Situational Awareness and “Reading” a House

BY CURTIS RICE and ELVIN GONZALEZ

How many times have you heard, “You should do a 360° walk-around before you develop your incident action plan (IAP) and commit units”? This is sound advice, especially when you hear firefighters in the firehouse talk about what they missed on their last working fire or read a story about what they would have done differently had they actually done a 360° walk-around.

But how many of us have really taken the time to consider what it is we are looking at? Training and literature will tell you we should be reading the smoke and looking for fire and victims—just to name a few. This article looks at the 360° walk-around from a different perspective.

Have you ever wished you could see through walls to know the layout or floor plan of the single-family residential structure in which you were getting ready to do battle? The goal of this article is to help you “see through walls” as the result of your 360° walk-around. You will still have to look for all the traditional things, of course; however, the objective is to have you also determine the probable floor layout of the home before you enter.

As you read this article, consider and compare the home in which you live, a friend’s home, or homes in your response area as a cross-reference for this information. You may also find, as we did, that senior firefighters probably already knew this information subconsciously but may not have taken the time to group it together so it could help them to determine the floor plan before entering the structure.

As a result of the rapid growth our departments have seen in recent years and what we have witnessed in the fire service, the newer firefighters generally do not have a background in construction. Therefore, we believe the following information not only will serve as a reminder to the senior firefighters but also will form for newer firefighters a strong basis for understanding the connection between situational awareness and basic construction features so they may operate more safely on the fireground.

ROOM GROUPINGS

The natural grouping of certain rooms forms the basis of the floor plan. For our purposes, we will use the kitchen as the starting point, the first room in our floor plan. Kitchens are generally a central feature and a gathering place for functions in the home. They vary is size and shape but are typically at the back side of the home. Generally, one of the rooms next to the kitchen is the dining area. Another space associated with the kitchen is the carport, garage, or driveway area, which generally is at the front corner of the home adjacent to the kitchen. In some areas, and also depending on the age of construction, a laundry, pantry, or mud room may separate the carport/garage/driveway area from the kitchen. Again, think about the floor plan in your home, or compare this plan to the plans of homes in your response area.

The bedrooms are typically on the opposite side of the house, away from the kitchen/dining area and the noise usually generated there by everyday tasks and socializing. The living or family area is between the “working side” and the “sleeping side” of the home.

If there is a second floor, generally all the “noisy stuff” is on the first floor—the kitchen and the TV room, family room, and den are usually on the first floor. Consider where the tactics books and articles you have read tell you to check for victims initially when you have a fire in a two-story home in the middle of the night. Normally, you get the search team to the second floor as soon as possible because that is where the majority of bedrooms are located.

As we know, this plan doesn’t fit every home, but the basic concept is the same in most typically sized homes. Once the homes start getting larger, however, above approximately 4,500 square feet or so, the rules begin to change. Houses this size are generally custom built to meet the owner’s specific requirements. Even then, though, some of these layout concepts still hold true. When preplanning existing structures, your best opportunities to see the layout are on medical runs or service calls. As you have no doubt heard many times before, and rightfully so, take those opportunities to learn as much as possible about the structure as you can.

If you are in an area that has planned developments, you will find that generally only a handful of floor plans are present within that development. If you are lucky enough to be there when construction is underway, you will have access to preplan and other information from the construction company. Once you see the interior of a few of the homes, you will effectively have been inside every home in that development. In some jurisdictions, the floor plans can be found on the local government tax assessor or property appraiser’s Web site. In some older neighborhoods, only one or two builders built all the homes, and only a limited number of floor plans may be present in these homes as well. If this describes your response area, you will quickly be able to see the similarity from one home to another.

OUTSIDE CONSTRUCTION FEATURES

As you conduct your 360° walk-around, note the construction features on the outside of the house. They are indicators of what is behind that door or window. Start at the front door (A side), which is normally apparent and may have a porch or walkway leading to it. As you look at the front, there usually is a driveway, a carport, or a garage door to one side of the front door, which should begin to indicate a potential floor plan. As you scan the exterior of the structure, look at the roof for plumbing vent pipes. Typically, these pipes extend through the roof over areas that contain plumbing-related fixtures such as the bathroom, kitchen, or laundry. As you scan across the front from side to side, you may notice a large window next to the front door. Think about the homes you have been in. What room would you expect this to be? Typically, this would be a large open living/family area. What type of furniture would you expect to find in that room? You probably would find a sofa up against the wall under that window (photos 1-2).

