Chuck Ryan: Effective Incident Size-Up, Initial Incident Action Planning, and Incident Communications Are Critical


It is often the case that the first five minutes of a working fire or other significant, multicompany response incident can dictate how the next several hours may unfold. The reason for this is that the initial arriving company officer’s decision making sets the tone for the initial phases of the response and sets in motion a series of actions (or inactions) that impact the mitigation efforts undertaken by the officer’s crew; later-arriving companies; and, ultimately, the command or chief officer(s) responding to the alarm. These initial decisions are always based on a wide variety of factors, but they are based on the company officer’s ability to effectively size up the incident, to apply a decision-making method that processes the information obtained in the size-up in strategic and tactical directives, and to efficiently communicate the size-up and initial action plan (IAP) to incoming companies and chief officers.  Moreover, all this must be done within the first five minutes. The above mentioned elementary steps must be done rapidly, and there is little room for error. This article addresses these components from the perspective of helping the reader to set the stage for the best possible achievable incident outcome.


Scene size-up is the cornerstone for the onset of fire department operations at an incident.  A great deal has been written about the elements the firefighter or company officer should consider when sizing up a scene. Many involve acronyms; others do not. I have seen a variety of “suggestions for size up,” some having as few as four or five elements. However, even when narrowed down to four or five items, the suggested size-up considerations still encompass what have come to be known as the “traditional” 13 points of size-up. No matter how diligently we endeavor to streamline the information-processing component of being a fire officer, the basics must always be considered.  Whether you use the WALLACE WAS HOT or COAL WAS WEALTH acronym is irrelevant. What is mandatory is that you consider the 13 elements when formulating your initial IAP.

We’ll go with COAL WAS WEALTH for purposes of this article: Construction, Occupancy, Apparatus (and staffing), Life hazard, Water supply, Auxiliary appliances, Street conditions, Weather, Exposures, Area (including height), Location of fire within the structure, Time, and Hazards/Hazardous materials. You should consider every one of these elements during the initial scene size-up. Practice and experience are needed to become efficient at sizing up. A seasoned veteran should be able to quickly process the size-up components based on a quick sensory scan of the scene on arrival.  A newer officer will need slightly more time to process these elements and may even miss some cues. However, the practice and experience will gradually decrease the processing time needed. Articles, chapters of books, and entire books have been written on size-up.  The professional fire officer (irrespective of whether you are a career or volunteer firefighter) will take the time to become a student of the job and will absorb as much as possible of the detailed information available to add to his knowledge about each element of a size-up and its relevance to fireground decision making. This article will not delve into each of the elements; the intent is to identify them and encourage you to delve more deeply into the topics.

The thing to keep in mind is that there usually is not a lot of time to process this information, decide on a plan of action, communicate that plan, and initiate action. Although it is true that in 99.9 percent of cases, putting the fire out makes everything better fairly quickly, the days of simply charging in to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” are gone.  Building construction techniques, manufacturing elements for interior furnishings and exterior decorative features, and the changing world in which we live have combined to transfer practices we once consider “aggressive” to actions that are now considered “reckless.” Taking the time to briefly consider the 13 elements of size-up will keep you on the sunny side of the “reckless” line. It is your obligation as a fire officer to make informed decisions anytime you are preparing to send into harm’s way firefighters for whom you are responsible. They are counting on you to get it right, as are their families and friends.

Planning Initial Incident Action

Once the fire officer has completed the scene size-up, an initial IAP must be formulated.  Two basic types of organic decision-making processes identified through years of research and study are naturalistic decision making and classical decision making. Naturalistic decision making formerly was referred to as “recognition primed decision making” or “RPDM.”  Those of us with more gray hair than dark hair recall the analogy of RPDM to “slides in the slide tray.”  Younger folks may better appreciate the analogy of “files stored on the hard drive.”  Simply stated, naturalistic decision making relies on the individual’s past experience in the same or similar circumstances to make valid decisions based on the observations being made. If the officer has “been there, done that,” the decision-making process is completed quickly, almost effortlessly, and initial action planning flows smoothly.

