One of the most critical tasks to be conducted at an early stage of a structure fire is the performance of a 360-degree walk around. For safety, a 360 assessment, which is part of a quick size-up obtained from all four sides of a structure, attempts to gain as much intelligence about the structure as possible. Although highly recommended by numerous fire safety associations and advocates, this task is not by any means a cure-all. However, when done on a routine basis by a trained officer who knows what to look for, a 360 will help minimize the risk of injury or death to firefighters.
Far too often the first arriving officer feels the overriding need to take immediate action by quickly entering a structure to locate and extinguish the fire. However, an investment of one or two minutes required to conduct a 360 at the outset has the potential to provide greater overall safety throughout the remaining course of the fire. But to be of benefit, it must be done routinely whenever possible or practical, otherwise the potential exposure to danger for all involved may be greater.
In the case of a residential fire, in many instances the first arriving officer will have a good sense in regards to the strategy and tactics that will be needed and may order firefighters to bunker up and lay a dry, pre-connected handline. The line can then be charged when the officer determines if it is safe enough to conduct an interior attack and on which side of the structure the attack will be made. This can be done while the officer conducts the 360. In this way, tasks that are equally important are carried out simultaneously rather than sequentially, allowing safety to be maintained and preparation for a calculated attack to proceed without delay. The officer should also keep in mind that, in many cases, the use of traditional fast and aggressive blind interior attacks on arrival have resulted in firefighter fatalities, so there is, in fact, inherent safety associated when conducting a 360. It forces the officer to slow down and more carefully assess the structure and the situation.
Extremely Dangerous Enclosed Commercial Structures
Any officer or firefighter from any department has the ability to determine the degree of danger associated with any structure by simply looking at its structural design. It has been proven that enclosed structures that have few windows or doors in relation to the size of the structure, have been taking the lives of firefighters at a disproportionate rate when compared to open structures. The rate was even more disproportionate when multiple firefighter fatality fires were examined. Open structures have an adequate number of windows and doors to provide prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation. The small- to moderate-size single-family residence without a basement and without boarded windows or burglar bars is a prime example.
When a large enclosed commercial structure is involved, the officer and all arriving firefighters should be able to notice and realize that the structure is enclosed and dangerous. During a 360, in addition to making a note of covered windows or doors that may serve as alternate points of entry, the officer should also look for certain signs of dangerous conditions, including downed power lines. Additionally, a slope of the terrain along the foundation line may indicate the structure has a basement. The mere presence of basement windows or doors also indicates the existence of a basement. The officer should look for fire or cracks in the walls, a leaning wall, separation of walls or smoke seeping through a wall. These signs may indicate a roof collapse is imminent and defensive operations may be needed. It is also important to consider what may be happening within the structure. The structure may have serious structural integrity problems suggesting that perhaps an unprotected steel I-beam may have been heated to such a degree that it has expanded, pushing outward on the exterior walls. This condition can go unnoticed when unprotected steel beams supporting a floor may fail when sufficiently heated over the course of the fire. Fire seen along the upper walls along the outer edge of the roof may indicate that the roof assembly, perhaps of lightweight steel or wooden truss construction, may have been exposed to fire and is on the verge of collapsing into the structure.