The Ten Command-ments of Intelligent & Safe Fireground Operations

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 actual state of affairs.

Size-up is a close relative of another word: triage. The definition of triage is not restricted to the medical community; the same dictionary defines "triage" as a process in which things are ranked in terms of importance or priority.

You are the first fire officer to arrive at a "routine" building fire. Your apparatus driver cruises past the building, allowing you to view three sides from the right front seat. After the apparatus stops, you exit the cab and immediately:

1. Start doing tactical stuff


2. Perform a thorough size-up.

As the first fire officer on scene, if you immediately start doing tactical "stuff," you are functioning as a task-level firefighter, not a fire officer; on the other hand, if you continue to seek strategic information — by performing a thorough size-up — you are fulfilling your role and responsibility as a fire officer. What you do when you step out of the cab will determine if you are a reactive tactician or an informed strategist.

As the first officer to arrive, it should not be a surprise that you have "command responsibility." That means you are responsible for three things:

1. Strategy

2. Resources

3. Risk

It is impossible to manage strategy, resources and risk competently without strategic information; identifying problems and determining value is the most important strategic information you will obtain during size-up. You also must quickly develop an initial action plan based on size-up information. Acquiring and processing information during an incident is called "size-up." This article will provide a model for quickly and consistently performing a strategically meaningful size-up.

If the incident is a situation you have seen many times, such as a car fire, dumpster fire or automatic fire alarm, you can employ a mental process called "recognition-primed decision making." Using RPDM means that you are able to tap prior knowledge and experience — mostly experience - without having to slow down and ponder what to do; you are able to react quickly and initiate appropriate action. In other words, your prior experience primes your decision-making "pump." For example, if you notice a rock traveling rapidly toward your head, you rapidly assess the situation and take appropriate action: you duck. (If you contemplate speed, trajectory and alternative actions, it's too late ...Thwack! Pain! Long-term physical therapy!)

A fire burning within a building is different. There are many factors that require the contemplation of a fire officer: building construction features; occupancy type; phase of fire growth; fire load; location of the fire, contents or structure, and smoke; occupied or unoccupied; available resources; time of day; survivability profile; personnel safety, etc. Because of the demands on the contemporary fire officer and the variables present on the structural fireground, this article will assume that:

1. It is unlikely that you have extensive fireground experience that can be used to "prime" your decision-making pump.

2. Buildings and building fires are not all alike, even if you do have lots of experience.

This article will place a great deal of responsibility on you, the first company officer to arrive. What will happen after you arrive is based on your size-up and subsequent decisions. As a fire officer, your decisions must be based on what you know is true, not based on what you think is true - or what is usually true. What you see through the windshield will tell you what you think is important; size-up will reveal what is important.

Size-up = Determining Value and Identifying Problems

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.

The point is this: Although life safety is always your first strategic priority, it is not always your first tactical priority. Consider your arrival at a house fire. After viewing four-sides (and factoring "The Three That Kill" from Command-ment III), your size-up produced no compelling evidence of a civilian life-safety problem that would require rescue or search and rescue; the status of life safety is literally "unknown if occupied." Accordingly, you will address the strategic priority - life safety - with the tactical objective - primary search. This means that stabilization objectives will likely be initiated before primary search (examples: water supply, confine the fire, ventilation two in/two out). The fireground is not tactically linear so at some point primary search would be coordinated with the stabilization effort.

Reflect on firegrounds you have personally responded to; if there was no evidence of a rescue situation, which occurred first: life-safety objectives or stabilization objectives? Unless addressed concurrent with the stabilization effort, life safety will always be addressed before property conservation - both strategically and tactically. However, there are moments when stabilizing the incident has priority.

