Fire Structure Size-Up for Nonofficers: The Five Ws


Firecomm on the air for Station 2 and Station 4. An odor of smoke in the house. 123 First Street, cross streets of Main Street and the dead end. Time on the air is 2230 hours.

As you arrive at the firehouse in response to the above announcement, you quickly don your turnout gear and hustle over to the rig, which is now being started. Four firefighters are already in the back; they are buckling up and tagging up. As you climb on the rig, it occurs to you to ask, “Is there an officer?” The reply from one of the members is, “No, they’re out of town at a meeting tonight.” At that moment, you decide to step up and “take the seat.” Now as you climb up front, you think, “OK, where do I go from here?”

Taking the officer’s seat for an alarm is not a decision to be taken lightly. Generally, if there is no officer at the firehouse, there is a natural “pecking order” of who should step up, whether it is in writing or it is an informal understanding. Some departments go with the most senior past officer (who likely has the most experience in the group), the junior past officer (who is most familiar with current procedures and the department’s climate), or the senior firefighter present.

As you climb into the rig, a flurry of questions goes through your mind. You transmit your first radio message, “Firecomm, Engine 694 is responding, six members.”

En route, you begin your size-up. You’ve never been through formal officer training, and all those handy acronyms for size-up you have read about have slipped your mind. Where do you start?

How about going back to school in your mind? Start with the simple format for writing a story you learned in grade school: the “5 Ws”—who, what, where, when, and why? This very basic approach, coupled with your experience, will enable you to hit on a few key points to get you through the alarm. Let’s go through each point step-by-step and apply this format to a firefighting scenario.


The following is a plan for a mental size-up that can get you prepared for the incident scene.

Who is on my rig? What are their experience levels, and what can I expect from them? I need to know if I have at a minimum self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)-qualified interior firefighters with me. How much have they experienced not just in terms of the fireground but in terms of training? Can I rely on them? Who else is responding, and what is their staffing level likely to be? Will other apparatus in my firehouse or department get on the road in a reasonable time, if at all? Or is automatic mutual aid coming? If it’s not automatic and I need it, where am I getting it from?

What type of alarm is this—was it a phone alarm or was the fire department notified by a proprietary system? If it was by phone, what did the caller report? A heads-up dispatcher will be able to convey details about not just what the caller says but also the caller’s level of excitement.

To what type of building are we responding? Is it a private dwelling, a commercial building, a group home, public housing, a multiple occupancy, or a place of public assembly? What is the fire load? The difference in the contents of a private dwelling vs. that of a carpet store is obvious. What type of occupants am I going to find? Will they be able to self-evacuate, or will they require assistance? What is the building made of? Can I get to the roof? If not, is there a ladder company responding on this alarm? Are there auxiliary appliances such as standpipes or sprinklers that I can use?

Where in my district is this alarm? Is it a residential area? Industrial? We know that some areas for various reasons are “busier” than others. In one department to which I was assigned, any alarm for a structure fire in “zone 5” meant work. Are the streets lined with cars, or will there be other traffic problems? Will it impede our ability to respond or to set up our apparatus? Where is my water coming from? Do we have a reliable hydrant system, or will we need a tanker or a drafting operation?

When is this alarm? What is the time of day? Is there likely to be a life hazard other than for us responders? A residential fire at 2 a.m. vs. one at 2 p.m. creates a different sense of urgency. Are current weather conditions going to affect any fireground operation? What time of year is it? Is it the beginning of the home-heating season, which could indicate a problem with the oil burner?

Why am I responding? Why was the fire department called? What was the dispatch information? Did the caller give Dispatch a clear description that was relayed to me? Why would this condition occur? Why would a reasonable person consider this an emergency?


Our obvious priorities are to stabilize and then mitigate the incident. At the scene, we can again use this same basic format.

Who is on scene? Is it just my crew aboard an engine? Who is going to conduct the investigation? Is it I, the officer? Am I on my own with the rest of the crew at the rig standing by to get a water supply and stretch a line if needed? Is the ladder close so that the officer and his entry team will handle the investigation while I assume command? We must have enough resources to search the structure in a logical and thorough manner. However, we cannot sacrifice the integrity of the engine’s primary operation: establishing a water supply and stretching the initial attack line. This is paramount when deciding who is going to enter the building at the beginning of the operation. If you will be operating on your own until the next unit arrives, you, the officer, must establish command and designate another member to serve as the crew’s officer.

