Size-Up School


The last local incident command routine we covered in recent columns was standard command function #1: Assume, confirm, and position command. All the stuff in that function is critical because it establishes how we operate in the very beginning of operations. What we do in this critical front-end period serves as the management and operational launching pad for the entire incident.

If our response starts out messed up, it generally stays that way. It is very, very difficult to “unmess” an event (like a firefight) that is very actively underway (sometimes violently/always with an immediately dangerous to life and health environment). This is particularly difficult when a major part of the mess is that our resources are operating in incorrect and unsafe positions—many times doing incorrect and unsafe things (equals big mess).

Very simply, the basic objective of the command system is to get us in the correct place performing the correct action. This requires that we build a command and control system that automatically “kicks in” at the first moment of our arrival. The first command function is so critical because it creates the “assume/confirm/position” command foundation for doing the right stuff the first time. This approach equals the very best mess prevention.

We have now reached standard command function number two: SITUATION EVALUATION. It logically connects to and continues with what we started with the beginning command function. (Set up command first.) We generally use “size-up” as the short/sweet way to say “situation evaluation.” They both mean the same thing. Size-up is a systematic process consisting of the rapid, yet deliberate, consideration of all critical incident factors, which leads to the development of a rational action plan based on these critical factors. Given the compression of time in the beginning stages of incident operations, the initial size-up cannot be delayed, nor can it be a time-consuming process.

Evaluating fireground conditions creates an interesting challenge. Sometimes what is going on is very obvious, and it smacks you in the face—like big flame fronts that shout out their presence. Other critical factors are well hidden, concealed, and mysterious. They are sometimes disguised and designed (by the Size-Up Demon) to confuse and fool the incident commander (IC). Some factors follow a standard pattern. They connect logically from one to the next related condition and to the next and to the next. Other situations cause the most surprising, unexpected (sometimes catastrophic) event to occur that causes the IC to say, “You gotta be kiddin’ me.”

One of the biggest problems for the IC is the constant consideration of almost endless amounts of confusing, changing, and compressed data. The IC must become an information processor, receiving information on conditions, sorting out that information, and then developing an effective incident action plan (IAP), translating the plan into tactical decisions, and then ordering responders to perform operations to implement those tactics. Experienced ICs develop the understanding of their limited attention span during rushed fireground periods. They develop the ability to allocate, focus, and direct their size-up attention to the most critical area/function/time.

Today, a serious size-up issue has to do with hazard analysis. This basic topic shows up on the top five lists of contributing factors in virtually every occupational line-of-duty death. Having hazard analysis consistently appear on the killer cause hit parade reflects how critical both an accurate initial and a continually updated ongoing situation evaluation are for the IC to be able to continually determine the safety profile of firefighter positions and functions in relation to the status (current/forecasted) of hazard zone conditions.

Continually connecting the safety of hazard zone workers with the conditions that threaten those workers must serve as the standard risk management (big risk/little risk/no risk) foundation for developing and maintaining the IAP. Managing the IAP is a major IC size-up-based function. The command team must always shelter the IC from anything/anybody who distracts from maintaining an ongoing awareness of current hazard zone conditions.

The safety size-up must always produce an evaluation of the most critical conditions that injure/kill firefighters. During structural firefighting operations, collapse and toxic and thermal insult create the most frequent safety problems. Burning buildings become weakened, and when gravity outperforms the building connections, they fall down.

Modern lightweight construction causes this collapse process to occur much faster than the old “20-minute” rule with which most of us older veterans were raised. Now with the modern stuff, building construction size-up time is even more compressed. This requires everyone (on every level) to be more cautious and skeptical of anything sticking up in the air that is close to or already on fire. Simply: Don’t trust, until verified, anything under or above the basic operating positions. Going from building old-time structures with solid wood held together with 16 penny nails to the modern gusset-plate world we now live in has caused us to rewrite the “time chapter” in the basic size-up manual—where the IC used to say, “Let’s put another line on it.” Now, the IC had better proclaim, “Get out!”

In addition to the current adventure we are having with modern construction vs. gravity, we are also struggling to protect ourselves from airtight buildings filled with almost explosive synthetic contents. We send our firefighters into these interior spaces during offensive stages to do rescue and fire control. There is currently an interesting relationship: The personal protective equipment (PPE) we use is the best ever developed and is actually getting better, whereas the fires we are fighting are more severe and are actually getting worse.

The firefighter safety and survival problem is that we are putting firefighters whose basic human anatomy and physiology (A&P) has not changed much for the past 75 centuries into PPE that was designed by rocket scientists last week. A firefighter today is wearing protective gear his Firefighter Grandfather could not even recognize, but the Grandson came from the firefighter factory with exactly the same A&P design (and limitations) as the older man.

One of the many things all this “collapse more quickly, flashover sooner, and doom and gloom contemporary environment” means is that the IC must do a faster, better, more complete size-up than ever before. More bad stuff is occurring more quickly than ever before. I know this sounds like another case of where some fire service senior citizen is running down the road with his dress over his head yelling “FIRE!”

I can remember serving as an IC at a middle-of-the-night structural fire event where I actually woke up about halfway through the fire. Now, I review fire reports where a heads-up IC immediately moves troops away from a fast ride into a burning basement or away from an imminent flashover. I also read about that same IC quickly reinforcing an interior attack and ordering vertical ventilation and saving three-quarters of the structure.

Today, the IC had best be starting the size-up as he jumps into his boots.

● Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles


Fire Engineering Archives

No posts to display