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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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.