The elections for your company officers were held last week. Your junior officer has fewer than three years of experience as a firefighter. He is one of your future stars but right now is less than ready to command a company, let alone run an entire incident. Where should you start in training your officer in the finer points of fireground operations? What are the most important things for this young officer to learn?

Training officers on what to do on the fireground should be done in logical order. Just as when building a house, the most important part of the operation is the beginning or foundation. New officers must build a solid foundation of the basics. They must understand simple engine and truck company operations. Future officers must be able to look at ongoing operations and decide what comes next and how the companies they are commanding should fit in. They must be able to work with an incident commander and follow specific orders. More importantly, the officer must be able to operate without them.

When looking at the building, envision it as your enemy. Unless you see the building being erected, you may not be sure of its construction types. (Photos by author.)

The training should cover the basic operations of first-arriving engine and ladder companies at working fires in various occupancies. Emphasize that the line company officer must be able to do an initial size-up, make decisions, and institute the proper tactics to safely and efficiently attack the fire.

The decisions must take into account the department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) so that second-arriving units can easily determine what had been done up to the point of their arrival and proceed to the next step in your department’s attack plan.


When should size-up begin? Most officers feel that a proper size-up begins on receipt of an alarm. For an individual building on fire, this is true. But a true size-up of a district is an ongoing event. As you travel in your district, whether responding to or returning from runs, or even as you travel back and forth to the fire station, take notice of the buildings in your neighborhood. See what renovations are being done to existing buildings, and note what businesses are moving in. Are old, stately homes being broken up into apartments? Has the old bowling alley been subdivided into several smaller retail units? These are things you need to be aware of before the building is on fire.

Almost as important as the original construction type is the type of renovations the building has undergone. Some alterations may affect only interior aspects and may not be obvious from the exterior. Others, as shown here, clearly indicate that additions have been made.

If there is new construction in your district, determine which building techniques are being used. Be nosy. Take the time to stop and see what is being put into these new places. Many of the new construction components being used are great for the building industry but spell disaster for the fire service.

What plan should your department use for initial size-up? Most classes use the 13 points of size-up represented by the acronym: COAL WAS WEALTH. These letters stand for:

  • Construction
  • Occupancy
  • Area/Potential
  • Life
  • Water Supply
  • Apparatus and Personnel
  • Street Conditions
  • Weather
  • Exposures
  • Auxiliary Appliances
  • Location and Extent of Fire
  • Time of Day
  • Hazards.

Each of the 13 points should be covered at all responses that involve buildings. Depending on the magnitude of the incident, some of the points might be more relevant than others, but they all should be covered during the early stages of the operation.

Smoke or fire visible on arrival can tell many things. Heavy, black smoke showing from several windows indicates a more serious fire within. Light smoke, without volume or any “force” behind it as it vents, usually indicates a small fire.

When dealing with young, usually inexperienced officers, this type of size-up may be a bit overwhelming. Trying to teach a new officer to observe all these points usually results in brain overload. Keeping with the basic approach, an abbreviated size-up for the first-arriving companies may be used. If the initial officers adhere to this five-point size-up, it can be easily expanded to all 13 points on the arrival of a chief officer or a more experienced officer.


On receipt of a fire alarm, wise firefighters and officers will try to extract as much information as possible from the dispatch. Such information may include an address, to let you know what side of a street the fire building is on or where the nearest hydrant might be. Just a street name may bring to mind the specific style of building that lines that street.

Visible fire conditions on arrival will help determine which size handline you will need or whether you should use a master stream. When coupled with building type or construction, they offer the first clues to how long you may be able to operate safely inside the building.

The type of fire to which you are being dispatched is also very important. Being dispatched for a reported “structure fire” with no further information is doing your members a disservice. Have dispatchers give you as much information as they have been able to get. Take, for example, the downtown intersection in your hometown. On the four separate corners are very different buildings with distinct fire problems. On one corner is a 21/2-story frame house. The second corner has a seven-store taxpayer or strip mall. The third corner has a gas station, and the last corner has a three-story, brick apartment house. A call to this intersection for a structure fire could really keep the responding firefighters guessing. If the caller reports smoke in his home or the night manager is reporting fire in the basement of his store, this added information will help your size-up start on the right foot.


