Fireground Basic Size-Up for the First-Due Engine

The initial report must paint a picture for others

By Greg Sellers

One of the most stressful roles in the fire service is being an officer of the first-arriving fire company at a structure fire. Having to transmit an arrival report; assume command of the incident; and, possibly, must be physically involved in performing company-level tasks are the ingredients for sensory overload. As incident commander, the first-arriving company officer has every responsibility of the highest-ranking chief officer on the fire department at the most critical phase of an incident but often does not has the luxury of directing operations from a stationary command post and is not physically involved in performing any tasks. Additionally, a first-arriving company officer in command may have to take immediate action with incomplete information. The transmission of the initial arriving size-up report is critical and may have a strong influence on the overall outcome of the incident.

Arriving on scene, he must consider a multitude of factors and observations in a very compressed time frame. The initial report must “paint the picture” for the arriving companies. A clear, concise, and accurate report will give all responding companies and command officers a clear   understanding of the situation. Having a standard approach to initial scene size-up is paramount to the start of a successful operation.

Fire in the cockloft may prompt the initial incident commander to call for additional alarms. (Photos by author.)

This article focuses on giving a scene size-up and some points to consider, staying with your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding size-up. These tips hopefully will help your overall radio report.

A fire officer cannot effectively control an incident and his company if he cannot control himself. An effective officer must have the mental toughness to control his emotions and manifestations of stress. Thinking clearly and controlling our personal behavior will not only help you do to your job better but will set the example for others to follow. DO NOT yell, scream, or rush your size-up; this will get everyone else “excited” and show that you, as the initial incident commander, may not be thinking clearly, which may cause you to lose your command and control of the incident.

When approaching the scene, have your driver slow down. This will give you a better overall picture of the scene.  It also allows both you and the driver to visualize hazards such as overhead wires, exposure problems, potential rescues, hydrants, or parked cars that could limit outrigger spread on a ladder truck. Many departments have their drivers pull past the structure to give a three-sided view.  Whatever your department’s SOPs are, follow them; this will give the engine the room it needs to deploy handlines and give the truck the front of the building for proper aerial placement. 

When beginning your size-up, think about what you’re going to say before you say it. Based on your SOPs, your size-up should be a methodical, quick, and to-the-point evaluation of what you see, what you’re going to do, and possibly what you need. First, announce your arrival: “Engine 1 to Dispatch.” Let them answer you: “Engine 1 is on location.” Describe the building as residential vs. commercial, height, type of construction, and occupied vs. vacant: “2½-story wood-frame balloon-frame occupied (or vacant) residential structure.”

Life hazard and rapid fire spread may require calling for additional alarms early

Next, describe what you see: “Nothing showing,” “Fire showing,” or “Smoke showing.” I never understood when officers would say, “Smoke and fire showing.” If you have fire showing, you have smoke showing. Don’t be overly wordy; keep it basic. Also, tell where you have the condition showing–second floor, through the roof, or whatever the situation shows.

Next, do you have an exposure problem? If so, give a quick description: “Exposure problem on Side 2 (Side B),” “No exposure problems,” and so on.

Give your strategy–offensive or defensive.

Name your command. Every incident must have a named command—”Main St. Command,” for example–if needed for additional resources.

Describe what your actions are going to be: “Stretch a 1¾-inch for fire attack second floor,” “Stretch a 2½-inch for a defensive attack,” and so on. I’ve heard some departments say, “Stretch a 1¾-inch for fire attack and primary search.” Well, a single engine company cannot do both jobs effectively. It’s one or the other.

Then give other companies assignments based on their arrival. For example, “Engine 2: Lay a supply line from Main and Front St. to supply Engine 1,” “Truck 1: Primary search,” and so on. 

It doesn’t stop there. You as the first-due officer must complete as best as possible a 360 of the fire building. If anything regarding the building, fire conditions, life hazard, or safety hazards has been found, you must report it over the radio. Realistically, the first-arriving officer cannot perform a 360 at every fire before acting. If that is the case, it is very important to transmit that he was unable to perform the 360. This report advises responding chief officers of two vital size-up factors before they arrive on the scene: First, operations are beginning with incomplete information. Second, another company will have to be assigned to perform a 360. 

The officer must be calm and have a good “windshield view” of the arrival situation.

Sample Size-Up

Let’s look at a sample size-up. Again, this is one way; whatever your department uses, make sure it is easily understood by other responding companies.

“Engine 1 to Dispatch.”

“Go ahead Engine 1.”

“Engine 1 is on location of an occupied 2½-story wood-frame/balloon-frame residential structure. We have fire showing on the second floor, Side 2 with an exposure problem on Side 2. This will be an offensive fire. Engine 1 will be Main St. Command. Give me an additional two engines and a truck. Will be stretching a 1¾-inch handline for fire attack. Engine 2 lay a supply line from Main and Front St. for Engine 1. Truck 1, perform primary search on Main Fire Building.”

Dispatch should repeat this back, so everyone hears it again.

With this statement, the wheels are in motion for a successful start to an operation. Obviously, more orders must be given if dictated by your department SOPs. Remember also that a transfer of command should be made face to face but sometimes a radio transfer of command may take place.

A “CAN” report will benefit arriving command officers as well as all incoming companies. It communicates three essential factors of information: the Conditions observed, the Actions performed by companies prior to the chief’s arrival, and the Needs of companies to accomplish their mission. Whatever your department uses, be good at it, be calm with it, speak clearly, and have a strong command presence.  

Greg Sellers is a firefighter with the Chesapeake (VA) Fire Department assigned to Engine 11/C shift. He is also a volunteer firefighter for the Smithfield (VA) Volunteer Fire Department. He is an instructor in engine and truck operations and a 28-year veteran of the fire service.

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