What do you observe on arrival? What is the structure built of? What are the dimensions of the fire building? Is it set back from the street? Is smoke showing? If I need them, are my preconnects long enough, or am I going to reverse lay? What am I looking for? If no fire or smoke is visible, are there any odors outside the structure? Complete a quick walk-around before entering the structure. What can any bystanders tell me?

Where inside is the smoke visible? If there is nothing showing, where is the odor concentrated the strongest? What is this part of the structure used for? Is it a regular residential family room or a utility room that we are investigating? What rooms are adjacent to the room with the odor? Could the odor be coming from there? What could be causing the odor inside the location?

When did the occupants notice the problem? What were they doing before they noticed the odor and then immediately thereafter? Were any appliances running? After they noticed the odor, did they open any windows, possibly hindering our investigation?

Why do I need to take any action? Is life or property in danger? How can I solve this problem? Do I need to stretch a handline, open a wall, or shut a switch? What is the easiest, safest, and quickest way to solve the problem while causing the least amount of damage? Can the problem be resolved without the fire department’s assistance? Can it be resolved by the local utility or a private contractor, such as an electrician?


Let’s go back to our original scenario. You are responding to an odor of smoke in a house at 10:30 p.m. It’s a cool, crisp early-fall night with a light breeze. Oil burner season is just kicking in. As you drive to the firehouse, you get the first few hints of fireplace smoke from the neighborhood houses. You get dressed and look in the back of the rig. You have two class A interior firefighters and two probies, one of whom still cannot wear an SCBA. You have an experienced former officer as your chauffeur. With the one Class B probie and the chauffeur, water supply shouldn’t be an issue. The others can effectively stretch a handline. Two stations were alerted, as you expect to have two engines (including yours) and one ladder respond. If it looks to be anything, you can always call for a general alert to get the other three stations.

As you are responding, the dispatcher advises that the homeowner returned home from work to discover an odor of smoke and haze in the house and did not know what was causing them. You know this area well; it’s in a new development that was built in the past few years. You did a few walk-arounds and a preplan while it was being built, so you know it is constructed from lightweight metal studs and wood trusses and that the house is set back from the street on a cul de sac. This development was the reason your department switched from a 200-foot to a 250-foot 1¾-inch preconnect a few years back. Each cul de sac has a hydrant. You can hit the hydrant, and the front will still be open for the truck company.

You arrive on scene and observe a two-story private dwelling approximately 40 feet × 60 feet with no apparent signs of smoke or fire. There is, however, an odor of smoke in the area. The ladder company is a few minutes out. You immediately establish the “First Street Command” and designate your chauffeur as the radio contact and instruct your crew to check the hydrant. One firefighter remains with you; everyone else goes to the back step. You meet the homeowner at the curb. She tells you she came home after working all day and the house was filled with smoke. She doesn’t think it was from outside because the windows were closed. She says that before she left for work she had a cup of coffee and threw a load of laundry in the dryer. As you continue your interview, you send your accompanying firefighter to do a 360° walk-around.

The truck company arrives, and you order the interior team to enter the structure and begin the search for the problem. The ladder officer immediately reports there is a minor odor of smoke and a light haze in the house. After checking the first floor as a group, he sends his radio-equipped irons firefighter to the second floor to look around while he and the can man go to the basement to locate the utility room. Entering the laundry room, they discover the odor is a bit stronger. The officer relays this to you, the incident commander, who reports that the homeowner had told him that she had done a load of laundry prior to leaving for work. Immediately, the ladder officer locates the problem—the remains of a self-extinguished fire in the dryer. After determining that there is no other problem, the officer shuts the power to the appliance. You recommend that the homeowner contact a qualified repair technician to check the appliance before using it again. A commonsense size-up and an organized approach got you through this alarm. Whether you realized it or not, you used the simple story format for a successful operation.


You don’t need any fancy acronyms if you use some basic reasoning and common sense. A simple “story” can be written with a successful conclusion as long as you use the right format.

BARRY S. DASKAL is a police officer/aircraft rescue firefighter with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He is also a certified EMT-critical care and clinical lab instructor at the Nassau County (NY) EMS Academy and a member of the Wantagh (NY) Fire Department. He previously served as a police officer with the New York City Police Department and as a supervising fire alarm dispatcher with the Fire Department of New York. He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1990 and has served as a captain and a training officer. He is a moderator on the Web site and is also the creator and host of “The Average Joe Firefighter” Podcast on

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