Preincident Size-Up Practices

By Eric G. Bachman

If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” depending on the observer, interpretations will vary with opposing meanings and opinions. This saying holds true in the fire service, especially when first-arriving fire units provide a verbal size-up of conditions over the air waves. This first report paints a picture of the conditions present. Although the first-in officer does not have to use a thousand words to assess and describe an incident, he can elicit a picture of varying perceptions by individual listeners.



If I asked a classroom of firefighters to draw a three-story apartment building, I would assuredly get varied templates with detail variations. If I asked them to add smoke showing from side A of the second floor, how would their pictures or their perceptions change? Sometimes, our initial size-up’s leave much to be desired. Sometimes, first-arriving units do not give an initial size-up at all, or the size-up paints too vague a picture of what is going on. Although the initial report should be brief, it should also be concise. What color is the smoke? Is it light brown or coal black? How is the smoke reacting? Is it a trace consistency barely wafting out a window? Or is it voluminous, billowing and pushing out of every opening? Each of these descriptions paints a picture, but it is still up to interpretation by the receiver. Have you ever heard a report noting “heavy fire” or “heavy smoke” showing? Both references, too, are up to interpretation because the vision is subject to the experiences of the receiver. 

Assimilating visual cues on emergency conditions is important. You cannot practice size-up reports because you never know when or where a fire will start or how far the fire will progress. Size-up report ambiguity is not exclusive to describing fire or smoke conditions. Sometimes describing the structure involved is also vague. Although size-up reports cannot be prescripted, certain descriptive structural elements should be reconciled before an incident occurs.



A purpose of preplanning is to locate facility elements such as utilities, fire detection, and suppression systems and to identify other facets including construction and hazardous materials. In most cases, these facets are not up to interpretation. There are circumstances, however, that can yield misunderstandings during size-up and affect initial deployment of equipment and personnel. That condition is the disposition of a building.   

The creativity of architects and builders can sometimes stray from the typical right-angle box construction. Unique features, layouts, and positioning can create problematic size-up issues for the fire service. If not identified and prepared for, well-meaning but inaccurate size-up and deployment instructions can hamper operations and compromise safety. Even the most basic of structures can present conditions that, when described over the radio, can yield varied perceptions.



Not every building is symmetrical or proportioned to how they may be described. Buildings dispositions are sometimes extraordinary depending on the internal functions and operations of the site. Photo 1 shows a warehouse. How would you describe it? Some may report a large warehouse, but “large” is subjective. The structure is one large open space containing high-rack storage with automated robotic lifts to electronically retrieve product. It measures 75 feet high, 200 feet wide, and 600 feet long.  

Other variations can be present; some buildings may be irregularly shaped, while others may have wings or wrap around other elements. Some may be interconnected with a common conveyance (photo 2). The conditions encountered are limited only by ones imagination.


(1) A large warehouse, if not preplanned, can yield an inaccurate size-up.


(2) The office area (left) is interconnected to the warehouse (right) by a connecting corridor (center).



Elevation variances can be extreme, creating floor-level misunderstandings that affect personnel and equipment deployment. Elevation is not solely assimilated to steep inclines or topographical drop-offs.

The building in photo 3 is part of an expanding retirement community. There is a core services area that houses the complex’s communal dining, recreation, and administrative elements. As the complex expands, new wings are constructed and interconnected to a corridor that leads to the complex core. The original core level is considered the second floor. As a wing is constructed, some aspect of it is connected to the corridor that accesses the core level, also referred to as the second floor. For each wing—which can be as many as five levels—the second floor designation is consistent and in line with the core corridor access level (photo 4). Actually, the second floor (as designated by the facility) could be the fourth level from actual grade of one wing, the third level from the grade of another wing, and so on. A fire reported on the second floor could be misinterpreted if crews are not familiar with the level references.

 (3) Retirement community resident wing overview.


                      (4) Retirement community core corridor conveyance to wing.                       



Buildings are not always positioned parallel to the roadway or parking lot. Other conditions such as limited access and environmental setbacks can foster vague or misunderstood initial size-up reports. References to building sides and floor levels may be interpreted one way by one person and another way by others. Firefighters are sometimes taught that side A is the building’s main entrance, street side, or address side; unfortunately, this rule of thumb is not absolute. Photo 5 shows the initial view firefighters see of the food processing facility from the only access road. The main building entrance (for employees and visitors) faces opposite the view presented and parallels a limited access highway. The secondary roadway access, from which the fire department can access the site, brings them to the building’s shipping and receiving area.

(5) Building view from only access road to a food processing facility.


So, what is side A? Is it the main occupant entrance side facing the highway or is it the shipping and receiving area side that is first encountered by the access road? The answer is whatever the fire department deems it to be. However, what matters most is that this issue is identified, reconciled, and disseminated to crews including mutual aid departments, preincident.