As the apparatus proceeds toward the nearest intersection to the reported fire, both the officer and chauffeur need to be looking for signs of smoke or fire. During daylight hours, smoke may be visible from a distance, or you may see a haze in the street as you approach. At night, the only smoke that may be visible will be in the streetlights or a dark spot against the night sky.

As you pull up in front of the actual fire building, the five-point size-up begins. We will use the acronym B.E.L.O.W.

  1. “B”-building. As you report on the scene, give a quick radio report of the fire building. Most times a simple “Engine 1 is on the scene with a working fire in a 21/2-story frame, fire on the first floor” will suffice for a house fire. Notice that an overall size of the fire building is not given. Too many times, the officer giving the size-up is not good at judging dimensions or cannot obtain a clear, overall picture because of exposures or other obstructions. Let whatever information is relayed give you your first impression. Older 21/2-story, wood-frame buildings are usually about 25 feet wide 2 40 feet deep. If occupied by a single family, a fire on the first-floor front would probably mean a fire in the living room. This information can be used to start to form an attack plan. For most fires in the average size private dwelling, a 13/4-inch handline will suffice as the initial attack line. Exceptions to this rule include unusually large homes, where the floor area rivals that of some commercial buildings, or an advanced and heavy body of fire in the home.

When considering life hazards at fires, operating forces must keep in mind that two groups of people must be considered: civilians who may be trapped in the fire building and the firefighters trying to remove the civilians.

While conducting the building part of your size-up, cover the following points as well. Evaluate the room’s layout or the building’s floor plan. Note the locations of windows and doors, for egress and possible emergency exiting later. Anything you can determine from the outside can only help you once you are inside.

If you are dealing with a fire in a commercial building, what else should you look for? If the fire is in a row of stores, how many of the stores are attached or share a common cockloft? Are there fire separations in the basement? Will the building characteristics help or hinder your efforts to contain and control this fire?

Firefighter safety and survival are equally as important as any other concerns on the fireground. Reduced personnel on the fireground, unavailability of units because of EMS runs, and an extremely young fire service all may contribute to life-threatening fireground situations for firefighters.

When the fire is in a multiple dwelling, the concern for fire spread switches from horizontal to vertical. Fire starting on the lower floor of a four-story brick apartment house will jeopardize all the families living above the fire area. They will be in the immediate path of the spreading fire and smoke.

Strategic Considerations

Type of construction: wood frame, lightweight truss assemblies, masonry, steel.

Fire’s effect on the building: collapse potential, avenues of fire spread.

  1. “E”-the extent and location of fire in the building. Many times, this is obvious as you pull up in front of the fire building. Fire venting out of two front bedroom windows is a good tip-off of the location of the main body of fire. But sometimes, we are confronted with just the opposite. The fire building this time is a one-story strip mall comprised of six separate stores. As you arrive at 2:30 a.m., heavy smoke is pushing from what seems like every opening in the 75-foot-long building. Now the first job that has to be accomplished is to try to determine where in the structure the main fire is located.

Visible smoke can help you identify what is burning and where in the building the fire might be located. Different materials give off widely different volumes and colors of smoke (see list below).

The occupancy of the fire building will give several clues as to the operations performed within. Heavily secured buildings will require more forcible entry and ventilation.

Although these materials give off these colors of smoke when they burn, they alone cannot be used as a strict guide because of the tremendous amounts of plastics in use today. The hydrocarbons released when home furnishings burn produce smoke conditions that rival those seen when oil refineries burn. Even small amounts of plastic can produce large quantities of thick, black smoke.

The amount of fire and the location from which it is showing can indicate how much fire is present. Heavy fire showing from a store’s front windows usually indicates that fire is throughout the store; most fires in these occupancies originate near the rear. Fire in the basement of a balloon-frame home threatens the entire structure, since the fire has numerous avenues for spreading upward. The officer should try to identify where in the building the main fire is located, what is actually burning, and how much fire there is.

Strategic Considerations

  • Visible smoke: volume, color, intensity.
  • Visible fire: volume, intensity, access to fire area.

