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Vehicle Variables: 4 Key Factors to Aid in Size-Up

Vehicle Variables: 4 Key Factors to Aid in Size-Up

An initial size-up for any emergency response has the ability to set the tone for the duration of the incident. For EMS runs it is the initial general impression of a patient. With hazardous materials incidents, the initial identification of placards or shipping containers can determine the initial actions taken on part of responding units. One of the most common size-ups we conduct in our line of work happens when arriving on scene to a reported or confirmed structure fire. Determining the building construction and fire conditions upon arrival at a working fire all play a significant role in determining the actions that will be implemented upon arrival to the scene.

Adding into account the different variables you can determine from the motor vehicles onsite, this will allow for you to conduct an enhanced size-up regarding the rescue aspect of your operations. Identifying the potential quantity of victims, their age and ability for them to self-extricate from the structure are variables that the vehicle provides.

We can take the following four key factors into consideration during our vehicle size-ups to improve on our fireground size-ups:

1. Number of Vehicles: It is quite common in rural America to find one vehicle per household per adult occupying the home. Often the numbers of vehicles on the property (those that appear in operable condition and are NOT on lifts or blocks) dictate the minimum of how many people to expect to find while performing a primary search of the structure. 

Even when there is only one vehicle onsite, other indicators such as those that follow could assist with gathering a better understanding during size-up to estimate the potential number of occupants that are unaccounted for. School bumper stickers or youth sport team logos on windows and rear bumpers should be taken into account that the potential for one adult and one child or teenager resides there. 

2. Handicap Parking Permit: Getting a quick visual of a handicap parking permit hanging from a rearview mirror or displayed on the dashboard is a great identifier that the potential for a non-ambulatory resident could still be inside the structure. Knowing in advance that the potential exists can help to determine a game plan for search and rescue right out of the gate. The resident could be wheelchair-bound, connected to electric medical equipment and possibly using oxygen. 

3. Car Seats and Booster Seats: Whether it is a four door sedan or a gasoline guzzling nine passenger van, the number of seats within the motor vehicle also plays an intricate role with estimating the potential for an increased population within the structure.


Observing car seats and booster seats is a tell-tale sign that infants or small age children reside there as well. This could play a role as to what level of maturity and competency the resident has in finding their way to an adequate egress or hiding in a closet or underneath a bed. 

4. Hoarding Conditions: You can normally tell a lot about a person and their habits simply by how they carry themselves regarding their physical appearance. Think of the firefighter on shift whose bed is always made, boots are polished and shirt is tucked in accordingly. It would be a safe assumption that they implement the same level of attention and pride in their gear and equipment as well.

The same aspect can be said regarding the cleanliness of a vehicle’s interior when relating it to hoarding conditions. When conducting your initial size-up and you notice a motor vehicle cluttered with empty coffee cups, McDonald’s bags and clothes tossed throughout, it is safe to say that the interior conditions of the structure will match.


Hoarding has become a prevalent topic throughout the fire service regarding strategies, tactics and operational hindrances. If confronted with a parked car with a similar appearance, caution must be used when conducting a primary search for the safety and well-being of the crews.



The information provided in this training article is not set in stone, but keeping the idea(s) in the back of your mind while conducting your size-up will promote a positive outcome with saving a life and property.

AB Turenne is a 22-year veteran of the fire service in Eastern Connecticut. As a Certified Level II Fire Service Instructor, AB's training curriculum has proven to be conducive with the operational needs of those he teaches and in turn has improved the human capital knowledge of many. A graduate from the Master of Public Administration program at Anna Maria College, AB has continued his efforts in training and education by contributing to the Fire Engineering Training Community.

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