Battalion 5 companies were operating at a fire in a large, old, wood-frame house. The crews of Aerial 2 and Engine 7, each searching a different portion of the house, were having difficulty locating the fire. Eventually, at the 10-minute incident time, Aerial 2 encountered some flame on the floor that appeared to be a pool of accelerant or melted plastic. The officer of Aerial 2 advised command, Battalion 5, that firefighters had located the fire and were knocking it down.
What Aerial 2 didn’t tell command was that every time they stopped flowing water, the small fire on the floor would reappear. Something else was odd: How could such a seemingly small fire fill the entire house, from floor to ceiling with heavy smoke? When command ordered everyone out of the house, the officer of Aerial 2 acknowledged the chief’s order with a report that they were making “good headway” and should have the fire under control in a few minutes. Command replied by saying: “Aerial 2, that’s negative, you’re not seeing what I’m seeing. Evacuate the building immediately.” What command could see that Aerial 2’s crew could not see is that the smoke was getting progressively darker, more turbulent, and pressurized.
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Minutes after crews evacuated and were accounted for, they heard a whoosh and the house became fully involved. After a defensive attack, crews discovered that the entire floor of the house collapsed into a fully involved basement filled with mattresses and upholstered furniture. Crews had no idea that they were operating directly above a raging fire. The elusive fire that kept reappearing was actually from a hole burned through the floor. Had crews remained in the structure they most likely would have ended up in the burn center or a cemetery. The preceding scenario is not fictitious, it was real; I was there, the captain of Aerial 2. The chief was Buddy Stephens.
Two Size-Ups on Every Fire
There are two size-ups that must be performed continuously on every fire: the inside size-up of conditions observed by companies operating in the fire building and the outside size-up by the incident commander (IC). If the inside size-up and outside size-up are not in agreement, a red flag should go up because somebody has it wrong and it is almost always the companies operating inside because of their limited perspective. For example, a company officer reporting on conditions on the floor where he is operating may not be aware that he has fire beneath him on a lower floor or overhead in an attic. Fire in the concealed space between a rain roof and the original roof will most likely remain undetected by interior companies and first observed by the IC.
The above video is an excellent example of companies acknowledging the IC’s order to evacuate the fire building with an explanation of why they should be allowed to continue interior operations. When an IC orders companies out a building and a shift to defensive operations, he doesn’t want to hear radio transmissions such as, “Just a few more minutes and we’ll have it, chief,” and, “We’re making good headway.” The most important takeaway from this bulletin is that companies who advise the IC on their progress and conditions do so from a limited perspective; they are not seeing what the IC is seeing.
BILL GUSTIN is a 45-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire/Rescue Department. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and is a lead instructor in his department’s Officer Development Program. He teaches tactics and company officer training programs throughout North America. He is an advisory board member of FDIC International and a technical editor of Fire Engineering.
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