It Is What It Is, But What Is It?

By Eric G. Bachman

Word association is a foundation of learning instilled during the earliest years of education. It triggers a psychological response that facilitates a perception. Perception by definition is a “mental image”1 and fosters and forms a mindset for subsequent thoughts and actions. Perception is also a subjective aspect influenced by an individual’s education, background, and experience. If I said to a group of people, “There is a dog,” each would likely have a different perception based on past experiences and encounters. However, specificity is a key aspect of perception. If I said, “There is a dalmation,” the perception is likely to be very similar.

Perception in the fire service is fostered from the onset of an incident by the dispatched location. Responder perception is further influenced by the initial incident size-up, which conveys situational information and sets the stage for what responders will face It paints the incident picture and prepares personnel mentally on their potential actions.

Common terminology is a mainstay of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS). What cannot be lost in translation—even with the most basic of terms—is the subjectivity of words such as “large,” “small,” “light,” “heavy,” and so on. Even descriptions such as “working fire” or “fully involved” are subject to interpretation. ICS training programs reinforce the importance of the initial incident size-up and describe its influence on fireground operations. The initial incident size-up should be brief and concise. Unclear descriptions and instructions or conditions open to interpretation can contribute to counterproductive actions, unfavorable outcomes, and compromising firefighter safety.


Size-Up Content

Initial incident size-up reports are wide ranging. A part of many fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs) is the provision that the first-arriving fire officer provide an incident size-up. The elements of a size-up are debatable, but one of the most common descriptors is the occupancy type. However, sometimes the descriptor used is subjective like “light,” “heavy,” “large,” and “small.” The most commonly overused and non-descript occupancy example is a “commercial” building.

(1) Real estate sign advertising a commercial zoned area. (Photos by author.)



“Commercial” is a label affixed to many mediums. It’s publicly advertised on signs by realtors (photo 1) at newly constructed, vacated, abandoned facilities, or property. It is common in newspaper classified and business sections and cited in municipal planning and zoning ordinances and maps.

Commercial is often a part of an incident headline and commonly announced in the first-arriving officer’s size-up. Exposure to the consistent and uncorrected use of the term only reinforces its validity. However, the individual subjectivity of what constitutes a commercial building is as wide raging as the dog example noted above. Many things in the fire service are not black and white, and the commercial label is one of them.


Local Culture Study

The “commercial” descriptor was a point of many discussions among some colleagues. Because of the varying opinions, I decided to research this aspect to determine cultural influences. I developed and distributed a survey to ascertain if my “commercial building” designation pet peeve was just a personal issue, or if it was actually a concerning issue in fire service training. The questionnaire included specific questions on listing occupancy classes and providing personal definitions and local examples of commercial buildings. The questionnaire did not ask for individual or organizational names to preclude anxiety of providing the “wrong” answer. Respondents were advised that there were no wrong answers; the purpose of the survey was to gauge knowledge and perception while maintaining anonymity. The survey requested basic census and disposition data such as fire department organization, personal years of experience, training credentials, and rank.

The returned surveys were completed by career and volunteer firefighters representing a wide range of education and experience levels. The result was inconsistency. One defined a commercial building as “Any building that people don’t live in.” A second said that “Facilities that do not manufacture products.” Another response was simply, “Any business.” Although personnel backgrounds and locales may influence the survey results, the feedback I received from firefighters from the same area departments, too, were inconsistent.

Some reading this may question the validity of the issue and ask whether it really matters. I think it does. Painting a picture in the initial size-up should prepare responding personnel for what they will encounter. If the picture is blurry by subjective and ambiguous adjectives, then the mental notes and anticipated actions responders perceive before arrival may cause ineffective or inefficient tactics.

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The foundation of commercial is the word “commerce,” which has many legal, political, and technological connotations. However, perhaps the most recognized assimilation is conveying goods from producers to customers. Researching the definition of commercial building is as vague as the manner in which it is used in size-up reports. One source defines a commercial building as, “A structure whose 50 percent or more of floor space is leased for commercial purposes”.2 Another source mirrors this criteria and offers examples including “Stores, offices, schools, churches, gymnasiums, libraries, hospitals, clinics, warehouses, and jails.”3 Another source defines commercial property as income producing property such as ”Restaurants, shopping centers, hotels, industrial sites, warehouses, and factories.”4 When reviewing these definitions, the primary similarity is inconsistency.


Technical Resources

The references above are not typically studied in the fire service. They are found in the academic study of business, economics, real estate, and finance. In looking at fire service specific resources, what references to commercial buildings are there? National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 101, Life Safety Code, addresses minimum criteria and prescriptions for the built environment with regard to building design and construction as well as requirements necessary for the protection of occupants against fire and products of combustion. It is a comprehensive document that defines occupancy types with categorical criteria considerate of the operations conducted, commodities used and stored, and occupant demographics. NFPA 101 provides no category or reference to a commercial occupancy.