Purpose of Strategic Priority Size-Up

Did you notice that the tactical "activities" described above were an extension of sizing-up problems strategically? This article began with dictionary definitions of "size-up" and "triage." It then proceeded to differentiate between what you see on arrival and the importance of your size-up. Why split hairs between size-up and triage? Because many fire officers believe size-up entails nothing more than what they see through the windshield. This may qualify as cursory size-up but, by definition, does not qualify as triage. The purpose of size-up is to gather enough information to develop and implement an action plan developed by a master craftsman fire officer. It is impossible to develop and implement a master craftsman action plan - intelligent, safe and coordinated - without first triaging the incident. In other words:

1. What are the problems?

2. Where are the problems?

3. What is the most significant problem?

4. Where is the most significant problem?

5. How will each problem be addressed tactically?

6. In what order will the problems be addressed?

Value - Time - Size

During size-up, the master craftsman fire officer determines value-time-size (VTS). Incorporating the VTS risk-management model elevates the strategic significance of your size-up. VTS will help ensure that your operational mode and action plan objectives are appropriate.

Value - Determining value on the fireground is one of the most important decisions that a fire officer makes. Value is a primary consideration for determining the operational mode; when it has been determined that firefighters represent the most value on the fireground, the operational mode and the action plan must be crafted accordingly. An intelligent and safe fireground operation is about achieving strategic benefit, not providing opportunities for tactical entertainment. Determining value and identifying problems is critical.-

An example of determining life-safety value would be observing evidence of crazing and oily residue (creosote) on windows. Through the windshield, you may observe light smoke; light smoke means an incipient fire and the possibility of offensive tactical entertainment, right? You might have guessed right if it's your lucky day. However, a master craftsman fire officer exits the cab and looks for clues that will reveal what's really going on. If you observe smoke stains around door frames and oily residue on windows, you immediately recognize that the fire is actually in the ventilation-controlled decay phase. Through the windshield, it looked offensive - lots of value and high survivability profile. After size-up, you discovered the complete opposite - that your firefighters have the most value.

Another example would be lightweight attic trusses exposed to fire. Trusses exposed to fire have no value. If the survivability profile below the trusses is high, then aggressive primary search would be conducted. Once "all clear" has been declared, firefighters would be withdrawn. Why, you ask? Why not use conventional construction tactics - pull ceilings and fight the fire from below? Quite simply, at the precise moment primary search is declared all clear, firefighters are the most valuable "thing" under the burning trusses.

An informed strategist, a master craftsman fire officer, always seeks offensive benefit from a defensive position. As a tactical alternative the burning trusses could be extinguished horizontally through a gable vent.

Time - Time is a critical component of an intelligent and safe fireground operation. Basically, time means how much offensive time you have to preserve value. Another important consideration is how much time you have before unprotected structural members fail. Thus an important determination at a contents fire or structure fire. A simple rule of thumb is wood char: wood will char 1/8-inch with every five minutes of direct flame exposure (smoke will not char wood). Thus, wood will char ¼-inch with 10 minutes of direct flame exposure, 1/2-inch with 20 minutes, one inch with 40 minutes, and so on. (Important: Depth of char is for each side of the wood exposed to fire.) Again, these are rules of thumb. However, it's easy to see why a five-by-18-inch glue-laminated timber will resist fire longer than a truss comprised of two-by-four-inch plate connected sticks.

Size - Size refers to the size of the operation. What size operation will be required to preserve the value you've identified? Fireground operation "size" has two components: water and people. Even though you may determine that there is possible occupant and property value, without adequate resources (water and people) an intelligent and safe tactical intervention may be impossible. You may determine that there's more value in one area of a building than in another.

In our craft, as in any craft, numbers are important. A fire requiring 5,000 gallons to extinguish will not be controlled with 10 2½-inch hoselines. Likewise, a fire requiring 50 gallons of water to extinguish will not be controlled with a continuous flow from 10 eye-droppers. Regardless of the value or time, the operational mode and action must match the size of the problem.

If you can assemble lots of people, a good rule of thumb is that a fire requiring 500 gallons per minute (two 2½-inch hoselines) is probably the largest (size) fire that can be attacked offensively. If you are a small department with not many people, you need to lower your strategic expectations; the offensive number should be reduced to 300 gallons per minute or less. Bottom line: doing this simple math is crucial strategic information.

