Training Tool: Documenting Working Fires


Most firefighters agree that we don’t respond to enough working fires for them to become second nature. Those of us who provide emergency medical service can do IVs, draw blood, and assess vital signs in our sleep, but for most of us true proficiency at structural fires is something we must strive for, simply because we don’t respond to that many. Next to on-the-job training, hands-on training is by far the best way to become proficient. But what can you do when you’re not doing hands-on training? Below, I offer a quick, simple, and very cost-effective means of a different form of training.

For more than five years now, I’ve documented each working fire to which I’ve responded. I have enthusiasm for the job and want to learn while I’m here so I can be a valuable employee and coworker. Since I’ll never know everything about this great profession, I want to ensure that I use every working fire I respond to as a training opportunity so my crew and I can go home to our families at the end of our tour. After an incident, I note the type of building construction involved; who responded and their assignments; what we learned from the incident; and the remaining size-up factors, which I’ll review below.


I first enter in my documentation report the date and time of the dispatch and the units initially sent to the incident.

Our department operates three stations that protect almost 10 square miles and a population of around 50,000. A full response consists of two engines, one truck, one advanced life support (ALS) ambulance, and a platoon chief. Our daily staffing minimum is 16. If an incident requires more members than this, we must call mutual-aid companies.

We run with a minimum of three on engines and ladders; occasionally we’ll have the “luxury” of a fourth pair of hands on a fire apparatus when staffing permits. It’s a good feeling to know you have four responding on a rig to a confirmed working fire compared with three or even fewer! The difference between a three-person engine and a four-person engine is not comparable, as several studies have proven.1

We provide the EMS for our city and staff our ambulances with two personnel. By documenting which units were dispatched, I can recall how many personnel responded on the initial alarm.


This section includes the first-in unit’s size-up report. When sizing up as we arrive on-scene, I include the locations of smoke and fire. This is an essential addition since our jurisdiction includes such varied occupancies as small ranch homes, 20-story high rises, and buildings of more than one million square feet. Remember what the late Frank Brannigan, author of Fire Engineering’s Ol’ Professor column, said again and again, “The building is your enemy! Know your enemy!”

Although the first-in crew may report “nothing showing,” a fire could still be burning deep within the building. I add this size-up information to see if it corresponds with the actual findings of the interior crew’s investigation.

The fire service uses different size-up acronyms to help remember all the size-up factors to consider. I prefer “COAL WAS WEALTH”; John Norman, deputy assistant chief (ret.) of the Fire Department of New York, explains these factors in-depth in the third edition of the Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics.2 Another common size-up acronym is “WALLACE WAS HOT,” outlined by James P. Smith in Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground.3 In each mnemonic, each letter represents a different size-up factor. Include these memory aids in your notes as a training tool. Add the following size-up factors to your notes:

  • Construction: Fire-resistive, noncombustible/limited combustible, ordinary, heavy timber, or wood-frame?
  • Occupancy: Assembly, institutional, mercantile, residential, other?
  • Apparatus and staffing: Total number of units and personnel responding?
  • Life hazard: Threats to civilian and firefighter safety?
  • Water supply: Were hydrants operable/inoperable, or were tankers needed?
  • Auxiliary-building appliances: Did the building have working standpipes, sprinklers, and so forth?
  • Street conditions: One-way, street parking, road closures, construction, building setbacks from the road?
  • Weather conditions: Temperature extremes, wind, snow, ice, lightning, and so forth?
  • Exposures: Interior (living and storage areas) and exterior?
  • Area/height: What was the building’s general size (height/stories, area)?
  • Location and extent of fire: Room-and-contents, one floor, or fully involved?
  • Time of day: How does it relate to occupancy and the likelihood that occupants are inside at that time (e.g., a 3 a.m. fire in a private dwelling is different from a 3 a.m. fire in a store)?
  • Hazardous materials: Did hazmats contribute to the fire?


I note each unit’s assignments on arrival (e.g., attack, ventilation, backup, search/rescue, and utilities) and make a special effort to expand on my company’s assignment. I also include comments on my gut feelings at the time (I’ve learned to always trust my gut) as to where I thought the fire would be within the building based on my reading of the smoke, or what things I was looking out for (heat levels, unusual noises, or building characteristics are noted for future reference). Despite all the adrenaline and excitement, you can remember many facts of an incident. If your department conducts a post-fire analysis, as our department does, you’ll benefit by taking notes during the critique and incorporating that information into your entries. You’ll be amazed at how much you can commit to memory by documenting these experiences and periodically reviewing your notes.


