Chuck Ryan: Why Size-Up, Incident Action Planning, and Communications Are Critical

By Chuck Ryan

The initial arriving company officer’s decision-making sets the tone for the initial phases of a response and sets in motion a series of actions (or inactions) that affect the incident mitigation efforts undertaken by the officer’s crew; later arriving companies; and, ultimately, the command or chief officer(s) who respond to the alarm. These initial decisions are based on a wide variety of factors, but key to those decisions are the company officer’s abilities to effectively size up the incident, apply an appropriate decision-making methodology based on information obtained in the size-up, issue appropriate and meaningful directives, and efficiently communicate the size-up and initial action plan (IAP) to incoming companies and chief officers. The time factor, the first five minutes, complicates things even further for the company officer.  This article addresses each component (size-up, decision making, IAP, and communications).


Scene size-up is the cornerstone of fire department operations at an 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, those suggested size-up considerations still encompass what has become known as the “traditional” 13 points of size-up. No matter how diligently we endeavor to streamline the information-processing component of being a fire officer, the basics must always be considered. Whether you prefer to use the common acronyms WALLACE WAS HOT or COAL WAS WEALTH is irrelevant. What is mandatory is that you consider the 13 elements when formulating your IAP.

We will use COAL WAS WEALTH in this article: 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. 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 less experienced 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 size-up.  The professional fire officer (irrespective of whether 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. We will not delve into each of the elements here; they are simply identified. You are encouraged to delve more deeply into the topic.

Time Is of the Essence

There is usually not a lot of time to process this information, decide on a plan of action, communicate that plan, and initiate action. Although in 99.9 percent of cases, it is true that putting out the fire 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 and leadership and leadership.

Initial IAP

Once the fire officer has completed the scene size-up, an initial IAP must be formulated.  Two very 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 (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 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 asked is, “Which decision-making process is better?” There is no clear-cut answer. It depends on a variety of factors, 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 the person’s training or education has not exposed him/her to a similar situation, there is no prior memory into which to tap. Another factor is the time within the decisions must be made.

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 and has been a company officer for 10 of them. He has been to many fires in single-family and 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 (indeed, 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. The officer has eight years of experience, only two of them in a supervisory role. Her prior assignments have been in suburban districts comprised of neighborhoods of detached single-family homes, strip shopping centers, and state highways. On the date in question, she is working overtime in one of the department’s stations in a commercial/industrial zone. Her engine company is dispatched for a reported auto accident at an at-grade rail crossing. As they approach 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. While the train has not left the tracks, 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.

Clearly, the latter example illustrates the perfect scenario for classical decision making. The officer does not have any experience in the setting described. She is in unfamiliar territory with a crew she just met a few hours before, and the incident setting is not one commonly encountered by the officer or her department in general. It is highly unlikely that this fire officer has encountered this 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 certainly an instance where “rushing in” could prove fatal to firefighters.

Once the decision making process is selected, the observer can begin to plan a course of action. In some cases, the proper course may be to do nothing. 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 initial action plan: 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; risk nothing on what is already lost.

Incident Communications

A near-constant element of almost every fireground near-miss, significant injury, or firefighter fatality report is a comment on a breakdown in communications. With it becoming the norm for every firefighter to have an assigned portable radio, it has been my experience and observation that training firefighters and fire officers how to talk on the radio is not the norm at all. Radio communications have taken on the tenor of conversational cell phone calls. This leads to a complete lack of standardization in communication and is intensely wasteful 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.

We must as an industry drive “casual conversation” from fireground radio communications. We also owe it to our firefighters and fire officers to properly train them in how to talk on the radio and what we want them to say (or 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 take this bull by the horns. You can’t complain about someone doing something improperly if you haven’t trained them in the way you expect them to do it!  There is no “one way” to talk on the radio. There are a variety of suggested methods, but the method that works best is the one that your department adopts, trains on, uses, and enforces.

            However, there are some key elements that should be part of every initial fireground radio report. They are listed below with the underlying premise that the first-arriving officer needs 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 an opportunity to better forecast resource needs and anticipated crew actions. They also are a key component of firefighter safety. The initial report should include at a minimum the following:

            • Confirmation of incident address.

            • Type of structure.

            • The conditions that are evident.

            • Water supply plans/layout location.

Example: “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, which 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.  I recommend dispatching two advanced life support ambulances to the scene. Advise Battalion Chief 1 that I need to transfer command.”

Without discussing tactics, it is clear what Engine 6’s officer has encountered and 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. All of this, with practice and without “speed talking,” can be conveyed in approximately 30 seconds of air time. It takes practice and discipline, but it is completely achievable. In addition, those very brief reports provide nearly flawless accountability. The incoming chief officer knows, or has at least been provided a foundation of where everyone is and what they are 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 opening your officers’ eyes on how they make decisions, they will likely spend more time focusing on the decision process and thus making 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 communications 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 what the hot topic has become. We are pulled in many directions, and there is no shortage of distractions.  Nonetheless, we are a fundamental organization whose core mission is the suppression of fires and saving of lives. The more we can focus on the fundamentals–relentless pursuit of excellence at the basics–the better we will be in response to the all hazards environment in which we find ourselves 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 very root of every alarm to which we respond.


Chuck Ryan, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is the deputy chief of the Special Operations Division in the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department. He has presented “The First Five Minutes” program 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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