Critical Components of Size-Up

BY BILL GUSTIN

Size-up is the process of gathering and analyzing information that will influence decisions fire officers make and actions firefighters take. This article examines size-up information and factors to consider to intelligently fight a fire without putting firefighters at excessive and unnecessary risk.

FUNDAMENTAL SIZE-UP RULES

Before we examine specific size-up factors, let’s consider four fundamental rules concerning size-up:

  • Size-up begins when an alarm is received. Information received on dispatch or while responding can influence critical decisions before arriving on the scene. For example, there are several rooming houses in my company’s district that are extremely overcrowded and replete with fire hazards. We are quite familiar with these occupancies because we respond to them frequently on medical calls. When a fire is reported in a rooming house, the 911 call taker will ask if it is a house or an apartment. The answer is almost always that it is a house; consequently, a house fire assignment that is inadequate for a serious fire in such an occupancy is dispatched. Hopefully, someone on the assignment will recognize the address as being a rooming house, which will prompt a request to dispatch additional companies, filling out an apartment fire assignment. It isn’t always an officer who remembers or is familiar with a particular address; it is often a firefighter.
  • Everyone performs size-up, not just officers. Encourage firefighters, regardless of their experience level, to report anything that could be hazardous or that requires additional action or a call for more resources. Accordingly, company officers must be receptive to input from their firefighters. This is important for two reasons. First, even the most experienced fire officer can’t possibly perceive or remember everything. Second, it’s good to get information from another perspective.

I almost walked into a downed power line at a fire because I was distracted with performing command functions before the arrival of our chief. Fortunately, a firefighter less than a month out of the fire academy warned me of the wire a moment before I would have been electrocuted.

•Do not act before you perform at least a brief size-up. Don’t rely on the police or civilians to do your size-up. Committing resources before completing an adequate size-up can result in improper apparatus positioning or stretching a hoseline that cannot reach the fire.

Let’s look at a sample scenario:

An engine company responds to a structure fire; the street ahead is obscured in heavy smoke. The officer, knowing that his company is first due, orders the engine to stop at a hydrant and lay a large-diameter supply line into the fire scene. But, committing the apparatus before sizing up the fire turns out to be a big mistake, because the structure on fire is actually on the next street to the south. A strong wind blowing smoke to the North fooled this officer, causing this company to lay its supply line on the wrong street.

• Size-up must be ongoing, beginning when the alarm is received and continuing until the last company returns to quarters. Fires are dynamic; conditions are constantly changing. A change in conditions, for better or worse, and additional information may call for a change in tactics or strategy. As firefighters, we can be reluctant to change tactics that are not working; perhaps this is because of determination or ego. But, consider that the initial tactics performed by first-arriving companies may later be judged to be ineffective or unreasonably dangerous.

Every year, firefighters are seriously injured or killed during overhaul. This is understandable, considering that a fire building may be structurally unstable and dangerously overloaded with accumulated water. Also consider that personnel may be fatigued and may not be as vigilant in observing and protecting themselves from hazards. Every action taken on the fireground, including overhaul, should be in accordance with a size-up that continuously weighs the risks to firefighters and civilians.

SIZE-UP FACTORS

Entire chapters are devoted to size-up in books written by some of the most experienced and respected leaders of our profession. Some of these texts present acronyms such as “COAL WAS WEALTH” as a means to remember a number of factors to be considered in a size-up. A thorough examination of every size-up factor is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I will focus on just five factors I believe have the most influence in determining the proper strategy, performing effective tactics, and operating with a reasonable level of risk.

Occupancy

Occupancy is arguably the most important factor of size-up. Occupancy indicates a building’s use: how it is occupied and what contents may be in the building. Knowing a fire building’s occupancy can also provide clues to its construction, its layout, and its hazards. For example, an automobile repair shop probably has a roof supported by some type of truss construction unobstructed by columns or bearing walls, given the need for wide service bays. Firefighters should expect hazards common to such an occupancy, such as a grease pit, oxygen, acetylene, and all the hazards associated with a vehicle fire inside the building.

