Conducting A Proper Size-Up

Michael M. Dugan explores what a size-up is and how it should be done in order to avoid making potentially fatal mistakes.


It is 2:42 A.M. on March 5 and the outside temperature is 21 degrees Fahrenheit. An alarm has just been transmitted for a reported fire at 43 Main St., on the second floor. Photo by Michael M. Dugan Upon arrival at the scene, firefighters should size-up the building before...


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It is 2:42 A.M. on March 5 and the outside temperature is 21 degrees Fahrenheit. An alarm has just been transmitted for a reported fire at 43 Main St., on the second floor.

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Photo by Michael M. Dugan
Upon arrival at the scene, firefighters should size-up the building before entering. Did a room replace the garage in this dwelling?

Tonight, you're assigned as a member of the search and rescue team, operating with a partner in advance of the first hoseline. As such, your required tasks include ventilation, entry and search, as well as the locating and confining of the fire.

As the apparatus turns the corner onto Main Street, you see civilians signaling to you and pointing toward a specific house.

During your approach to the scene, you observe similarly constructed homes adjacent to 43 Main St. A one-car garage is attached to each house. As you look at 43 Main St., you observe that there is no garage at this address. Instead, you see windows with an air conditioner in them, which could indicate a separate living space within this building.

An occupant appears and informs you of a smoke condition on the second floor. You ask this person whether there is a separate living area or apartment within this structure where the garage was located. He confirms that there is indeed an apartment with one elderly resident inside. You then relay this information to the incident commander. He orders you and your partner to gain entry into this area and search for the possible origin of fire.

The origin of the fire was located within the converted garage and an elderly occupant was rescued. A potentially life-threatening mistake was avoided by not rushing to the location of the smoke and being above the fire without a hoseline to protect your team. This is all a result of an accurate size-up.

Defining Size-Up

Since entry into the fire service, most of us have been taught the importance of doing a size-up. What is a size-up and how should it be done?

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Photo by Michael M. Dugan
What are the means of egress and access for firefighters making an attack, evacuation or retreat?

Size-up is defined in most fire service texts as the on-going evaluation of problems confronted within a fire situation. Size-up starts with the receipt of an alarm and continues until the fire is under control. This process is carried out many times and by many different individuals at each fire or emergency event. The responsibility of size-up initially lies with the first officer of the first unit or company that arrives on scene. This responsibility is passed up the chain of command as other units arrive with higher-ranking personnel.

As firefighting is constantly evolving, so must our procedures for doing a size-up. All members must realize that this is not just a function of command.

The definition of size-up should be broadened to state that size-up is a continuing evaluation of information received incorporated with your personal observations at a fire or emergency scene. It should start at the receipt of the alarm and continue until the last unit leaves the scene.

Every firefighter and officer at the scene should constantly be doing a size-up. Any condition encountered or observed that could impact operations or the safety of firefighters, should be immediately passed up the chain of command.

The strategic factors which must be considered in size-up according to most firefighting training manuals are:

  1. Time of day.
  2. Life hazards, including all firefighting personnel.
  3. Area of building.
  4. Height of building.
  5. Type of construction.
  6. Occupancy.
  7. Location and extent of the fire.
  8. Water supply.
  9. Street conditions.
  10. Auxiliary appliances (such as sprinklers and standpipes).
  11. Weather conditions.
  12. Apparatus and equipment.
  13. Exposures.
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