  1. “L”-life hazards. The life hazard in a burning building can be broken down into two categories-civilians and firefighters. Both are equally important, although some would argue that our lives are more important than those of whom we protect. When we signed on for this career, we swore to protect life and property. The people trapped in burning buildings deserve our best attempt to try to remove them safely. This should be accomplished through superior training. We should be able to recognize what is a survivable atmosphere and what is not.

Water supply on the fireground is usually what makes or breaks the firefighting operation. The best firefighters can put out only so much fire without water. The engine operator makes or breaks the operation. A good pump operator makes fireground operations go that much more smoothly.

As we respond, we should be evaluating the information the dispatcher has given us. Is the fire reported to be in a private dwelling at 2:00 a.m.? Or is the fire reported to be in a day care center during the afternoon? Evaluating this information may tip you off to the possible life hazard you may be confronted with on arrival. As you approach the address, look for civilians in the street or on the lawn flagging you down. As you do a quick visual of the fire building, listen to any information they are trying to share. This may include the information that everyone is already out of the building, or it may be the possible location(s) of any trapped people.

If victims are visible from the exterior, assess the degree of danger to them. Do they represent the more severe life hazard, or are they the people who have not reached an exterior opening yet? If the people are in imminent danger, their removal becomes a priority. The number and ages of the victims will determine how many firefighters will be needed to assist them to safety. If using an aerial ladder for removal, it is safe to assume that all victims will need assistance. Portable ladders or fire escapes will require fewer personnel to assist people, unless they are extremely young or old. In private homes, it may be possible to simply bring the victims out onto a porch roof, putting them out of the most hazardous location-inside the fire building-and into an area of refuge.

If reports of people trapped are given by people on-scene or repeated over the radio, the priority changes to that of interior search. Make all personnel operating and arriving on the fireground aware of the new information. Depending on fire conditions, the time of day, and the available personnel, victim removal or search may take priority over other fireground operations. One very important point to remember, however, is that more lives are saved by properly positioning and operating the first handline than by any other fireground tactic. So even with reduced staffing, putting water on the fire remains a high priority. Once we put water on the fire, usually everything else gets better-but not always.

Strategic Considerations

Reported life hazards: radio reports, civilians on location.

Visible life hazards: degree of danger, ease of removal, available personnel.

Search operations: primary, secondary, victim removal.

  1. “O”-occupancy. Even when dealing with house fires, there are some variables to consider. Group homes, foster homes, and houses where the owner runs a home business all can change the “occupancy” of the building. Woodworking shops with different varnishes, stains, and cleaners and home gunsmiths may increase the fire load beyond what would normally be expected in a private home.

The unsung hero is usually tasked with getting a water supply, helping pull and stretch hose, giving water to the first line, and then operating the pumps.

When confronted with a fire in a row of stores, use the signs on the different storefronts as possible indicators of the type of fire. This may also give the companies an idea of the possible floor plan or other conditions that may be found in the occupancies. A delicatessen in a small storefront would indicate a possible problem with stock storage. Narrow aisles and highly piled stock might be present, which would hinder personnel movement and stream penetration. When considering the occupancy of a building during size-up, it is best to expect the unexpected.

Strategic Considerations

Beware of cross-occupancies: houses with home businesses, old signs on buildings, unusual occupancies.

Use visible factors to help your size-up: small storefronts with no storage, numerous renovations, owners’ living in the rear of an occupancy.

Plan your attack: proper size handline for the fire or occupancy, apparatus, and personnel.

  1. “W”-water supply. Water supply plays a very important role in fire attack. The engine company cannot move in on a fire without water. The truck company cannot complete its searches without water.

What are the important aspects of water supply? Which size lines should you use? When dealing with a fire in a private home, how much water should you anticipate needing? Where should the initial handline be stretched?

As for handline selection, the bigger the fire, the bigger the hand-line. Pretty simple. Handlines of 13/4-inch size can be used on most fires in private dwellings and apartments. An exception to this rule is when the operating forces are confronted with a heavy body of fire, especially in a house. When the fire has control of the entire first floor of a home, the stretching of a large handline, such as a 21/2-inch line, will help to rapidly knock down the heavy fire. This line does not have to be advanced throughout the entire first floor; it can be operated from an area inside the front door and be used to knock down as much fire as possible. Once the heavy fire has been knocked down, a smaller line can be used for final extinguishment.


