Size Up the Rear

By Bill Gustin

A size-up that does not include a view of the rear of a fire building will be terribly incomplete and can be dangerously inaccurate. An inadequate size-up can lead to choosing the wrong strategy, overlooking trapped occupants, and putting firefighters at excessive risk. Let’s look at factors critical to an accurate size-up that may not be readily visible from the front.

Building size and dimensions
An officer who walks to the rear of a building can determine its depth-a critical consideration in determining the length of hoselines necessary to reach all areas of the building.

Presence of trapped occupants
Several years ago, a company responded to an early morning fire in a one-story commercial building. Before committing his company in the front of the building, the officer performed his “walkaround,” a rapid 360-degree size-up. On reaching the rear, the officer heard the frantic cries and pounding of a security guard trapped at a heavily locked and barred door. This incident illustrates how easy it is to overlook trapped occupants if an officer doesn’t take a few moments to view the rear of a structure before his company goes to work.

Building construction
It is common practice to give the front of old commercial buildings a “facelift”-that is, a facade that makes them look like a newer building. A facade can mask a building’s true construction, age, and condition but facades are rarely present in the rear. Also, a walk to the rear may reveal that what appears to be one building, as viewed from the front, is actually two or more buildings joined by a common facade.

Actual height of a building
A one-story building as viewed from the front may actually be two or more stories in the rear when it is built into the side of a hill.

A view of the roof
A facade, high parapet, or sign in the front of a building can hide the “telltale” arch of a bowstring truss roof. Similarly, restaurants commonly conceal heavy air-conditioning units and cooking exhaust fans in the front, but such things are readily visible from the rear.

Sprinkler controls and connections
Modern strip shopping centers commonly install water motor gongs, wall indicator valves, post indicator valves, and siamese connections in the rear of the building.

Gas meters and LP tanks are typically found in the rear of residential and commercial occupancies. Electric service wires are commonly found in the rear of most businesses. The electrical code in Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue’s jurisdiction requires new and upgraded electrical service to have a main shutoff switch located on the outside of the building-almost always found in the rear.

Alternate means of access, emergency egress, and ventilation
The most fundamental requirement of any fire and life safety code is that there be two ways out of a building in case fire blocks one exit path. It is ironic, therefore, that firefighters who know a building is on fire commonly force only one entry point, usually in the front, and depend on a single exit path to escape collapse, flashover, or an exhausted air supply. It is critical to locate and open doors at the rear of a building for an alternate means of escape and as a point of ventilation for hoselines advancing from the front.

Fire location
Imagine the embarrassment of reporting a “working fire” in a building, only to find that it is really a dumpster or automobile burning in the rear. A walk to the rear may reveal a hot door with the fire burning right behind it. This is common in stores and restaurants where fires are usually located in storage areas and kitchens-at the rear of the building.

Of course, it is not always possible for an officer to personally view all sides of a fire building. Very large buildings, buildings within a city block, and shopping centers may require an incident commander to assign a company to the rear to report on conditions.

An officer who makes decisions based on a size-up that does not include the rear of a fire building operates with a serious case of tunnel vision. Decisions made on the fireground are only as good as the information on which they’re based. Conditions as viewed from the rear are essential for an accurate size-up and effective decision making.

Bill Gustin, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department’s officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Gustin is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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