"Big Six" Size-Up

On the fireground, any urgent tactical problem will fit into one of six categories — the "Big Six":

1. Fire - Is fire showing? Where is fire showing? From what side and on what floor? Fire in the attic? Fire in the basement? Floor below?

2. Smoke - Is smoke showing? Where is smoke showing? From what side and on what floor? Smoke from the attic? From the basement? The floor below?

3. Verified occupants - You have compelling evidence that occupants are viable occupants. Verified occupants may require rescue or simply need evacuation.

4. Possible occupants - You determine the status of life safety is literally "unknown if occupied." "Unknown if occupied" means primary search.

5. Exposures - Are adjacent occupancies that are threatened? If so, where? Are there interior areas that are threatened?

6. Access - Apparatus access, forcible entry, key box, ladder access, long hoselay, etc.

The Big Six are easy to remember and establish a foundation for your action plan. During size-up, one Big Six component that has helped many fire officers manage emergency incidents is listing problems before making tactical assignments. During size-up, only problems that are urgent and can be fixed tactically are listed. A lightweight truss would not be listed because it is not a tactical problem; a strong wind would not be listed as a tactical problem. Both are strategic problems that can influence the operational mode and the action plan.

Using abbreviations - F for fire, S for smoke, V for verified occupants, P for possible occupants, E for exposures and A for access - listing tactical problems does not take a lot of time, literally just a few seconds. Problems are listed as they are observed and are not prioritized as they are listed. The problem list will be prioritized when solutions are identified. Tactical problems and solutions, dovetailed with strategic problems and the determination of risk versus value, is called an incident action plan.

Your list of problems establishes a tangible foundation for your operational mode and for your initial action plan. By listing problems, you ensure that nothing of strategic importance is overlooked. Listing the Big Six requires that you slow down and look. (If you are attacking fast, you are not looking.) The Big Six focuses on the identification of problems related to your strategic priorities: life safety and incident stabilization. The Big Six does not address salvage, overhaul or support objectives such as water supply or utility stabilization.

Additional strategic considerations include the weather, construction features, type of occupancy, time of day, sun spot activity (just kidding), etc. These considerations —- and more - can influence whether your action plan will be life-safety priority or stabilization priority tactically. Nifty acronyms are available that factor a broad assortment of strategic considerations. These models are great for developing fire officers in the classroom, but should not be used as a checklist on the fireground. When selecting and assigning tactical objectives, your focus must narrow to addressing your three strategic priorities:

1. Life safety

2. Incident stabilization

3. Property conservation

Everyone responding should be able to figure out that it's Tuesday, 3 P.M., raining, the wind is blowing, roads are wet and they're responding to a reported house fire. After unbuckling your seatbelt and exiting the apparatus - "investigating four sides, update to follow" - your strategic focus will narrow to listing the Big Six, determining risk versus value and factoring important strategic problems that will influence your action plan (occupied vs. unknown if occupied, structure versus contents, lightweight vs. conventional, occupancy type, etc.). You do not have the ability to fill pot holes or change lightweight to conventional, and you certainly can't change the weather; you do have the ability to solve life-safety problems, stabilization problems and property problems once you know what the problems are.

"State of the Fireground" Address

Your arrival (windshield) report is not your size-up report. Save your size-up speech until you really know what's going on. When you arrive, limit your report to what people need to know at that moment. Once you have identified, listed and prioritized each Big Six fireground problem, you are prepared to report what you found. Think of this size-up report as your "state of the fireground" address. The Big Six are key components of this address. Your arrival report should be a strategic snapshot, lean and brief; later your Big Six state of the fireground address will provide meaningful strategic detail.