Stretch the 21/2-inch handline in the following situations as well (think of the acronym A.D.U.L.T.S.):

  • when the first company is confronted with an Advanced fire condition, regardless of the type building;
  • when the company is adopting a completely Defensive position;
  • when the first engine is Unable to determine the fire area;
  • when the fire is in a Large, uncompartmented area such as a supermarket;
  • when the engine needs Tons of water; and
  • when a Standpipe operation is used.

The other part of water supply is water delivery. What are the water supply capabilities of your first-arriving engine company? Versatility is the key.

Once you select the proper size handline, which location should you stretch it to? For most house fires, stretch the first line to the front door. If you consider a fire in a multistory private dwelling, the interior stairs to the upper floors are usually, not always, found near the front of the house. That fact, coupled with the fact that 90 percent of today’s fire departments stretch a preconnected handline first, almost rules out stretching to the rear of the house to attack the fire from the unburned rear of the structure.

Another factor that supports going in the front door, even if the main body of fire is at that front door, is the volume of water you are flowing out of your initial attack lines. The Fire Department of New York pumps its 13/4-inch handlines to flow 180 gpm. Common flows for this size handline range from 150 to 200 gpm. No matter which flow formula you use, this flow will provide adequate water to knock down several rooms of fire in an average sized home. The trick is putting the water onto the fire itself. If your engine companies stay out on the front lawn, they will not put out the fire and, in fact, will spread the fire because of the air that will enter the home along with the hose stream. This source of fresh air will help extend the fire. Exceptions to this rule include basement fires, where there is a side entrance that leads to both the kitchen and the basement, and kitchen fires that may be accessed by this same door.

Before using the side door for the kitchen fire, the officer must first try to determine the extent of the fire and how far it might have spread through the first floor. If the fire is already spreading through the dining area toward the living room and the interior stairs, then this line should come in through the front door.

For fires in apartment buildings, the first line most times should go to the interior to protect the building’s staircase. People trapped above the fire will need this line in place to give them a chance at survival. Even for a basement fire in a multiple dwelling, the first line should go to the interior to the top of the basement stairs to protect and keep fire from extending out of the basement. Subsequent lines can be stretched into the basement from the exterior.

The location of the fire in a store will determine where the first line is stretched. As in apartment building fires, if the fire is in the basement, the first line should attempt to enter the store to protect the top of the basement stairs. For fires in the store itself, the line should go right in the front. This provides the best area for attack because of access, large front windows for ventilation, and speed in placing the handlines in service. Cockloft fires require multiple handlines, sometimes far in front of the main body of fire. Stores adjacent to the main fire store may have to be skipped depending on conditions. If there is a delay in forcing entry, ventilating the roof, or getting water into the first line, thought must be given to skipping the adjacent stores in an effort to get in front of the fire.

Second and third lines also have rules for deployment. The second line should always go to the same position as the first, as a backup line. After checking with the officer of the first line and finding that there are no difficulties, this line can now go to the floor above the fire. In store fires, the second line will back up the first and then cover the most exposed store if the fire is in a taxpayer or strip mall. If the store has apartments above, the second line will proceed to this location after checking in with the first line. An exception is for basement fires where the first line went into the building to protect the top of the basement stairs. In this case, both in stores and apartment buildings, the second line may have to enter the basement from the exterior to extinguish the fire.

Third lines should also check on the progress of previous lines to ensure that they are okay. Once they are sure that all is well, they can go to an area determined by the incident commander or by need. This line should have sufficient hose to cover the entire building.

Strategic Considerations

Proper handline selection: stretch 21/2-inch when fire conditions dictate, 13/4-inch for most houses or apartments.

Proper positioning: first line between the fire and any trapped occupants; if no known life hazard, protect the most seriously threatened exposure; always stretch backup lines.

If the first-due officer follows these basic five points to start a size-up, the operation should run more smoothly. When the chief arrives on the scene, he will be able to pick up and continue building on these initial points and eventually cover all 13 points of size-up. Remember, what starts right ends right.

BOB PRESSLER, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a retired lieutenant from Rescue Company No. 3 of the Fire Department of New York. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate’s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University. He is a technical editor for Fire Engineering, a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and a member of a volunteer department.

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