On the other hand, classical decision making is a more time-consuming and mentally laborious “if-then” process that is automatically reverted to when the observer has not previously encountered the situation being observed or cannot closely parallel what is being observed to a past similar experience.  This causes the thinker to slow down and try to obtain more information to help align current observations with past experience or knowledge.

A question often posed is, “which decision making process is better?” There is no clear-cut answer. It depends on a variety of factors, the most critical one being the experience of the person making the decision. If the decision maker has not previously encountered the same or a similar situation or if his training or education has not exposed him to a similar situation, he has no prior memory to tap into. Another factor is the available time in which to make decisions. The greater the time one has to make a decision, the more appropriate it is to take advantage of the time to think through the process to arrive at a sound initial plan.

To illustrate the “which is better” question, consider the following scenarios.

Scenario 1. The fire officer works at one of the busiest engine companies in the city. He has more than 20 years of experience, 10 as a company officer. He has been to many fires in single-family and multiple-family dwellings. His response district has a wide variety of occupancies, but it is generally densely populated with many three- and four-story apartment buildings that are mainly 30+ years old. His engine company responds to a reported fire in a second-floor apartment of a four-story building in a complex that he has been to many times for working fires. On arrival, the report is confirmed by visible flames and smoke showing from two windows on the second floor.  Except for something completely unexpected occurring, this is a “been there, done that” event for the officer. He will be able to quickly size up the incident (many of the 13 elements will be “automatic” in his size-up), draw on his years of past experience with similar fires, and quickly decide on and initiate a plan of action.

Scenario 2. The officer has eight years of experience, only two in a supervisory role. Her prior assignments were in suburban districts comprised of neighborhoods of detached single-family homes, strip shopping centers, and state highways. On the date in question, she is working overtime in one of the department’s stations located in a commercial/industrial zone. Her engine company is dispatched for a reported auto accident at an at-grade rail crossing. As they approach the scene, she observes a stake-body truck that has clearly been struck by a freight train. The damage to the cab of the truck, which is overturned and lying at the foot of the rail bed approximately 100 feet from the grade crossing, is extensive. Although the train has not left the tracks, it is apparent that one of the tank cars in the consist close to the overturned truck is leaking some form of liquid product that is quickly vaporizing. The only immediate potential life hazard is to the truck driver, who is pinned in the wreckage. There are no occupied exposures nearby, and the train’s engineer is running toward the fire engine.

Clearly, Scenario 2 presents the perfect scenario for classical decision making. The officer does not have any experience in the setting described. She is in unfamiliar territory with a crew she just met a few hours before, and the incident setting is not one commonly encountered not only by the officer but also by the department in general. It is highly unlikely that apart from an academic or a coffee table discussion, this fire officer has encountered this scenario or one similar to it. Although her brain will initially attempt to use naturalistic methods to make sense of the problem, she must mentally slow down and digest the scene bit by bit, gathering as much evidence as possible, before initiating action. This is certainly an instance where “rushing in” could prove fatal to firefighters.

Once the decision-making process is selected (often subconsciously), the observer can begin to plan a course of action.  In some cases, the proper course may be to do nothing at all. Only the varied aspects of an incident will be able to dictate that. However, the fire officer must remember the basic incident strategies when formulating the IAP: rescues, exposures, confinement, extinguishment, and overhaul (RECEO). The officer must consider these strategies while being mindful of the overarching incident priorities of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Every decision made must address the incident priorities through the applied incident strategies. If not, there is no point to the action.

The fire officer, whether using naturalistic or classical decision-making methods, should steadily focus on initiating actions that will provide the greatest likelihood for a successful outcome. She must implement a constant risk-benefit analysis. Remember: risk a lot to save a lot, risk little to save little, risk nothing on what is already lost.

Incident Communications

A near-constant element of almost every fireground near-miss, significant injury, or firefighter fatality report is a comment on a breakdown in communications. Although it is becoming the norm for every firefighter to have an assigned portable radio, my experience and observations have shown that training firefighters and fire officers in how to talk on the radio is not the norm. Radio communications have taken on the tenor of conversational cellphone calls.  This leads to a complete lack of standardization in communication and is intensely wasteful of precious air time. Other industries that rely heavily on mobile communications, most notably aviation and maritime, have recognized the value of standardized communications and employ them daily.

