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Mastering the Size-up

by: Thomas D. Kuglin Jr.

Becoming proficient with sizing up the fireground takes practice.  Not only in terms of the main components of a well-described size-up, but also in the way it’s conveyed over the radio.  The way in which the information is conveyed is just as important as what the content of the message is.  If either of these are not in sync, the initial operations on the fireground can become chaotic.  It is imperative to set the tone in voice, along with the clarity and painting a picture of conditions.  This allows other arriving companies to prepare for and build a plan of action. 

            Whether you are riding in an acting role or in a company officer role, mastering the size-up takes practice just like any other skill in our craft.  Unfortunately, the decline in structure fires over the years keep us from obtaining the real-life experiences of sizing up the fireground.  As such, it becomes critical to implement regular training on size-up components and the way it is communicated.  Earlier in my career, when I first started preparing for a company officer role, I knew scene size-up would be paramount.  I knew I had to figure out other ways to add value to what I was trying to achieve aside from actual fire calls and scheduled training.  Sometimes those actual fire calls were not even on my shift, therefore, I missed out on those opportunities to practice.  I also knew finding other ways and having the self-initiative would help me become more comfortable in conveying the needed information and how it comes across the radio.  Every time I would be driving in my vehicle or riding in one, whether it be to work, the store, or out of town, I began picking out structures along the way.  I would give myself imaginary fire conditions and proceeded to call them out in the vehicle as if I would be responding to an actual fire call.  After some time of constant practice, the continuity and flow began to get better making sure all the needed components were conveyed.  As time went on, the size-up information became exactly what needed to be conveyed without the added jargon or becoming long winded tying up the tactical channel with unnecessary traffic.

            The components of a successful, well-thought size-up includes the unit you are on with the arrival on scene, size and floors of the structure, building construction type, occupancy type, conditions presented, operational mode, initial tactics, and the establishment of command.  Equally, it is important to paint the picture and notify other incoming units what their assignments are.  For example, "Engine 51 on scene of a small, one-story, wood-frame, residential structure with light smoke showing from the Alpha Division.  Establishing XXX command.  Engine 51 will be out with a pre-connect.  Next due engine establish water supply".  Once a senior command officer arrives on scene (if you are a company officer) they can further assign other arriving units unless you note something that takes precedence and needs to be assigned, like primary search.  For a larger, more complex structure that you may pick out would go like "Engine 51 on scene of a large, single story, lightweight construction, strip mall with nothing showing, out investigating.  Establishing XXX command.  All units not on the scene go to level 1 staging".  As I would continue to practice in my vehicle, it began to pay off when faced with real-life fire calls in which a size-up was necessary.  It can also be done, and recommended, that size-up be practiced on auto accidents, mock fire alarm activations, hazmat incidents, or any other type that requires one.  However, it is a good practice that any and all incidents should have a good size-up.  The main objective is the more you practice the more comfortable you will become when it comes time for the real one.

            The key to a successful size-up is conveying the right amount of accurate information that paints a picture of what conditions you are presented with so incoming resources know what to prepare for.  With that, the way it is communicated is as equally important.  Here are some tips for mastering the size-up:

  • Pick out various structures with differing levels of complexity and construction types

  • Give yourself differing levels of fire conditions to size-up

  • Call out all pertinent size-up components of structures picked and in order they are communicated

  • Practice clarity, conciseness, consistency, and paint the picture

  • Practice communicating in a calm, cool, poised manner

            Remember, some people sing to the radio in the car, others look at scenery and enjoy the silence, but firefighters that are passionate about their craft practice sizing up structures!

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