Most fire commanders will agree with this timeless truth, “There is nothing any more critical to an effective ultimate fireground outcome than the correct action by the first-arriving company; conversely, nothing will screw the final outcome up any quicker than incorrect action by the first company.”1 To paraphrase this quote, “So goes first-due, so goes the incident.” Never in the history of the fire service has this tenet been more challenging to the first-arriving fire officer. Classic size-up considerations, decision-making techniques, and evolutions are not keeping pace with the size, scope, and complexity of the incidents fire departments now face. Perhaps the reengineering of the basic approach the first-due company officer uses to step off on the right foot is long overdue. This article attempts to do just that-develop a process to help the first-due officer make the best “read” of an incident and engage the situation in such a way as to ensure an effective outcome (photo 1).

(1) First-arriving decision makers must learn how to capture the best “read” of the incident. Instead of watching the flames, the fire officer should read the smoke, the building, and then the risk. (Photo by Keith Muratori.)

The “Art of First-Due” is best defined as one’s ability to best understand an incident and then to initiate a “mode” that fits the greater good for that incident. To accomplish this, a fire officer must understand the changes impacting our service and then develop-or “front-load”-tools that help us deal with the routine (a scary concept), unusual, and absurd incident. Let’s take a look at some of the changes in the emergency response world.


Basically stated, society has changed the fire. The 1990s brought a proliferation of “big-box” stores to the buying public-and with it consumables of low-mass plastics and high-surface-to-mass products to fuel interior fires. Today’s typical residential fire is hotter, faster, and more explosive than ever. To illustrate, growth-stage residential fires developed ceiling temperatures in the 1,100ºF range prior to the 1980s. Recent fire models claim this temperature is closer to 1,600ºF.2 With low-mass contents comes a more rapid release of smoke. This smoke contains more hydrocarbons, particulates, and toxic/flammable gases than we’ve ever seen. Taken collectively, interior fires are simply hotter and more explosive than even 15 years ago.

Additionally, the building-or box-is changing. A 2004-built residential subdivision is constructed with lightweight engineered wood products built as assemblies. These assemblies don’t perform well when exposed to the destruction of fire and, in some cases, fail with just the application of heat. Although these buildings are engineered with more strength, they contain less mass. Mass equates to fire resistance, and fire resistance equates to firefighting time. Lightweight buildings present a much shorter time window for launching aggressive interior firefights. Rapid collapse is commonplace when lightweight structures become involved in fire. Drywall (gypsum board) has long been the barrier that buys the fire attack crew time to aggressively find and extinguish the fire. Logic suggests that with today’s hotter fires, drywall will calcify and degrade more quickly, further reducing interior combat time. Material technology advances have introduced building components that are quite impressive (stronger, less expensive, and environmentally friendly), yet they hurt, rather than help, firefighters. Notable examples include structural insulated panels (SIP), insulated concrete forms (ICF), and fiber-reinforced products (FiRP). These engineered methods are being used more often in building construction; all degrade quickly when heated because of low mass and poor heat tolerance (photo 2).

(2) Lightweight construction reduces the time window for aggressive interior attack. These structural insulated panels (SIP) are load-bearing elements that form exterior walls. They are constructed of oriented strand board (OSB), expanded polystyrene (EPS), and glue. These materials have poor resis-tance to significant heat. A hot, working interior fire will have rapid, destructive effects on SIP construction. (Photo by author.)

As if the above changes aren’t enough, most fire departments find themselves with the challenges of maintaining or achieving adequate staffing, training, and experience retention. Additionally, fire departments are responding to more emergencies but fewer actual fires.3 This combination sets the stage for disaster. In essence, we respond to fires with minimal staffing, declining expertise, and a smaller time window to handle the fire the way we typically have. Further, the fire service is constantly struggling with the notion of old way vs. new way. It can be argued that many fireground mistakes are caused by what we do know as opposed to what we don’t know. In other words, we apply what has worked in years past. In a changing environment (hotter fires, lighter buildings), what worked using the “old way” may not be appropriate.

