Chuck Ryan: The Critical Importance of Effective Incident Size-Up, Initial Incident Action Planning, and Efficient Incident Communications

By Chuck Ryan

The decisions made and actions undertaken by first-arriving companies in the first few minutes of a significant, multicompany response incident can easily dictate how the next several hours may unfold. The initial arriving company officer’s decision making sets the tone for the initial phases of the response and sets in motion a series of actions (or inactions) that will have an impact on the mitigation efforts undertaken by his crew, later arriving companies, and ultimately the command or chief officer(s) who respond to the event. These initial decisions will always be based on a wide variety of factors, but of critical importance are the company officer’s ability to effectively size up the incident, to apply an appropriate decision-making methodology, and to efficiently communicate the size-up and initial action plan (IAP) to incoming companies and chief officers. The time factor– the first five minutes–complicates matters for the company officer. The three elementary steps mentioned above must be conducted rapidly, and there is little room for error.


Scene size-up is the cornerstone of fire department operations at any incident. A great deal has been written about what specific elements the firefighter or company officer should consider when sizing up a scene. Many have catchy acronyms; some do not. I have seen a variety of “suggestions for size-up.” Some have as few as four or five elements; but, even when narrowed down to four or five items, the suggested size-up considerations still encompass what have become known as the “traditional” 13 points of size-up. No matter how diligently we endeavor to streamline the information-processing component of a fire officer, the basics must always be considered. Whether you prefer to use the acronym WALLACE WAS HOT or COAL WAS WEALTH is irrelevant. What is mandatory, however, is that you consider the 13 elements when formulating your initial IAP.

In this article, we’ll go with COAL WAS WEALTH: Construction, Occupancy, Apparatus (and staffing), Life hazard, Water supply, Auxiliary appliances, Street conditions, Weather, Exposures, Area (including height), Location of fire within the structure, Time, and Hazards/Hazardous materials. Consider each one during your initial scene size-up. Successful size-up comes through practice and experience. A seasoned veteran should be able to quickly process these items based on a quick sensory scan of the scene on arrival. A newer officer will need slightly more time to process these elements and may even miss some cues. However, with practice and experience, the processing time will gradually decrease. Articles, chapters of books, and entire books have been written on the subject of size-up. The professional fire officer (regardless of whether you are a career or a volunteer firefighter) will take the time to become a student of the job and will absorb as much of the detailed information available to further learn about each element of size-up and how it is relevant to fireground decision making. This article will not delve into each of the elements, which are only identified here. Hopefully, you will be interested enough to delve deeper into the topic.

Remember, there usually is not a lot of time to process this information; decide on a plan of action, communicate that plan, and initiate action. Although it is true that in 99.9 percent of cases, putting the fire out makes everything better fairly quickly, the days of simply charging in to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” are gone. Building construction techniques, manufacturing elements for interior furnishings and exterior decorative features, and the changing world in which we live have all combined to move the line from what was once considered “aggressive” to what is now considered “reckless.” Taking time, however briefly, to consider your 13 elements of size-up will keep you on the sunny side of the “reckless” line. It is your obligation as a fire officer to make informed decisions anytime you are preparing to commit firefighters for whom you are responsible into harm’s way. They are counting on you to get it right; and silently behind them are spouses, parents, children, loved ones, and friends who also are counting on your decision-making abilities and leadership.


Once the officer has completed the scene size-up, he must formulate an IAP. Two basic types of organic decision-making processes have been identified through years of research and study: naturalistic decision making and classical decision making. Naturalistic decision making has been formerly referred to as “recognition primed decision making” or “RPDM.” Those of us with more gray hair than dark hair recall the analogy of RPDM to “slides in the slide tray.” Younger folks may better appreciate the analogy of “files stored on ‘the cloud.’” Simply stated, naturalistic decision making relies on the individual’s past experience with the same or similar circumstances to make valid decisions based on the observations being made. If the officer has “been there, done that,” the decision-making process is completed quickly, almost effortlessly, and initial action planning flows smoothly.

