The 360-Degree Size-Up

Article and photos by Jerry Knapp

Captain Bill Gustin from the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire-Rescue suggested I read the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report (#2010-10, 13 Sept 2010) describing a recent house fire that flashed over, killing one firefighter and injuring another. Bill is one of our nation’s fire service leaders and visionaries, and the value of his advice to read this and other NIOSH reports cannot be overstated. From these concise reports, we can all learn important fireground considerations that often determine if firefighters live or die during a fire attack operation. The reports are available free from NIOSH on its Web site. These reports should be a routine part of your annual training plan. NIOSH reports offer an excellent way to share lessons learned (the hard way!) so we don’t make the same fatal mistakes. It is a great way to share valuable experience. 

 Here is the executive summary from the report:
Executive Summary
On March 30, 2010, a 28-year-old male career firefighter/paramedic (victim) died and a 21-year-old female part-time firefighter/paramedic was injured when caught in an apparent flashover while operating a hoseline within a residence. Units arrived on scene to find heavy fire conditions at the rear of a house and moderate smoke conditions within the uninvolved areas of the house. A search and rescue crew had made entry into the house to search for a civilian who was entrapped at the rear of the house. The victim, the injured firefighter/paramedic, and a third firefighter made entry into the home with a charged 2½-inch hoseline. Thick, black rolling smoke banked down to knee level after the hoseline was advanced 12 feet into the kitchen area. While ventilation activities were occurring, the search and rescue crew observed fire rolling across the ceiling within the smoke. They immediately yelled to the hoseline crew to “get out.” The search and rescue crew were able to exit the structure safely, then returned to rescue the injured firefighter/paramedic first and then the victim. The victim was found wrapped in the 2½-inch hoseline that had ruptured, and without his face piece on. He was quickly brought out of the structure, received medical care on scene, and was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
This report, like all NIOSH reports, contains a section on key recommendations to prevent other firefighters from suffering the same fate. The first recommendation follows:
  • Ensure that a complete 360-degree situational size-up is conducted on dwelling fires andothers, where it is physically possible, and ensure that a risk-versus-gain analysis and a survivability profile for trapped occupants is conducted prior to committing to interior firefighting operations.
 Another key recommendation from the report is the following:
  • Ensure that firefighters and officers have a sound understanding of fire behavior and the ability to recognize indicators of fire development and the potential for extreme fire behavior.
Let’s look at these individually.
The 360-Degree Size-Up
The 360-degree size-up is a key factor for all fireground operations. Often, what is really happening is that the real fire situation and critical factors in the fire are masked by darkness, trees, buildings, smoke, and so on. We need to know what the situation is on all sides to conduct an effective size-up. From our size-up, we can develop an appropriate strategy and tactical objectives department members execute. The incident commander (IC) needs to get out of his car and see what is going on or depend on reports from members sent to survey the unseen sides of the building.
 In the photo below, we were called second due to this house fire. On our arrival, it appeared there were a couple of rooms of fire, and it was confirmed that all occupants were out of the building. Accepted strategy and tactics would be to ventilate in front of the lines and advance one or two 1¾-inch lines through the front door and extinguish the fire. This appears to be a routine fire.


At this point in the fire, a 360-degree size-up of the fire building was not completed. If you look closely on the left side of the photo, the exposure, a white house, is illuminated by the flames from the rear of the involved home. These flames were masked by the front of the house and the heavy smoke. It was completely impossible to see from the front that the double-deck rear porches were fully involved in fire. A hoarder lived in this home, and the decks were filled with things the occupant just could not part with, and now these objects were burning furiously. 


This photo, taken a few seconds after the first and–more importantly– from a different angle, shows the massive amount of fire in the rear. With this new size-up information, strategic and tactical considerations change. The real situation is that heavy fire is pushing through the house, driven from the fully involved rear porches. This is not a room-and-contents fire. At about this time, the engine company was rapidly backing out of the second-floor hallway, which also was filled with stacked newspapers, magazines, and other items. This clutter made it almost impossible for seasoned firefighters to advance. A second line operated by another engine company on the first floor was trapped by fire extending down the stairs from the now fully involved upstairs. This group managed to extinguish enough fire to allow their escape out the front door. 
Understanding Fire Behavior
At the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York, we have taught flashover survival training since 1996 using both classroom review of case histories and live flashover observation in our flashover simulator. In a nutshell, we teach firefighters to recognize the warning signs of flashover or rapid fire development: Every firefighter must be well aware of the following: 
  • Intense heat
  • Free burning fire
  • Dense smoke
  • Rollover (late sign)
  • Vent point ignition (late sign)
The reactions we teach member are the following:
1. If you have an operating line, kill the fire with a straight stream.
2. If you don’t have a line (i.e., you were searching), get out now.
This guidance is based on the 30 case histories of firefighters who escaped, were injured, or were killed by flashover. Note that many of these fatal case histories occurred in residential occupancies.

While teaching a flashover survival program in St Louis, Missouri, several years ago, a veteran firefighter asked me, “Don’t we see those conditions at every fire?” I answered,

“You have to expect flashover at every fire, since it is the natural life cycle of a structure fire.” 

The scientists tell us that structure fires are controlled by the amount of air to which they have access. Once we force the door and enter the building, we have given the fire all the ammunition (air) it needs to flash over and kill us. Additionally, we vent at every aggressive interior fire attack, which increases air movement and causes faster ignition of combustible gases in the smoke.
At a house fire, this is especially important. The open and unenclosed stairway acts as a chimney if the fire is on the first floor. If the fire is upstairs, the stairs act as an air shaft, directly feeding the fire, quickly sending it to flashover.

So yes, expect flashover at every fire. If it does not happen, all the better. If it does, you are already prepared to survive.

JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

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