What’s great about these notes is that they’re yours; you can add as much detail as you want. I keep mine on my computer, but a journal or notebook will work also. Remember, however, that this is meant to be a training tool, so don’t just add positive information to boost your or your crew’s self-image; this misses the whole point. Be critical of yourself and your team, and strive for perfection. Firefighters make mistakes at every fire across the nation every day, so the opportunity to learn is always there. The goal is to be better firefighters, not stagnant or complacent ones. What type of firefighter do you want to be? Be sure to add what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how you can prevent a similar event from happening again.

But on the flip side, also include what went right, why it went right, and share that information with your crew. They’ll talk around the kitchen table to the other shifts; when the other shifts catch a job, members may recall the discussion on what went right, and why, and apply the tactic.

A good example of this is a detached garage fire. Many of our streets run closely parallel to each other, and most homes are on small 40- × 130-foot lots. Each includes a small, detached 20- × 20-foot garage, close to the garages of the adjoining properties on either side and to the rear. When we have a working garage fire, it’s common to have three, sometimes four, immediate exposure concerns (sides 1, 2, 3, and 4) because of small lots. If we’re second- or third-due, I’ll ask the incident commander (IC) if he wants us to respond on the next street that parallels the fire address to protect any exposures. If a well-trained three-person crew can lay a supply line and stretch a handline and protect one or more exposures, then a four-person crew can accomplish those duties with relative ease. We have passed this information on to members of other shifts within our department. It’s not a standard procedure, but it will keep you one step ahead of the fire.


Keeping a journal can have several indirect advantages. It may make you aware of a pattern of fires because of the date and time. Early in 2007, our department responded to several compactor fires at around 0030-0100 hours in the same high-rise apartment building. Some of us felt there were too many fires to be a coincidence.

It can also help you become a better report writer—a necessary skill, since a company officer’s reports are legal documents. You can also see how many working fires you responded to over one year. I like to know, not just guess, how many I worked. If you’re a company officer and you or a member of your crew is injured, these notes serve as a reference as to when and how the injury occurred, supplementing the departmental injury report forms. These are just a few examples of your notes’ indirect advantages.


Most recently, I’ve started adding photos to my entries. I carry a digital camera in my turnouts and try to get some snapshots for the report. A good picture is worth a thousand words and can also serve as the basis for a future training session. A photo of a particular incident in which we were involved increases our interest in the discussion because we were actually there.

Also, I occasionally ask for and receive an incident CD that includes the dispatch and radio traffic and the fireground worksheet our officer in command (OIC) must fill out during a fire. This allows me to hear what the OIC is hearing and where I have to improve in my communications. Reviewing the fireground worksheet reminds me to make my benchmarks specific and to use the proper terminology to assist the OIC as he commands the incident and fills out the worksheet.


In the closing section, I try to include at least five lessons that I learned or reinforced. Even if a lesson seems so simple, I add it anyway. Over the course of your career, you’ll learn so many different things that inevitably you will forget some of them. That is the reason you should add even the most simple, easy lesson to your notes. Just because you remember it now doesn’t mean you’ll remember it in 10 years. Also, it will show any patterns of commonly repeated mistakes your company makes. Once you’ve identified a problem, you can then correct it. The Lessons Learned/Reinforced section also works in conjunction with your size-up information to offer you valuable lessons that can only make you better and smarter at what you do.

Every time I review more than five years’ worth of entries, I reinforce the lessons obtained at each fire to which I responded, which helps me do my job better.

You can do this, too. All it takes is about 20 minutes of your time. This is comparable to saving money; you just save information. You start with a small amount, and you add a little here and there over the course of time. Your notes keep growing, providing you and your crew with a greater wealth of knowledge and, therefore, security. Eventually, you’re rich with knowledge because you took the time to invest in your experiences. Think of the collective wealth of your crew if every member did this. Although not hands-on training, it is a simple form of training nonetheless. Use your downtime to your advantage to better serve your crew, your public, and yourself.

Author’s note: Thanks to Vincent Dunn for encouraging me to write this article.


1. Morrison, Richard C. “Manning Levels for Engine and Ladder Companies in Small Fire Departments.”(Executive Fire Officer program paper, call no. 14613), National Fire Academy, 1990.

