make their way down the hall and Hall notices the weird array of yarn. He informs Oates and both men Retreat away from the situation to assess what is going on. They observe and see that the yarn is rope tied to several containers of fuel. One of the chairs is tied to what looks like a remote control. This is no doubt the igniter for the gas.

Now they can re approach the situation knowing what they are going into and develop a game plan that would be safer for them.

Remember the appearance of booby traps is a retreat and rethink signaler. We may get by one or even two but we should not be taking those kind of chances.

Some booby traps will end your career.

Structural Stability

I will not lie I have been guilty of advancing over a wavy floor more than my fair share. That was poor decision making on my behalf and we have to avoid that kind of action if we want to stay alive. While it is often boring and can get repetitive one of the best classes we as firefighters can attend is one in regards to building construction. We need to know all we can about the building before we ever attempt to confront the fire in it. Is it a truss roof system? How many stories do we have? Is it balloon construction or platform? These are all vital questions and need to be addressed at every fire we go to.

Being able to key in on weak elements of the building will allow us to better predict collapse or other structural flaws that could impede us in our firefighting. Again let's head back to main street.

Firefighters Griffith and Fife are performing a search in an abandoned structure noted for homeless residents. Upon sounding the floor Fife starts to hear less of a thud and more open space. He tells Griffith who tells him to mind his mouth and go on. The two continue and suddenly the floor gives way and they are now in a basement engulfed in flames.

Had our two country firefighters been trained on the aspects of retreat and rethink they would have probably handled that situation a little differently.

Upon sounding the floor Fife discovers it is hollowing. He tells Griffith who OKs the turn around and both men retreat, removing themselves from the issue completely and rethink, formulating how to continue the search. They decide to come in from the rear of the structure and check that side out, avoiding the center room.

When we find flaws in the structure that is a tell tale indicator we need to pull out and find a better way to do what we were doing. Collapse is a very serious thing and can injure of kill a firefighter with alarming speed. RETREAT- put distance from you and the flaw. RETHINK- Is there a better way to do what you were doing?


We must have this embedded in our minds.

Building construction can and will save lives.
Building construction can and will save lives.

Rapid Fire Change

I always tell my crews that fire behavior is not a should know topic but a must know topic. The best way to combat an enemy is have some understanding of that enemy and fire behavior gives us that edge. One of the biggest factors for retreat and rethink is in fact the fire itself.

The whole act of fighting fire is a conversation. We listen to the fire, see it, predict it's actions and make our attack. In return the fire responds to what we are doing just the same.

When we see rapid changes in the fire spread or heat we need to react as quickly as possible and make sure we do so in a safe manor. Remember anything could be causing that fire to react the way it does but that does not mean it will not get more intense as you go further in.

Let's look at that fire on main street again shall we? Firefighters Mulder and Skully are inside fighting a fire in the living room. Suddenly Mulder realizes the heat is getting way hotter way to quick and the fire is starting to sway at a rapid rate. He tells Skully who tells him it will pass continue to attack. Suddenly the room reaches flash over and our two firefighters in black are talking aliens on a ship to the heavens.

What if they would have been better trained in the idea of retreat and rethink?

Mulder makes notice the fire's behavior and Skully realizes they are nearing a flashover and together the two pull out of the situation. They are careful to shut the door behind them. Remember retreat- get distance and space between you and the situation. Rethink- how can you handle this situation better?

Knowing how fire reacts and behaves makes it easier to know the parameters of calling for a retreat and rethink situation. We have to know that the fire is doing this because it is getting ready to do that.

Look for indicators of rapid fire spread, flashover, backdrafts and other fire behaviors that can result in injury or death. Know when you need to pull the switch and go back to step one. It is better to reformulate than to get yourself hurt.

Fire behavior demo

In closing.

There you have it, the basic idea of retreat and rethink. It seems so simple but all to often we as firefighters fail to realize we have this valuable tool at our disposal. We are able to use this method to restructure a tactic that does not seem to be working or even pull ourselves out of a hostile situation in which we would be risking way to much. So until next time, stay safe.


You can become a member of the Let's Talk Fire facebook family.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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