Remember, this report is simply a brief snapshot of what you know so far and what those still responding need to know. Establishing side A is much more important than describing smoke and fire conditions observed through the windshield - you've told responders there's a working fire, so get out of the cab and conduct your Big Six size-up. After investigating a sample fireground (read: Big Six size-up), your state of the fireground address would sound something like this: "Small two-story frame house, fire venting from side C on floor 2. Smoke venting from side A on floor 2. Floor 1 clear and stable, no basement, light smoke from the attic, unknown if occupied. Engine 11 is transitional from side A on floor 2."

This report provides just enough detail to paint a concise, yet meaningful strategic picture of the fireground. The declaration of "transitional" as the mode of operation and as the initial action plan will be discussed in Command-ment VI: Thou shall declare one of six operational modes. Also, notice that because a command post was not "established," the status of command remained "initiated" (mobile and informal). Once a second fire officer has arrived on scene, command would need to be established. (Refer to Command-ment I, Firehouse, March 2007).

Strategic Poise and Confidence

This article began by placing you in the right front seat as the first officer to arrive at a building fire. After conveying a brief, through-the-windshield arrival report, you will exit the cab and complete a deliberate Big Six size-up. Taking the time to do this requires poise and confidence. A degree of poise and confidence can be achieved through experience; genuine fire officer poise and confidence can be achieved only through ongoing strategic preparation before the incident - independent study, education, simulations, etc. Evidence of a fire officer who is poised and confident is the ability to slow down, focus, and identify and prioritize problems. Evidence of the highest degree of fire officer poise and confidence is the ability to develop and implement an incident action plan that factors risk versus value and big-picture strategic problems, and addresses each tactical problem identified and prioritized.

You are the first on-scene fire officer: what you know, what you say and what you do will determine how the rest of the operation will evolve. Your initial action plan will be the catalyst for the more comprehensive action plan developed by the formal incident commander. ("Formal command" means an incident commander managing strategy, resources and risk from a named and located command post.)

Responders should trust that the declared operational mode and corresponding assignments are based on your analysis of the big picture. Augment this report with additional information that responders need to know, but can't figure out on their own (or recognize when they arrive). Here's the key: your state of the fireground address should include only what those still responding need to know and what you want them to remember. After investigating four sides and factoring "The Three That Kill," formulate a concise and meaningful state of the fireground address. Your state of the fireground address should paint a strategic picture of the fireground.

If you don't know what has the most value, who has the most value and what the problems are - in particular, the most significant problem - it is impossible to be a strategically competent fire officer. Your call to action is to become a proactive strategist - poised, confident and informed...rather than a flustered, uninformed, reactive tactician. Since you've just finished reading this article, you've already begun. Remember: It's what you learn after you know it all that's important.

Strategic priority size-up:

1. Life safety

2. Incident stabilization

3. Property conservation


1. Thou shall have ONE competent incident commander.

2. Thou shall maintain teams of at least TWO personnel.

3. Thou shall recognize THREE situations that kill firefighters.

4. Thou shall ensure that FOUR sides are seen and compared.

5. Thou shall not exceed a span-of-control of FIVE.

6. Thou shall operate within one of SIX operational modes.

7. Thou shall perform the SEVEN-step action plan process.

8. Thou shall make EIGHT assignments early.

9. Thou shall address three strategic priorities with NINE tactical objectives.

10. Thou shall evaluate the situation, mode and plan every TEN minutes.

MARK EMERY, EFO, is a shift battalion chief with the Woodinville, WA, Fire & Life Safety District. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and an NFA instructor specialist. Emery received a bachelor of arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and is a partner with Fire Command Seattle LLC in King County, WA. He may be contacted at or access his website<. STEWART ROSE retired as deputy chief of training and safety after serving 29 years with the Seattle, WA, Fire Department. He served in Seattle as a company officer, battalion commander and has experience supervising engines, trucks and fireboats. Rose is considered the "father" of the original Passport Accountability System. Since retiring, Rose continues to share his knowledge, experience and "tricks of the trade" with firefighters throughout North America.