Buildings On Fire: Reading the Building: The Importance of the Size-Up

Previous columns discussed the importance of understanding a building’s anatomy, occupancy risk and compartment profile. These are integral to efficient and effective firefighting operations within buildings on fire and are essential for all phases of...


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Previous columns discussed the importance of understanding a building’s anatomy, occupancy risk and compartment profile. These are integral to efficient and effective firefighting operations within buildings on fire and are essential for all phases of fire suppression and operational engagements.

Fundamental to these operations is the ability to accurately identify the building profile and predict how it will perform during the various stages of fire growth, correlated over time and throughout the fire suppression operational period. Since the early 1950s, the modern fire suppression performance model used in the U.S. fire service applied to the referral of a building type and its occupancy classification to dictate presumptive performance and operational characteristics. Traditional fireground operations have used this prescribed principle for decades with great success.

 

The importance of the process

First-due company and command arrivals typically define or establish prescribed strategic or tactical deployment methods based on the predictability of fireground and building performance indicators based on what the traditional size-up factors and indicators are being identified, perceived or assumed. Traditional sequenced and transitional size-up has been an established indispensable fireground task.

The importance of the size-up process – what is being assessed and processed, what is the level of importance of incoming indicators and information and what it means to the Incident Action Plan (IAP) and strategic and tactical process – varies greatly and at times becomes superficial, minimized and non-descriptive to the point of being programmed.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also evoke that there have been numerous examples of highly effective and value-driven size-up practices established by organizations that have honed and developed methods, processes and practices based on training and skill sets that establish this benchmark as an integral part of the fire suppression methodology model. Notwithstanding, there are pronounced differences in the conduct of size-up from a company officer’s perspective than that of a command officer’s based on the sequence of first arrival. In each, distinct actions must be considered based on incident severity, urgency or growth (SUG) of the evolving incident conditions within the building and the IAPs that must be formulated and implemented with regard for the continuum of time.

For example, size-up, risk-assessment profiling and predictability of performance can vary greatly based on functionality and assignment. First-due engine company size-up and assessment may vary from that of the first-due ladder company to that of the first-due commander or the safety officer size-up or that of the rapid intervention team officer size-up. Protocols, risk focus areas, naturalistic decision-making attributes, situational awareness migration or drift may all influence what you are reading and interpreting when looking at the building on arrival and as you phase into the sequence of operations.

There are numerous classic mnemonic systems that identify and address different size-up factors that can be used, which are widely referenced in strategy, tactics and incident management textbooks and manuals. These systems, however, are no longer practical or applicable to today’s fireground, buildings and fire dynamics and company-level resource capabilities. They require recalibration and updating to reflect leading or latent indicators, variables and considerations that better align with the built environment and fireground conditions.

Our focus isn’t on debating classical size-up factors or exploring the changes necessary for effective fireground risk assessment and IAP formulation, which is mandated by our current fireground challenges, but rather to focus on the mission critical attribute related to the building and the dynamics of fire within the compartment and effects on the structure during the conduct of fireground operations.

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