Size-Up: How Do We Use It?


Size-up is the ongoing eval-uation of situations you are confronted with during fires and emergencies. Most firefighter and EMS literature describes the size-up as starting with the alarm and continuing until the fire or emergency is under control. However, proper size-up starts long before you arrive at the station. How well do you know your response area? What changes have occurred? Are there street closings, road construction, or new traffic patterns? Are there new construction or renovation projects? What occupancy types do you have? Where are hazardous materials found? What are the most significant life hazards you may encounter?

Most officers, firefighters, EMTs, and officer students learn the “13-point size-up.” I had this drilled into my head during probationary firefighting school; we memorized the acronym “COAL WAS WEALTH,” where each letter related to one of the 13 size-up considerations:

  • Construction. What is the construction type—fire resistive, noncombustible, ordinary, heavy timber, or wood frame? Are there lightweight building components? Renovations? What are the access/egress points?
  • Occupancy. Determine the life hazard, hazards to rescuers, and expected fuel loads.
  • Apparatus and equipment. What units are on-scene or responding? Do we have enough staffing? Is a rapid intervention team (RIT) assigned?
  • Life. Where is there life relative to the fire or emergency? What are the life hazards?
  • Water supply. Where are the hydrant and drafting locations?
  • Area. Is the area a commercial building? Private home? Dumpster? Neighborhood?
  • Street conditions. How will they affect apparatus response and placement?
  • Weather. Note rain, snow, flooding, and freezing conditions, as well as wind speed and direction.
  • Exposures. Note adjoining buildings, vehicles, and property and smoke or fire extension inside or outside the occupancy (from floor to floor).
  • Auxiliary appliances. Does the occupancy have a smoke detection system? Sprinklers or standpipes? If so, do we know how and where to supply them?
  • Location and extent of fire. Is the fire in the basement, on the first or second floor, in a shaft, in an alleyway, or in a top-floor apartment?
  • Time of day. This governs the likelihood of a life hazard.
  • Height. What is the building height? Will we need aerial devices and portable ladders? Do we need the stretcher, or do we need a stairchair?

All of these considerations are mandatory for fire and emergency responses.

What if an officer or new member has these 13 points memorized but needs a more finite list of size-up considerations before he steps off the apparatus? A new firefighter, for example, receives a check-off list of personal protective equipment as soon as he is sworn in to the department: bunker coat; bunker pant; helmet; boots; gloves; hood; and, for volunteer departments, a pager and charger—not to mention the abundance of uniforms, badges, collar pins, and other assorted “jewelry.”

The new member rushes home to try everything on, but did anyone show him how to correctly use this equipment? After three years in a volunteer department wearing 3⁄4-length coats and pull-up, thigh-high boots, I had been appointed to a very progressive paid department. After being sworn in and getting a trunk-load of equipment from the quartermaster warehouse, I asked my roommate how to put the bunker pants together. I had never seen a pair up close before. Luckily, he had.

How many departments go over these basic functions? Do new members know what signals they’re expected to respond to? When their pager goes off for the first time, do they know if it’s an alarm or just a routine radio test? How about the proper order of donning the bunker gear, hood, helmet, chin strap, and gloves? I know several instances where volunteer members responded to the station during radio checks or attempted to pull on their bunker pants without first getting the suspenders out of the way. This resulted in the suspenders being snugly tucked into the bunker pants in the most uncomfortable of positions. Only after mastering these seemingly basic competencies can the new member begin to comprehend an emergency response size-up.

When asked what he’d like to see in a training article, a second-year volunteer fire lieutenant answered, “How about a short, realistic size-up list to consider when we’re responding?” Here it is.

1. Where and to what type of call am I responding?

2. Am I wearing the proper equipment, and is it on correctly?

3. In what order do we arrive—first engine, second ladder?

4. With whom am I responding, and what are the crew’s, as well as each individual’s, responsibilities?

5. How will we get to the reported location? Are there any hindrances to that response?

6. From where are the other apparatus responding?

7. What tools or equipment will we need at the incident?

8. To whom do I report when I arrive?

9. Is my radio on so I can monitor and communicate during response and on arrival?

10. Has anyone else arrived yet? If so, what are they reporting?

11. Have I continually reassessed the situation?

These questions may sound a bit elementary. If they do, that means you’ve learned something in your firefighting career. Pass it on to someone else, starting with your very next response.

STEPHEN MARSAR is a captain in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and Commissioner of the Bellmore (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has certifications as a national and NY state fire instructor and as a NY certified instructor coordinator and is a NY Department of Health regional faculty member. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science and emergency services administration and is an adjunct instructor at the FDNY Fire and EMS academies, as well as a second deputy chief instructor at the Fire Service and EMS academies of Nassau County (NY). He is enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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