If not prescribed preincident, postdispatch operations can be affected. Recently, I was involved in a mutual-aid response to a fire at an industrial occupancy more than 500,000 square feet in size; side references were not well communicated to the mutual-aid units, causing confusion on equipment placement and personnel access. The building’s east side faced the street, displaying the building’s address. However, there was no direct access point to the complex from the addressed street name. Along the complex’s south side was a secondary road that paralleled the structure and which featured two access points from the secondary road—one designated for employee parking and the other for shipping and receiving.  

The incident commander (IC) did not announce the side references while he was managing the incident; many responding units considered the addressed street side as side A. However, the IC was considering the side facing the secondary road (with the two access points) as side A. When engine companies were directed to deploy supply and attack hoselines and ladder companies were instructed to extend their aerials to the roof at certain points, and other support groups such as the rapid intervention crew were positioned, there was confusion. Fortunately, the fire was confined and did not spread. Things, however, could have gone bad quickly if the incident was an uncontrolled working fire. Resources would not have been effectively or efficiently placed, and miscommunication would have continued, causing additional stressors and compromising firefighter safety.



Personal perceptions are not shared universally; this is proven by the “Is the glass half full?”  argumentative question. Certain things that are open to interpretation can be a catalyst for the domino effect and contribute to a series of unfortunate events. The first few minutes of an incident will set the stage for the next few hours. If things get mired from the incident’s onset, things will go downhill quickly and continue in that direction for a long time. One key to the success of any incident action plan, regardless if it is oral or written, is that the players (responders) are on the same page. This is fostered early in the incident by the brief initial size-up report.     

The disposition of districts and buildings is not universal; they are all different. Fire service leaders, through preplanning, must identify and anticipate circumstances that will challenge incident management, operations, and resources. It is imperative to analyze this preincident and develop contingencies beforehand.



To improve personnel development and preclude some of the size-up “perceptions” of structures within my fire departments district, I created a simple in-house training program applicable to all personnel levels in an organization. From entry-level candidates to seasoned veterans and officers, the program is beneficial to get all personnel on the same page.

Although most personnel in my department felt they were well aware of the structure they were protecting, I wanted to reveal to my personnel the perceptions and variations of those structures while providing a brief initial size-up report. Using a digital camera, I took and downloaded photos of buildings in the first due. I positioned each building on a separate Powerpoint slide and added some graphics to facilitate additional size-up cues and note other perceptions. Numbered arrows pointed to certain features including side and floor levels, as well as other circumstances, including exposures.

I distributed an answer sheet for students to write a brief narrative size-up of each slide inclusive of the numbered elements. Figure 1 shows an apartment building with a floor level variation; the lowest level is partially above and below grade. Another slide featured the food processing facility shipping and receiving view in photo 5. Other facility multiple views were provided. One view (Figure 2) showed the “front”, and another view (Figure 3) showed the “back.” Another revealed its below-grade parking garage (Figure 4).








Another scenario involved an L-shaped office building that presented similar entrance views from opposing access points (Figures 5 and 6). Another scenario presented an elevation variance where one side of the building presented one level (Figure 7) and the other side (Figure 8) presented two levels. Another scenario presented a townhouse building with makeshift fire/smoke conditions (Figure 9) to discern exposure references.  







After all of the slides were reviewed, I collected the answer sheets, mixed them up, and reviewed the assessments. I did not ask for students to write their names on the answer sheets. The goal was to reveal the variations. Each was read aloud and reviewed. The accuracy and content of the size-ups varied, and some met with contentious debate; the exercise was not meant to criticize a member’s perception. Before reading the assessments, I reminded personnel that none of them were wrong. The goal was to realize that we all do not see things the same way and that we must work diligently, preincident, to avoid potential miscommunication.




This inexpensive, high-impact program fostered many benefits including enhancing personnel development and improving preincident knowledge of our district. It also was a catalyst to review the department’s incident command system standard operating guideline and to modify it to ensure that preplan data is more specific to side- and floor-level references.

This program was an eye-opener for many of our personnel. How many size-up variations and interpretations of sides and floors would there be if mutual-aid companies are brought in? Expanding the training with mutual-aid companies is essential and can foster reciprocal preincident endeavors with their first-due issues. Regardless of the working relationship you have with mutual-aid companies, interdepartment and intradepartment preparedness is essential from initial size-up through tactical operations.

The initial size-up report sets the tone for subsequent incident operations. Reports that are vague or open to interpretation can yield inaccurate or improper actions that can significantly hamper efforts and compromise responder safety. Preincident preparedness is a critical facet of the fire service and is not solely about filling in the boxes of a data sheet. Ensuring we are all on the same page will pay invaluable dividends. However, if the fire department is not preplanning and anticipating circumstances that may negatively impact operations, they are doing a great disservice to its community and personnel.

You don’t need expensive props or specialized trainers to facilitate effective training programs. Homegrown training is one of the best teaching methodologies. Do not be satisfied with conducting this sort of training within the confines of your department. Expand to mutual-aid companies so they understand size-up and elemental references of challenging structures in your first-due company. And just maybe this will be contagious; mutual-aid departments will follow suit and develop similar programs and invite your department to participate. We are all in this for the same reason. To be successful requires aggressive preparedness and reciprocal cooperation.  


Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 28-year fire service veteran and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.

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