Occupancy is the most important size-up factor because knowing the occupancy of a fire building provides a strong indication of the level of risk to its occupants. Fire officers must know the level of risk to civilians so that firefighters do not operate at excessive risk when there is little or no risk to civilians. Clearly, firefighters will take chances to save a life in a residential building that may not be justified in a nonresidential building when no civilians are in danger. That is not to suggest that there can’t be a significant civilian life hazard in a nonresidential building. Search and rescue operations in nonresidential buildings, however, are conducted differently than in residences, where heavy emphasis is on searching sleeping areas.

Consider a fire in a crowded nightclub. Although the fire occurs in the early-morning hours, no one is sleeping; occupants will head for exits when they sense danger. Search and rescue operations at fires in crowded assembly occupancies should begin by forcing every door on all sides of the building. This is critical because the leading cause of multiple fatalities at fires in assembly occupancies is illegally locked or blocked exits or exit doors that swing opposite the direction of exit travel.

Now, let’s consider a fire in a large office building. Occupancy, again, will influence how search and rescue operations are conducted. Here, you must make a significant commitment to search every stairwell and elevator for trapped occupants.

Mixed occupancies, such as residences on the floors above a first-floor business, endanger civilians and can put firefighters at risk if they are not careful to check for fire on the first floor and in the basement of the business before they head upstairs. I made this mistake several years ago. My company was first to arrive at a report of smoke in a second-floor apartment above a grocery store that was closed for the night. Because the grocery store was closed, every door and window in the business was covered with roll-down security gates. As a result, we could not see that there was a fire in the store. There was, indeed, smoke in the second-floor apartment, but I failed to realize that it was from a fire burning below us. I had placed my company in a dangerous position, above a fire, because of my failure to check for fire in the business. Fortunately, later-arriving companies forced entry into the store and attacked the fire. I was embarrassed because later-arriving companies put out our fire; but I was also relieved because my company could have been trapped above the fire.

Firefighters who enter a smoke-filled building without knowing its occupancy do not know what they’re getting into; they have no idea of its life hazard for civilians and themselves, the contents of the building, or the type of floor plan. Firefighters may, however, be at even greater risk when they think they know the occupancy of a fire building but it turns out to be something else—something they did not expect or prepare for. This is one reason methamphetamine (meth) labs and marijuana grow houses are so dangerous. Firefighters, expecting to fight a fire in a single-family house, can unknowingly encounter hazardous materials in a meth lab or get entangled in dangerous makeshift electrical wiring in a grow house (photos 1-3). Hazards common to both clandestine occupancies include booby traps, pit bull guard dogs, and doors and windows cleverly filled in with concrete block or plywood from inside the structure.


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(1-3) These firefighters, expecting a fire in a residential occupancy, face unforeseen hazards in this marijuana grow house. (Photos by Paul Blake.)


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Firefighters who think they are fighting a fire in a single-family home may encounter significant difficulty and delay in locating and reaching a fire when the home has been renovated, usually illegally, into two or more apartments, efficiencies, or single-room occupancies. This is a growing problem for fire companies in neighborhoods with a large immigrant population.

Consider the following scenario:

An engine company arrives at a fire in a two-story house. Fire is showing from a front second-floor dormer window. The company, expecting a bedroom fire in a single-family home, advances the hoseline through the front door and up the interior stairway. Firefighters abruptly stop their advance, however, when they encounter plywood nailed over the second floor, blocking the stairway.

This home was divided for one or more living units on the second floor that can be reached only by a rear exterior stairway. An exterior stairway is one of many indications of a divided occupancy you can observe during a 360° size-up; we will look at other indications when we examine visual size-up factors later.

