The Tactical 360º Walk-Around

It seems that every few years the fire service comes up with new and innovative words, catch phrases, or titles for most everything we could and do encounter on a working incident. The announcement of “out conducting a 360” and then, in some cases, “360 complete” has come to be the battle cry for many first-in officers during and after completing their walk-around. The question is, Are these at times just empty words? Could it be that we are just looking to check that box on our tactical worksheet? Most would agree that when feasible, someone should complete a 360° walk-around and communicate the pertinent findings. I agree and believe that a 360° walk-around can be very useful when done correctly.

It is critical that we ensure that the member doing the walk-around noticed all the things he should have. What good is the walk-around if nothing is really observed or the results are not effectively communicated to inbound companies? If the member misses important clues, the consequences can be extremely detrimental to our members and the public-and, quite possibly, deadly. The walk-around is much more than another piece of nifty fire department lingo or a checkbox on a tactical worksheet. It’s a critical piece of solving the problem for our citizens. After all, they called us to solve it, and we are the professionals.

The Personal “Size-Up”

Long before the bell rings, you should do a 360° “size-up” of your personal readiness. Is your crew ready? Has the crew completed a thorough check on the rig and equipment? The company officer must ensure that everyone is of sound mind and body and recognize if someone is having a hard time. These are the responsibilities of the officer and entail a great deal of personal responsibility as well. When the bell rings and while en route, your size-up and the basis for your 360° should be well underway. Hopefully beforehand, you have empowered your crew in a manner that enables them each to be diligently conducting their own size-up. I have always advocated that on arrival it is certainly better to have all eyes on the fire building instead of just the officer’s two eyes.

The reports you get from dispatch can be helpful, but they can also be hurtful. Inaccurate or incomplete information can potentially serve as a pathway to tunnel vision and calamity. Keep an open mind when receiving this information; don’t make any hard decisions before seeing the problem. Reports from police officers on potential fire involvement or victim status, although well-intended, often are not accurate. Again, keep an open mind, and stay flexible. The type of structure involved and how it is constructed should be on your mind while en route as well. Knowing your response district and conducting preplans of local buildings and complexes will pay huge dividends.

At the Scene

As you pull onto the block or into the complex, hopefully, your driver/operator is trying to spot a hydrant. I can vividly remember the years when I was a driver/operator practicing to pick up every hydrant I could see, even on routine calls and emergency medical services runs. This paid off when we were headed to a fire and every hydrant just jumped out at me. Thus, my officer did not have to concern himself with looking for a hydrant. This was my job as the apparatus operator, and this should be the driver’s job!

When you arrived on the scene, depending on your approach, you probably saw at least two sides of the structure. Hopefully, you were able to take a mental snapshot of what they looked like. Being able to confirm that the structure is on a crawlspace, slab, daylight basement, or true basement or is two stories at the front and three stories in the rear is a key foundation to a quality 360° size-up.

As you observe the type of smoke or flames showing, determining the probable location and extent of the fire sits high atop the priority list. Maybe you don’t see the main body of fire, or it’s still not vented. If no fire can be observed, determining where the heaviest, darkest, fastest moving smoke is issuing from will usually lead you to the right area.

After giving a quality on-scene report and exiting the rig with all of your equipment, you begin your walk-around. You notice the trees swaying in the yard and realize that the wind is very likely to impact your operation on this fire. Seriously consider wind conditions at all fires, not just high-rise operations. Also seriously consider the location of the electrical service line and whether it is compromised or likely to be an issue during operations. If fire is impinging on the overhead wire, transmit an immediate and specific radio message to all companies regarding the potential danger.

Hone the skill of being able to take and recall mental snapshots of buildings on fire. If you and your crew practice this, you will get better at it. You can practice this skill on any run. Look at how many windows are to the left and right of the front door. Try to judge how far each is from the front door. As you look at the B and D sides, how many windows do you see and how far is each from the outside corners of the structure? Paying close attention to differing windows will give you a clue as to the location of a bathroom opposed to a bedroom. Recalling these exterior clues will help you on the inside if conditions go south in a hurry.

Making your way around the structure with a purpose, you may encounter a side or a rear door. Strongly consider forcing one of these doors: It is a highly probable target area for finding victims who may be down. You must be completely competent and quick with your one-person forcible entry skills to make rescue fast and effective. Take a quick peek below the smoke layer, and shut the door if it is adversely affecting the fire problem. Often, this is where you will find a victim who attempted to exit through the primary or secondary path of egress. For smoke and fire victims, time is of the essence, and the body needs to come outside.

Continuing around, check the bedroom windows for anything out of the ordinary-maybe an open bottom sash on a cold night or a smudge on a steamy window. These clues are great indications of a very high-priority search area. We cannot miss these clues if we want to make rescues.

When approached by a family member or a bystander who wants to give you credible information about trapped victims and their possible locations, do not be dismissive, which can sometimes happen. Engage the person, and ask specific questions such as, “Who is trapped? Where are they? How old is your son/daughter?” The last question helps you to determine if you will be searching for a human. Then ask the person to walk with you and point to the exact location where he thinks the victim is. This brief encounter is critical. The victim will have a better chance of survival if you get the answers to these questions.

As you prepare to update the findings of your 360° walk-around, it is critical that you remember what you observed and accurately communicate your findings to the rest of the alarm. Now that you have painted a great picture for yourself and the rest of the incoming alarm, it’s time to go to work. Use the information you gained from the outside to make life easier and more proficient on the inside.

As with anything we expect to do well in our profession, it takes practice to rapidly observe and take in loads of information in a very compressed time period and then recall and transmit that information accurately. Practice honing your mind’s eye to take those visual snapshots and recall what you’ve seen. Practice this as a crew; test each other as to what everyone might have seen while headed back to the fire station. As everyone starts getting better at this skill, your team gets better.

Long before the bell rings for your next job, your 360° size-up should have begun with massive amounts of practice. Practicing gathering the information pertinent to making the best decisions for the safety of your citizens and firefighters is the mission. Creating nifty sayings and adding another checkbox to our tactical worksheet may be helpful, but they should be secondary to our mission.

KEVIN R. LEWIS is a captain in and a 19-year veteran of Cobb County (GA) Fire & Emergency Services, where he is assigned to Truck Co. 4. He has bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware. He is on the State of Georgia Incident Management Blue Team and the National Fire Protection Association 1931/1932 Committee on Ground Ladders. He has been published in Fire Engineering.

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