On the other hand, classical decision making is a more time-consuming and mentally laborious “if-then” process, and is automatically reverted to when the observer has either not previously encountered the situation being observed or cannot closely parallel what is being observed to a past similar experience. This unconsciously causes the thinker to slow down and try to obtain more information to help align current observation with past experience or knowledge.

A question often posed is, “which decision-making process is better?” There is no clear answer. It depends on a variety of factors, with the most critical being the experience of the person making the decision. If the decision maker has not previously encountered the same or a similar situation or if his training or education has not exposed him to a similar situation, he will have no prior memory to tap into. Another factor is the availability of time in which to make decisions. The more time you have to make a decision, the more appropriate it is to take advantage of the time to really think through the process to arrive at a sound initial plan.

To illustrate the “which is better?” question, consider the following scenarios.

Scenario 1. The fire officer works at one of the busiest engine companies in the city. He has more than 20 years of experience, 10 of which have been as a company officer. He has been to many fires in single-family dwellings as well as multiple-family dwellings. His response district has a wide variety of occupancies, but it is generally densely populated with many three- and four-story apartment buildings that are mainly 30-plus years old. His engine company responds to a reported fire in a second-floor apartment of a four-story building in a complex that he has been to many times for working fires. On arrival, the report is confirmed by visible flames and smoke showing from two windows on the second floor. Unless something completely unexpected occurs, this is a “been there, done that” event for the officer. He will be able to quickly size up the incident (many of the 13 elements will be “automatic” in his size-up), draw on his years of past experience with similar fires, and quickly decide on and initiate a plan of action.

Scenario 2. An officer with eight years of experience, only two of which have been in a supervisory role, is working overtime in one of the department’s stations located in a commercial/industrial zone. Her prior assignments have been in suburban districts comprised of neighborhoods of detached single-family homes, strip shopping centers, and state highway. Her engine company is dispatched for a reported auto accident at an at-grade rail crossing. As she approaches the scene, she observes a stake-body truck that has clearly been struck by a freight train. The damage to the cab of the truck, which is overturned and lying at the foot of the rail bed approximately 100 feet from the grade crossing, is extensive. The train has not left the tracks, but it is apparent that one of the tank cars in the consist close to the overturned truck is leaking some form of liquid product that is quickly vaporizing. The only immediate potential life hazard is to the truck driver, who is pinned in the wreckage. There are no occupied exposures nearby, and the train’s engineer is running toward the fire engine as they arrive on the scene.

Scenario 2 is perfect for classical decision making. The officer does not have any experience in the setting described. She is in unfamiliar territory with a crew she met just a few hours before, and the incident setting is not one commonly encountered by the officer or the department in general. It is highly unlikely that this fire officer has encountered the scenario or one similar to it apart from academic or coffee table discussion. Although her brain will initially attempt to use naturalistic methods to help make sense of the problem, she must mentally slow down and digest the scene bit by bit, gathering as much evidence as possible, before initiating action. This is an instance where “rushing in” could prove fatal to firefighters.

Once the decision-making process has been selected (almost automatically), the observer can begin to plan a course of action. In some cases, the proper course may be to do nothing at all. Only the varied aspects of an incident will be able to dictate that. However, the fire officer must remember the basic incident strategies when formulating the IAP: rescues, exposures, confinement, extinguishment, and overhaul (RECEO). These strategies must be considered while being mindful of the overarching incident priorities: life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Every decision made must address the incident priorities through the applied incident strategies. If not, there is no point to the action.

The fire officer, whether using naturalistic or classical decision making methods, should be steadily focused on initiating actions that will provide the greatest likelihood for a successful outcome. A constant risk-benefit analysis must be implemented. Remember: risk a lot to save a lot, risk little to save little, and risk nothing on what is already lost.


A near-constant element of almost every fireground near-miss, significant injury, or firefighter fatality report is a comment on a breakdown in communications. Although it is becoming the norm for every firefighter to have an assigned portable radio, I have found training firefighters and fire officers on how to talk on the radio is not the norm at all. Radio communications have taken on the tenor of conversational cell phone calls, leading to a lack of standardization in communication and a waste of precious air time. Other industries that rely heavily on mobile communications, most notably aviation and maritime, have recognized the value of standardized communications and employ them daily.