Time

Time refers to the time of day; the time of year or season; and the incident time, starting when the alarm is dispatched until it is declared under control. The time of day is a critical consideration, because it will have a strong influence on search and rescue operations. Bedrooms in residences require an aggressive search at any time; however, a kitchen fire late at night or in the early-morning hours requires an immediate search of the living room because of this common late-night scenario: Someone returns home late at night after consuming several alcoholic beverages and smoking a substance that stimulates the appetite. Hungry, he heats food on the stove (in my experience, it’s usually a big sausage) and then passes out on the living room couch.

Time has a significant influence on resources for rural and suburban fire departments, because many volunteer firefighters work out of town or cannot leave their jobs to respond to a daytime fire during the workweek. Many fire departments have taken time into consideration when developing their strategy for alarm assignments, relying heavily on automatic mutual aid from neighboring departments during daytime hours.

The time of season impacts fire operations in several ways. Frozen hydrants, ice, and snow challenge northern fire departments during the winter months. In the southeast and gulf states, hurricane-weary residents, including me, install their hurricane shutters when the first tropical storm of the season threatens and leave most of them up until the end of November. As a result, fire departments in hurricane-prone areas must be prepared for extensive cutting of hurricane shutters or contending with the dangers of fighting fires in what are, essentially, windowless buildings. Another hurricane-season hazard is the gasoline stored in containers in the garage or utility room for running generators when a storm knocks out electrical power.

Incident time, or how long a fire has been burning, directly impacts firefighter safety and the selection of a proper strategy. The fire service as a whole has been slow to adapt firefighting operations for fires involving lightweight, engineered construction. Consequently, hardly a month will go by without news of another firefighter’s falling through a collapsing floor into a burning basement immediately on entering through the front door.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has recently conducted tests in its test furnace to measure the collapse resistance of conventionally constructed roof and floor assemblies built with relatively large-dimension lumber, such as 2-inch × 6-inch rafters and 2-inch × 10-inch floor joists, against the performance of modern, lightweight assemblies under the same fire conditions. The lightweight roof and floor assemblies were constructed of 2-inch × 4-inch gusset plate trusses and engineered I-joists, structural members commonly used in homes and garden apartments built within the past 20 years.

The UL furnace test results are impressive but should not come as a surprise: Modern, lightweight roof and floor assemblies collapse in a fraction of the time that it takes for older, conventional construction to fail. This time, or lack of time, is a critical consideration when determining when to change from an offensive, interior attack to defensive, exterior operations.

When fire directly attacks lightweight structural components, firefighters may have just a few minutes, if any, to operate inside the structure at a reasonable and acceptable level of risk.

Dispatchers in my department’s fire alarm office notify the incident commander (IC) of the duration of the incident, which begins when the call is received from 911. This incident time, which is announced at regular intervals, is an important benchmark that can save firefighters’ lives by prompting the IC to order companies out of a fire building before it collapses. Incident time is also an essential consideration in judging the effectiveness of strategy and tactics and if they should be changed.

An experienced fire officer knows how long it should take to reach and knock down a fire. If it is taking too long, a change in tactics may be needed. Consider a routine fire in a kitchen or a bedroom of a single-family home: The IC should expect to see the results of a successful fire attack in a few minutes after his companies gain entry. Smoke should change in color from black or brown to a grayish mix of smoke and steam and then to a white condensing stream. If this does not occur within the expected time, something is wrong—perhaps the gallons-per-minute (gpm) flow or ventilation is insufficient, or maybe the wind is making it difficult to reach the seat of the fire. Additionally, the fire may have originated in or extended to a concealed space, such as an attic or in the space between the floor and the ceiling below—a scenario we will examine later.

Whatever the problem, don’t keep doing something that isn’t working! The IC should consider incident time when deciding when to implement an alternate plan of action. Accordingly, company officers must advise the IC of any unexpected difficulty that could delay carrying out their assignment. Such a report may prompt the IC to change his strategy or tactics or to call for additional companies.

Resources

Engine 3 is dispatched first-due on a “box” alarm for a reported house fire; smoke is visible as the apparatus leaves the firehouse. As the pumper turns on the street where the fire is, firefighters could see that the house was well involved. While approaching the scene, the driver-engineer stops the apparatus just past a hydrant, thinking that they will forward-lay a five-inch supply hoseline to the fire. The newly promoted lieutenant, however, has a different plan.

