The Ten Command-ments of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

Mark Emery continues this series with Command-ment #4: Thou shall ensure that four sides are seen and compared.

Command-ment #4: Thou shall ensure that four sides are seen and compared. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fourth edition) offers the following definitions of "size-up": to make an estimate, opinion or judgment; to arrange, classify, or distribute according to size; the...

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If you want to benefit from this article you must believe the following Command Caveat: An intelligent, safe and coordinated incident action plan is the product of determining risk versus value and the identification and prioritization of problems. Stated from a different angle, it is impossible to develop an intelligent and safe incident action plan if you haven't determined risk versus value and you don't know what the problems are. Furthermore, the identification of the most significant problem is crucial size-up information.

Often, company officers will "fast attack" a problem identified on arrival through the windshield; the problem attacked may be an obvious problem tactically, but may not be the most significant problem strategically. The term "fast attack" infers that a meaningful size-up has not been completed. Unless the most significant problem can be resolved with the stomp of a steel-toed boot, fast attack is the vernacular of reactive tacticians, not of informed strategists.

Through the windshield, everything can appear routine, yet conditions elsewhere reveal a situation that you have never seen before or that require immediate attention, such as a rescue at the rear of the building.

Here's an example: A company officer is first to arrive at a "routine" fire within a large two-story house. The officer notices a large amount of dark, turbulent smoke venting from side A on floor 1. The company officer also notices light smoke along the length of the roof soffit. The officer makes a tactical decision to "fast attack" this problem through the front door. Had size-up been performed, the officer would have discovered the most significant problem: the smoke was originating from a well-developed basement fire. (Just two floors were visible from side A; size-up would have revealed the basement on side C.) This hasty moth-to-flame tactical decision (based solely on the arrival size-up snapshot) placed the team working above a hidden fire.

Even if first-floor tactics were performed flawlessly, working above the undiscovered basement fire would be strategically reckless. Thus, another Command Caveat: Competent fire officers always seek strategic benefit rather than tactical entertainment (especially true when there is no compelling evidence of a civilian life-safety problem.)

Seeking strategic benefit requires information and a plan; seeking tactical entertainment requires nothing more than a hoseline, halligan or chainsaw.

Strategic Priority Size-Up

Precisely what are your strategic priorities? As a refresher, at any incident, you have three strategic priorities:

1. Life safety

2. Incident stabilization

3. Property conservation

No matter what type of incident and no matter what problems you face when you arrive, each problem identified can be classified as a life-safety problem, a stabilization problem or a property problem. At most incidents - motor vehicle accident, building collapse, confined space, hazardous materials, etc. - you will be faced with life-safety problems and stabilization problems. In general, property conservation will only be a strategic problem on the fireground (also flooded basements, broken sprinkler heads, etc.) However, a competent and considerate fire officer can have a significant influence on conserving property. Example: trying the knob before destroying the door. A master craftsman fire officer integrates property conservation into the completion of stabilization tactical objectives.

Consider the size-up of the following situation: Car versus pole; two unconscious teenagers in the front seats; fuel leaking; a power line down and draped over the hood of the car.

  • Do you have a life-safety problem? Yes, you have two "red" patients, as well as the safety of responders and bystanders.
  • Do you have a stabilization problem? Yes, the power line and leaking fuel, as well as stability of the vehicle itself. What about the stability of the power pole? Traffic?
  • Property would not be a consideration at this incident.

Now consider this: Of your three strategic priorities, which is always your number-one strategic priority? There should be no debate that life safety will always be your top strategic priority. That said, which strategic priority will you address first tactically? With fuel leaking and a power line draped over the vehicle hood, you would be foolish to rush in and begin patient care and rescue. To ensure your safety, as well as the safety of bystanders and patients, you must first address the stabilization problems. Your initial actions - your tactics - will be to stabilize the incident and to protect responders. Take care of your people first. Once the incident scene has been stabilized, patient care and removal would be initiated. The action plan at this incident would transition from a stabilization action plan to a life-safety action plan.