Memory Aids Mnemonics and Acronyms: A Company Officer’s Perspective


Company officers and line battalion chiefs have some overlapping responsibilities on the fireground. Both must be able to size up an incident scene that presents a multitude of hazards, and they should be able to take command, make assignments, call for additional resources, and track on-scene personnel. There is, however, a major difference in the conditions under which company officers and battalion chiefs generally operate. As a working incident commander (IC), a company officer in the initial stages of an incident may not have the luxury of making decisions while sitting inside an SUV or using a command board as a reference. He must be able to make quick decisions based on limited information while performing manipulative skills such as setting ladders, pulling hose, or performing a 360° scene survey. A set of short memory aids can help a company officer remember the important bullet points of a hazard while simultaneously performing these tasks.


Memory aids and mnemonics (a general term to describe learning techniques that aid information retention) may be external or internal.1 External memory aids include note taking and reminders like alarm clocks. In a college-setting study, external memory aids were rated as more preferred because of their dependability and accuracy.2 The problem with the fire service application of external aids and lists is that firefighters must stop what they are doing and refer to them. This is often not possible during a dynamic scene deployment.

More common in the fire service are internal memory aids and types of mnemonics called acronyms. Acronyms are defined as abbreviations formed from the initial components in a phrase or word.3 One of the most well-known fire service acronyms was created by Chief Lloyd Layman. The first letter acronym RECEO-VS stands for Rescue, Exposures, Confine, Extinguish, Overhaul, Ventilation, Salvage (VS added later) and helps ICs to organize and prioritize hazard scenes.4


The fire service has taken on an ever increasing workload over the past several decades. The number of hazards fire officers are responsible for mastering is staggering. Hazmat incidents, high-rise fires, water rescue responses, trench rescues, and high-angle rescue calls are difficult to master when they happen infrequently. It is impossible for fire service professionals to recall everything they have ever seen, heard, or read on every incident to which they are asked to respond. Although an officer may not be able to remember everything about a specific hazard, the use of memory aids can help bring the major elements to mind.

Some things are more important than others on the fireground. Some tasks like looking for down electrical lines, calling for a second alarm, and identifying a basement fire cannot be overlooked or forgotten or someone may be injured or killed. If the company officer can use a mnemonic to remember to look for these major factors at the start of an incident, it will set the entire operation up for success. The arriving battalion chief or more experienced command personnel should be able to smooth over some of the finer, less important points of the call that may have been forgotten.


Some people feel that using acronyms is a sign of weakness or inexperience. In actuality, using and developing your own acronyms show you have pride in your craft. It is admirable when someone takes the time to think about their weak areas and develop methods to strengthen them in dynamic situations.

As simple as it sounds, you should use a memory aid for areas in which you have a tough time recalling important information. Most times, they will be situations that are complex or infrequent. If you are a young company officer and need a way to identify important aspects of initial scene actions, using a mnemonic may be very helpful. Perhaps you are a seasoned officer who has very little experience with some special rescue disciplines such as trench or electrical vault rescue. Using or developing a memory aid might be a valuable option. Firefighters and engineers certainly have low-frequency, high-risk components of their respective positions in which they could benefit from using these concepts as well.


We can divide fire service memory aids into two broad categories: strategic aids and task-oriented aids.

Strategic Aids

These would be lists like RECEO-VS that center on the overall goals of the incident. Aids in this category can be external, such as command board lists and check-offs, because many times the person looking at these external aids is a line chief in a controlled environment. He may have resources on scene that are in the process of stabilizing the incident, which buys time to compare the factors of an ideal incident with how the actual incident is transpiring. A good working knowledge of these factors will cut down on the “hunting and pecking” aspect of following a list and will provide for a smoother operation.

Task-Oriented Aids

Task-oriented mnemonics and acronyms are many times more suited to the company officer. They would be in areas of narrowed focus on the fireground. Referring again to RECEO-VS, the company officer may be so consumed with rescue duties and initial scene actions that he never addresses anything else. In this case, task-oriented memory aids would be helpful. Some examples could be acronyms centered on the 360° scene survey, Mayday procedures, or the initial steps of a water rescue incident.


