By Jim Nagle
Know your enemy. An old saying, but still good advice, especially for firefighters. For us, fire is the enemy–but so is the building, a point Francis Brannigan makes repeatedly in his book Building Construction for the Fire Service.
A valuable fireground tool for learning about a building is a size-up that includes a 360° walk-around. In my experience, however, the walk-around is a part of the size-up that’s often overlooked. I think there are many reasons for this–size of the building, a desire to “go to work,” forgetfulness, laziness, and so forth. Whatever the reason, the walk-around must be done. When it’s missed, the results are sometimes tragic.
Of all the reasons to do a walk-around, probably the most important one is to confirm the presence or lack ofa basement. Too many firefighters have lost their lives operating above fully involved basements; they were oblivious to them until it was too late.
Other things to look for on the walk-around include the following:
1. Victims in windows or who escaped/jumped
2. The fire location
3. Exposure buildings that may warrant the first line
4. Better firefighter access and/or egress routes
5. The type of construction
6. Possible ventilation locations
Now that you are aware of the importance of performing a walk-around at all fires, the next step is to make it part of your first-in routine. One way to do this is through repetition. The best way to create repetition is to incorporate the term “walk-around” in your first-in radio report. For example: “Dispatch, this is Engine 1. Single-family, wood-frame dwelling; smoke and flames showing, second floor, alpha side. Engine 1 going offensive; doing a walk-around…” The point is, if you use the words routinely, there’s a good chance the actual task will get done. The key here, though, is to practice the radio report a lot to get the words ingrained mentally. The thought needs to come naturally to you, especially when you’re first in on a fire at 0300 hours, adrenaline surging.
Another important ingredient in ensuring the walk-around gets done is to make it a fire department policy that’s enforced by the battalion chief. If the chief insists that it get done, there’s a good chance that it will. Firefighters, like most people, will very likely commit to performing a task when they know the boss expects it.
As for how to deal with large buildings, consider choosing a route in which your arrival will give you the best view–the more sides the better. That way, a good part of the walk-around will get done before you even step out of the rig. Also, you can use other arriving units as your eyes and ears by requesting they do a “drive-around.”
Finally, think of the walk-around at other types of calls. Motor vehicle accidents, for instance, are events that require a good look around the perimeter for ejected patients, walking wounded, and so forth.
Jim Nagle is a captain and haz-mat technician with the Everett (WA) Fire Department, with which he has served 13 years.