Read the Building: It’s More Than Just Size-Up

Oct. 1, 2004
I don’t believe there is a fire officer anywhere (of any competency) who would neglect or fail to appreciate the value of a proper size-up when developing an incident action plan. We all know that size-up is not an event; it’s a process that continues throughout the incident. Conditions can rapidly change for the better or worse. An incident commander’s view from the street is nothing more than a “snap shot” picture at any given point, and to proceed full steam ahead based on conditions as they are without consideration of a change in conditions or the addition of new information concerning the structure is tantamount to foolishness.

Having said that, I want to introduce a concept that I believe goes beyond what we typically define as size-up. I call it “reading the building.” I submit that reading a building is more than just size-up, and many incident commanders (ICs) are doing it without realizing or quantifying it.

Reading a building does not have to occur only when the building is on fire. Reading a building can occur when crews are performing pre-incident planning, or simply driving the district. Reading the building can occur around the table at shift change or during formal and informal training sessions. Reading the building requires and involves a deeper understanding of the structure, its construction features and how the building is likely to react to a particular set of fire conditions inside.

Here is an example: “A two-story wood-frame structure with smoke issuing from the front upstairs window.” This is an adequate size-up that can be easily and quickly communicated to the first-due companies that will help prepare them for what is in store so that they can anticipate possible assignments. Not usually conveyed (for a variety of reasons) are the more detailed deeper issues that may be associated with the incident that can be discerned only when the IC reads the building. For instance, by reading the building the IC would consider some of the following:

  • The smoke is issuing from an upstairs room, which is likely to be a bedroom.

  • The age of the structure may denote platform or balloon framing; if this is balloon framing, the fire is not likely confined to a bedroom.

  • Is the roof pitched or flat? The type of roof will influence the degree to which one can discern whether the fire has extended into the attic or interstitial space above the bedroom.

  • Are there visible crawl-space vents or basement windows, or is this slab construction?

  • Is the smoke under pressure?

  • What is the color and density of the smoke?

  • Was the window knocked out or did the fire cause the breach of the window glass?

  • How is the building reacting to the fire?

  • Is there violent cracking and popping associated with the fire?

  • What is the most likely route for the fire to extend, based upon what I can see and anticipate?

  • What is my anticipated fire flow based upon the conditions by the time my crews can actually secure a sustained water source and reach the seat of the fire?

  • Is the window discharging the smoke adequate for ventilation purposes? If not, what are my options to augment and address the ventilation needs?

  • Will the current wind conditions help or impede the ventilation that is naturally and already occurring?

Now, more than ever before, we must take seriously the notion of reading our buildings for the following reasons:

  • Structural collapse remains near the top as a cause for firefighter line-of-duty injuries and deaths.

  • In this modern era of lighter-weight structural materials, the likelihood of an early structural collapse has increased.

  • Because our older structures with the more significant structural members have been remodeled, cut up and poked through, it is more likely for these once-sound structures to lose their integrity earlier when subjected to fire conditions.

No one expects incident commanders to scratch their heads, wring their hands and methodically plod through and fully answer every issue before sending crews inside; I am not remotely suggesting that. However, if an IC has been a student of reading buildings, then he or she will be much further ahead of the time-temperature curve that is working overtime to destroy the structure and those inside.

Greg Neely is the deputy fire chief currently serving as interim fire chief for the Broken Arrow, OK, Fire Department. Previously, he served for 22 years with the Tulsa Fire Department, rising through the ranks to the position of district chief. Neely holds a master of science degree in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and is National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program alumnus. He also holds adjunct instructor status for both OSU Fire Service Training and the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, and is the first member of the Oklahoma fire service to receive the Fire Service Harvard Fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Neely can be reached via his website

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