We must, as an industry, drive “casual conversation” from fireground radio communications. We also owe it to our firefighters and fire officers to properly train them in how to talk on the radio and in what we want them to say (or not say). I have been party to too many conversations at various fire service conferences where those in the circle are lamenting that their officers can’t talk on the radio. It’s time for the fire service to take this bull by the horns. You can’t complain about people doing something improperly if you haven’t trained them in the way you expect them to do it!  There is no “one way” to talk on the radio. There is a variety of suggested methods, but the method that works best is the one your department should adopt, train on, use, and enforce.

There are, however, some key elements that should be part of every initial fireground radio report. I offer them with the underlying premise that the first-arriving officer needs to “paint the picture” of the incident for other incoming units and command officers. These verbal brush strokes will help guide further actions to support the incident and will allow the command officer an opportunity to better forecast resource needs and anticipated crew actions. These elements also are key to firefighter safety and should, at a minimum, be included in the initial report:

• Confirmation of incident address.

• Type of structure.

• What is evident.

• Water supply plans/layout location.

Example:  “Dispatch from Engine 6. We’re on scene at 1245 Oak Lane.  I have a two-story, detached single-family dwelling with smoke showing from the second floor, side alpha. We dropped a line at the hydrant in front of 1231 Oak Lane. I’ll take a lap and advise further.”

This initial report, which can be delivered in 15 seconds, should give the listener a fairly clear picture of what Engine 6’s officer is observing. Anyone in that department can probably picture with a high degree of accuracy what is taking place. The next step is to provide an enhanced report that includes the following information:

• Additional information gathered during size-up.

• Actions being initiated.

• Actions required of incoming units.

• Requests for any additional needed resources.

• A command statement.

 Example: “Dispatch from Engine 6.  I have a two-story in the front, three stories in the rear single-family home with fire showing from an exterior basement entrance on side Charlie extending vertically to the eaves. I have my crew stretching a 2½-line to the rear. I need Engine 4 to complete the water supply and deploy a line from my engine to the front door to hold the stairs, and I need Truck 2 to get to the upper floors for a search. I do not have confirmation on occupant status. Recommend dispatching two advance life support ambulances to the scene.  Advise Battalion Chief 1 that I need to transfer command.”

Now, without any discussion on tactics, it is very clear what Engine 6’s officer has encountered, what he is faced with, what he and his crew are doing, what the immediate action plan is, and what the incoming units and command officer should expect on arrival!  All of this, with practice and without “speed talking,” can be conveyed in approximately 30 seconds of air time. It takes practice and discipline, but it is completely achievable. In addition, those very brief reports provide near-flawless accountability.  The incoming chief officer knows, or has at least been provided a foundation of, where everyone is and what they are doing. Often, that is half the battle on a dynamic fireground.


It is impossible to develop a single method of size-up, decision making, action planning, and communication. It is possible, though, to implement a structured and refined size-up methodology in your department. By educating your officers and aspiring officers in the elements of size-up, you will make them better and more aware fire officers. By opening your officers’ eyes on how they make decisions, they will likely spend more time focusing on the decision process and thus making better or at least more informed decisions. By guiding your officers in what is expected in their initial incident action planning, you will see improved results on the fireground. Finally, by providing a structured communications methodology for your officers, you will move toward standardization, which, in turn, will lead to streamlined communications and ultimately improved firefighter safety.

Many departments, large and small, tend to forget about the basics as the fire service continues to diversify its bases of expertise. It’s easy to focus on the “flavor of the month” or what the hot topic has become. We are pulled in many directions, and there is no shortage of distractions.  Nonetheless, we are a fundamental organization with the core mission of suppressing fires and saving lives. The more we can focus on the fundamentals, on the relentless pursuit of excellence at the “basics,” the better we will be in response to the “all hazards” environment in which we find ourselves today.  In my opinion, knowing what to look for, how to process it, how to act on the information, and how to concisely communicate the observations and actions are at the very root of every alarm to which we respond.


CHUCK RYAN is the deputy chief – Special Operations Division in the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.