First-Due Battalion Chief: Size-Up on the Fireground

By Daniel P. Sheridan

Size-up is so crucial to what we do that its importance can never be overstated. Unfortunately, what happens at many fires is that firefighters and officers are in such a hurry to get to the fire that they miss this important step. When I was younger, I was just as guilty of this. One of my lieutenants, who was very sharp, used to catch me all the time. After an operation, he would ask me things like “What floor was the fire on?” or “How many stories were in the building?” I never seemed to have the right answer. My logic at the time was that when I get to the fire floor, I’ll know it. This sort of thinking has come back to bite me a few times.

I remember one particular fire where we were supposed to be assigned first-due ladder. We had just gotten back from a training session at the academy, and the dispatcher didn’t have us back in service. We were parked on the street getting lunch when I noticed the battalion chief coming down the street with lights and sirens. I radioed to the chief and asked him where they were heading. He informed me that they were responding to a report of a fire a few blocks away. I quickly radioed the dispatcher to let them know that we were back in service. The dispatcher gave me the information, and we headed toward the reported fire. The first unit on the scene transmitted a signal for a working fire in a six-story apartment house.
I was so worried about getting to the fire that I missed all the important information the first units were giving. On arrival, I noticed that the second-due truck had gotten in first-due and assumed those duties, and thus we were now assuming the duties of the second-due truck, which is to go to the floor above the fire floor. My outside vent firefighter radioed to me that he saw a woman at the window with smoke behind her. I was so wrapped up in the fact that we had missed the first-due assignment that I somehow missed the part about her being on the floor above the fire.
He told me that he was ascending the aerial ladder to get her. I proceeded up the interior stairs with my forcible entry team. When we got to the fifth floor, we encountered a very heavy smoke condition. There was high heat in the hallway and heavy smoke in all the apartments. It had all the signs of what you would find in a top-floor fire, so I questioned myself and thought that maybe I had gotten it wrong, namely that maybe we had a top-floor fire.
At a top-floor fire, both of the truck companies would be expected to operate on the top floor by forcing entry and performing ventilation and search. I don’t know how, but I wound up in the fire apartment and bumped into a friend of mine who was the officer of the first-due truck. He asked me what I was doing and why I wasn’t searching the floor above. Needless to say, I felt stupid. I realized in my haste that I was not where I was supposed to be. Thankfully, my outside vent firefighter rescued the woman in the window. I then proceeded to the top floor, where I should have been from the start. Had I done a proper size-up, I could have avoided the embarrassment of going to the wrong spot.
Although my department is large, fires are much easier to manage because every company on the first-alarm assignment has a predetermined assignment. Even within that assignment, every firefighter has his own assignment and knows exactly where he is supposed to be at every type of fire. This preplan, so to speak, makes it very easy for the incident commander (IC) to know what to expect at every fire. Imagine that 209 engine companies and 140 truck companies are all working off the same script, where everyone is on the same page. This is especially important when the battalion chief is from a different part of the city, perhaps another borough; he can take the response ticket from the computer and know exactly what to expect.
Standard operating procedure in my department dictates that when responding to alarms, companies should follow the order on the response ticket. For example, if at Box 2100, the order is E-1, E-2, E-3 and E-4, T-1, and T-2. The battalion chief would expect that E-1 and E-2 would be stretching the first hoseline to the fire floor; T-1 would be responsible for the duties on the fire floor, and T-2 would take care of the duties on the floor above the fire. E-3 and E-4 would stretch the backup line to wherever it is needed. We all know that things happen–firefighters get excited when the dispatcher starts notifying the chief that they are receiving numerous calls, and everyone gets tunnel vision. Everyone wants to get in on the action and, in their haste, firefighters don’t follow the plan. This can be very difficult for the IC, especially if he is not normally assigned to the area.
I had just such an experience at a good working fire in an H-type building when I was a captain. My company and our associated truck company were at a food-on-the-stove fire on the other side of our response area. We were both second-due, which meant that we were standing fast, waiting for the chief to arrive and give his final signal. I knew the chief, and I knew from past history that he likes to give the signals and expects us to wait until he does so. I was listening to the traffic on the radio while we were waiting, and I heard a box come in for a fire in our first-due response area. The report was for a fire on the third floor of a six-story H-type building. I radioed to the truck to let them know what was happening. I radioed to the chief and let him know that there was a box out for a fire and that the dispatcher was now getting numerous calls. I could see the black plume on the horizon and knew that we had a good working fire. He released us, and we headed toward the fire. This was one of those times when we just could not get there fast enough.
