Phil Jose: Reading Smoke and the Transfer of Command Process

By Phil Jose

Picture yourself as the officer on the first-arriving engine company at a working fire in a two-story, wood frame, single-family residence. Fire is showing from a bedroom window on the B/C corner, floor two, indicated by a large volume of high-velocity turbulent dense black smoke from the window. As you give fire attack orders to the crew, you continue your size-up recognizing white smoke under moderate pressure from the eaves and attic vents, complete your size-up and risk benefit analysis (RBA), and begin your fire attack and command responsibilities.

Reading smoke should be a part of the initial size-up, RBA, and any transfer-of-command process. There are probably as many size-up procedures as there are fire departments, but some elements are consistent across agencies. Those elements include building size, construction type, fire size, fire location, weather, and fire attack elements such as strategy (offensive, transitional, defensive), hose diameter and length, initial entry point, as well as search and ventilation strategy considerations.


David Dodson: The Art of Reading Smoke

Reading Smoke: Understanding the ‘White Smoke’ Traps

Training Bulletin: Reading Smoke

Reading Smoke: Beyond the Basics of Fire Behavior

If you, as the first arriving incident commander (IC), have the skills to read smoke and communicate that information accurately, the later-arriving chief officer can more effectively assume command and have a better read on the situation and the progress attained. You both will be able to make more accurate predictions of fire progress to implement the correct strategy supported by the right tactical assignments.

The Process

Conducting an effective size-up involves reading smoke to identify where the fire is, where it is going, and how fast the change is likely to occur. The process consists of four steps that, with practice, is easily included in the first-arriving officer’s size-up report.

Step 1. Inventory the smoke’s key factors of volume, velocity, density and color (VVDC).

Step 2. Compare those factors to the size of the fire “box,” the weather, and other influencing factors.

Step 3. Determine how fast VVDC is changing. Those three steps provide the information you need for Step 4.

Step 4. Know where the fire is, where it is going, and how fast the change is likely to happen.

Correlation with Size-Up

Many reading smoke factors coincide with agencies’ size-up process.

Step 1 includes VVDC as an indicator of fire location, fire size, and strategy.

Step 2 includes building size, construction type, and weather as an influence on VVDC.

Step 3 helps you to understand how fast the fire is changing, which correlates to the speed of tactical deployment relative to the fire attack options available.

Step 4 provides the insight necessary to establish the details of the fire attack size-up, including strategy, attack hose diameter and length, and initial entry point. A good read of the smoke will also help identify the search and ventilation strategies to support life safety and fire attack.

VVDC As Predictor of Fire Behavior

The reading smoke process involves cataloguing the four attributes of smoke for predicting fire behavior. The initial IC can identify and communicate the VVDC of the smoke on arrival, develop the appropriate strategy, and make the right tactical assignments to mitigate the fire problem in the most effective manner. The right decisions based on the information available will give the fire department the best opportunity for success and the citizens the best opportunity for survival.

A command or chief officer on arrival assumes command from the initial IC through a transfer-of-command process. Departments should have well-established and communicated standard operating guidelines describing the transfer of command report. Like the size-up, officers of all ranks should practice giving and receiving effective transfer of command reports. The officer assuming command should be conducting an independent size-up and RBA to ensure that the strategy and tactics underway are appropriate. The assuming IC will be able to see the smoke conditions to determine the VVDC on arrival as compared with the VVDC conditions described in the size-up report.

The incoming IC should be listening carefully to the fire conditions described by the initial IC during the size-up report. Using the reading smoke information in the size-up, the incoming IC can begin to build a mental model of the fire building and the fire conditions on arrival. He can then understand where the fire is and where it is going and should be able to balance that against the strategy and tactics employed to develop an expectation of what they should see on arrival. When on scene, he should then perform a size-up using the reading smoke process and assess to what degree the operations underway have been, or are likely to be, effective.  

Opening Scenario

Let us continue with the example at the beginning of this article. The size-up report for a fire in a two-story, single-family residence indicates a large volume of high-velocity turbulent dense black smoke from the bedroom on the second floor Charlie/Bravo corner. You as the IC should assume near- or post-flashover conditions exist within that bedroom on floor 2. You also read a moderate volume of white smoke from the eaves, indicating the attic space is hot enough so that water vapor or steam is coming from the unfinished lumber or trusses in the attic.  Departments with adequate resources would likely implement an offensive strategy with a 1¾-inch attack line through the front door, up the stairs, to apply water to the room-and-contents fire quickly or use a transitional strategy to obtain initial fire control followed by a quick entry to complete extinguishment.

When the chief officer arrives to assume command, he can use the reading smoke information from the initial IC’s size-up, the tactics employed, and his mental model of expectations to compare to what he sees on arrival and this independent reading smoke assessment.

Let’s say that the arriving chief officer assumes command and sees large volumes of white smoke under pressure from the bedroom windows on the Charlie/Delta corner and high-volume dark brown to black smoke coming from the eaves. This indicates that the fire attack in the bedroom has been effective as evidenced by the previously described black smoke converting to steam as a result of water application.

However, attic conditions have changed from white smoke/steam to heavy brown, almost black. The heavy brown color indicates wood from the roof system is exposed to high heat and a rapid increase in the rate of heating is changing the white smoke to black. The attic is now on fire.

This is but one example of how reading smoke can improve firefighting efforts through the transfer-of-command process. Reading smoke allowed the initial IC to evaluate and effectively communicate fire conditions on arrival and implement the first tactical assignments. The arriving chief officer uses the same reading smoke process make a mental model that gives a more accurate understanding of the fire conditions on the arrival of the first company, the tactics they employed, and the time necessary for them to be effective. The impact is seen in the change of VVDC, which demonstrates the impacts of the firefighting efforts prior to the chief officer’s arrival. After the transfer of command, the chief as IC can effectively maintain the offensive strategy and deploy resources to attack the attic fire.

Training in the reading smoke process develops an understanding the concepts and impacts of the VVDC and how to apply those concepts into the role of the IC. Both the initial company officer and the later-arriving chief officer will be able to maintain a common understanding of the fire behavior, accurately predict where the fire is going, and direct the appropriate tactics to put out the fire.


Phil Jose is a 30-year veteran, deputy chief, and a shift commander in Seattle, Washington. He writes and teaches on reading smoke, tactics, decision making, air management and instructional craftsmanship. He has been an instructor at FDIC International since 2004, was a co-recipient of the FDIC Tom Brennan Training Achievement Award, and is an author for Fire Engineering magazine and Pennwell Books and Videos. 

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