“Forget the supply line,” he yells excitedly to the driver. “Engine 4 will lay us a line.” But the young lieutenant’s plan is flawed. Engine 4, which would normally be second-due, isn’t responding on the box. It is on a medical call waiting for an ambulance. By the time the second-arriving engine establishes a water supply, Engine 3 has emptied its 500-gallon booster tank and the fire has extended to the houses next door.

This new company officer learned a hard lesson: You must know your resources—in this case, what companies are responding. Resources are a critical consideration of size-up; they can determine whether a fire can be attacked offensively or defensively. When apparatus, personnel, and water supply are sufficient, a fire can be fought in “textbook” fashion. When resources are insufficient, fires may have to be fought in “expedient” fashion—doing the best you can with what you have.

Consider a fire in a second-floor apartment above stores in an old building that has been extensively renovated. Fire is showing from a second-floor window at the front of the building. The preferred method of attacking this fire is to advance a hoseline up the stairs to the second floor, around corners in the hallway, and through the apartment. What if your engine company arrives at this fire with the driver-engineer, one firefighter, and you?

If you do not expect any additional companies to arrive within the next few minutes, you had better think outside the box and choose an attack you can perform successfully with your limited resources. From the street, direct a straight or solid stream into the apartment window—that’s right, in the window! Direct the stream so that it strikes the underside of the apartment ceiling to darken down the fire, then ladder and advance the hoseline through the apartment window to complete extinguishment. Is this “textbook” firefighting? Of course not, but it is better than doing nothing or attempting an interior hose stretch that is destined to fail because there are not enough firefighters to maneuver the hoseline up the stairs and around corners in the hallway and fire apartment.

Fire officers must be familiar with the water supply resources in their response area. Areas with no hydrants will necessitate the response of tankers and a knowledge of drafting sites and auxiliary water sources. In Southern Miami-Dade County, companies rely heavily on fire pumps that take suction from a well. These pumps, necessary for commercial and multifamily buildings outside of the municipal water system, can supply apparatus the same as a hydrant, through a short section of large-diameter suction hose. In the case of a power failure or a pump malfunction, an engine can draft from the well with hard suction hose. Fire departments with hydrants should know the hydrants’ locations. Many departments have replaced their hydrant location map book with hydrant location information on a mobile data terminal in their apparatus. Fire departments should also know the flow available from the hydrants in their jurisdiction. The closest hydrant may not flow sufficient water for a large fire because it is fed by a dead-end or small-diameter main. Many fire and water departments color-code hydrants in accordance with a National Fire Protection Association standard or their own system.

The Fire Building

The age of the building determines how it is designed and constructed. For this article, the examination of the age of the structure is restricted to single-family homes.

Let’s compare homes constructed before the 1970s with homes built in the past two decades. The differences in old and new construction have a critical influence on firefighter safety, strategy, and tactics. Older homes tend to be small (usually less that 2,000 square feet) compared with modern homes (4,000 square feet is not uncommon).

Let’s compare design. Older homes are more compartmented than newer homes, which typically have a wide-open floor plan and high vaulted or cathedral ceilings. Bedrooms in old homes, except for Cape Cods, are grouped together, making it possible for one company to reach and search all the bedrooms in a reasonable time. That is hardly the case in new homes, where the master bedroom is typically at a different side of the house or on a different floor than the rest of the bedrooms.

The most significant difference between old and new homes, however, is in their construction. Consider a home built 50 years ago: Floors were usually constructed with 2-inch × 10-inch joists, spaced 16 inches on center. These massive members (by today’s standards) supported a subfloor consisting of 1-inch × 6-inch boards and a hardwood-finish floor (photo 4). Roofs in older houses were usually constructed with 2-inch × 6-inch rafters and 1-inch × 6-inch roof decking.