The scope of services a fire department offers adds compelling stress to the first-due officer. The need to understand first-due procedures for haz mat, heavy rescue, confined space, EMS triage, dive/swiftwater rescue, weapons of mass destruction/terrorism, domestic/civil violence, and a whole host of other topics have complicated the size-up approach used by responders. It’s easy to see that our emergency response world has indeed changed and poses more challenges for the first-due officer.


Failure to capture the “read” of an incident sets the stage for initial companies to get sucked into a “loser” situation-and firefighter injuries or death. The key to getting a good read on an incident is to front-load information that can be used to make the best quick decisions. Key topics to front load for structural firefighting include the ability to read smoke, read buildings, and read risk. Each of these is a topic unto itself, yet they form the key training elements necessary for improving first-due decision making. Although far from complete, each of these topics can be summarized in performance terms.

Reading smoke. It is the ability to understand fire dynamics by watching smoke as it leaves the building. Volume, velocity (pressure), density, and colors can be quickly analyzed to determine the fire’s location, intensity, stage, and spread potential (photo 3). Reading smoke can also clue the fire officer into the likelihood of a hostile fire event (flashover) and rescue profile for the incident.

Reading buildings. This refers to the application of building construction and fire degradation knowledge to determine the integrity of the box. Great incident commanders (ICs) spend a career studying building construction and the effects of fire on structures. They apply this learning at incidents by quickly determining the general type of construction used, common weak links, fire spread potential within, time restraints, and collapse potential. This may sound complex, but it can be done fairly quickly through constant study, site visits, and drilling. Battalion Chief (Ret.) John Mittendorf of the Los Angeles City Fire Department has written numerous articles that serve as a great template for learning how to read a building.4 Likewise, studying the works of Francis Brannigan, SFPE,5 and Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn6 of the Fire Department of New York will help you read buildings more quickly.

Reading risk. This refers to the ability to capture the risk-vs.-gain of an incident. Logic may suggest that the fire itself and the status of the building determine the overall risk of an incident. A better way to understand overall risk is to understand the determining factors we bring to the show. It’s important to know your limitations and those of your crew. Staffing, training, fitness, and aggressiveness can all impact the risk firefighters take on arrival at incidents. Add the information gained from reading the smoke and the building, and you have the basis for mentally sketching a risk profile for the incident. Typically, the fire service has adopted a risk/gain approach that says we’ll take significant risk to save human life and no risk for that which is lost. Granted, there are degrees of gray between, but the concept is widely accepted in the 21st century fire service.7

3) Reading smoke is an essential skill for rapid decision making. Smoke volume, velocity, density, and color can be compared to determine the location, severity, and explosiveness of smoke. The smoke in this photo indicates an advanced fire that has captured the wood attic and roof structure. The darker, turbulent smoke indicates imminent ignition of the accumulated smoke. The fire officer well practiced in reading smoke can ascertain even more information than this caption space allows. (Photo by Keith Muratori.)

As mentioned, the above serves as a brief capture of the essential skills to front load for rapid decision making. The more time you spend researching, learning, and applying these topics, the more quickly you can capture a read of an incident. Getting a read on a situation has long been called “size-up.” Historically, size-up has been defined in numerous ways and with many acronyms to remind the fire officer of the many factors that need to be evaluated prior to incident engagement. It seems that each type of incident has its own set of size-up considerations-again, leading to more things that a first-due officer needs to remember. As it applies to first-due, size-up (or reading the incident) needs to blend into action. A bridge can be drafted to help first-arriving decision makers transition from size-up to action. This article captures the bridge by suggesting a First-Due Action Model.


Developing a systems approach to incidents is paramount to effective control and firefighter safety. To create a one-size-fits-all approach may seem ridiculous in a service that handles so many different types of incidents. Conversely, creating multiple systems for incident-specific situations is burdensome and impractical for rapid application by a first-arriving officer. We know that the first-arriving officer has lots to think about and little time to think about it. So what approach can we use that takes into account all we’ve mentioned? The answer is the First-Due Action Model. It includes three steps:

1. Inventory what you know.

2. Determine the risk profile.

3. Declare an operational mode that fits the risk.

The beauty of this action model is its simplicity; it is simple to remember and simple to apply to many different situations. The model combines size-up, risk management, and a bridge to action. We can take this action model and break it down to show how it can be applied for rapid decision making.

