Two Words: “Routine” And “Size-Up”

Each and every year, too many firefighters are killed or injured on the fireground. The average number killed is in the neighborhood of 100 a year. Factoring in the data that links over 50% of the fatalities with heart/lung or other health-related issues, that still leaves an unacceptable number actually killed while operating on the fireground.

If you read the investigation reports about these fatalities from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or through the National Fire Academy, you will see that two words seem to appear consistently. These two words are "routine" and "size-up."

The District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department killed three firefighters in 18 months at incidents where "size-up" and "routine" appeared in the reconstruction reports as direct causes of the fatalities. But D.C. was not alone in this situation. You can add Seattle (four dead), Pittsburgh (four dead), Memphis (two dead), Brackenridge, PA (four dead), Kansas City, MO (six dead) and Detroit (three dead). These are not indictments against any of these entities, but what is irrefutable is that the words "routine" and "size-up" are listed as direct causes of death for ALL of them.

The question could be posed as to exactly when an incident becomes labeled as "routine." What magnitude must it be to be considered dangerous to firefighters? I don't profess to be that profound, so I researched the concept and I think some thoughts of others need to be shared. Besides understanding emergency situations and variables, it is crucial to understand some basics about emergency responders. During an emergency response, certain psychological occurrences take place within the minds of responders. A wide range of possibilities exists, depending on the individual, amount of training and education, length of service, experience and type of incident.

It may seem odd to have to make this statement, but emergency scenes are dangerous and potentially lethal! Why? Because of the lack of control. There is no other job that allows or requires its employees to work in an uncontrolled environment. Isn't that what emergency responses are all about? If events were not to some degree out of control, emergency responders would not be necessary (Slovic, 1974, pages 68-71).

Although the psychological responses vary, responders share certain reactions. First, upon being dispatched, most individuals have a basic adrenaline rush - there is excitement. The more extraordinary (due to magnitude, type, etc.) the response, the more adrenaline is likely to flow. On the other hand, the more ordinary and routine the response is for the individual, the less adrenaline is likely to flow. Either case can be extremely dangerous to responders if they do not realize what is happening.

At whichever end of the emotional spectrum the responder is found, emotion has the tendency to put the brain in neutral. The responder is not thinking, but reacting. As a result the responder is at the mercy of the emergency situation.

When responders perceive the incident to be highly unusual, dangerous or emotionally charged, they often experience tunnel vision. Tunnel vision occurs when responders focus on one aspect of the situation and lose sight of the overall incident. On the other hand, if the responders perceive the incident to be routine, they may go on autopilot. In either case, they become oblivious to their surroundings and thus are at the mercy of the incident (Initial Response to Hazardous Materials Incidents, August 1992).

I tested the above hypothesis against the firefighter fatalities listed above and indeed found evidence that those involved had demonstrated behaviors consistent with the stated theory. Of course, none of those firefighters committed themselves to kamikaze attacks. The unraveling of their safety nets started at the initial size-up. On Kennedy Street in D.C. in 1997, the initial size-up failed to mention that all occupants were out of the two-story "taxpayer," that smoke was coming up through the sidewalk and, once inside, the following conditions were reported afterwards: "Cans were exploding, bottles were popping, the floor was too hot to kneel on and tongues of fire intermittently appeared across the ceiling. No sizeable amount of fire was witnessed." It was under them. Also, when the firefighter fell through the floor, he was still alive and the officer who knew failed to report it to the incident commander (IC).

In 1999, two firefighters were killed in a 20-by-30-foot, two-story rowhouse. The initial units gave cursory reports of "two-story row, smoke showing." In the rear, however, the building was three stories. The IC, a battalion chief, became paralyzed, as he perceived he had opposing lines.

D.C. is not alone. This also happened in Seattle, Brackenridge and Pittsburgh. Not enough information was provided to establish the scope for all units to see from an initial radio report. We in the fire service love to create acronyms. We have WALLACE WAS HOT and others to remember size-up information. Although this information is valuable for exams and the like, I firmly believe that the initial and subsequent size-up reports must paint a picture without telling a story.

We have never been able to guess the building construction type from the exterior veneer. If we know the building stock in our area then and only then can we be absolutely sure what type it is. Reports like "three-story brick" are ridiculous - does that mean that a three-story building with siding might be a three-story plastic? I know of an entire subdivision which was constructed to look exactly like two-story ordinary-constructed rowhouses that in reality are two lightweight wood-frame dwellings.

We have a limited amount of time to transmit a radio message without cutting into everyone else's ability to communicate their most important message. I believe that the following information, and only this information, needs to relayed for all units to understand the scope of the incident and for the responding IC to begin formulating the resource needs and preliminary strategies and tactics prior to arrival on the scene:

  1. Height/configuration (stories/ detached, row, duplex, etc.).
  2. Use (dwelling, commercial, school, factory, etc.).
  3. Dimensions (in feet, an estimation)
  4. Scope of problem (defined by the department). "Heavy" may mean any amount of smoke or fire beyond two or more windows or two or more sides.
  5. Pertinent problems visible immediately (exposures, trapped occupants, wires down).

The following could be an example: "Engine 1 is on the scene of a four-story, detached, multiple-occupied building (apartment, hotel, etc.) approximately 80 feet by 80 feet, with heavy fire conditions on the number two floor with people trapped on the number three and four floors." Every company responding knows this will be a working fire and the IC knows to begin asking for help now.

We don't run as many fires as we used to; this is prevalent across the country. We very rarely get to do live-fire training. We have younger and less-experienced company and chief officers. For these reasons and others we need to look at ourselves and at those who paid the ultimate price so that we do not continue to make the same mistakes and continue killing our firefighters for the same reasons.

We can overcome the problems associated with poor or incomplete size-ups and we can condition our members to suppress the effects of adrenaline or complacency, but it all begins with our training and culture. Now is the time to make safety the number-one word on every person's lips that are involved with this trade.

A few years ago, following the inquiry into the South Canyon fire, then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt issued a memo with their report to firefighters. The memo said, "…Individuals must be personally committed and responsible for their performance and accountability… every firefighter, every line supervisor, every fire manager and every agency administrator has the responsibility to ensure compliance with established safe firefighting practices" (Staley, 1998, pages 129-131).

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747.

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University and has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law.