Training Bulletin: Size-Up

By Alex Langbell

Like most firefighters, I can remember the very first fire I ever fought. It was a single-story residential with fire blowing out every opening there was. I grabbed the 1 ¾-inch preconnect and extended it to the front door. Waiting for me was my lieutenant (“Get your butt in there, new guy”) and so I did.  I was like a three-month old moth to the flame. I extinguished the fire, going from room to room until it was finally out. Nineteen years later there are two things I clearly remember. One, it was hot as hell, and, two, all I was focused on was that hoseline, that fire, and nothing else.

I look back and think about where I am now and where I was then. There are a couple things I think about. First of all, why the heck did I go into a fully involved structure without at least doing a transitional attack? Secondly, I never once looked at the structure fire as a whole.

As the years went on, my blinders started to slowly open up and I started to look at the big picture. Once I became an acting officer and officer, I quickly learned how important it was to look at every element of the incident, from start to finish. A good firefighter needs to be able to look at the incident as a whole. Look at what is happening, what is going to happen, and what could possibly happen and prepare for all of these phases.

What is happening begins with knowing your crew and apparatus you are working with that shift. Know who is on your crew. Do you have a three-month probationary firefighter that is like a thoroughbred ready to bolt out the gate but has no experience? Do one of your crew members have a specialty that you can take advantage of (hazmat technician, technical rescue, etc.)? Know the apparatus you are working on and its equipment. While en route, think about the location; is it in residential, commercial or industrial? Is the incident going to be difficult to access? What time of the day is it? Is there potential for victims? Are there potential for hazards such as large basements or manufacturing processes that presents certain hazards? Where is the closest hydrant? All these things should come across your racing mind.

Once on scene, look at the big picture, look at the exposures, and look at the structure itself. Is there a basement?  Is there an attic? Is there a possibility for a common attic? Is the structure made of balloon construction? Look at the age of the structure.  Is it an older home that can withstand the effects of a fire or is it a newer construction home, made of lightweight construction susceptible to rapid fire spread? Look for hazards. Are there power lines or service drops laying on the ground? Are there objects that could fall and injure you, such as loose masonry from parapet walls or “widow maker” chimneys? Look at smoke conditions. Is it light where you can make quick access to do a search or heavy brown/black smoke with the potential of flashover and the need of ventilation? All these things should be going through your head. Things that are known, things you can visibly see or verify.

What is going to happen basically means: do you know what will happen during that incident? Think like an incident commander (IC). Think about what needs to happen to mitigate that incident. You know certain tasks need to be accomplished and crews to accomplish these tasks. You know if there needs to be an attack team, a rescue team, and whether there needs to be a RIT or RIC team. You need to know if the structure must be ventilated and what type of ventilation should be performed. You need to think about investigation and protecting evidence. All these things will happen and you need to be thinking about them.

What is likely to happen is when you think about worst-case scenarios. Think about if you have to go defensive during the incident and what could happen. How much staffing is needed? Will we need rehab and air supply? Are the apparatus parked to oclose for potential heat exposure or structural collapse? What exposures will need to be protected if the building is written off? What kind of control zones will have to be established if the fire requires us to transition to defensive operations? Are the ladder trucks positioned correctly for maximum efficiency?

All these things can be overwhelming and unrealistic for a new firefighter to think about, but as you put some years on wearing that SCBA, you should start paying attention. These are the things that are going through your officer and IC’s head. By sizing up and continually sizing up the situation, you will become an all-around better firefighter.

Alex Langbell is a lieutenant with the Yakima (WA) Fire Department.

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