As mentioned previously, many fire service memory aids have already been developed. If you cannot find one that fits your needs, it is easy to make your own. Decide what is most important to you about a specific hazard. Then list those items and include alternate names for each one. This will give you more word-building options if you are making a first letter acronym (taking the first letter of each word you want to include and making a new word).

The most important part of building and using learning aids is that you create something you can actually use! If a mnemonic is long and cumbersome, it may be too difficult to recall and employ in real time. The mnemonic or acronym you use should lead you through a logical and natural thought process. This is so you can spend less time thinking about the acronym and more about the concepts it represents while performing physical tasks if necessary.


The 360° Survey

An area in which a simple acronym can be helpful for the company officer is the 360° survey. After giving the initial size-up and crew orders, the officer will often take the opportunity to do a 360° survey around the incident if it is feasible. By using the acronym BEERS, the officer can identify some important tenets of the scene in short order:

Basement: Is there a basement? Is it involved with fire? Does it appear to contain living quarters?

Exposures: Are there exposures close to the hazard? If so, do they constitute a high life hazard?

Electrical/Gas: Can I visualize the electrical service drop? Can I take a few seconds to shut off the gas meter as I pass by?

Rescue Profile: As I walk around the structure and visualize the clues it provides, am I gaining a clear picture of what I am willing to risk for what I will benefit?

Seat of the Fire: Can I tell through smoke and fire patterns where the seat of the fire is?

Using a focused acronym on the 360° survey can help an officer to gather information amid the distractions of neighbors, radio traffic, and arriving companies that will bombard the first-due company.


One of the most challenging calls a company officer can respond to is a working high-rise fire. In most areas of the country, they are not common occurrences. The number of considerations for a first-in company officer is staggering. Locating the fire, designating a fire attack stairwell, determining the mode of attack, checking the alarm panel, and calling for additional resources are just a few of the necessary considerations. Having the ability to recall the most important details of these calls can set the table for a successful operation.

Consider the following example. After giving an initial size-up of a working high-rise fire, the officer directs the engine company to assemble equipment to go aloft. While doing this, the officer can summon the acronym SMAKS is his mind.

Second: Have I called for a second alarm/additional resources?

Mode: What attack mode are we in? Will we initiate an offensive attack, or will we employ a transitional attack to prevent autoextension up the exterior of the building?

Alarm Panel: Will we access the alarm panel on our way to check for activations on multiple floors or assign someone else to do it?

Keys: Do we need to bring lock box keys to save valuable time and avoid a forcible entry problem? How many locked doors are there between us and the fire?

Stairwell and Supply: Which stairwell will I designate as fire attack and which as evacuation? Will the water supply come by the standpipe, or will we bring it up the stairwell with us in the form of a 2½- or three-inch hose?

At this point, the officer can give an update to incoming units. He has made a number of important decisions in a short time. The battalion chief who assumes command knows that the attack team has already undertaken a specific mode of operation, reduced reflex time by calling for additional resources, and has an initial plan for evacuation and water supply. The table has been set for a successful operation.


The company officer who arrives first on the scene of a multifaceted, dynamic incident has one of the toughest jobs in the fire service today. The actions of the first-in officer can help bring order and stability to the operation or can lead to further turmoil and confusion. Using memory aids, mnemonics, and acronyms, officers can recognize the major components of an incident, order the appropriate resources, and have their crews carry out initial stabilizing actions. When they accomplish these goals in concert with fireground tasks such as hose deployment, they can fulfill their roles as “working commanders.”


1. Harris, John E., “Memory Aids People Use: Two Interview Studies.” Memory and Cognition. January 1980, Vol 8:1, 31-38. Accessed online 1/2013 at:

2. Merriam-Webster, 2012.

3. Intons-Peterson, Margaret Jean; Fournier, JoAnne, “External and Internal Memory Aids,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Sept. 2, 1986; Vol 115(3):267. Accessed online 11/2012 at:

4. Layman, Lloyd. Fundamentals of Firefighting Tactics. Magruder Publishing Company, 1940.

The mnemonic or acronym you use should lead you through a logical and natural thought process.

CHRIS PASKETT has been in the fire service for 14 years and is a captain with the Eugene (OR) Fire and EMS Department. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in fire and emergency management from Oklahoma State University.

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