(1-2) The large window next to the entry door is typically a living area with specific types of furniture. (Photos by authors.)

When performing your 360° walk-around, tap on the windows to see which type of glass it contains. In our part of the country (the southeast), impact-resistant or hurricane windows are becoming the norm. They make a very distinct thud when they are struck. These windows are extremely difficult to force or ventilate during normal operations, let alone during a Mayday situation. Each region of the country has its own peculiarities. They are best addressed after an emergency medical services or other service call, when you can further review what you have found. In these hard economic times, this is a great opportunity to show the citizens your concern for their safety. By taking the time after the call to discuss with them their homes’ layout, construction features, and door locks, you can show them how you are preparing to better serve them in the event of an unforeseen emergency such as a fire.

Your region may have insulated windows or safety fixtures such as metal cages or security bars covering the windows or doors; everyone on scene should be aware of this. It is also a good idea to know what you would be looking out at from the window at each side of the house. Ask yourself as you look out a window in a smoke-charged room, “Am I seeing what I expected to see based on where I think I am, or have I become disoriented?” When doing your 360° walk-around, be aware of what is in the yard around the home, what side the fire apparatus are positioned on, and so on. By occasionally looking out windows as you move through a residential structure, you will find that this quick reference is an element of situational awareness and an opportunity to reorient yourself so that you always know where you are while inside a structure (photo 3).

(3) Knowing what the view out the window should be will help you to stay oriented.

In the past, you could tell if the structure was of concrete block or wood frame based on the way the windows were mounted. New construction techniques, new types of windows, and remodeling with impact/hurricane or insulated windows are making it almost impossible to determine this information from window placement alone. This is something you should examine further in your area. When operating in a multistory single-family residence, you may be able to determine the location of the stairwell by the small window at each landing, which was added to allow light to enter.

As you continue looking across the front of the structure (A side) away from the driveway end and begin to walk toward the B side, you notice that the window on the A side at the corner is of the same dimension and at the same location as the windows along the entire B side of the structure. You look at the roof and don’t see any plumbing vent pipes in this area. Since the windows match, the rooms on the opposite side from the work areas in the home (i.e., driveway and kitchen) would most likely be bedrooms. What would you see if you looked out of these windows? Is your engine out front on the A side? Are you looking at the neighbor’s house on the B side? Think about the furniture you would expect to find in these rooms, to confirm your location.

As you continue your 360° walk-around and get to the back side (C side) of the home, you see that the same type of window that is on the B side is also at the rear at that corner. There is no plumbing vent pipe above this area. This is a corner room with an exterior wall on both the side and rear—again, probably a bedroom. Based on this, you think there are two bedrooms on the B side of this home.

As you work your way across the C side, away from where you think the bedrooms are, you notice a smaller frosted window high up on the wall and a plumbing vent pipe through the roof in the same area. In your home, if you found this smaller frosted window with a high windowsill, would you be in the bathroom (photos 4-5)? During a search of this structure, if you were disoriented and found yourself in a room with a toilet, shower, or tub, would these items not confirm that you are in the bathroom on the C side of the house next to the bedroom? Also, having done a 360° walk-around, you would realize that you probably wouldn’t be able to exit from that small window if anything went wrong. However, because you are oriented, you know that you could breach the wall or go back one room and exit through either of the two windows in the bedroom.

(4-5) A small frosted window with a plumbing vent pipe above is a good indicator of a bathroom.

I’m sure you get what we are suggesting: If you know where you are and you know the layout, you will know where your closest points of egress are should the need arise. Remember to look for and have multiple means of egress the farther and deeper you progress into the structure.

Continuing your scan across the rear, you notice a large window, glass sliding doors, or some other type of large opening. You remember from the front that it is basically in line with the large front window that you expect to be the family room area. You know that the front door is also in line with this opening. There is no plumbing vent pipe above this area. This may be an indication of a separate family room, a continuation of the front living area, or possibly the dining room. If you were disoriented and found a dining room table or a set of high-back dining room chairs, could this information help orient you immediately? If you looked out this window or door, you would expect to see the backyard.