1. Inventory What You Know.

On realization that you’ll be first-due to an incident, begin an inventory of the known. Information can be collected at the station, during response, and on arrival. A simple series of questions can guide your inventory.

• On Notification

-What do you know about the day (time, weather, and so on)?

-What do you know about your system (short staffing, delayed response from second due, for example)?

-What do you know about where you are going (water system, old/new buildings. commercial/residential, utilities)?

• En route

-Have you been there before (ask the crew; you will be amazed at the value of multiple memories)?

-Any access issues (alternative routes, rush-hour concerns, for example)?

-Can I get any more information (MDT preplans, dispatcher/caller help, for example)?

• On arrival

It’s important to slow down as you wheel into the last block. It’s easy to get sucked into reading smoke and buildings as soon as you see the incident. WAIT. Inventory the surroundings as you creep into the incident.

-Am I passing hydrants? [That’s okay if it’s the standard operating procedure (SOP). Just be aware.]

-Where is the hazardous energy (power lines/boxes, obvious instability, haz mat, for example)?

-What is the traffic threat to the crew? (They may not be watching you!)

-What are the “people” doing (evacuating, tending victims, and so on)?

2. Determine the Risk Profile.

There are very few absolutes when it comes to determining risk. Fire service leaders have tried to develop multiple methods for evaluating and classifying risk and risk taking. It doesn’t matter whether you use the “gauge” approach developed by Alan and Nick Brunacini8 or Stewart Rose’s “Time-Size-Value” approach.9 The important thing is to develop a gut instinct about the overall risk of the incident. I determine risk profile by blending the “reading” skills presented earlier and a people/property judgment. Here’s a look at how this can work:

• Reading Skills

Use your ability to read smoke, read the building, and read risk to help you define a principal hazard at the incident. The principal hazard can be defined as the “big-ticket” hazard that will kill you and your crew. Now, this may sound selfish, but it can be argued that firefighter safety is paramount in achieving the greater good for all involved. Sometimes the principal hazard is the fire itself or, more often, the explosiveness of the smoke. Other times, the principal hazard is the integrity of the building, traffic, or hazardous energy. In many cases, the principal hazard has already killed victims and is moving to kill others. If arriving firefighters take the second it takes to determine the principal hazard, they can choose better tactics to stop the hazard from extending to other victims. As it relates to reading risk, the principal hazard could be the mere fact that you don’t meet the two-in/two-out rule. In this case, the incident itself is pretty straightforward, but there is nobody available to watch your backside once you start operating. Reading smoke, reading the building, and reading risk help define the principal hazard. Now, make a judgment about people vs. property.

• People/Property Judgment

Making a judgment regarding what is at risk-people or property -is perhaps the most important step in determining a risk profile. While easy to say, this is much harder to do. Many firefighters stand by the notion that all incidents are “people” events until proven otherwise. Likewise, some firefighters are willing to concede that an environment is incompatible with life and that, therefore, the only thing to save is property. Historically, the fire service has a poor history of changing risk taking based on the people/property issue. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has pointed this out in numerous firefighter fatality investigations.10 The recommendation from these reports states that ICs need to continually evaluate risk vs. gain and adjust the action plan accordingly. This isn’t just an IC issue: It begins with the first-arriving officer.

3. Declare an “Operational Mode.”

The final step of the First-Due Action Model provides the “bridge” to ACTION. Historically, we usually declare an overall strategy of offensive or defensive. Some fire departments add “transitional” or “marginal” to the mix. The typical Offensive/Defensive/Transitional language we use is NOT specific enough to tell everyone else the risk you are taking! Although you can make some guess about the risk being taken, I believe more specificity is needed to clearly tell other responders what risk you’re taking. Further, the mode you are taking should blend with the overall risk profile you’ve judged from step 2 of the action model. Figure 1 outlines examples of more definitive modes and the accompanying risks that may be involved.

