Conducting A Proper Size-Up

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 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?

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.

The strategic factors listed above are a good starting point to any size-up, but they could also be improved upon to give a more complete picture. For instance, are energy-efficient windows present in the building? Was the structure built using new construction principles and materials? This may result in all or most of the products of combustion or indication of fire remaining inside the building. Is the wind blowing into the building making the interior untenable with no visible exterior signs of fire? Is smoke being observed or encountered in a location remote from or below the fire indicating additional fire or some kind of ventilation problem?

There are five major areas of importance during a size-up where valuable information can be gained. They are:

  1. Receipt of alarm.
  2. Enroute responding to the alarm.
  3. Arrival at the fire scene.
  4. Inside the fire building or area.
  5. Post-control operations.

In doing a size-up, start with the type of alarm received. Was it a phone call, automatic alarm, smoke detector, recorded device or pull box? If there is a phone alarm, for instance, a substantial amount of information can usually be gathered from the caller. "Fire is reported at 42 South St. on the second floor" can tell us many things.

Photo by Michael M. Dugan
A 360-degree survey of the exterior will insure that hazards are not overlooked or go unreported.

Most of the responding firefighters will have a general knowledge of the areas they are assigned to protect. In this instance, many would know that the address given is in a residential area and that even street numbers indicate that the address is on the north side of the street. Because the alarm was reported at 2:42 A.M., there is a strong possibility of sleeping occupants being victims of smoke and/or fire, since most homes in that area have bedrooms on the second floor.

While enroute, the firefighters and officers should, if possible, be looking toward the direction of the reported fire for signs of smoke. This must be done with safety in mind, remembering that the members are on a responding apparatus and should remain seated and belted at all times. Observing the vehicular traffic to ensure a safe response is still of the utmost importance. If smoke is observed, the members responding should note the amount of smoke (light, medium, heavy) and where it is coming from (window, chimney, roof, etc.).

Often, even from a distance, there is an indication of the type of material burning, from its distinct odor. Wood, aluminum pots (food on the stove), rubbish and plastics give off unique odors while burning. Many veteran firefighters have learned to recognize and identify these burning materials through their sense of smell.

While approaching the fire location, special note should be taken of hydrant and/or drafting locations for a confirmed water supply. The front of the building should also be assessed for ladder use. Are aerial, tower or portable operations indicated, dictating placement of apparatus?

Upon arrival, the building should be sized-up before entering. The height, width and depth of the building should be noted, as well as the location of visible fire and smoke. Means of egress and access such as fire escapes, porch roofs, portable ladders and setbacks can be noted in case a need to retreat or evacuate occurs.

Photo by Michael M. Dugan
Multiple dwellings present their own special hazards. Floor layouts, renovations, access and the number of occupancies need to be considered in fire attack.

Also, before entry, a 360-degree survey should be done of the exterior of the building and the results reported to all members on the scene. This will insure that no other hazards are overlooked or go unreported to operating forces. An added benefit of this 360-degree survey allows for any victims who may need assistance or have jumped, prior to our arrival, to be located.

The type of construction and the condition of the building can also be factored into a size-up. Is the building fireproof, wood framed or brick and joist construction? Will it limit or permit fire extension? Has the building been renovated to create concealed spaces or has additional living space been added, as in a separate apartment or private rooms (single room renters) in a private dwelling? Is the building under construction, thus limiting areas of refuge within the building or opening it to rapid fire involvement throughout. The possible presence of holes in the floors and walls in buildings under construction also impact firefighting operations and should be included in the size-up.

The number of windows and their location should be carefully observed, as well as whether they appear to be discolored due to heat or smoke. Another thing to note before entering is the type of occupancy the structure is used for. Is it a single-family home, a multiple dwelling, apartment house, commercial or business type of occupancy?

The last thing one needs to do prior to entering the building is to look for any peculiarities with the fire scene, fire building, or its exposures. Upon entering the building, notice the location of stairs and elevators in regard to their relationship to the fire area.

The layout of the floors below should be noted in the event that they correspond with the layout of the floor that is on fire. Smoke, heat and fire conditions should be accessed by all members in the fire area and this information relayed to the incident commander. This is especially important if smoke and/or heat are encountered in unusual locations or on the floor or floors above the fire.

What To Look For

As firefighters enter the fire area, they should immediately locate the escape routes and determine if the fire is extending and where it is extending to. This information is then passed up the chain of command to the incident commander.

The size-up should also include whether the fire is controllable with the resources on scene or if more help is needed.

As the fire attack progresses, so will the size-up. The effectiveness of fire attack, the condition of the fire and the condition of interior firefighting forces will have to be made known to the incident commander. This is done continuously until the fire is under control or members are relieved for rest and rehabilitation.

Post-control operations are done before leaving the scene of the fire or emergency. A size-up should again be done to determine the condition the area or fire building will be left in, thus preventing injuries to civilians returning to the building after fire personnel have left the scene. All windows that have been broken should be trimmed and free of broken glass fragments which could result in injuries if they were to fall.

If necessary, the utilities providing the building with gas, water or electricity can be shut down if they present a potential hazard to civilians returning to the structure.

The building and surrounding area should be left in as safe a condition as possible. If this cannot be achieved, then security should be provided, either by the police or building owner. It would then be determined what measures are necessary. These may include posting a security guard or boarding up a structure to prevent people from entering.

The importance of doing a size-up cannot be stressed enough. It is a basic safety measure for all firefighters and officers. Proper training on how to do a size-up is essential.

There is an opportunity for members of the fire service to learn and practice correct size-up techniques every time they enter a building. Whether it be for a drill, a minor emergency or for an educational visit, a size-up should be done reviewing every step involved. With practice, doing a size-up will become second nature in any situation.

Newer members of the fire service who are more vulnerable to "tunnel vision" (the focusing of attention on only a specific area of the problem and not allowing the member to see the total picture) must receive training and assistance in learning how to correctly do a size-up. Once this technique is mastered, the benefit to that member and the overall operation will be immeasurable.

Size-up is the constant gathering of information and knowledge that will protect all firefighters who are operating at the scene of a fire or emergency. The end result of which will almost always insure a successful and safe operation.

Michael M. Dugan is a 13-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as a lieutenant in the South Bronx and Harlem. He is a former volunteer firefighter and is a lecturer at the Suffolk County, NY, Fire Academy. Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett Medal in 1992 and the Dr. Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY's highest awards for heroism.