Moving toward the C/D corner of the structure, you notice that the last window on the C side is medium sized and is somewhat higher on the wall. As you look at the roof, you see a plumbing vent pipe above the area. Perhaps there is a door on the D side of this structure. What room would you think it is? What fixtures or items would you expect to find in it? Looking out this window from inside this room, you most likely would be standing at the sink. Your view would be the backyard. The window is elevated because it is above the counter and sink (photo 6).

(6) Because the window is above the kitchen counter and sink, it will be higher than the others next to it.

In reduced-visibility situations, if you and your crew were doing a search and found a stove, a refrigerator, or a sink, you would know that you are in the kitchen on the C side of the house. You would also know in which corner of the house you are (C/D); in an emergency, you would know there is a door only a few feet from the sink. As you continue down the D side and arrive at the front corner (A/D) of the house, you look back and see two doors and no windows on that side. You believe the door toward the rear of the house is for the kitchen. Since the door toward the front is on the side of the garage, you assume it is an egress point for the garage.

Although this example represents a simple two-bedroom, one-bath, one-car-garage, single-family residential structure, try it in your own home and on your next run. Even though the single-family residential homes you have in your response area may have more rooms or be bigger, chances are you will see more similarities than you may have thought.

FROM THE INSIDE

Let’s look at some helpful tips for inside the structure. If you find something different or unique to your area, add that to your toolbox and share the information with others. As you enter the home, many things you encounter will help you stay oriented. In many homes, once you come in through the front door, you will encounter another door, usually just inside the front door. Generally, this is a coat closet. Knowing this, if you are doing a primary search, you would expect to be able to touch all the walls inside with your tool to clear this small room rapidly. We said you might encounter a door just inside the front door. Does the direction of swing of an interior door give you any useful information as to what type of room it might be? Are hinges helpful? What if there is no door, just an open doorway opening into a room?

Direction of swing. Generally, for the interior of a home, if the door opens out (toward you), it is a storage type room. A pantry, coat closet, linen closet, and air-conditioner closet are a few examples of rooms with an outward opening door. This category of rooms can sometimes be found with bifold or sliding doors instead of an outward opening door. If the door opens in (away from you), generally, it is a room for people to occupy. A bedroom or bathroom door opens and swings in. It used to be that the front door always opened in. We have been told this was done because of snow buildup that would not allow the front door to open if it opened outward. We have no experience with this in South Florida. New codes mandate that the front door must open and swing outward since it is an exit door.

Hinge. When you are looking at hinges, the door will swing toward you. If you can feel a hinge, the door will open out, toward you. If you need to enter the room, an obvious note here is that if the hinge is on the left side of the door, the doorknob will be on the right side (the opposite side of hinge). The way the door is set in the frame will also tell you the direction of swing. If the door is flush with the wall on your side, the door will open outward, toward you. If it is set into the frame, it will open away from you into the room.

Room openings without doors. What kind of room might you be in if you are searching a house and go through an opening into another room that has no door at the opening? Think about the single-family residential structures you have been in. When you walked into the kitchen from another room, was there a door? Generally, the kitchen, hallways leading to bedrooms, dining rooms, and the den or living rooms will not have doors (photo 7). They typically just have an opening in the wall that allows moving from one room to another. Another unique type of opening without a door is the pass-through between the kitchen and the dining area. See if you can find other rooms in your area where the openings typically do not have doors. If you do, add that to your toolbox to share with the members of your crew.

(7) Openings without doors are usually found at the entrance to the kitchen, dining, and living/family rooms and in hallways leading to bedrooms.

