Fire: Size-up Strategies

Mar 15, 2009

As a new battalion chief, I wondered how I was supposed to size up a burning building if I had to stay outside at the command post. I was to set up a command post at the front of the fire building and be there if the deputy chief responded to the fire. My orders were to stay at the command post to give incoming units orders and to brief the deputy responding to the fire. At the command post I would be required to brief him on progress, have a face to face transfer command, and then I would be given orders by the deputy  to enter the building and operate as a sector chief wherever the need was determined. Staying at the command post was difficult for a new battalion chief. Just recently being a company officer, I was used to being inside the burning building, close to the action. This was a dramatic change. However, over the years, and after being promoted to deputy chief, I learned how to size-up a fire from the command post. Here are two important size-up strategies I learned over my 42 years in the FDNY. They helped me to direct a fire operation from a command post in the street.

Wind size-up: If you are denied the close up approach of going inside a burning building for a (micro) size-up, you can get important (macro) size-up info from the very beginning of the response. Be aware of the weather when responding to an alarm. Put on your turnouts outside the firehouse on the apron. Check flags blowing in the wind. Are people on the street bundling up and buffeted by the wind?  A windy day could mean trouble. Wind effects firefighting more frequently than any other weather condition. It spreads fire and sometimes blows fire and heat from a burning room back into the path of firefighters advancing a hose line. Conflagrations occur when the wind is over 30 miles per hour. In addition to stopping the advance of a hose attack team, wind can also blow smoke and burning embers toward exposed buildings. A strong wind speeds the spread of fire and smoke inside a common roof space, and fire will spread across an attic or cockloft more rapidly on a windy day. The strategy of coordinating venting and hose line advance was a high priority on a windy day.

Temperature size-up:  I would want to know if the temperature is below freezing – and how many days has it been below freezing. One cold day is not as bad as a cold spell of 4 or 5 days. The longer the temperature is below freezing the more things start to freeze, nozzles have to be kept open to flow water and ­prevent freezing hose lines. Aerial ladders cannot be kept in the raised position for long periods or they freeze up and require mechanics from the shops to heat and retract the metal ladder sections. On a below-freezing cold day after water is used, the steps sidewalks and streets will become a sheet of ice. Firefighters will be injured sliding and falling on the ice. Apparatus can skid and collide with other autos responding to the fire or emergency. You may not get the full assignment of apparatus and firefighters at the scene. Booster tank water may freeze and freezing water in gas lines will cause apparatus to stall. This may not occur frequently in most States, however, that can also be a problem if we are not prepared. Cold weather is not as much of a handicap to firefighters in Canada. They know how to fight fire in freezing weather. They have experience working in freezing weather. The strategy is to tell engines to keep the nozzles “cracked” slightly to keep water flowing. Pump operators would be directed to spread salt or sand to reduce fall injuries, and ladder company chauffeurs would be directed to lower unused aerial ladders before they freeze. 

Note: For more information on firefighting size-up strategy, read chapter 3 of Chief Dunn’s latest book, Strategy of Firefighting, How to Extinguish Fires published by Fire Engineering. 
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