Critical Fireground Factors List


Last month we started to describe how the initial and ongoing size-up is made up primarily of critical fireground factors. These critical factors together create an inventory of the tactical “vital signs” the incident commander (IC) uses to evaluate conditions, make decisions, and create safe and effective action.

A manager can deal with only a limited number of factors at one time. The IC cannot make an effective decision from 75 pieces of information; however, he should be able to deal with five or six critical factors. The inclination to deal with too many factors will soon overload the IC, resulting in chaos and confusion. Considering this natural limitation, the identification of the critical factors becomes even more crucial.

Fortunately, all factors are not created equal and are not critical at the same time in any given tactical situation. Once the critical factors have been identified, Command must invest operational energy in them at the appropriate time. If all of the factors that could possibly be present were critical at all times during all incidents, the IC’s information management task would be impossible. The ability to deal with incident information is a highly learnable, trainable, and reproducible skill. Developing that skill requires planning and practice ahead of time, then refinement by actually using the critical factor approach and putting prior information management experiences in the “bank.”

The following is an inventory of the critical fireground factors. It is worth the effort to slog through them because the review may cause us to remember on a dark and windy night a critical factor that otherwise might have created a painful/ugly gravity/toxic/thermal surprise.


  • Size: area and height
  • Interior arrangement/access (stairs, halls, lobbies, elevators)
  • Construction type: ability to resist fire
  • Age
  • Condition: faults/weaknesses
  • Value
  • Compartmentation/separation
  • Vertical: horizontal openings, channels, shafts
  • Outside openings: doors, windows/degree of security
  • Utility characteristics (hazards/controls)
  • Concealed spaces/attic characteristics
  • Exterior access
  • Effect the fire has had on the structure (at this point)
  • Time projection on the continuing fire effect on the building
  • How much of the building is left to burn?


  • Size
  • Extent (percent of structure involved)
  • Location
  • Stage (inception to flashover)
  • Direction of travel (most dangerous)
  • Avenue of travel
  • Time of involvement
  • Type and amount of material involved (contents/interior finish/structure/exterior finish/everything)
  • Type, location, and amount of material left to burn
  • Products of combustion liberation (smoke, heat, flame, fire, gas)
  • Fire perimeter
  • Fire area profile
  • Accessibility to operate directly on the fire


  • Specific occupancy
  • Type: group (business, mercantile public assembly, institutional, hazardous, storage, school)
  • Value characteristics
  • Fire load profile (size, location, nature)
  • Status (open, closed, vacant, abandoned, under construction/destruction)
  • Occupancy: associated characteristics/hazards
  • Type, amount, arrangement of contents (based on occupancy)
  • Time: as it affects occupancy use
  • Property conservation profile/susceptibility of contents to damage/need for salvage
  • Moral hazard (responsible/irresponsible owner-occupant maintenance and operation)


  • Location of occupants (in relation to fire)
  • Number of occupants
  • Condition of occupants (by virtue of fire exposure)
  • Incapacities of occupants
  • Commitment required for search and rescue (firefighters, equipment, command)
  • Fire control required for search and rescue
  • EMS needs
  • Time estimate of fire effect on victims
  • Exposure/control of spectators
  • Hazards to fire personnel
  • Access rescue forces have to victims
  • Characteristics of escape routes/avenues of escape (type, safety, fire conditions, and so on)


  • Access, arrangement, and distance of external exposures
  • Combustibility of exposures
  • Access, arrangement, and nature of internal exposures
  • Severity and urgency of exposures (fire effect)
  • Value of exposures
  • Most dangerous direction-avenue of spread
  • Time estimate of fire effect on exposures (internal and external)
  • Barriers or obstructions to operations
  • Capability/limitation on apparatus movement and use
  • Multiple buildings


  • Staffing and equipment on scene/responding/in reserve
  • Estimate of response time for personnel and equipment
  • Condition of responders and equipment
  • Capability and willingness of responders
  • Capability of commanders
  • Nature of command systems available to command
  • Number, location, and capacity of hydrants
  • Supplemental water sources
  • Adequacy of water supply
  • Built-in private fire protection


  • What is the effect the current action is having?
  • What things need to get done?
  • What is the stage of operation (rescue/fire control/property conservation, customer stabilization)?
  • What is the effect of the command function (established and working)?
  • Is there an effective command organization?
  • Has the IC forecasted effectively?
  • Is there an effective plan?
  • Tactical priority questions: Are victims okay? Is the fire out? Is loss stopped?
  • What is the worst thing that can happen?
  • Are operating positions/functions effective?
  • Are there enough resources?
  • Are the troops operating safely? Do you fear for their lives?
  • Is there a safety plan/organization?
  • What is the situation status (from under control to out of control)?


  • Time of day/night
  • Day of week
  • Season
  • Special hazards by virtue of holiday/special event
  • Weather (wind, rain, heat, cold, humidity, visibility)
  • Social unrest (riot, terrorism, and so on)

This hefty list serves as the tactical information foundation for size-up, decision making, and creating safe and standard action. It should be used as a training reference, particularly to assist simulation-based command exercises. The listed items should get loaded into the IC’s mental “slide tray.”

If we have practiced responding to the critical factors, when those conditions are encountered and recognized, there is a much better chance that the IC’s eye will remember the critical factor and send a message to the brain, first, to prevent a surprise and, second, to effectively and safely deal with that condition. Always remember, we play the way we practice.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the quarterly fire service magazine and the Blue Card hazard zone training and certification system. He can be reached at

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