Painting the Picture

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Create a Masterpiece through Size-up

It doesn’t matter how many years you have on – 3, 10, 15 – your first few fires as a company officer will be intimidating.  You are moving from a position of listening for direction to one of giving direction. Forget about the gravity of realizing that multiple lives, both civilian and fire service, are depending on your decision-making capacities for the context of this article.  Focus instead on what I consider to be the most important action on any fire-ground – the size-up.

In our world, it has long been said that as the first line goes, so goes the fire.  I don’t disagree with this assertion, but the perfectionist in me says that a great size-up is needed to determine WHERE the first line goes. But size-ups aren’t limited to first arriving officers.  What if your department staffs firefighters, paramedics, and other non-officer ranks on some of your apparatus? The reality for many departments is that the first due apparatus may not be staffed with a company or chief officer.  In truth, accurate, timely size-ups are a requirement for every fire-ground, and for any personnel in your organization. They can be intimidating – knowing that everyone is tuning in to what you have to say, chomping at the bit for a desirable assignment.  If you don’t implement your Incident Action Plan quickly enough, they’ll be on the radio kindly reminding you for an assignment. Worse still, they may walk up to you for a face-to-face for a friendly suggestion of what assignment they want. Getting bombarded like that is overwhelming for even the most veteran of officers, as this kind of behavior takes away from your ability to focus on the bigger picture that is the entire incident.  So let’s obey my favorite fire service acronym and KISS our size-ups and IAPs – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

The simple truth is that a size-up is nothing more than a CAN report.

Conditions – What do you have?

Actions – What are your doing about it?

Needs – What do you need from everyone else to support your actions?

Conditions are easily broken down into just two quick observations that even a probationary firefighter can make on their own:  

What type of building do you have?  Every firefighter, from day one, has an obligation to themselves and their brothers/sisters to start learning about the buildings that they protect in their district.  What types of buildings do you have? What eras of construction were they built in? How do fire and smoke affect those types of buildings? This is information that you should develop every day.  But as your second due engine, all I need to hear on the radio is how many stories, and what type of occupancy (strip mall, single family residence, townhome, etc.).  Further information may be necessary for something way out of the ordinary for the neighborhood that the building sits in, but those buildings are the exception, not the rule.

What is happening to the building (nothing showing, smoke showing, working fire)?  This is where we tend to over-complicate things. Or at least, we try to communicate more information than is necessary.  A common question asked during The Art of Reading Smoke is “How do I read smoke over the radio in my size-up?” Frankly, I don’t want to hear your smoke reading over the radio.  It takes up valuable airtime, and adding that information to a radio report doesn’t change your IAP, nor does it change what assignment you’re going to give. Imagine that you have thin, laminar, light gray smoke showing from an open window on the second floor at the A/B corner.  How much different is that from a size-up of “smoke showing?” The smoke reading process is your opportunity to determine much information about the fire, but that information does not need to be aired. It quite simply takes up too much time, and the cutoffs between smoke conditions are subjective.  Read it, recognize and analyze the attributes, catalog the information and use it to your advantage, but don’t air it. We just need to hear the gist of the story. We’re going to see it for ourselves soon enough.

Actions – What are you doing about it?  This is the question that unseasoned incident commanders will stumble on.  There are so many options, sometimes a fear of failure, or even a lack of confidence in making the right call.  Keep it simple. First, you need to decide if your conditions allow for an offensive operation, or if nothing can be saved, and we must implement a defensive response.

We all understand that the three incident priorities are Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, and Property Conservation.  Ask yourself these questions as you observe the building/fire conditions:

  • Is there a possibility of survivable space in this building? (Life Safety)
  • Can we aggressively intervene to prevent further fire spread? (Incident Stabilization)
  • If we intervene, can we save all, or part of, the building? (Property Conservation)

If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you have an offensive fire.  If the answer is “no” to all three, you have a defensive fire. In a defensive fire, your priorities remain the same, but you are focusing your efforts on the exposures, rather than aggressive intervention on the fire seat.  You have now solved the question of strategy.

Now that you have your strategy decided, how do you decide what assignments to implement to mitigate the problem?  The right answer will vary from department to department based on staffing, resources, equipment, training, etc., so there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  However, we can still determine our IAP by asking you to pick your three biggest problems for a given incident. Let’s consider this pictured fire to be our incident.  Pick your three biggest problems – and remember – KISS! I’ll pick these:

  • Fire
  • People might be trapped
  • Smoke

Your basic problems may differ to some degree, but we can all agree that these three problems need to be addressed on this incident, so we’ll play with those.  How to you fix those three problems?