(4) This old, conventional floor assembly, consisting of 2-inch × 10-inch joists, 1-inch × 6-inch subfloor, and hardwood-finish floor, withstood several minutes of fire exposure without collapsing. (Photo by Eric Goodman.)


Now let’s consider homes built in the past two decades. Floors are usually supported by lightweight trusses, with top and bottom chords no larger than 2 inches × 4 inches (photo 5) or engineered I-joists. These members, spaced 24 inches on center, commonly support a floor deck of oriented strand board (OSB) that is no thicker than ¾ inch. As mentioned earlier, UL tests as well as National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports of firefighter line-of-duty fatalities reveal that modern floor assemblies collapse in a fraction of the time it takes older, conventional floors to fail.


(5) This modern, lightweight floor assembly, consisting of two ½-inch gusset plate trusses and OSB decking, collapsed after a few minutes of fire exposure. (Photo by Jack Swerdloff.)


Roofs of new homes are typically constructed with 2-inch × 4-inch trusses that support a roof deck that can be as thin as ½-inch plywood or OSB. Attics of new homes are a voluminous lumberyard of lightweight wood, exposing a large surface to burn in relation to its mass. This results in rapid fire spread and early collapse. Roof collapse is hastened when additional dead loads are added, such as concrete roof tiles and large solar water heaters. A large, modern house usually has several rooflines, consisting of two or more ridges, hip sections, and dormers. Large girder trusses are needed to support portions of the roof. Converging rooflines make attic fires in large, modern houses a nightmare for firefighters, because they create void spaces that deflect streams from reaching the fire (photos 6, 7).


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(6-7) The attic of a large modern house is a lumberyard of lightweight trusses and OSB roof sheathing. A girder truss, in the foreground, supports a large portion of the roof. Converging rooflines, common in large, modern houses, deflect streams and prevent them from reaching void spaces in the attic. (Photos by Donohue Rose.)


Modern construction relies on engineering instead of the mass of structural members, as in older homes. Firefighters cannot possibly fight a fire in a newly constructed house with the same tactics, the same level of aggression, or for the same duration as fires in older conventionally constructed homes.

Consider a basement fire. In an old home, a conventionally constructed floor can withstand several minutes of heavy fire exposure. This allows firefighters to advance a hoseline to the stairway leading to the basement, a common textbook tactic. Firefighters who attempt the same attack in a new home with a lightweight, engineered floor assembly risk falling through a collapsing floor into an inferno in the basement. Lightweight, engineered construction calls for different tactics for a serious basement fire: Direct streams into the basement through windows, an outside basement entrance, or through the back door leading to a walkout basement.

Wall and ceiling coverings present another significant difference between old and new homes. These materials impact the time it will take for a room-and-contents fire to spread to structural elements. As an example, most of the single-family homes in my company’s district were built in the 1950s or 1960s. These homes can withstand a significant bedroom or kitchen fire that completely destroys the contents without the fire’s extending into the attic or to the floor above. Why? Because the walls and ceilings of these older homes are typically covered with thick, heavy plaster, which resists fire penetration. Now let’s consider the same fire in a new house with walls and ceilings covered with ½-inch drywall. Fire rapidly penetrates the plasterboard and spreads to involve the attic and floors above (photos 8, 9).


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(8-9) A small fire in a kitchen rapidly penetrated the ½-inch drywall ceiling, allowing fire to involve floor trusses and burn through the floor deck of the second-floor bedroom. (Photos by Brian Beckmann.)


 

Visual Factors

These factors include the visual features of the fire building and fire conditions as observed from inside and outside the fire building. Let’s consider how much vital information you can learn by conducting a 360° size-up of a fire building (photo 10), information not observable from the front or side 1:

  • A hot, soot-stained window or flames issuing from a window (an indication of the fire’s location). Fire showing from windows in different parts of a building, indicating more than one fire, possibly set by an arsonist.
  • Victims trapped by burglar bars or at upper-floor windows.
  • The presence of a rear exterior stairway (indicating the possibility of separate occupancies on upper floors).
  • The presence of multiple gas or electric meters (indicating that the home has been divided into more than one occupancy) (photo 11).
  • Fire impinging on liquid petroleum gas tanks (necessitating a hoseline for cooling).
  • Fire involving rear porches or a deck (it may be necessary to take the first hoseline to the rear instead of through the front door).
  • An outside basement entrance or door leading to a walk-out basement.