Flooring. Flooring, or rather the change in it, can help you stay oriented while operating inside a residential structure. Floor surfaces can be anything—tile, wood, carpet, vinyl, or other surfaces. The key here is that certain rooms have a natural break that separates the different flooring materials. Check your local customs. The kitchen usually has a hard floor, which may be carried through to the dining room. Look for a change of flooring; some sort of threshold at a natural opening or divider usually separates the two types of flooring. If you go through an opening that has no door and carpeting is present, the odds are it is not the kitchen. However, if you find yourself crawling down a hallway and open an inward swinging door to find carpeting on the floor, you might be entering a bedroom; the bathroom would probably be a hard floor surface (photo 8). A great way to determine change of flooring is to make sure your crew members always have a tool in their hands and keep it ahead of them as they crawl and search. Again, as you are searching, be mindful of a flooring change; this indicates that you probably moved into another room.

(8) Certain types of flooring are common to specific rooms. These changes in flooring can help keep you oriented as you move through a home.

Furnishings.Furniture or other specific items in a room also help you to know where you are in a residential structure. Individual room furnishings are usually unique to a specific type of room. Generally, a bed is found only in the bedroom. The dressers in a bedroom have a general size and shape. Toilets, showers, and tubs are specific to bathrooms. The stove, oven, refrigerator, and oversized sinks are typically found in the kitchen. Furniture such as a dining room chair or table and a couch or recliner are easy to identify even in limited visibility and are generally found only in their appropriate room. Use furniture, appliances, and other household furnishings to confirm the type of room you are entering. Also, be careful not to move or toss furnishings found near a window that was just vented. Should you need to backtrack to this window during a quick escape, you would anticipate finding the nightstand below the window you took out earlier.

Light switches.Light switches can also help you determine the type of room you are in and thus your location. If a light switch is on a wall immediately adjacent to an outward opening door, it is probably the switch for the light inside a closet or storage area. If, however, the light switch is on the wall just inside an inward opening door in a room with carpeting, you are probably in a bedroom. If you combine a few of the different items discussed, you can see how these little things can add up and help keep you oriented.

Room size.A final thing to consider is the average size of each room type. No matter if it is a bedroom, a bathroom, or a living room, if you keep these dimensions in mind as you walk around the structure or maneuver through it, you will be better able to determine where one room might end and another start. Suppose you have two identical medium-sized windows on one side of the house with about 10 feet of wall between them, and there is no plumbing vent pipe above. It is possible this could be one room; more likely, however, there are two bedrooms, based on the size of an average bedroom. If you were searching inside and you identified a bed, indicating you were in a bedroom, you generally would have four walls. One of the walls would have a door, and there would be a window on an exterior wall. This information tells you that you are only a few feet away from an egress point at any time. Think about the size of the closets, bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and garages you have been in. Are these rooms not similar in size to the same types of rooms in other houses in the neighborhood?

As you evaluate the items listed above, discuss with your crews that audible and visual signs are also components of situational awareness. When you entered the structure, where was your engine parked, or in which door do you have the ventilation fan running? The sounds of your apparatus or a vent fan can help keep you oriented. The light from the spotlights on your engine coming in through the window or door or the flashing emergency lights also can help keep you oriented.

An excellent place to show all of these ideas to your crews is a site where new homes are being sold or built. Check with the sales staff or job foreman to find out the best time to go by so you don’t disrupt business. A great benefit of these model homes is that they are furnished and vacant. After you do your 360° walk-around and discuss what you think you are dealing with, you can move inside and see if what you thought was behind the doors and windows is what you would have found there in a limited-visibility fire situation. If you don’t have any model homes, see if any members of your department or their family members live in your response zone. They may let you stop by and practice. As noted, a great time to practice is after EMS or service calls. If you cannot find access to a structure, bring out the chalk or dry erase board and draw a floor plan. Discuss all the items with your members and see how many they can associate with the type of room or a specific area of your drawing.

These principles may also be used to preplan multifamily residential structures, office buildings, and other commercial buildings. Implementing them every chance you get helps you master reading a home in a fire. You will have a very good idea of the floor plan before you enter the structure.

CURTIS RICE is a district chief with Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue, where he is assigned to the 7th Battalion. A firefighter since 1981, he is an adjunct instructor at Palm Beach State College and has an associate degree in fire science.

ELVIN GONZALEZ is a 21-year veteran of Miami-Dade County (FL) Fire Rescue, where he is a training captain. He is an adjunct instructor at Miami-Dade College Fire Academy and a live fire instructor. He is ARFF certified and a paramedic and has an associate degree in fire science.

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