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Stopbad: September 2014

Proper size-up is key to safe and effective fire-ground operations.

August 28, 2014 
By Gord Schreiner

Proper size-up is key to safe and effective fire-ground operations.

Size-up is the process of gathering information that can help us make safe, effective and quick decisions on the fire ground. A good size-up helps us determine a safe approach to solving the problem. We need to act fast. We do not have the luxury of taking our time to gather information before we make decisions.

Great fire officers are constantly doing size-up in their heads even before the incident (pre-incident). This includes being aware of local resources including training level, depth of response, equipment, weather and available mutual-aid partners.

Upon hearing the initial call, a great officer can glean a lot of information. Time of day might indicate whether or not the property is typically occupied. Time of day may also indicate the strength of the response from the department. The location may indicate water supply and type of occupancy. Location name or address might indicate the size of the building, construction type and the possible presence of hazardous materials. While responding to the incident, a pre-incident plan might be used to gain more information.


Once we have arrived on the scene, we have an opportunity to gather much more detail. A quick chat with a key person on scene can make a big difference. People might know if anyone is in the building, how or where the fire started, and what has happened in the past few minutes. Do not discount this crucial information-gathering strategy. Having someone tell us that nobody is home and that the fire started in a pot on the stove is very valuable.

Next, conduct a 360 size-up around the building. This is not always possible due to several limiting factors, but get as good a look as you can of the four sides of the structure. A thermal imaging camera is a great tool that can provide more complete information. We might see fire coming out of the back of the building or a victim standing in the backyard. Without this information we might commit firefighters to a high-risk fire or attempt to rescue someone who has already gotten out of the building.

Information gathering during the 360 size-up should include the building’s height and area, type of construction, occupancy type, the location and extent of the fire, and any exposure concerns. Information gathering during the pre-incident, our initial alarm and the 360 will help us make a risk assessment and develop an incident action plan before placing firefighters in harm’s way.

Considering the fire conditions allows us to determine the survivability profile of any potential occupants before committing firefighters to a high-risk rescue operation. Could anyone be alive in this structure? This is a key piece of information because if we believe there could be viable occupants, we can develop an incident-action plan that allows for a rapid primary search (if appropriate). If, after a primary search has been completed and little or no progress toward fire extinguishment has occurred, we should move to a defensive posture. If we determine that fire conditions indicate that the chance of anyone being alive is unlikely, we need to develop an incident-action plan that limits the risk.

We need to think much more defensively these days; buildings are built lighter and burn hotter than in the past. Fire growth can be very rapid and aggressive. Our success is in bringing all firefighters safely back to the station.

Size-up never ends during an incident. Great officers constantly communicate with their teams to track progress and ensure that the incident-action plan is working. Based on the feedback from the team, the officer is able to prioritize decisions and to continue to work within a safe and effective fire ground. This feedback also helps to ensure that a good accountability system is in place, which includes knowing the location and status of all firefighters in the hot zone.

Size-up continues for the duration of the incident. It doesn’t end after teams are inside.

Size-up can go even further. After the incident is terminated, a post-analysis should be done to review what we observed and did. We can determine if our actions worked or if there may have been safer and more effective ways of doing things. This post-incident analysis allows us to share the process with others and to learn from the incident with the goal of making future incidents safer and more effective.

Remember, if it is predictable, it should be preventable.

Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C., where he also manages the Comox Fire Training Centre. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire

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