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Size Up / Initial Incident Considerations


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I'm getting ready to go on my holidays, and in true fire brigade loser fashion, I have invested in some work literature to take away with me. One thing that has struck me in comparision to our American colleauges, is the seeming lack of available reference material that is written in (slightly) more digestible format. The few books I can think of that are written by UK authors that provide the same sort of thing is 'Euro Firefighter' by Paul Grimwood. Whereas the Americans seem to have churned out a cornucopia of leadership, fire handbooks and officer training manuals which aren't necessarily published by Gov. bodies. (I am aware of the fire service manuals in the UK, although they don't seem to have the same sort of content I look for.)

So, I'm currently making a start into 'Fire officers handbook of tactics' 5th Edition, by Deputy Chief John Norman. Straight off the bat, the first chapter talks about 'size ups'. Watching some American training videos and incidents, the size up is a integral part of the initial officers response to a incident, and forms part of their dynamic risk assessment. It's frequently referenced during operations and is usually communicated back to fire control as soon as the first appliance arrives at incident as a radio message. I know a few brigades in the UK are starting to take this learning on board in the guise of windscreen messages, but the LFB haven't yet endorsed this, so I can't comment from my experience. 

So I've picked out a device that comes up a lot in sizeup teachings. I've tried my best to explain the different sections and what considerations I thought of when I put the headings up, along with some teachings from the book. Apolgises for any spelling errors etc.

A commonly used acronym is;


C - Construction. Are we looking at mainly fire resistant / fireproof modes of construction, such as brick or concrete? Should we be concerned with Glulam components or weakened structual elements due to fire spread or length of incident progression? Cladding? Wooden external features? Gang plate trusses in roof fires? The Americans have a much higher proportion of wooden build residential structures, so structural collapse is a immediate concern. 

O - Occupancy. This ties in with time and date. A call to fire at a school at 2/3 PM is much more of a occupancy concern to firefighters than at 2/3 AM. Is the building usually occupied or is it vacant or under construction? What sort of occupancy risk are we looking at for this particular building? A commercial property is probably going to be fairly low, but the flats above if affected could be higher.

A - Area / Height. How big is the property or area affected? Does it look fairly small from the front of the building, but on 360, is it actually L shaped and has a much higher per SQM footprint? Are we at a warehouse where compartmentation is limited, potentially high ceilings? Has there been renovations at this property such as extensions, or false ceilings / voids due to renovation? Is it a high rise, or just short of a high rise without the fixed installations? On 360, the front door is at ground floor level, but round the back, the rear door is actually offset downwards into a basement area, how will this change tactics for firefighting?

L - Life hazard. This obviously plays a massive part in the decision making process, and all efforts made by fire service personnel should be directed towards saving savable life. In some situations, removing the hazard of fire by extinguishing or isolating will mitigate a large proportion of life risk. Can time be taken at a fire to evacuate the flats above a fire that share a common stairwell before the first crew opens the fire compartment and begins the attack? Or are there persons reported in the fire flat that can be rescued and crews can be sent up after the initial crew to the flats above to remove the other occupants? If you're the first truck in attendance for a prolonged period, what can be achieved with 1 officer, 1 driver, and 3 firefighters ( if you're lucky) in regards to life risk? This section could be debated for hours in terms of prioritising objectives.

W - Water supply. Lucky London having a hydrant on every street corner, not so much for the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. What's the knowledge of access to water, do crews know where the hydrants or open water supplies are? Is there access to large bore mains? Will early decision making regarding implementation of water relay, or high volume pumps be a deciding factor in this incidents trajectory? 

A - Auxiliary systems. - Funny name here, Americanism. Fixed installations, are they in service and working correctly? Do crews have a knowledge of the installation to use it appropriately? Will crews need to interact with the system to make it work effectively, IE, wet riser pumps? Are the sprinklers functional and doing their job correctly? Do we need to augment their supply to ensure their continued use? Are they to be relied on for our tactics?

S - Street conditions. Whats the car parking like? Is access and egress poor for vehicles? How will we park our specalist appliances and aerials? Construction work / road works?

W - Weather. Hot weather poses a risk to firefighters, humidity and heat doesn't pair well with interior firefighting operations. Cold weather might mean a slower incident tempo, as roadways and pavements are icy. Wind, is our high rise fire going to suddenly vent itself, or will firefighters opening compartments and hoses blocking doors create a wind driven fire? 

E - Exposures. Another americanism, we need to protect other property and prevent fire extension within the property initually affected, aswell as other nearby properties. If our detached property is 100% alight, does it make more sense trying to prevent the loss of 2 buildings by concentrating efforts on preventing the spread, rather than lobbing litres of water onto a fire which has consumed the majority of the property? Are the local residents looking on, wondering what we are doing allowing a house to burn to the ground, even though we know it's a lost cause? Think sectors also.