As an industry, we must drive “casual conversation” from fireground radio communications, and we owe it to our firefighters and fire officers to properly train them in how to talk on the radio and what they should or should not say. I have been party to too many conversations at various fire service conferences where those in the circle are lamenting that their officers can’t talk on the radio. It’s time that the fire service takes this bull by the horns. You can’t complain about staff doing something improperly if you haven’t trained them in how it should be done. There is no “one way” to talk on the radio. There are a variety of methods. The method that will work best for your department is the one that you adopt, train on, use, and enforce.

However, there are some key elements that should be part of every initial fireground radio report. They help the first-arriving officer to “paint the picture” of the incident for other incoming units and command officers. These verbal brush strokes will help guide further actions to support the incident and will allow the command officer to better forecast resource needs and anticipated crew actions. They are also important for firefighter safety. The initial report should include the following at a minimum:

·                 Confirmation of the incident address.

·                 Type of structure.

·                 What conditions are evident?

·                 Water supply plans/layout location.

An example would be: “Dispatch from Engine 6. We’re on scene at 1245 Oak Lane. I have a two-story detached single-family dwelling with smoke showing from the second floor, side alpha. We dropped a line at the hydrant in front of 1231 Oak Lane. I’ll take a lap and advise further.”

This initial report, which can be delivered in 15 seconds, gives the listener a fairly clear picture of what Engine 6’s officer is observing. Anyone in that department can probably picture with a high degree of accuracy what is taking place. The next step is to provide an enhanced report that includes the following information:

·                 Additional information gathered during size-up.

·                 Actions being initiated.

·                 Actions required of incoming units.

·                 Requests for any additional needed resources.

·                 A command statement.

Example: “Dispatch from Engine 6. I have a two-story in the front, three stories in the rear, single-family home with fire showing from an exterior basement entrance on side Charlie extending vertically to the eaves. My crew is stretching a 2½-inch line to the rear. I need Engine 4 to complete the water supply and deploy a line from my engine to the front door to hold the stairs, and Truck 2 to get to the upper floors for a search. I do not have confirmation on occupant status. Recommend dispatching two ALS (advanced life support) ambulances to the scene. Advise BC (battalion chief) 1 that I need to transfer command.”

Doesn’t this message make clear what Engine 6’s officer has encountered, what he is faced with, what he and his crew are doing, what the immediate action plan is, and what the incoming units and command officer should expect on arrival? With practice and without “speed talking,” all of this information can be conveyed in approximately 30 seconds of air time. It takes practice and discipline, but it is achievable. In addition, those very brief reports provide near-flawless accountability. The incoming chief officer knows where everyone will be and what they will be doing. Often, that is half the battle on a dynamic fireground.


It is impossible to develop a single method of size-up, decision making, action planning, and communication. It is possible, though, to implement a structured and refined size-up methodology in your department. By educating your officers and aspiring officers on the elements of size-up, you will inherently make them better and more aware fire officers. By showing your officers how to make decisions, they will likely spend more time focusing on the decision process and make better, or at least more informed, decisions. By guiding your officers in what is expected in their initial incident action planning, you will see improved results on the fireground. Finally, by providing a structured communication methodology for your officers, you will move toward standardization, which will lead to streamlined communications and, ultimately, improved firefighter safety.

Many departments, large and small, tend to forget about the basics as the fire service continues to diversify its bases of expertise. It’s easy to focus on the “flavor of the month” or the latest hot topic. We are pulled in many directions, and there is no shortage of distractions. Nonetheless, we are a fundamental organization with the core mission of suppressing fires and saving lives. The more we focus on the fundamentals, on relentlessly pursuing excellence in the “basics,” the better we will be in response to the “all hazards” environments of today. Knowing what to look for, how to process it, how to act on the information, and how to concisely communicate the observations and actions are at the root of every alarm to which we respond.


Chuck Ryan is the deputy chief – Special Operations Division in the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department. He has presented “The First Five Minutes” at FDIC since 2012. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

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