2. Norman, John, Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, 3rd edition; Fire Engineering, 2005, 8.

3. Smith, James P., Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground; Prentice Hall, 2002, 67.

Incident Review: Apartment Fire, 26151 Lake Shore Boulevard, May 13

On Tuesday, May 13, at 1811 hours, Euclid Fire Department (EFD) Engines 3 (E3) and 2 (E2), Ladder 1 (L1), Rescue 3 (R3), and Car 23 were dispatched to 26151 Lake Shore Boulevard (LSB) for a working fire on the 14th floor in an unknown apartment. Dispatch advised all units en route that the apartment’s occupant was trapped on the balcony; fire was seen spreading from this balcony up to the apartment above on the 15th floor.

(1) Fire building (Fire apt. on far right side of picture).

Rescue 3 arrived first and reported smoke showing from side D of the building. The unit wisely obtained all the lockbox keys for the incoming units and recalled all the elevators to the lobby, saving precious time in getting first water on the fire. E3 responded from another call and was assigned as attack, L1 (in which I was the assigned officer) was assigned as ventilation, and E2 was assigned as search. Rescue 1 (R1) and 2 (R2) immediately responded from other EMS calls. E3 hooked up on the 12th floor. This building has no 13th floor; floors go from 12 to 14.

(2) Standpipe connection.

The fire apartment (1422) was across from the stairwell door. There was a light smoke condition in the hallway and stairwell. Lt. Hastings entered apt.1424, went to the balcony, and saw the victim to his right on the fire apartment balcony with fire starting to extend out onto the balcony. He instructed the victim to stay low and stay put.

(3) Roof hatch in north stairwell.

E3 attacked the fire, which originated in the kitchen and was caused by unattended food on the stove. E3 opened but did not break windows. After the apartment cleared of smoke, E3 brought the occupant through the apartment and into the stairwell and placed him in the care of R2.

(4) FDC on west drive of west building. (Photos by author.)

L1 made the top floor (21st) via the stairwell; just as we were about to open the roof hatch, maintenance personnel opened it from above. I instructed maintenance personnel to go to the south stairwell via the roof and open the roof door; this info was relayed to the IC. L1 then was reassigned to check for extension in apt. 1522 (directly above fire apt.) and found only residual smoke. We then reported to the fire apartment to relieve E3, whose bottles were now alarming.

R2 took the only victim to the hospital. He became uncooperative with EFD personnel and had to be placed in protective custody by EPD. He ended up having a blood alcohol content of .387. According the EPD, he has a lengthy history of psychiatric problems and has threatened suicide many times in the past. R1 was assigned to shut down power to the north end of the 14th floor and to assist in shuttling equipment.


1. Construction: Type I (Fire resistive)

2. Occupancy: Residential high-rise

3. Apparatus/staffing: 12 on initial call, 16 total

4. Life hazard: Trapped occupant on balcony; no aerial access; some occupants self-evacuating from upper floors

5. Water supply: Public hydrant supplied by six-inch main

6. Auxiliary appliances: Standpipe used in north stairwell; no pressure-reducing valves; east and west buildings ARE NOT interconnected

7. Street conditions: Narrow access drive provided adequate access for pumper to supply fire department connection

8. Weather: Not a factor; calm winds (no threat of blowtorch fire into hallway)

9. Exposures: Interior (adjacent apartments) and exterior exposures above due to autoexposure

10. Area/Height: (60 × 330 feet, 21-story residential high-rise)

11. Location/Extent: Kitchen and living room of apartment

12. Time of day: Early evening

13. Hazmats: Not a factor


1. I received a set of lockbox keys from Firefighter Parisi. I didn’t think there was an elevator key on this set of keys. It turns out there was, and we could have taken the elevator up to the top floor instead of climbing 21 stories to the roof. The key is a small gold key with “WD01” inscribed on the back. I will NEVER forget this.

2. While climbing, we took a short breather on the 10th floor.

3. Per EFD SOG #613, the attack stairwell roof door or hatch should be opened first; in this case, the north stairwell has a roof hatch and the south stairwell has a roof door. The same applies to the East building (26241 LSB).

4. These apartments have wood doors set in wood frames. We had to force entry into apt. 1522 and easily made entry with the adz end of the halligan.

5. The kitchens are stacked on top of one another, and we could easily see the holes in the ceiling leading up to the 15th floor that carried the utilities.

6. Communications on Channel 2 were good, and Channel 3 was not needed.

7. Crew integrity was very good. Luckily, the firefighters who were with me as we climbed the stairs were all in very good physical shape.

WILL ANDERSON is a 14-year member of the fire service and a captain with the Euclid (OH) Fire Department. He started his career with the Painesville Township (OH) Fire Department in 1995. Anderson has associate degrees in fire science from Lakeland Community College and in emergency medical technology from Cuyahoga Community College. He is an emergency vehicle operation course instructor and is an Ohio-certified fire instructor.

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