COAL WAS WEALTH: Size-up basics you need to know, part 2

FireRescue magazine's Fireground Operations column
COAL WAS WEALTH: The basics of size-up, part 2

By Freddie LaFemina

Editor's Note: For the complete 13-point size-up strategy, be sure to read part 1 of this article.

Last month, I addressed the first seven points of a 13-point size-up strategy (COAL WAS WEALTH) for evaluating problems encountered during firefighting operations. Size-up should be conducted by all operating members and carried out many times during a fire. Structural firefighting operations are dynamic and fluid, therefore strategies must be adjusted as additional problems occur, taking into account all the points of your size-up. Commanding officers will find the 13-point process beneficial because it will help them make critical decisions.

Setting Priorities
You may ask: Do the size-up points have to be considered in numerical order? The answer is no, they don’t. You’ll have to set your priorities according to the situation you’re confronted with. For example, your continued size-up may help you determine that you need to switch from an interior to an exterior attack. Doing this may have a major impact on the success of the overall operation, depending on fire conditions.

Throughout my 25 years in the FDNY, I have to say I’ve matured, and I’m confident in every decision I make on the fireground. But I wasn’t always like that. Sometimes I’d replay operations in my head, second-guessing my actions; I’m sure you’ve done the same. But the reality is you made the decision and hopefully it resulted in a positive outcome. Note: All decisions should be made with firefighter safety as the main priority. However unpopular the decision is to pull crews out of a burning structure, sometimes it has to be done.

No Such Thing as “Routine”
I hate to brag (and I know you younger firefighters out there are making faces), but we used to go to a lot more structural fires in the 80s and 90s than we do today. Structural fires almost became routine to my unit (Squad Company No.1) because of the activity at the time. But whether you go to a lot or a few, the “routine” fire doesn’t exist, which is why continual size-up is necessary at every fire we go to. Remember: You’re only as good as your last fire. Make no mistake, we’ve been very lucky in this business at times, barely escaping disaster. The bad moments usually result in the injury or death of a firefighter, which is why, no matter how you use the 13-point acronym, your No. 1 priority should be the safety and health of your firefighters.

6 Points
With the above discussion in mind, I continue with the last six points of the 13-point size-up below.

1. Weather: Freezing conditions, snow accumulations and hot and humid temperatures must be considered in the size-up. Snow accumulations may hinder proper ladder apparatus placement for rescue and access. Frozen hydrants or delayed water supply must be addressed, and alternate methods of securing a positive water supply must be accomplished. Ice in hoselines may produce insufficient pressures or cut off water supply to an engine company making an aggressive push. Important: Always properly drain hoselines after every operation, especially where cold temperatures exist. Many problems will arise during winter operations in cold climates, and these problems can escalate quickly. Heat conditions also become a factor in size-up, so you must monitor firefighters for heat exhaustion and provide frequent relief of members.

2. Exposures: Exposure can be many different things at a fire. Fire extension often threatens an adjoining structure, but it can also extend within the building itself (auto-exposure). Fire can extend from floor to floor via windows to upper floors, and up and across shafts, exposing apartments within or adjoining the building. You must always anticipate fire extension, and your size-up must include this factor. Consider a vacant, fully-involved, wood-frame structure. This one building can present many problems. The fire may be exposing or attached to an occupied similar structure. In this instance, the life hazard and the threat of fire extension will dictate where operations will begin. But exposures may not necessarily involve structures; it can also involve vehicles or storage tanks, which must also factor into the size-up. Imagine a vacant structure exposing a very large propane storage tank with occupied dwellings affected, and then imagine the consequences.

3. Auxiliary Appliances: These include standpipe/sprinkler systems in certain types of occupancies. During size-up, you must consider the location of the Siamese outlet and its relation to apparatus positioning so you can establish a water supply. Ask yourself: Can the engine company establish a positive water source and supply the system? This may provide containment of the fire and prevent the incident from escalating. Shut-off valves must also be located, but the ideal time to do this is during fire prevention activities.

4. Life: This is the most serious factor at any fire, but as you can tell, this isn’t No. 1 on the list. As I mentioned, your size-up can be conducted in any order, but most likely it will be dictated by the scenario you’re confronted with. No matter how you perform your size-up, always remember that the life hazard is your No.1 priority. What is the location of the life hazard in relation to the fire? Is it a known or suspected life hazard? Will firefighters have to search above the fire without the protection of a charged hoseline? These are questions that will spur a lot of conversation and should be used for discussion during formal or informal drill periods. Life-saving strategies must be considered for all operations when conducting a size-up.

5. Time: The incident commander must consider the time of day when calculating the life hazard (the No 1 priority). Occupied buildings will involve a greater life hazard at nighttime as opposed to daylight hours. As a result, units that must perform life-saving operations may not be able to cover their required areas of responsibility. Incident commanders should always be cognizant of this and anticipate requesting additional units to cover these areas.

6. Height: Building height will dictate the type of apparatus needed for rescue, access and egress. Always consider all the options available to you. For rescue, the position in front of the building may have to be occupied by an aerial or tower ladder if the building is rather tall. Aerial ladders may be needed to remove a victim, transport a firefighter to his assigned position or to stretch additional hoselines. Consider positioning tower or aerial ladders in front of the fire building if you think an exterior stream is needed. Re-positioning of apparatus is time-consuming and may result in loss of the structure if there’s a delay in getting an exterior stream into operation.

A Final Note
As you can see, the 13-point, back-to-basics size-up is a valuable tool when deciding on strategy and tactics. Remember: Size-up starts with the receipt of the alarm and continues until the fire is under control. The process is carried out many times and by many individuals during a fire.

Chief Fred LaFemina is a 24-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), presently chief of Rescue Operations. He has been with Special Operations for more than 20 years and is the task force leader for New York’s Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team. He is also the operations chief on the USAR IST White Team. LaFemina has written many articles on fire operations and technical rescue and lectures throughout the country.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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