Brian Zaitz: Fireground Communications

By Brian Zaitz

There are many things that lead to fireground success, but few are more important than accurate, concise communications.  Good fireground communications create a more effective, efficient, and safer fireground with improved accountability and coordination.  These communications begin with the initial size-up report that paints the picture for all incoming units.    


The initial size-up is the verbal communication given by the first-due officer that describes his findings as the first-arriving unit on scene.  Ideally, the officer can see three sides of the building so he can provide a more accurate report.  This initial report should include observations on the building, the fire conditions, first-due actions, and follow-up actions.

Building Size and Type

Many times, we already know the building to which we are responding. For example, if responding to the fast food restaurant at the corner of Main and First Streets, we likely would be intimately familiar with its outward appearance, construction, and size.  The caveat to this is if we have automatic- or mutual-aid units responding. For this reason, it is best practice to always announce the building size, occupancy type, and construction, if known: “Engine 1 on scene with a large, tilt-up construction Lowe’s hardware store.”  This clearly paints a picture of the type of building and mentally prepares incoming units for the potential hazards associated with it.

Initial Conditions

Initial conditions apply to what is first visible from the front seat of the apparatus on arrival.  We all know that a lack of outward signs of smoke or fire does not mean that the alarm is false; however, if the initial findings provide no outward signs of a working incident, relay that in the size-up, and begin the 360˚ walk-around (360˚).  If smoke or fire is visible, pass that information on in the size-up—again, paint the picture for incoming units.  Ensure you are providing relevant information; for example, “heavy fire” or “heavy smoke” does not provide any information about the scene other than excitement.  “Thick, black, turbulent smoke from C side” provides a much better image and allows crews to better prepare while en route.  It also allows for mental comparison for the incoming battalion chief: Are conditions improving or getting worse? Is there a need for change in strategy?  Again, this initial condition report is what is seen from the windshield as you first pull up.


The actions statement covers where you will provide your initial actions and direction to the next company coming to the scene.  Normally, this is dictated by preferred operation methods or standard operating guidelines; however, it never hurts to state your needs during your initial size-up.  Example: “Engine 1 pulling a preconnect to Side A for fire attack. Next-in unit, lay supply into Engine 1.”  If you have nothing showing, you could say, “Engine 1 on scene conducting investigation; next-in unit, go to C side. Reporting your actions creates accountability for you and your crew when the battalion chief arrives and desires to transfer command.


After exiting the apparatus, you are likely to instruct your crew to conduct some action as stated above: “Pull line to side A door, and prepare for entry.”  As they are doing these actions, conduct your 360˚ of the building. This survey is highly important. It provides a true representation of the building and affords you, the first-due officer, the opportunity to see all sides of the building and to adjust or modify your tactical plan as dictated by the incident.

The 360˚ should be a quick lap around the structure; time is of the essence, so you must move quickly.  During the lap, look for building oddities and hazards, such as a walkout basement not visible from side A.  Also, note any changes in initial conditions not mentioned in the initial size-up such as a known victim location, the fire’s location, or a change in smoke condition.      

After completing your 360˚ update, your initial size-up as needed, and your tactical plan (i.e., you were going to enter through side A but find access on side C to be better),  announce your tactical change, and proceed. These quick key communications allow everyone to be on the same page on arrival and provide accountability to the incoming chief officer who will be assuming the incident command role.

CAN Reports

As the first-due company, you will likely be relieved of the command duties on the arrival of a chief officer; this chief officer will likely conduct a radio transfer with you and then take command.  Again, the key to success is effective communications.  Once relieved of the command role, your communications will either be emergency traffic (i.e., imminent collapse, Mayday, a change in strategy, or another emergency dictated by the company officer, which, hopefully, will be rare) or a conditions-actions-needs (CAN) report to the incident commander (IC) from companies operating on the fireground.  The IC may call companies and request a CAN or an update. Providing the feedback in a CAN report creates a systematic order for communications and gets the information to the IC.  Example: “Engine 1 on the first floor with moderate fire. We are making a good knock on the fire and need an additional crew to assist with search of the first floor.”  The IC is made aware of Engine 1’s progress, its location, its fireground action, current conditions, and its needs. He can determine if the conditions in the report are in line with what he is seeing on the outside.

Success on the fireground is a combination of many things: highly trained and experienced companies, functional equipment and apparatus, planned coordinated actions, and good communications.  Good communications provide the foundation for safety and accountability and will enhance even the best fireground operation.


Brian Zaitz is a captain/training officer with the Metro West Fire Protection District, St. Louis County, Missouri. He is a lead instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and Engine House Training, LLC. He also serves as a safety officer with the MO-TF1. He has achieved the designation of Chief Training Officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He has several degrees including an associate in paramedic technology, a bachelor’s in fire science management, and a master’s in human resource development. He is enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer at the National Fire Academy. He is an active member of the International Association of Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.

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