Dave LeBlanc leads us to consider that the ever-changing understanding of sizeup involves more than the actual on scene picture.

Sometimes conditions will not allow the Incident Commander or the First Due Officer to physically conduct a 360 evaluation of the building. Department Policy should prepare for this so that an accurate assessment of all four side of the structure can be made.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the first arriving officer completing a 360 check of the building upon arrival. In his article “Situational Awareness and the Three Sixty”, Christopher Naum makes the following statement, “The effective assessment of the incident scene is much more than the three-sided size-up methodology of past fireground practices. In fact the term size-up doesn’t align with the newest directions in firefighter safety and incident command management.”[1] The problem with this statement is that size up is not just a tool used by the first arriving officer or Incident Commander. Chris goes on to say the following, ”The 360 degree assessment has become the generally accepted standard from which risk assessment is performed and incident action plans derived.”[2] The problem with this thinking is that it doesn’t focus on the other facets that make up the process formerly known as size up. Size up includes many factors, one of which may be a 360 degree evaluation of the structure. But if we eliminate size up from our vocabulary, then what do we call the assessment that is supposed to be performed by the rest of the responding firefighters? Are we expecting everyone to conduct a 360 degree assessment?

So exactly what is “Size Up”? The answer seems fairly simple. According to Merriam Webster, Size Up is defined as “: to form a judgment of “. A fire based definition from a Wikipedia search found the following, “Size-up: initial evaluation of an incident, in particular a determination of immediate hazards to responders, other lives and property, and what additional resources may be needed.”[3] That seems a little more accurate but is still missing something.

The Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills by the International Association of Fire Chiefs defines size up this way, “Size-up is the process of initially evaluating an emergency situation to determine which actions need to be taken and which actions can be undertaken safely. It is always the first step in making plans to bring the situation under control.”[4]

Many would tell you that Size Up is “COAL WAS WEALTH” or “BELOW”. Both of these are part of size up, but only in the fact that they represent mental q’s for fire fighters to remember the different parts of Size Up. Construction Occupancy Apparatus and manpower Life Hazard Water Supply Auxiliary appliances Street Conditions Weather Exposures Area Locations and extent of fire, Time, Height. [5] Building, Extent and location of fire, Life hazard, Occupancy, and Water supply. [6] All of these are all factors that must be considered when responding to an incident, and when combined with our observations on arrival, make up the foundation for the decisions we will make.

When does size up start? Seriously, when do you begin to think about the incident? After you get off the truck?

Every firefighter, from the chief responding in a car to the junior Firefighter in the jump seat should be conducting a size up based on the information available and their particular assignment on that run. “To form a judgment”, based on what your responsibilities are and the situation you are confronted with. Is the building residential or commercial? Time of Day? Construction type in that area. These are all things that will affect our operations and that we should have an idea about well before we arrive on scene. Prior to going to work (as in getting off the truck) we should have a plan for what needs to be done, how we are going to do it, and the tools we need to accomplish it. The “what” and the “tools” should be governed by your Departments SOPs. The “how” comes from a combination of SOPs, experience, and by reading the conditions present on arrival. In other words, you decide based on your size up of the building.

If you take the time to read any NIOSH report you will almost always find in the list of recommendations that a 360 degree check of the building should be performed. It is critical that we “see” all sides of the building, but as with many things in the Fire Service, absolutes are difficult to find. In some cases it is not practical for the 1st arriving officer to walk all four sides of the building. Row frames with the fire in the middle of the block are one example. Many places have policy that ensures the Incident Commander gets a good picture of the rear of the building. They either assign the 2nd due companies to the rear, or a firefighter from the 1st due companies performs a recon.

How much of a size up you do depends on the role of the member performing the task. The first arriving officer’s size up will be much more detailed and involved than the firefighter that is assigned to the hydrant position. But both are equally important and need to be completed. While on this topic, how many operate with assigned riding positions? Do your people know what their function will be when they get off the truck? It is too much to ask of an Officer to perform a size up and then micromanage his crew through an assignment and what is needed to get it done. There are far too many decisions to be made, in a very short amount of time. It is also a disservice to expect our firefighters to arrive at a scene and then be told what is expected of them. It robs them of the ability to “plan ahead”.

There are many factors that go into the successful outcome of an incident. Without a plan there is very little chance for success, and without a good size up, it is very difficult to develop a plan that will work.

1. Situational Awareness and the Three Sixty, Naum, The Company Officer, November 2010
2. ibid
3. Glossary of Firefighting ‘S’, Wikipedia
4. “Fundamentals of Fire Fighter Skills, 2nd Edition” International Association of Fire Chiefs, NFPA
5. “Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics” John Norman
6. “Firefighting Behind Closed Doors” LT Robert Pressler, FDNY (ret)

Photographs courtesy of photographers with permission, Barrall, Coleman, Whittington.

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  • kiltyfitzhaggis says:

    I think COAL WAS WEALTH was the acronym we were taught in the NYC Fire Academy

  • chiefreason says:

    Great article.
    IMHO, the information exchanged during the first few minutes on scene are crucial to those arriving. If the IC has gotten there and done his 360 size up, then arriving crews can go to work with their eyes wide open.
    I think what gets lost in the shuffle is that size up is an ongoing process. It doesn’t stop. That is where the wide open eyes of the crews can keep a situation from turning ugly.
    IC is no longer mobile, so the information and the tactics are updated by the “boots on the ground”.
    If our department is engaged in an interior attack of a residential, we will have interior command.
    If it is a commercial, we may share command.
    In any event, you want good intel.
    And hopefully, you have plan B in your pocket, if need be.

  • Daniel T. Dennehy says:

    Very good article,as a Fire Instructor I stress size-up to all my probie’s. Many of the points brought up in this article ring true. Size-up is an ever changing animal…starting when the tones drop…My students are reminded that knowing their response area is vitaly important.Knowing just by hearing the address,what type of occupancy,construction type,whether the area is hydranted or not are just some of the things that should be popping into their heads

  • Hey Dave. Nice piece. First, it’s critical that EVERYONE on the fireground from Chief to Probie look up and evaluate the situation CONTINUOUSLY during the operation.

    I use the ABCD “size-up” for the initial on-scene report. It stands for Address, Building (Description), Conditions & Deployment/Directives. It seems to work well consistently. I know the fire service is bogged down with acronyms, but this one is more of a mix of Kindergarten and Fire Officer 1… very simple.

    Many of the others are cumbersome and, while they may be great at the Command Post, aren’t best suited for the front right seat.

    Thanks and BE SAFE

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