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

FireRescue magazine's Fireground Operations column
COAL WAS WEALTH: The basics of size-up, part 1

By Freddie LaFemina

As a young firefighter, I’d always run fire scenarios through my mind. Whether I was checking the apparatus prior to a tour, checking tools or responding to an incident, I’d always perform a mini size-up in my head. Using any information available, such as dispatch information, prior fires or fire prevention inspection activities, I’d try to figure out where I’d be positioned at the fire to perform my duties.

One thing in particular that I’d think about: my riding assignment for that tour. At most fires, your riding position dictates your position at the fire scene according to building design or occupancy and/or how your unit arrived at the fire. If I was on the engine and assigned suppression, my assignment on the hoseline would be pre-determined. If assigned to a ladder company, my assigned position would dictate whether I’d operate in the interior or on the exterior of the building.

As my career progressed, size-up became routine and expanded tenfold. Command size-up includes the above considerations, plus your primary concern as a commander: the safety of the firefighters operating on scene. Decisions you make and actions you take as a commanding officer will always affect the outcome of the operation—possibly in a negative way, which is why a thorough size-up is essential.

With that said, I’d like to discuss some size-up basics using an acronym for a strategic size-up that seems antiquated, but still holds up in modern-day firefighting. (Of course, nothing beats good fire prevention, but we still have to be ready to respond on a daily basis.)

13 Points
The acronym “COAL WAS WEALTH” covers 13 points you can include in your size-up to enhance operations for everyone on the fireground, from the probationary firefighter at their first fire, up to and including the highest ranking chief of your department.

A detailed description of each of the first seven points is listed below. Next month, I’ll cover the remaining six points.

1. Construction: Construction dictates actions at all fires. Fireproof, fire-resistive and wood-frame are just a few of the categories of construction types. Some of these buildings will contain voids that may allow for fire extension. Alterations to these buildings may produce larger voids that may spread fire vertically as well as horizontally. Wood laminate “I” beams, energy-efficient windows and many other building features can affect the outcome of the operation and become a concern when conducting an aggressive interior attack.
2. Occupancy: This part of the size-up may determine the severity of the hazard and the intensity of the fire. For example, in a mixed occupancy containing commercial areas below and residential areas above, an increased fire load in the commercial occupancy on the first floor would increase the danger during a fire for residents living on the floors above.
3. Area: Large areas may produce hotter and smokier fires. The size of the fire will indicate proper selection of a hoseline, most likely a 1 ¾" or 2 ½". The volume of water needed for an expansive structural fire and reach of the stream will dictate how far you’ll need to stretch a 2 ½" hoseline. Searches in large areas will require the use of search lines and thermal imaging cameras.
4. Location & extent of fire: The location of the fire in the building will dictate the firefighters’ coverage areas within the structure. Examples of this would be a cellar fire, top floor or cockloft fire or a fire on multiple floors. Standard operating procedures for individual departments should be followed at these types of fires to provide coverage of all areas of the building concerning vent, entry and search.
5. Water supply: The first-arriving unit must consider the availability of a positive water source, whether it be a hydrant system, cistern tank or water tankers. Note: A charged hoseline with aggressive firefighters has put out more fires than halligan tools and pike poles.
6. Apparatus & equipment: What units are on the scene or responding: engine companies, ladder companies or combination units? It’s imperative to know who has arrived and who is responding, as well as the types of apparatus at the scene or requested to the scene. A tower ladder may be needed for rescue or an exterior stream. An aerial ladder may be needed for rescues that require a far-reaching ladder.
7. Street conditions: Placement of apparatus, access for apparatus, as well as the location of hydrants will be dictated by street conditions. Snow, water conditions and utility poles may affect proper placement of apparatus. Ladder companies may be hindered for rescue of trapped victims. Engine companies will have to have a clear route to access a hydrant to provide a positive water source. Engine companies must also be careful not to block out incoming apparatus that may be needed in front of the building. Officers as well as driver/operators must communicate to ensure all units attain their desired position.This will enable units to operate more efficiently.

Size-up is a very broad subject and can spark lengthy discussion, but performing size-up at the scene is crucial to the success of the overall operation. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to include size-up procedures in your regular drills and to share any ideas about improving size-up procedures within your department.

In part 2, I’ll discuss the remaining six points of the COAL WAS WEALTH acronym.

Chief Fred LaFemina is a 25-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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Comment by larry jenkins on March 5, 2010 at 7:25am
I too as a young firefighter use to go over and over in my head on how to handle scenes. I would lay in bed and think of how to better force entry into rear doors on commerical occupancies. We used the simple acronym RECEO by Chief Lloyd Layman. Chiefs Normans COAL WAS WEALTH is good for remembering answers for promotional tests but like RECEO doesn't go through my head on the fireground. All of these facors are important to make a correct size-up, but it is your experience built on these factors that will make the scene run smoothly.

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