  • Put the fire out
  • Remove any victims
  • Remove the smoke from the building

Pretty simple, right?  That’s the point. Now make tactical assignments that will accomplish those things

  • Fire Attack
  • Primary Search
  • Ventilation

Maybe you have enough resources on scene in 30 seconds to handle those assignments.  Maybe it takes 30 minutes. Your department probably differs from mine. That’s okay.  But by keeping things easy to understand, we just filled three tactical assignments to meet our incident priorities in a matter of a couple seconds.  What if you’re a single resource on scene, and don’t have the capabilities to accomplish even one of those assignments until an apparatus arrives. That’s okay too.  What can you accomplish until that apparatus arrives?

  • Get information from parties on scene (is anyone inside?  What’s on fire/What’s inside?)
  • Perform a 360
  • Visually clear rooms with sufficient visibility through windows
  • Spot the nearest water supply and coordinate with responding apparatus
  • Confirm or alter your IAP and request additional resources as necessary based on your findings

Needs – What do you need from me, your subsequent arriving apparatus?  Be careful not to interpret this as making assignments to units that are not yet on scene.  This is less than ideal. First, airing some variation of “Next due engine, hit a hydrant and lay into the scene” does not give anyone an assignment.  What if I’m next due, but I’m thinking I’m second or third in line? What if I spot a hydrant like you requested, but someone else coming from the other direction is already doing that?  The same applies for specifying a specific apparatus. “Engine 3, hit a hydrant on your way into the scene.” What if Engine 3 isn’t as close as you expect them to be? What if they’re already past the nearest hydrant?  You should wait until a unit arrives on scene, and that unit should have the discipline not to pass up their last tactical advantage before “arriving.”

This concept plays into a phrase that I have come to love and implement on every single one of my size-ups for the “Needs” portion.  “All incoming units level 1 stage.” The last thing I want is for several crews to approach me and suggest assignments for themselves.  We can talk all day about how they should have the discipline not to do that, but it still happens. By basically telling everyone to stay away from me, they will at least stay in their apparatus and just announce their presence over the radio, such as “Engine 2 is on scene, level 1 staged.”  Now I can implement my plan. Imagine the next few transmissions playing out (acknowledgements removed for brevity’s sake):

 “Engine 2 from Command, pull up the scene, stretch a preconnect from your engine to the 2nd floor for fire attack.”

“Engine 3 is on scene, level 1 staged”

“Engine 3 from Command, spot your apparatus out of the way, and conduct a primary search on the second floor.”

“Truck 1 is on scene, level 1 staged”

“Truck 1 from Command, spot your apparatus for aerial use and prepare to vent the roof.  Coordinate your ventilation with Engine 2, fire attack”

By telling the incoming units to stage, you are accomplishing two things.  First, you are buying yourself some time to figure this incident out, without having crews almost literally in your ear.  Second, you are doing the same for the arriving crews. I know we’re all eager to jump off the engine and sprint through the scene like a superhero, but taking a second or two to calm down and allow that first-arriving firefighter to make their plan and play it out will save us all a lot of confusion on the fire-ground.  Take a few seconds on the front end, save a lot more than that on the back end.

Your “Needs” portion is also your opportunity to ensure that you have everything you want en route.  Do you need an additional alarm? Additional ambulances, police, or other assistance? Think of it this way – all of us are here to support you, the first due, and your mission.  Tell us what you need to roll out your plan.

Let’s put it all together in a radio size-up:

“Dispatch, Engine 1 is on scene of a two-story commercial building with a working fire.  We’ll be in the offensive strategy. Engine 1 is stretching a pre-connect to the front door for fire attack on the second floor.  All incoming units, level 1 stage on arrival. Strike a second alarm.”

In my head, I’ve already figured out my biggest three problems, and I’m just waiting on apparatus to announce their arrival to assign them.  In the meantime, if conditions change such that I decide to change the tactics to address any of my problems, I have the opportunity to do so without canceling an order already given to a rig that isn’t on scene yet.

These CAN size-ups aren’t limited to structure fires.  They have the same outline for any incident – traffic accidents, Hazmat spills, MCIs, any and every incident, really.  You don’t have to wait for your next fire to begin practicing in the real world. Start the size-up process on your next call.

About the Author

Rob Backer is a 16-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as a Captain for Thornton Fire Department in Thornton, Colorado.  He is an instructor for Dave Dodson’s The Art of Reading Smoke and is available to teach nationally.

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