The action model can be applied to many types of incidents to help simplify the rapid decisions the first-due officer must make. Likewise, the model blends nicely with an “overhead” approach for strategic thinking once a formal incident commander and command post are established.

Most fire officers will argue that no one system is perfect for rapid decision making. In these cases, fire crews will resort to what has worked in the past. Unfortunately, this typically means an aggressive interior attack for structure fires. Therein lies the trap. For this reason, the action model needs some “defaults” for those situations that don’t render enough information to make a risk/mode decision. If the first-due crew can’t make a clean judgment on the risk profile present, then it needs to “default” to a mode that doesn’t overcommit the crew before help arrives. Perhaps our default should be one of the transitional or defensive modes. The suggestion to default to defensive modes can easily cause thoughts of antisentiment to the concept of aggressiveness. The intent here is not antiaggressiveness: It’s an approach of intelligence! If you can’t figure out what the fire is doing in a given building before you attack, you’re setting up your crew to get sucked into the unknown, perhaps a flashover or a collapse. In these cases, default to a transitional mode, and make the building behave! Mark Emery, battalion chief of the King County (WA) Fire Department, offers an approach that is “dead-on” as it relates to defaults: “Seek a defensive position that offers offensive gain.”11

• • •

As was said earlier: “So goes first-due, so goes the incident.” The challenge has never been greater for the first-due officer. When the alarm is received, inventory what you know, determine the risk profile, and declare a mode that fits that risk. The system can work, but remember, you must commit to front-loading your skills in reading smoke, reading buildings, and reading risk.


1. Brunacini, Alan V. Timeless Tactical Truths. (Peoria, Ariz: Uptown Graphics and Design) 2003.

2. Quintiere, James G. Principles of Fire Behavior. (Clifton Park, N.Y.: Delmar Learning, a part of Thomson Corporation). 1998.

3. Fire Protection Handbook, 19th Edition, Vol. I, Figures 2.1.1 and 2.1.15, (Quincy, Mass.: National Fire Protection Association). 2003.

4. Mittendorf, John W. “Reading a Building,” Parts 1-3, Aug. 2, 9, 16, 2004; available at Fire Engineering Web site,

5. Brannigan, Francis L. Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association), 1992; author of Fire Engineering columns Ol’ Professor and Preplanning Building Hazards, available at

6. Dunn, Vincent. Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety, (Saddle Brook, N.J.: Fire Engineering Books and Videos) 1988. Safety and Survival on the Fireground. Fire Engineering Books and Videos, 1992.

7. NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupa-tional Safety and Health Program, 2002 Edition, Section 8.2.

8. Brunacini, Alan V. and Nick Brunacini, Command Safety. (Phoenix, Ariz.: Across the Street Productions, Inc). 2004.

9. Rose, Stewart E., Seattle (WA) Fire Department (ret.), “Managing Multiple Company Tactical Operations” presentation, Denver, CO, 2002.

10. NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigations reports can be found online at

11. I have heard him say this at numerous presentations.

DAVE DODSON, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, is the owner and lead instructor for Response Solutions (Eastlake, Colorado), a company dedicated to teaching firefighter safety and practical incident handling. Previously, he served through the ranks with the Loveland (CO), Parker (CO), and Eagle River (CO) Fire Departments, retiring as an operations battalion chief. He has served on numerous national boards, including the NFPA Firefighter Occupational Safety Technical Committee and the Fire Department Safety Officers’ Association, where he also served as president in 1997. He was the recipient of the ISFSI “George D. Post Fire Instructor of the Year” award. He developed the FDIC presentation “The Art of Reading Smoke” and the H.O.T. Workshop “Incident Safety Officer Academy.”

David Dodson will present the related classes “The Art of Reading Smoke” and “Look Out! The 2005-Built Building” at the Fire Depart-ment Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, April 11-16. Consult the FDIC Official Show Program for exact date and time.

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