Article and photos by Mark Foris

Basic “size-up” techniques are taught to firefighters as they first enter the service. Proper size-up at an operation is required in order for the Incident Commander to formulate strategies and tactics to use to accomplish his goals. Firefighters are taught early on that a size-up starts with the receipt of the alarm and continues until their unit leaves the scene of an operation. Understanding why certain information is needed, when it should be relayed and to whom, and how this information will be used comes with experience. This experience allows you to hone your techniques of sizing-up an incident. The numbers of hazards that firefighters face are increasing in today’s ever-changing world of building construction. Firefighters need to go beyond the normal size-up, and include what I like to call a “Windshield Size-up.”

This proactive pre-incident type size-up can be conducted any time your unit is out of quarters. Whether it is while the unit is returning from an alarm, out on hydrant inspection, building inspection, medical response, or even a routine emergency, members need to be alert to the dangers that certain building construction methods and alterations pose to response areas. Use your view from inside the apparatus to spot potential problems. The combined viewpoints of all the members on an apparatus can afford a 360-degree perspective of the outside world.

If you see something, say something!

Think about how many times you have been on an extended leave only to return and find a new building already built in your response area, or how many times you have turned down a block during a response to an alarm only for a new structure to catch your eye? The time to know how a building is constructed or altered is before the fire/emergency occurs! Once changes have been made and a building is buttoned up, the window of opportunity for a visual inspection of its structural components has closed. “How a structure contributes to fire spread and the particular hazard of a building are some of the most important items of information that a fire officer can know to combat a fire efficiently and safely.” (Dunn, page 56)

What we don’t know will kill us!

When you see a construction site as you’re driving along, stop and perform a size-up. Today’s building construction methods and materials permit a building to be built in a matter of days once the holes are dug and the foundation is poured. Materials such as lightweight parallel wood trusses, lightweight steel bar joists, metal C-joists, metal studs, wooden I-beams, PVC piping, membrane roofing, precast concrete stairways and hollow core planking all increase the speed with which a building is erected. These building materials are the choice of many property owners and improvement companies because of the ease of installation and their financial advantages. Each one of these materials, whether used alone or together, poses a particular danger to firefighters. “Lightweight construction and methods will kill more firefighters in the future.” (Dunn, p3) These dangers are not new; numerous articles in regard to these dangers have been written over and over again.

We have met the enemy!

Companies must be alert to changes being made to structures in their response area. A ladder company returning from a routine nuisance alarm notices a 20-yard dumpster in front of a strip mall being filled with wheelbarrows of dirt by workers exiting the structure. Do the firefighters have any idea what is going on in this structure? If changes are being made, will they have an impact on strategies and tactics should a fire occur within this structure? While on a medical emergency a particular engine company notices contractors working on a three-story multiple dwelling next to the building they were operating in. Out front on the curb line is a flatbed truck loaded with lightweight metal C-joists. This should raise a red flag. This unit needs to know what is going on inside the structure. An evaluation of the structure must be made in both of these type scenarios. Knowledge of your response area is paramount.

Know your response area! Know your buildings!

Once you have identified a structure as a potential problem, whether an alteration or a newly erected structure, do your size-up and approach it as if you were at a fire/emergency operation. Each member of the company needs to visualize their duties during an operation at that site in question. Use this structure as a training exercise. Review your department tactics and procedures with the members. Where will I go? What will I do? Discuss fire behavior within this structure with your crew.

Don’t judge a book by its cover!

A few questions that can be asked and answered at the site are:

  1. What is the challenge and potential for injury if a fire/emergency occurs here?

  2. What type of building materials are being used?

  3. Are they using lightweight building materials?

  4. What are the means of fire spread within the structure?

  5. What is the collapse potential?

  6. What are the hydrant locations in proximity to the structure? Do they operate? Is Inline pumping necessary?

  7. What are the fire protection systems (standpipe/sprinkler) within this structure? Are they operational? Is it a wet or dry system? What is the location of the Siamese in relation to the hydrants?

  8. Can Truck companies operate Aerial or Tower ladders? Are Portable ladders needed at this structure?

  9. What access challenges are there? Will it require forcible entry?

  10. Do we have access to the rear?

  11. What are the floor layouts? Are there any interconnections or duplexes? On which floors?

  12. What is the secondary means of egress?

  13. Should Computer response information be made available, such as the Critical Information Dispatch System (CIDS) used by the Fire Department of New York (FDNY)?

  14. What is the occupancy type?

  15. Can roof operations be performed safely?

  16. Will our SOPs work on this building?

If alterations are being made in the structure, seek them out. If it is a new structure being erected, observe the method of construction. Do not assume it is being built up to building code standards. Ask questions of building construction personnel if on the scene. Take mental and written notes. If available, digital cameras are a great teaching tool. In the FDNY. each battalion is now assigned a digital camera and laptop computer for creating company or battalion drills. A short Powerpoint presentation on a problem structure can be very helpful, allowing surrounding units to benefit from your findings. The more inspections you perform the more you become familiar and knowledgeable with building construction materials and methods. The time-consuming information you are gathering can be a precursor to a pre-incident plan. Remember to use your instincts, if you see something and it doesn’t seem right…it probably isn’t.

Alterations kill firefighters!

The knowledge gained through the windshield size-up will increase a member’s situational awareness should a fire or emergency occur at that particular structure. All of the information gathered paints an operational picture of the structure that will aid department members in making decisions under possible extreme conditions. Using initiatives such as these to discover potential problems will go a long way in preventing injuries and deaths in the future. “If every fire officer and firefighter took the time to study the peculiarities of building construction in their response areas, their chances of survival would be immeasurably improved.” (Brannigan, p.xv)


The potential disaster shown in the photo at the left was discovered during a routine hydrant inspection. The owner decided to remove roof joist prior to demolition. From the outside the building looked occupied, with no other indications of a change to its structural members. At 2am, this could have been a foof firefighter’s last fire.

The site shown on the right was seen from the roof of a multiple-dwelling building on the next street during a fire prevention inspection. The photo shows lightweight “C” joists being used in the building’s construction. Computer response information should be entered.

This size-up was made by a unit returning from an alarm. Dumpsters being filled with dirt led to the discovery of alterations being made to the basement of the first building on the right in the photo. Surveillance inspections were set up by the administrative unit.

A response to these two semi-attached private dwellings might lead to a simple size-up on arrival. While a unit was on a routine medical response, the building on the right was found being altered. The building had its front and rear wall removed and all of its wood joists cut out. These were replaced with lightweight metal “C” joists. Computer response information (CIDS) was entered by the administrative unit.

This alteration was found during an inspection at a construction site of a new multiple dwelling. Buildings Department and surrounding fire companies were notified of the discovery, along with computer response information (CIDS). A steel “I” beam was added to allow for a cantilever balcony to be built.


Brannigan, Francis L., Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, National Fire Protection Association, (1992).

Dunn, Vincent, Collapse of Burning Buildings. A Guide to Fireground Safety, Pennwell Publishing Company, (1988). Click HERE for more info!

Mark Foris is currently Company Commander (Captain) of Engine Company 262 of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and a member of the department’s Administrative Safety Command. He has been a member of the FDNY for 20 years. He has been a contributor and instructor in the department’s Captain’s Development Course and Incident Command System Training Course, and is a member of the FDNY Incident Management Team. He is a graduate of the department’s FDNY/USMA Combating Terrorism Leadership Course and holds a bachelor’s degree in Fire and Emergency Service from John Jay College.