Planning for Successful Size-Up

Fire apparatus and firefighters on a residential block

By David DeStefano

The initial size-up and radio report of the first-arriving company at an incident scene is one of the most important actions undertaken by the officer of that company. This initial interpretation of conditions and action plan set the tone, tempo, and volume of the entire first alarm. While over-reaction can be “dialed down” rapidly, usually with little negative effect, a poor evaluation and response to conditions often yields a negative outcome for the entire operation.

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With accurate size-up and an appropriate initial action plan a well-established priority, the goal must be to ensure every member has the skills necessary to maintain situational awareness and make decisions from their fireground perspective. While the first-arriving officer bears the responsibility for initial size-up, radio report, and action plan, each firefighter must size up an incident with their particular function in mind. Engine firefighters should be estimating a hose stretch or water supply needs, truck members should be looking at ventilation or forcible entry profiles, and many more tasks. Additionally, many of the firefighters raising ladders and stretching hose will someday fill officer positions. Each opportunity they have to hone their size-up skills must be leveraged for future reference.

There are many outstanding methods for remembering the most important size-up considerations. Many fire departments endorse one of the popular acronyms such as “COAL WAS WEALTH” or “WALLACE WAS HOT.” Other jurisdictions may establish a policy with their own series of size-up points. Whether a fire department develops its own a size-up policy or an officer or firefighter chooses an established acronym to help ensure a more complete assessment, several factors must be carefully weighed in the process.

One primary consideration for any policy or existing method of size-up should include the user’s ability to accurately remember the steps quickly at any hour of day or night while under intense pressure to act immediately. As with other complex actions undertaken during stressful situations, we are aided by experience and training. Learning by experience entails exposure to incidents over a period of time. Observation, interaction, and analysis is a sanitized way of describing our long history of using lessons learned from operations that went smoothly (as well as those that may not have been as successful as we had hoped). Although gaining experience with size up under fire conditions may be extremely helpful, the problem is the length of time it may take to respond to a large number of working fires on the first-in company.

The best option is to leverage our experienced-based knowledge with as much training as possible. There are several ways to accomplish this using routinely accessible technology as well as old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground district familiarization. Firefighters at the company level may be able to access images from Google Earth, the local tax assessor’s database, or fire department GIS mapping. This allows firefighters and officers to access at least basic images and minimal information on actual properties in the jurisdiction. Although the views are limited and may not reflect the current condition or occupancy of the building, the advantage is that this data may be used for training scenarios while the company is in quarters at any time of day or night. A more traditional method of size-up training entails taking company members out in the first-due area to experience the building condition and surroundings. In either case, hypothetical scenarios may be given to each member, including the officer. The first-arriving officer should play out the scene as he or she would when first arriving. Conducting a 360º size-up (or virtual size-up on a computer). With prompts from another member, fire and smoke conditions or trapped occupants may be identified. When conducting this training digitally, a computer graphics program may add realistic effects to the images. The officer should formulate and transmit a brief initial report based on department policy and size up of conditions.

The best application of this practice may be to blend the use of digital images with time spent conducting district familiarization. There is simply a wealth of useful information to be discovered by learning buildings, street access, and potential hazards in your first due district. Taking the time to practice size-up and initial reports at some of these buildings will be invaluable when the pressure to make rapid decisions under adverse conditions is intense. The more familiar the format and well-practiced the size-up points, the more complete and accurate the size-up and initial report transmission.

Mastery of size-up and the initial report that follows becomes easier with experience in similar occupancies and numerous incidents. While working to gain that life-based experience, firefighters and officers should strive to practice their skills as often as possible under a wide range of simulated conditions. With practice, firefighters and officers will build the “muscle memory” necessary to rapidly size up conditions, transmit an initial report, and begin operations.     

David DeStefanoDavid DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at


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