(10) The fire officer conducting a 360° size-up will learn a lot about fire conditions and the fire building that is not observable from the front or side 1. (Photo by Stephen Wilcox.)


 


(11) The presence of this rear, exterior stairway, as observed in a 360° size-up, indicates the possibility of separate occupancies on the second floor. Multiple gas and electric meters indicate that this house, originally constructed as a single-family home, has been divided into separate occupancies. (Photo by Lazaro Acosta.)


 

Photos 12-17, used in a presentation developed by Captains Scott Kennedy of Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services and Ron Fagan of Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services, illustrate the importance of conducting a 360° walk-around. Gwinnett County fire companies responded to a fire in a two-story home. From the front, fire conditions didn’t look that serious (photo 12). A walk-around of the structure, however, revealed a heavy fire condition at the rear (photo 13). But the most significant condition, observed at the sides and rear of the house, was smoke pushing out of the exterior walls from the space between the first-floor ceiling and the second floor (photos 14, 15). This indicated heavy involvement of the second-floor assembly, constructed with lightweight parallel chord floor trusses. This indication, combined with the knowledge that all occupants were out of the house, prompted the IC to call for an exterior attack. This decision, based on this fire officer’s size-up, judgment, and knowledge of building construction, may have saved the lives of firefighters, who could have been killed when the second floor collapsed (photos 16, 17). This incident highlights another problem with lightweight floor truss construction. The open-web configuration allows the fire to spread without anything to hinder it throughout the entire space between the ceiling and the floor above—in a sense, you can think of it as the balloon-frame construction of the 21st century. It’s like the walls of an old farmhouse, only it is laid on its side.


(12) The view from the front or side 1 didn’t indicate a serious fire. (Photos by Scott Kennedy.)


 


(13) A walk around the structure revealed a heavy fire condition in the rear.


 


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(14-15) Smoke pushing out of the exterior walls (arrows) indicated heavy involvement of the second-floor assembly constructed with lightweight parallel chord trusses. (Photos by Scott Kennedy.)


 


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(16-17) A thorough 360° size-up and a knowledge of the hazards of modern, lightweight construction were factors that influenced the incident commander to call for a defensive, exterior attack, possibly saving the lives of firefighters who could have been killed when the floor collapsed. (Photos by Scott Kennedy.)


 

IMPORTANCE OF ACCURATE SIZE-UP

As mentioned, size-up must continually assess firefighter safety and the effectiveness of strategy and tactics. One of the most important lessons a newly promoted company officer can learn is how dangerously inadequate and inaccurate his observations of fire location and extent can be from his limited perspective inside a fire building. Conversely, there are times when the size-up conducted outside by an experienced IC can reveal hazards that are not perceived or observed by companies operating inside the fire building.

Let’s examine two scenarios that compare the accuracy of inside vs. outside size-up.

Scenario 1

Miami-Dade Engine 56 is first to arrive at a house fire in a suburban development of newly constructed homes. Smoke is reported in the second-floor bedrooms, above the attached garage. The officer of Engine 56, as well as officers from later-arriving companies, checked the garage for any sign of fire before heading upstairs to the bedrooms.

There was absolutely no sign of fire in the garage, not even an odor of smoke. Based on that observation, it was decided that pulling the garage ceiling to check for fire was not necessary or justified. Firefighters searching for fire in the second-floor bedrooms could not see any sign of heat in their thermal imaging cameras (TICs), although smoke conditions were getting worse.

