Reading a Building, Part 1

By John W. Mittendorf

Part 2
Part 3

Some might say sizing up is one of the first actions taken by a first arriving officer to an incident. Others would say a size-up determines a course of action in relation to the perceived risk, etc. However, when we apply the term size-up to structure fires, definitions that always seem to be mentioned include: making a quick lap around the building to determine what constitutes the problem and where it is; or the determining factor in the course of action you choose.

If fireground safety is a primary consideration, then conducting a size-up that enhances your ability to mitigate the incident in a safe and timely manner is a cornerstone of efficient and safe fireground operations. Generally, size-ups consist of three distinct types:

  • Initial Size-Up
    The initial size-up lays the foundation for abatement strategy, and normally starts prior to your arrival. Upon arrival, the initial size-up is expanded and fine tuned by the observable factors presented by the incident.
  • Continuing Size-Up
    The continuing size-up should consist of all personnel remaining aware of their surroundings. This means taking time to monitor and verify the changing conditions and relaying this information to appropriate personnel if appropriate.
  • Area/Sector/Division Size-Up
    An integral part of a size-up is relaying information from a particular area (or area of responsibility) to appropriate personnel. In short, this means that when necessary and without being asked, give an appropriate size-up from your particular area.

For this series, we will focus on the initial size-up as applied to structural fireground operations, and specifically how to read a building. Before we consider the physical aspects of an initial structural fireground size-up, we should consider two basic reasons why we should perform one. First, NFPA statistics indicate that injuries and deaths related to structural incidents are a result of three primary factors. To paraphrase, you fall into it, it falls on you, or flashover.

Second, prior to your involvement with a building that is on fire, the ability to read the building, evaluate its strong and weak points, and then determine your degree and place of involvement (interior vs exterior) puts you in the drivers seat. To a large degree, once fireground personnel are committed inside or on a building, the building is often in control. Take the necessary time to determine what specific factors about a particular building are important. The ability to read a building in a timely and effective manner can significantly reduce at least two of the three aforementioned factors. To assist in accomplishing this goal, we will take a different approach to assist reading a building in upcoming articles. Stay tuned!

John W. Mittendorf joined the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) in 1963, rising to the rank of captain II, task force commander. In 1981, he was promoted to battalion chief and in the year following became the commander of the In-Service Training Section. In 1993, he retired from LAFD after 30 years of service. Mittendorf has been a member of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation on Engineered Lightweight Construction Technical Advisory Committee. He has provided training programs for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland; the University of California at Los Angeles; and the British Fire Academy at Morton-in-Marsh, England. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering and author of the books Truck Company Operations (Fire Engineering, 1998) and Facing the Promotional Interview (Fire Engineering, 2003).

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