FRI 2010: "The First Five Minutes: How Ineffective Sizeup Can Lead To Disaster"

FireRescue Magazine Senior Editor

As most firefighters/fire officers will tell you, the first 5 minutes of any incident can affect the next 5 hours. But what exactly should happen in those first 5 minutes? According to Fairfax County (Va.) Fire & Rescue Department Battalion Chief Chuck Ryan, if you’re the first-arriving officer, you’ve got two main priorities on your plate: sizing up the scene and developing an initial action plan. Without proper attention to these two tasks, your operation could very easily fail.

Ryan, who presented the seminar, “The First 5 Minutes: How Ineffective Size-Up and Initial Incident Action Planning Can Lead to Disaster,” at Fire-Rescue International today, explains that “when the first-arriving officer gets to the scene, they have a very narrow window of time to make some dramatic decisions about how the incident is going to go.” Ryan explains. His seminar looks at size-up, usually as it pertains to structure fires, and specifically focusing on the things firefighters don’t often see or think about when performing size-up.

Ryan explains that proper size-up requires not just the physical action of checking out the scene, but also a distinct level of awareness. “Even if they do it unconsciously, people need to be aware of what they’re doing: reading the fire, reading the smoke, seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak,” he says.

To help attendees get a feel for their level of awareness when performing a size-up, Ryan asks them to look at a series of photos depicting a variety of incidents, and describe what they see. “From the people who speak up, the class should start to realize that there’s probably 7–8 different things that some people see and some people don’t see,” Ryan says. “Different experience levels influence what each person picks up on in the photographs.”

But why is size-up so important? Of course, if you don’t size up, you don’t know what’s going on. But the answer is more complex than that. If you fail to properly size up the scene, it affects not only how you handle the incident, but also how you pass on information to the company officer (CO) once they arrive on scene. “As a chief officer, I’ve responded to incidents where there was some concern about painting the right picture when the CO arrives on scene,” Ryan says. “In my department, as in many others, we’re experiencing a change in the workforce, where the Vietnam-era generation is at retirement age and many frontline officers may have as few as 5 or 6 years on the job”—making it even more important that those officers understand what information to pass along.

Ryan hopes attendees come away from his class with an understanding of these and other issues faced by the U.S. fire service, as well as a determination to do something about them. “I want people to have a reinvigorated appreciation for initial scene size-up, quality communication of what they see and the tactics they’re going to employ,” Ryan says. “I give the class my perspective as a company officer, because I was a company officer for a long time, but now that I’m a battalion chief, I can offer my advice from a different perspective.

“I also want people to remember how important it is to take a break, step back and take in the big picture, and then communicate effectively what they see and what they intend to do about it,” Ryan continues.

If your department is feeling the effects of inadequate training, lack of structure fires, loss of experienced firefighters, etc., you’re not alone. “We’re in an era of declining numbers of structure fires. There’s also a lack of good fireground communication,” Ryan says. “After the class I presented last year at FRI, people came up to me and said they hadn’t thought about the basic building blocks in long time. So even if it’s a virtual fire that they’re looking at in my class, I’m giving them the opportunity to practice a simulated incident in their own mind, so that when they’re faced with reality, their decision-making model might be a bit better focused.”

Cindy Devone-Pacheco is senior editor of FireRescue magazine.

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