Three of the engines arrived at the same time. We got in right behind the normally third-due engine. The second-due engine came down the street from the opposite direction. We normally strive to get the first-due engine into the block first and get on to a working hydrant while the first truck comes into the block next and takes the front of the fire building. It turns out that there was an oil delivery truck in the block, and the truck got in the block first. The oil truck blocked the first truck, and the third engine had to take a hydrant that was before the fire building. This meant that the firefighters would not be able to perform a backstretch—instead, they had to stretch around the engine and were at least 100 feet from the building entrance. We took another hydrant further down the block and walked to the back step of the third engine. The three engine company firefighters all converged at the back step at same time.
The three officers (I among them) discussed how we were going to operate. The second-due officer was a regular assigned officer and knew that this was our fire. The third-due officer was new to the area and didn’t truly understand how we did things in our borough. He totally disregarded me and the other officer and ordered his firefighters to start a hoseline. The second officer and I discussed what we were now going to do; we agreed that we would assume the second duties and help get the first line in operation and that he should start the backup line. We had a heavy fire condition with fire coming out three windows in the throat of the H-type building. We already had one person jump out the window; he was lying mortally wounded on the fire escape. In his haste, this officer never once stopped to size up the situation. I know these buildings very well and know that throat apartments have a much different layout than your average apartment.
One trick I learned very early in my career came from a very experienced engine officer. Being assigned to the truck, I was able to observe the engine officers and take mental notes. While we were working on forcing entry to an apartment door at one fire, we found that someone had blocked the front door with a dresser and a couch. I noticed that the engine officer disappeared and then came back a few minutes later. After the fire, I was curious as to where he had gone, and I asked him. He told me that while his firefighters are stretching the hose and the truck is working on the door, he usually goes to the floor below to get a layout of the apartment. I used that trick many times in my career when working on the engine companies.
My firefighters were very angry, and I told them that this is not the time for an argument and that we will deal with it after the fire. We assumed the second-engine duties. In this role, the officer generally is responsible for four things, for which I use the acronym CLAW:
  • Control the firefighters on the fire floor.
  • Communications Link between the IC and the engine officer.
  • Keep track of firefighters going Above the fire.
  • Serve as a Water resource officer.
When the line arrived at the apartment door, the truck was being chased out of the fire apartment. There was a high heat and smoke condition now coming out the front door. The two officers conferred, and the engine officer called for water. The nozzle firefighter bled the line. I watched as they disappeared into the inky black smoke. I decided to take a position at the front door to keep an eye on things. I told my firefighters that we would probably relieve them after the fire is knocked down. I figured the fire should be knocked down pretty quickly, and I heard the engine officer give a muffled report that the fire was knocked down. I decided that I would now advance into the apartment a little farther and see if they were ready to take a blow. It was a hot summer day. The stretch was long, and I figured they would need it. That was when I discovered that something was very wrong.
I was about to pop a window to help relieve the heat, steam, and smoke, but I noticed that there was no steam conversion. What was happening here? The officer had reported that he had the fire knocked down, and the IC was reporting that he still had heavy fire coming out a few windows. At the same time, I was in the living room, and the heat was now pushing me to the floor. I decided to head back out to the public hallway and regroup. We now had an out-of-control fire with companies operating on the floor above without the protection of a hoseline.

I dashed into the adjoining apartment to get a better idea of the situation. I could see that the fire was still coming out the same windows as from when we got there. The engine officer was still insisting that the fire was knocked down. By the time I got back to the front door to the apartment, the fire was now in the living room that I had been in just 30 seconds prior, and the fire was now impinging on the hallway, cutting off egress for the engine that was in the kitchen. (The apartment was in the shape of the letter “F”; see diagram below.) I managed to get under the fire and made it into the kitchen. I turned the nozzle firefighter around, and we started making our way into the living room, bathroom, and back bedroom.


After the fire was knocked down, I noticed that the fire had burned a hole in the floor and the radiator had fallen into the fire apartment from the floor above. If there was ever a fire at which proper size-up was needed, this was it. I have been on both sides, and I know now that taking the extra few seconds to stop and do a proper size-up is critical. It is easy to get wrapped up in hurrying up and getting to the fire so that we miss this crucial aspect of firefighting operations. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We must know the exact location of the fire before we commit our members to an attack.

DANIEL SHERIDAN is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief in the First Division. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America.

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