A - Appliances. What trucks do we have coming as part of our PDA, and who do we expect to be riding them? Experienced crews who can be left with minimal supervision, or probationers who require some help? Do we need more personnel, equipment, officers? Where are we going to put them all?  

L - Location of fire and extent. Well, where is the job? How long's it been going? Getting a call at 2 AM from a passerby to a fire in a shop, chances are it's problably been burning merrily for several hours prior to arrival. Crews are commited to the ground floor, encounter very hot conditons but can't find the fire. Is there a basement? What is on fire? How do crews get there? 

T - Time. Already touched on, time is a massive factor for life risk. Attend a house fire during the evening and the neighbour says they haven't seen the resident, but their car is parked on the drive, or the house lights are on. Same house, same fire, but at 1 PM during the week. There are still assumptions to be made, but the likelihood of someone being inside that house during the working day might be less.

H - Hazards. Is there anything inside your house / property which can hurt my firefighters who are going inside? The amount of times I've asked someone if there is anything dangerous inside their houses, gotten a no, and crews have identified a cyinder, or large stocks of laquer and solvents. Hazards are relative and contextual. To the roofer, a cylinder of propane with a gas torch used to heat bitumen isn't a hazard, it's a daily occurance. We assume hazards based on previous experience. The car workshop under a railway arch will most likely have cylinders, working pits and hydraulic lifts. 

Phew. That's a lot of stuff for the poor watch manager who just got off the truck at 3 AM to think about

My question to you all, I suppose, is what do you have in terms of this process? Does your brigade have a process to identify objectives and assist you in identifying considerations for this incident? A frequently used acronym for message sending in the LFB is 'BUDAPEST', which does incorporate a lot of the above features. Another one is 'Little Fat Harry', standing for Life, Fire and Hazards, which is a much more simplistic method to define objectives and prioritise them. 

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I’ll be honest, when I was last operational (in charge of 2 pumps), I looked at the job, drew on my training and more importantly my experience, and kinda knew what I’d need in terms of a make up.  It was determined by a fair bit of what you’ve listed but not some of the things.  Although I’m West Mids, I was operational in Coventry which had back then, only 6 pumps and 1 aerial across the four stations.  If I wanted more than that I was in for a quite a long wait as trucks came over from Birmingham or from a neighbouring brigade which influenced my decisions.  I certainly didn’t have any acronyms, just plain old experience. 

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What is it with the fire service and the obsession with mnemonics ??

I've never known any other profession to be so fixated on them.  Every month there seems to be a new one to memorise and learn.  When did the job change that much that we constantly need prompting with words to help. 

Like Noddy has eluded to - what has happened to experience and 'firemanship' to process and implement decisions? 

Does anyone know if the police or ambo are this heavy with acronyms? My guess is no - they draw on their knowledge, training and experience.

This is a classic fire service example of something designed to help and assist firefighters but is so complicated to remember, most folk forget what the words spell out. COAL WAS WEALTH , BUDAPEST ? Honest to god... by the time you take a minute and go through the sentence the emergency phase is more or less over!!! 

Coupled with that there's a mnemonic for nearly every SOP - which is a thread on it's own what with that many of them - your brain gets frazzled by it all.

Can we not just get back to basics? This job is becoming harder than it needs to be.

NB - Don't take it personally @Mike it's not a dig at you pal, just the process of it all 👍🏻

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@Mike  10/10 for your desire to study, learn and advance your knowledge.  That can only be applauded 

But taking all this command/leadership stuff on your holiday is perhaps beyond the call of duty a little. 

OK taking the memoirs of a retired firefighter or a book on fire service fiction , but  COAL WAS WEALTH? Bloody hell !!

With the greatest respect, I prefer PREVENT BURN OUT BY CHILLING OUT

Its not a mnemonic but a simple approach to pacing your life a bit and getting that work/life balance a bit more towards the neutral 

I don't mean to offend 

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I suppose what I was trying to get at here was maybe providing a bit of narrative against how we work compared to other fire services. I don't necessarily think adopting more acronyms is the right idea, and a IC standing outside and trying to remember all these bits probably is not going to be conducive to running an incident in the early stages. I personally find that reading about it in this forn was helpful to me as it lays out in a general order what we think of when attending fires and what other things people think about. But that's just me. 


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It’s good educational stuff. The US fire departments in some areas are really excellent at what they do, although we as a national FRS here enjoy dismissing them as risk taking lunatics most of the time. 