Outside the house, Chief Tom Cole, Battalion 13, could see that smoke issuing from second-floor windows was getting progressively darker and more pressurized. He also considered the time factor in his ongoing size-up: Companies had been operating for several minutes and could not locate the fire. Something was wrong. Based on his size-up from outside the fire building, the chief ordered his companies out of the building. Moments later, the second floor collapsed into the garage, and smoke venting from the windows changed to flames.

What happened? This home was constructed in the mid-1990s in compliance with the South Florida Building Code. This code requires a one-hour fire separation between the house and the attached garage. This is achieved by 5⁄8-inch type X fire-rated drywall on each side of the walls between the house and the garage and a fire-rated door leading from the garage into the kitchen. A one-hour ceiling was achieved by two layers of 5⁄8-inch type X drywall attached to the bottom chord of the lightweight wood floor trusses with metal furring strips. This fire-rated construction, intended to keep a fire in the garage from spreading to the house, had a negative effect here, because it masked the true location and extent of the fire that was started by an electrical short circuit in the space between the garage ceiling and the second floor (photos 18-21). The lesson to be learned from this incident is that firefighters can have a significant fire in the floor assembly immediately below them and have no idea of the danger because the floor deck, carpet padding, and carpet insulate them from any perceptible heat. Additionally, a TIC is practically useless in this situation because it observes no visible heat pattern. This scenario has been almost exactly replicated by the UL tests of lightweight, engineered floor assemblies. In one test, the temperature of the underside of the floor directly exposed to fire rises to more than 1,400°F, while the temperature of the top side of the floor never rises above 110°F.


(18) The fire originated in this space between the garage ceiling. It consisted of two layers of 5⁄8-inch fire-resistive drywall and an OSB bedroom floor supported by lightweight parallel chord gusset plate trusses. The fire-rated ceiling and the bedroom floor deck, carpet pad, and carpet masked the fire’s true location and extent. (Photos by Jack Swerdloff.)


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(19) Moments after the companies were backed out, the second floor collapsed into the garage, releasing a ball of fire that rapidly took possession of the second floor.


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(20-21) Floor trusses collapsed into the garage. Note the gusset plates that have lost adhesion to the truss chord and the web members and metal furring strips used to attach the ceiling to the underside of the bottom chord. The most remarkable thing is that the garage walls are pristine, without any char, smoke, or soot stains. (Photos by Jack Swerdloff.)


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Scenario 2

An engine company locates and knocks down a bedroom fire in a single-family house. The engine officer radios to the chief that his company has the fire under control. The chief, from his position outside the house, sees black, pressurized smoke, followed by flame issuing from windows; obviously, the fire is not under control. Based on his observations, he orders the engine to back out and calls for a backup hoseline to protect them.

What happened? This fire was intentional; an arsonist had set separate fires—one in a front bedroom, which the engine company located and extinguished, and another one toward the rear of the house, which the engine company could not see from its perspective inside the fire building.

In both of the preceding scenarios, companies operating inside the fire building were not aware that they were in danger, but they immediately obeyed orders from their chief to back out. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Occasionally, an overly aggressive and undisciplined fire company will acknowledge the order to back out or get off a roof by replying, “Chief, we almost got it,” and continue to operate. This unprofessional behavior places firefighters at risk and may delay the transition to a defensive attack.

The information gathered during a thorough and continuous size-up significantly enhances situational awareness and, therefore, the safety of everyone on the fireground. Size-up is not just a function officers perform. Conditions observed and reported by firefighters can lead to a change in tactics or a shift to a defensive strategy. Over the past two decades, the construction industry has radically changed the way buildings are built because large-dimension lumber has become too scarce and expensive to be used in “affordable housing.” The construction industry has adapted by extensively using lightweight “engineered” structural components. Unfortunately, the fire service has been much slower to adapt its operations for the hazards of this modern construction.

Author’s note: Thanks to the following for their technical assistance: John Maguire, Freeport (NY) Fire Department; Captain Scott Kennedy, Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services; and Captain Ron Fagan, Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services.

BILL GUSTIN, a 36-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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