Unless your department has a “fire SUV” (check it out on YouTube if you haven’t already), there’s a very good chance that you’ll arrive on the scene of a house or building fire incident with an engine company. In North America, engine companies are the most common piece of apparatus in the fire station, because they’re needed to extinguish almost every type of fire. As a result, engine companies are often the first-arriving units at a fire incident and therefore have the ability to set the tone for the entire incident by properly performing a size-up and initial fireground operations. As we all know, when a size-up is not done, or not done properly, it can at best result in errors on the fireground, or at worst, chaos.
Get a Good Look
Many first-arriving firefighters base their initial decisions at an incident scene on first impressions, without looking at the entire picture. They see something that looks like smoke and immediately think “working fire.” Or, they see nothing and immediately think “false alarm.” But it’s very difficult to get a full understanding of an incident without getting a good look at everything. You never know what may happen. Consider the Takoma Park, Md., incident that occurred in 1982. More than a dozen houses caught fire after thousands of gallons of gasoline were mistakenly dispensed into the sewer system. It was quite a surprise to the firefighters on scene that day when they saw one house on fire, but suddenly the house next door also began to burn.
Initial units can also get tunnel vision, focusing on a small part of the situation because that’s what they’re used to dealing with, while the overall incident rapidly progresses and spreads, requiring bigger-picture management and additional resources.
To combat this, the initial-arriving crew must use all their senses to determine what’s occurring. At the very least, one crewmember must take a 360-degree look around the structure, unless a victim needs rescue and/or assistance or the building is so large that it’s impossible to size up in 2 or 3 minutes. If the structure is large, the crewmember can go from one corner of the building to the next to view at least three of its sides.
If the crewmember doesn’t take the time to perform this task or performs it poorly, it can result in selecting the wrong size hoseline or stretching a hoseline in the wrong place, which would allow the fire to grow and threaten lives and property.
What to Look For & What to Say
During the size-up, get a good look at where any smoke or fire is coming from. Look for signs of backdraft, such as puffing (“breathing”) smoke, yellow-brownish smoke and darkened/cracked windows. If these elements are present, start vertical ventilation immediately.
Look for signs of flashover, including an advancing/increasing fire. One classic sign of an impending flashover is the smoke level in the fire room being “pulled down” like a room-darkening shade. If you see that happen, you may have only a few moments until flashover. Get water on the ceiling area of the room, and get it ventilated horizontally (break a window).
Smoke color can tell you a lot about what’s going on. As mentioned, a brown or yellow-brownish smoke (think dirty diaper) can indicate a nasty working fire that will take as many resources as you can throw at it. A heavy black smoke indicates involvement of synthetic materials, vinyl siding, asphalt roofing or other plastic/combustible-liquid related materials. Again, this will take a lot of resources to deal with. A light, white smoke may simply be steam (from a dryer vent, etc.), or it may be from a fire being knocked down by sprinklers or an attack line; it may also be a fire in its early stages.
If you notice smoke of various other colors during your size-up, particularly if it’s in primary shades, you have something quite unusual going on, so you better hope you have a good preplan to tell you what’s happening and how to protect yourself and others from it.
Remember: Communicate smoke color, as well as other findings, to others on the fireground and any incoming apparatus. Try to paint a picture of what’s going on: Is the incident at a residential dwelling or a commercial building? How many stories? What are the dimensions, roughly? Are there any exposures? What are the current conditions? Other responders need to know what to expect so they can better plan their response. If given a more complete picture, they may also be able to provide their own information and observations to assist in the ongoing size-up effort.
Of course, the time available to conduct the size-up and consider action plan options will depend on your response area, as different departments have different time delays between the arrival of the first-in apparatus and next-due units. In some cases, the delay lasts just moments; in others, it can last 10 minutes or longer.
One major challenge for the first-arriving engine: determining how to conduct both the size-up and initial fireground operations. Although engine crews are certainly capable of performing these tasks, they may cause the first-in unit to commit to a position that may not be advantageous to handling the incident, or it may waste critical manpower needed to stretch initial hoselines or raise critical ladders.
Initial-arriving firefighters must therefore understand both the value of establishing command and the value of passing command to a unit/command officer who arrives after them. Certain situations may demand action immediately, requiring first-arriving officers to pass command rather than to establish it, preventing a small-to-moderate incident from accelerating into a major catastrophe.
Questions to Ask
Arriving first means you’ll have to answer many difficult questions that will affect your initial actions, such as:
- Do you take command or do you do something else, such as initiate triage or fire attack?
- How much work is there to do?
- Is it a simple fire or EMS incident, or are there underlying safety issues, such as gas or carbon monoxide?
- Are there enough or too many resources responding on the initial alarm?
- Does a bona fide emergency exist, or can units respond at non-emergency speed?
Tip: Avoid committing too many units prior to developing an initial action plan (IAP). If necessary, instruct units that aren’t immediately assigned to a specific area to stage a block or so away until you can figure out what’s going on.
Although the temptation may be great to begin firefighting, be careful not to freelance. Make sure back-up is available, and don’t put yourself at risk.
In addition to answering crucial questions about what to do upon arrival, you’ll also have several key elements to consider when forming your IAP:
- Where is the fire now, and where is it going?
- Are lives at imminent risk?
- How involved is the fire? Is it simply a “contents” fire that can be quickly controlled by a single handline, or is the structure itself involved, requiring multiple attack lines and rapid ventilation support?
- Is the building occupied and, if so, where are the occupants located? In adjoining areas or directly above the fire area? (If the answer is yes to the first question, you must take immediate action.)
- Are there other occupants who aren’t in immediate danger, but think they are? Are they pressuring you to take action? If so, assign a law-enforcement officer to stay in communication with them to tell them that help is on its way.
- In a multi-story building, is the fire at the top, or is it on a lower floor exposing floors (and people) above it?
- In attached garages or dwellings, or even detached buildings, is the fire threatening an exposure?
- What resources will you need to deal with those threats, and who will coordinate them? Units arriving without instructions tend to freelance at working incidents. As a result, they may rescue visible victims who aren’t immediately threatened instead of aggressively attacking the fire to protect those exposed above the fire floor. Tip: If during size-up you decide to take command, clearly identify on the radio that you are doing so, and give clear instructions to incoming units.
In developing an IAP, it’s critical to know the capabilities of the incoming apparatus to determine where they should be placed on the incident scene. To take maximum advantage of arriving resources, consider aerial ladder lengths, sizes of supply lines, lighting and rescue capabilities of various units.
Competency in performing size-ups and developing IAPs comes from training and experience. But even if you have experience at hundreds or perhaps thousands of calls, you must have some prior training, preferably in a training environment rather than on the emergency scene. Use incident simulations, and study actual fire photographs or videos (www.firefighterclosecalls.com and YouTube are good places to start) to obtain some background information.
Take the time to study various scenes, and listen to size-ups done by others. Ask yourself: Would that size-up better prepare my crew if we’re responding? Is there something we could have done differently to improve our response?
Take some time to think about it, so the next time that you pull up first, you are prepared to size up the situation, communicate it well to others and take the decisive actions needed to successfully handle the incident.