Mike have a think about adding “little fat harry wants sweets” to your library of options. 

  • Life
  • Fire
  • Hazards
  • Water supplies
  • SSOW

Bit simpler, does everything I need to start of with  😊❤️

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Let's remember we are not fighting fires by numbers here, or by acronyms, if we are, then perhaps we are not training our officers correctly, especially if they have to rely on acronyms or checklists to deal with an incident. They are there as a reminder for me after initially putting the wet stuff on the hot stuff, to assist in ensuring you have all bases covered, safely of course. If people are struggling to remember all the acronyms, then you are never going to remember the context behind them. Thats why they exist. 

I know many officers who have their own, others that do not use them, others than call upon them when they are doing the review period to see if you have covered everything.

I work closely with the Police and Ambulance as I guess many of us do and they are full of acronyms too. 

Unless I have become a dinosaur 😀

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Personally I'd only find the 'COAL WAS WEALTH' kind of thing useful if I was trying to explain to someone not in the FRS what I do as an IC.

I hate acronyms, if you give me one I will remember the acronym but not the meaning. I know what I have to do, I have a prompt card for everything else.

Surely a 'size up' is just a 360? it's completely automatic to me to jump off the truck as IC and evaluate what I have in front of me (and not) and the likely associated risks and to form a plan to suit. I'll then send off an early informative or assistance message.

I don't find I have to purposely remind myself about things such as time of day, location, affected properties etc because that's autonomous. If fire is encroaching on an unaffected property - it is extremely likely my colleagues will have a jet on it as a priority - this is our job and what we train for?

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So many acronyms...we have common agreed ones that make sense..JESIP should have everything you should need as a thought process,  with perhaps some slight additions within the main body. Or we can reinvent the wheel !


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13 hours ago, OscarTango said:

COAL WAS WEALTH is like something I'd imagine Alan Partridge would come up with if he worked at TC

My favourite of Alan’s mnemonics is from his book, Nomad: THINK

  • T- Think about the dangers
  • H- How should I approach them?
  • I- I’m the one responsible
  • N- No excuses
  • K- Know whatcha doing!

Definitely applicable in the fire service 😂

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I think I have fallen very much into the old dinosaur camp here. I'm afraid to say than in my experience, nothing like that ever works particularly well. Your own instinct's work and need to work when faced with a dynamic changing situation. There used to be some old mnemonics around years ago for general consideration PAPRICE, prepare, assess, plan, resources, implement, control, evaluate.... which sort of evolved into the now (old and outdated) LFB decision making model of sorts. These sort of things are good practice models to shape your thinking and to get you into a generally prepared state. But they should not stand in the way of your decision making when you have arrived, which should be as quick and decisive as the information you are taking in. 

I had the majority of my career in a command role, having been promoted at 7 years in following a few long spells of temporary promotion, I was a relatively experienced Ff but still green as an officer but I learnt most from actually standing there and doing. I think by the time I reached 11/12 years, nudging T/Stn O, I was pretty good at making my initial assessments and getting a reasonable plan cobbled together, although often in need of re-evaluation and change. But hit the ground running in terms of decision making. Make a decision, stick with it and see how it goes. The only think that should be a deliberate controlled action is to remain calm, that I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt brings personal clarity and has a positive effect on the incident ground. Even gaining the respect of older senior staff you are in command of. I can think of a couple of examples of this when I was a Stn O that definitively brought measured calm when things had the potential to run off in various directions due to the urgency of a situation. 

Thinking of and then trying to remember what you read, an associated mnemonic and so on is a fire command version of seagull sh1t on your windscreen when the wipers aren't working. Don't do it. By all means learn from the book, digest it and (importantly) absorb it into deep memory so it is feeding your decision making stealthily while you can see clearly and make instant decisions on what you are facing.

I also agree with @Messyshaw for holiday reading. If you MUST read fire, I learned a lot more from the smooth captivating read of a good fire service memoir that I ever did from trying to absorb clunky theory based text books. 

The likes of JESIP, belong with multi-agency incidents, where there is a need to agree commonality  and understanding between agencies. This is often more slow time (even at critical incidents) because the initial critical decisions should have bene made and a plan implemented by then. Just my two bob's worth. 😉


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@Steve Has hit the nail on the head. Its the ability to remain calm that is key to effective fireground management and perhaps not remembering mnemonics. I have an advantage there as my brain just cannot retain that sort of stuff. FISHSHAPES is the only one I can recall, its to do with fainting and I have never had to recall it over 40 years.... until now 😉

Did I always achieve command calmness when it mattered? Good God no!! In the early days, processing the sheer amount of simultaneous information that is hitting you from all of your senses can be overwhelming. The skill is filtering the most critical stuff and allowing that to float to the top. So many officers I worked with were fixated with messages, making up and the use of home made aide memoirs far too early and ignored really important info. 