Model fire codes, too, are another source that categorizes occupancies. The International Fire Code, for example, is consistent with the NFPA 101 occupancy classifications. It, too, does not distinguish a commercial building. The only reference to commercial is with regard to kitchen hood systems.


Firefighter Training

Fire service textbooks provide broad disparity in defining occupancy types. But personnel are unlikely to study occupancy classification criteria until they are assigned to the inspection or code enforcement division. Within some fire service training programs and textbooks are references to commercial occupancies. However, the examples cited are similar to the non-fire service reference descriptions above. One fire service textbook discusses commercial occupancies and offers subcategories including mercantile, business, and industrial. However, it lumps the three subsets into the commercial designator and does not delve into the intricacies of each. Because of this, the commercial label is what most students will remember and practically recite.


Broad Terminology

A student and I once debated the commercial issue at length. His argument was that I was too caught up in semantics, and firefighters should know their first-due. He went on to say that if the fire department is dispatched to the local elementary school, the department should know what it is. I wholeheartedly agree, at least to his point that the fire department should know the first-due. But some fire departments and staff do not have comprehensive knowledge of their district. Communities are growing, and keeping up with new facilities and occupant turnover is difficult. Departments and their staffs may also not be intimately familiar with automatic and mutual-aid companies. Newer personnel are usually unfamiliar with the district. And, in a volunteer setting, personnel turnover can be frequent, creating the need to overcome a high first-due learning curve. Covering companies or units that are part of an extraordinary response may not intimately know the district facilities to which they are responding. If they are dispatched to a school, then, most likely, they are familiar. However, one cannot assume the operations, contents, or occupant dispositions of a facility based on its name alone. (See my article, “Common Pre-Incident Intelligence Failures,” Fire Engineering, March 2003, page 165.)

Fire departments and personnel without a fire inspection or code enforcement component may see little application for one in their daily activities. However, understanding occupancy classifications is important and should be an early part of firefighter and fire officer development training. Having knowledge of occupancy types and their associated characteristics will enable personnel to have a clearer picture and a more accurate perception of what’s in store for them. Studying occupancy types, understanding their structural and occupant attributes, and including the specific occupancy type in size-up reports will improve the perception and better prepare personnel for subsequent actions.



It is just as important to specify occupancy types during size-up as is it to differentiate the construction type. Accuracy limits the mental range of facilities; it paints a clearer picture that associates facility characteristics with its operations. Two of the most stereotyped commercial occupancies are mercantile (photo 2) and business. Mercantile establishments primarily engage in the wholesale purchasing and retail sales of products for profit such as supermarkets, department stores, and shopping malls. They often feature large open interior spaces. Their goods can be shelved or rack displays, some uniformly spaced in isles (photo 3), and some are maze-like such as in a clothing store. Large floor space, although characteristically labeled as an “open floor plan,” will present search operations and hose deployment challenges. Occupants in a mercantile site, typically, are not intimately familiar with the facility layout, including alternative exits.

(2) Stores in a shopping mall are examples of a mercantile occupancy.

(3) Interior product aisle arrangement in a department store.

People are creatures of habit. When faced with an emergency, they most likely will try to vacate by the means they entered the facility. Their reaction to fire and smoke conditions may cause panic to escape and create a logjam at the common egress point. Accountability of patrons in a mercantile setting—beyond employee count—will likely be impossible. Depending on the time of day and season, the occupant load could be large.

A business establishment is more service oriented. Although some may sell products, in most cases it is limited. Its primary purpose is to provide a service; these establishments include a doctor’s office, a courthouse, and a municipal building (photo 4). In some cases, business occupancies are compartmentalized, also creating search and hose management challenges. Most have suspended ceilings to hide heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units and electrical conduits. This presents an interstitial space that can hide and channel smoke and fire throughout the building. Some business occupancies present an open plan layout, where a large space is compartmentalized by cubicles. In this case, smoke and fire can spread unimpeded. Most of the occupants will be employees (except for customers or visitors). Employees likely will have more knowledge of egress, and accountability may be more accurate.

(4) A municipal building, like city hall, is a business occupancy example.


Preincident Intelligence

For other occupancy types such as assembly, educational, and healthcare, you can make a similar analysis identify specific site and occupant characteristics. However, it is essential to stress that occupancy types and their typical inherent characteristics are not black and white. General categorization of occupancies is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Every facility presents unique challenges. The only way to know what they are is through pre-incident intelligence. There is a saying that, “It is what it is.” But, for size-up and pre-incident preparedness, you have to answer the question, “What is ‘it’?”

The initial incident size-up paints the incident picture and prepares responding personnel. It must be brief, concise, and accurate. The oft used term “commercial building” is non-descriptive and is disadvantageous. Describing the incident stage must be deliberate. If it is bank, the report should read “bank” rather than “commercial building.” When verbalizing a size-up, don’t just paint a picture—paint an accurate picture.



1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary copyright © 2011 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.





ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.



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