The Art of ARFF (part 9) - The Nine Situations

Sun Tzu states that there are three areas that must be studied in order to ensure victory in battle. 

  1. The different measures suited to the nine varieties of ground
  2. The expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics
  3. The fundamental laws of human nature
firefighter through smokeIn Chapter 11:The Nine Situations, of his book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu lists nine varieties of ground, or situations, and describes the appropriate tactics and how human nature will want to respond to each. Though Sun Tzu speaks of these in relation to troops in battle, they aptly apply to firefighters emergency response and firefighting tactics. The nine varieties of ground, or situations that personnel may find themselves in are:
  1. Dispersive ground
  2. Facile ground
  3. Contentious ground
  4. Open ground
  5. Intersecting highways
  6. Serious ground 
  7. Difficult ground
  8. Hemmed in ground
  9. Desperate ground
Dispersive ground. "When a chieftain is fighting in his own territory, it is dispersive ground."  Sun Tzu refers to this as dispersive ground, because the troops are fighting close to home and human nature wills them to back down from the fight, return to their homes, and take care of their own. 

We see this played out in the fact that many fire departments will not assign personnel to stations that live within their first-due response area.  In South Florida, we can see this tendency demonstrated during an impending hurricane landfall.  We must take care of our own homes and families, however, we may not be with them during the storm.  We must report to work to serve our communities, as we have promised we would.

In these situations the tactics should be to "fight not".  Avoid battle, and shore up a strong defensive position. The leadership should drive and inspire the personnel with unity of purpose.  Remind the 'troops' why they serve, the oath they have taken, and their value to the community as a whole.

Facile ground. "When he has penetrated into hostile territory, but to no great distance, it is facile ground." This is the point where the troops are getting into the "thick" of the battle, but have not made a full commitment. They have a "facility for retreating".  The point of no return has not been reached.  Perhaps this best applies to the start of a large structure fire.  The attack begins, but suddenly seems overwhelming and pointless. The tactics employed in this situation should be aggressive, fire service would refer to this as an offensive attack.  Do not stop the operation, continue on.  The key for victory in this situation is to maintain close connection between all parts of the troops and command.  Maintain open communication.  Sun Tzu states that this will "prevent desertion" and guard against "sudden attack".  When all personnel are watching each others back and maintaining open communication there is no room for any one to fall back. Working together the goal can be achieved.

Contentious ground. "Ground the possession of which imports great advantage to either side, is contentious ground." This is ground to be contended for.  It is in the contentious ground situation that the few and weak can defeat the many and strong.  These situations dictate a more defensive posture, "attack not". The tactic used should be first to occupy an advantageous position, hurry up the rear so no stragglers are left behind, and advance with speed without hesitation.  In ARFF, fewer personnel (maybe only 1 man and truck) are expected to extinguish large fires and save lives.  This can only be accomplished by viewing these situations as contentious ground and applying the advice given here, by Sun Tzu.  Know what positions are the most advantageous (staging areas, approaches, etc.) and get to them before the incident does.  Use all your resources and work quickly.

Open ground. "Ground on which each side has liberty of movement."  On open ground do not attempt to block the enemies way. This will expose the troops to risk.  Take up a defensive position and monitor the defensive tactics in progress.  No fire department tries to stop an advancing fire by standing directly in its path. Think especially of a wildland fire. Instead, they defend and protect surrounding exposures, forecast the fires behavior, and adjust tactics accordingly.

Intersecting highways. "Ground which forms the key to three contiguous states, so that he who occupies it first has most of the Empire at his command, is a ground of intersecting highways." The first force to occupy the ground gains command and control.  This refers to the formation of alliances and consolidation of forces. Fire departments practice this with the use of mutual aid agreements, and utilization of the Incident Command System (ICS) on large incidents.  It is only through these mutually beneficial partnerships and alliances that we can increase the resources available to defend our communities in a time of crisis.

Serious ground. "When an army has penetrated into the heart of a hostile country, leaving a number of fortified cities in its rear, it is serious ground."  The troops are in the heart of enemy territory, surrounded by the enemy. Sun Tzu says the troops should forage and plunder to maintain a continuous stream of supplies. This creates an aggressive/offensive position. Maintaining a steady stream of resources is vital to any emergency operation. When working in a fire, maintaining an adequate water supply is critical.  When responding to some natural disaster, maintaining a steady supply of items essential to life (water, food, medical care, etc.) is critical to maintaining order and preventing chaos.  If the resources fail to make it to the troops, the enemy gains ground, the troops fall back, and victory is lost.

Difficult ground. "Mountain forests, rugged steeps, marshes and fens - all country that is hard to traverse: this is difficult ground." In these situations keep steadily on the march, do not stop or encamp.  Keep pushing along the road. Difficult ground requires and aggressive offensive tactics. It will be nearly impossible to restart, once the forward momentum is stopped. I am taken back to the physical agility test (or, CPAT) for entrance into the fire academy.  By the end of the physical routine, exhaustion was setting in.  However, those who stopped before completion, rarely were able to complete the test.  The key was to keep pushing, through the exhaustion, all the way to the end. 

Hemmed in ground. "Ground which is reached through narrow gorges, and from which we can only retire by tortuous paths, so that a small number of the enemy would suffice to crush a large body of our men: this is hemmed in ground."  These are dire situations that require creative strategies and plans to be devised. Troops must not be permitted to retreat.  When the troops start to fall apart the enemy will advance and destroy.  Training is critical to the fire service. The way to be ready for hemmed in situations is to train creatively for all types of situations. Firefighters must be aware of the most current firefighting techniques, and self-rescue/survival strategies.

Desperate ground. "Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay, is desperate ground." Desperate ground differs from hemmed in ground in that escape is not possible. In a military situation, this can occur when troops advance into unfamiliar territory, and become blocked by the surrounding terrain, structures, and advancing enemy forces. All that can be done in this situation is, fight. The use of local guides can prevent troops from getting into these positions.  Conducting pre-plans, utilizing experts (such as facility managers or subject matter experts), creating and exercising emergency plans can prevent fire department personnel from encountering desperate situations. 

We cannot enter into alliance with neighboring princes until we are acquainted with their designs. We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country - its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps. We shall be unable to turn natural advantages to account unless we make use of local guides. -Sun Tzu
In these nine situations we see reiterated the 5 themes throughout the book - preparedness, training, tactics, leadership, and responsibilities.

firefighter faces fire