I think training is often to blame as the generic slip & pitch and running around may be beneficial on the drill ground, but it doesn't help decision making in a real situation. I once got a rollocking at a hazmat exercise for being too slow! In my defence, it wasnt persons reported so I spent some considerable time gathering information before committing crews. Its what I would do for real but apparently 'not acceptable' in an exercise format. That led to a colourful exercise debrief 😡

Staying calm is dependant on several factors but mainly IMHO personality & preparation and in some ways, experience. Preparation is key, not just personal prep (as in training or reading command books on the beach), but knowing your watch and their capabilities. This can help in those initial information gathering minutes as its these that are the most tricky. If you know Fred is good on roofs, or Harry is experienced with RTCs - then you can let them get on with it with minimal briefing and be confident they won't kill themselves or anyone else. This gives you space to think

Calmness is more contagious that covid and in reverse, panic spreads more effectively than French kissing someone on a covid ward. The domino effect is real in that if the person in charge is flapping, then this effects the behaviour of others and leads to problems. And when that person is known as a 'flapper', then his/her authority others may see their competence as weakened . We all know some of them.

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  • 1 month later...

Mike, to reiterate what others have alluded to, hats off for your commitment to development but FFS (and no that doesn't mean Firefighters!)... your/your family's holiday is very precious - you get 31 days holiday per year. If it's just you and your partner, none of it should be spent reading anything other than a decent airport terminal bought paperback or two by the pool, in between alcohol assisted naps whilst baking yourself nicely. If its you, your partner and kids then your time should be even more focused on them and not on Messrs Brunacini, Norman, Grimwood etal. Now don't get me wrong, I have read many of their works and many more on leadership by authors from all walks of life (none on holiday mind you!), but in terms of 'learning' how to 'Size Up' from a book, it is very much akin to trying to learn how to master a martial art purely from the many books available on that subject. You can order a book on Krav Maga from amazon written by the toughest hand to hand Israeli combat instructor there is, but will reading it do you any good when walking home one night and someone wants to take your new iPhone 37? No! 

The Fire Service has a ridiculous fixation with mnemonics, some to be fair have been useful, some, plain bewildering! The purpose of a mnemonic is actually routed in ancient Greek to aid memory... 'modern' NLP techniques also use the tool but they are supposed to be simple and easy to recall and I would strongly argue that a thirteen lettered mnemonic is far from that so forget it.

Mike - a personal observation and compliment time. It is clear from your paragraph structuring, phrasing and vocabulary that you are an academic and well schooled as only anyone who would routinely use 'cornucopia' could be. This is a credit to you as is the fact you are willing to read tome after tome in order to self develop. I appreciate this is very crudely judged, however all the above (especially your second post) indicate you are very 'analytical' as a default which is no bad thing, in your Brigade I would expect many DO's to be and every DAC upwards to be, but at 'your' level, on the incident ground having just jumped out of the cab... you don't really have the luxury to be! Certainly not to the extent one would need, nor have the time to, process a thirteen lettered mnemonic, digest all the information available to you and then act upon it, quite often in risk critical/life threatening situations.

To support what many others have said, size up comes down to experience and 'that'. 'That' is your sixth sense, your gut instinct that no book can help with, only exposure to situations can. Don't get me wrong, all of us have driven back from a job at some point thinking "I should have made up a bit sooner" I should have made it a couple more" etc. but this comes with the luxury of hindsight and hindsight is always in perfect 20/20 vision! There is no replacement for exposure from which you will then have experiences to draw from the next time a similar situation presents.

In the very Dynamic early phase of a job, being over analytical will hinder you to the point that decision making paralysis is a likely result. Many of us have witnessed it, there are many examples of it now in the annuls of history in the 'fail' section some with fatal consequences.

If you must have a mnemonic then use the familiar acronym and system we have for completing reports - IRS (R), only in this case it is INFORMATION, as in what is the picture telling me, what is the person telling me; RESOURCES, as in do I have enough here or on its way to deal with this safely and effectively (ok granted, so this only comes with experience from exposure); HAZARDS, what can I see or is anticipated that can injure my crew that I need to control as a priority.... and REVIEW continually.

I am sure that one day you will be in a position to turn up to a job well under way with a command unit already set up and functioning having the luxury of being as analytical as you want, its just if your world currently is turning up on a big red truck, or to a large degree as an ADO (even DO if the job is still going northwards), watch and learn and then learn to trust yourself too 👍

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