Select the tactical mode

Control Measure Knowledge

Communication of the tactical mode is a way of recording a decision by the incident commander on the completion of their risk assessment and determination of the incident plan. It indicates the decision by the commander whether to deploy personnel in the hazard area or not. All incidents require tactical modes to be declared at the earliest opportunity following arrival at an incident and at regular intervals thereafter. Where sectors are in place, a tactical mode for each sector is required.

The hazard area is an area in which significant hazards have been identified by the relevant commanders. The hazard area may extend beyond the boundaries of the immediate scene of operations and may move or change during the incident.

Declaration of the tactical mode at any given point of the incident describes the current level of risk exposure to operational personnel. There are two tactical modes of operation:

  • Offensive mode: Personnel are in the designated hazard area and thereby exposed to greater risk
  • Defensive mode: Personnel are outside of the designated hazard area

There is no default tactical mode. The incident commander should decide their incident plan and associated operational tactics following their risk assessment and application of the decision control process. The selection of a tactical mode is a conscious decision underpinned by a clear rationale. This is key to assertive, effective and safe incident command delivered by competent incident commanders, and the avoidance of risk aversion and decision inertia.

Incident commanders should make sure everyone on the incident ground is aware of the tactical mode. They should communicate this at regular intervals and when it changes. It is also essential that fire control rooms are informed of the current mode to ensure it is recorded. All messages should include sufficient information regarding the findings of the risk assessment.

For further information, examples and diagrams refer to the Incident command: Knowledge, skills and competence – Tactical mode.

Offensive mode

This is where fire and rescue service personnel are working in the hazard area and exposed to greater risk, because the incident commander has decided it is appropriate following their risk assessment. This may apply to an individual sector or to the whole incident when every sector is in offensive mode.

Offensive mode is likely to be the common mode of operation.

Defensive mode

This is where commanders deal with an incident from a defensive position. In defensive mode, the identified risks are intolerable and outweigh the potential benefits. No matter how many extra control measures could be put in place at that particular time, the risks remain too great to commit personnel into the hazard area.

Defensive mode does not indicate that operational activity is not taking place. However, it does indicate that personnel are not working in the hazard area.

Change in tactical mode from defensive to offensive

There will be occasions when it is necessary to change the tactical mode following revision and updating of the risk assessment. This change may be on receipt of new information, due to the risk changing, a change in tactical priorities or a revision of control measures.

When the decision is made to commit personnel into the hazard area and defensive operations are in place, the tactical mode for the incident or sector will change to offensive as preparations are being made to enter or re-enter the hazard area.

If this decision is taken by an operations commander, this should be immediately communicated to the incident commander.

Change in tactical mode from offensive to defensive

When it is necessary to change from offensive to defensive mode following the outcome of the risk assessment, the commander should announce and implement the withdrawal of personnel from the hazard area. The use of emergency evacuation or tactical withdrawal of responders should be included in communicating the change in mode to the incident ground and fire control room. The tactical mode does not change until all fire and rescue service personnel have withdrawn from the hazard area.

There are a number of reasons why the change to defensive mode does not take place until after fire and rescue service personnel have left the hazard area. It may be because personnel will still be in the hazard area and it may take some time to withdraw, for example at high rise and large or complex structures. There may also be a need to commit personnel to assist with the emergency evacuation or tactical withdrawal of responders, for example to relay messages, protect escape routes or rescue colleagues.

The terms emergency evacuation or tactical withdrawal of responders should be used in the message to the fire control room to time stamp the decision of the incident commander’s dynamic risk assessment. Radio messages should be timely, without detracting from risk-critical operations, and include sufficient information demonstrating the need to change to defensive mode.

At certain incidents, other responders may continue to work in the hazard area, for example at a CBRN(e) incident.

Tactical modes in sectors

When the incident has been divided into sectors the incident commander remains responsible for the tactical mode at all times. There will be occasions when an operations commander has been appointed. While they may determine or approve a change in tactical mode, the incident commander still retains overall responsibility.

When more than one sector is in use:

  • When every sector is in offensive mode, the overall mode of the incident is offensive
  • When every sector is in defensive mode, the overall mode of the incident will be defensive
  • When different modes are in use at the same incident, there is no overall mode for the incident, for example, when two sectors are in offensive mode and one sector is in defensive mode

If different modes are in use, all messages to the fire control room and across the incident ground should list each sector and the mode it is in, for example, ‘Sector 1 offensive mode, Sector 2 offensive mode, Sector 4 defensive mode.’

Where appropriate, incident commanders should confer with sector commanders when making a decision to change the tactical mode. Sector commanders should be confident in recommending changes to the tactical mode to the operations commander or incident commander. When a change in mode occurs, all personnel and fire control rooms should be informed.

If a sector commander wishes to commit personnel into the hazard area, for example, changing to offensive mode when the prevailing mode is defensive, they should seek permission from the incident commander or operations commander. The sector commander should not make any change until they have received permission.

However, if a rapid change in circumstances occurs, the sector commander should revise the risk assessment. There may be occasions when they need to act first in the interests of safety and then inform the incident commander of their decision.

Further information, examples and diagrams may be found in Incident command: Knowledge, skills and competence: Tactical mode.

Strategic Actions

Tactical Actions