Your structure fire 360 questions, answered
Detailing the six components of this information-gathering strategy that increases situational awareness and reduces risk
Structural firefighting is one of the most dangerous missions that firefighters encounter.
From the moment they receive the alarm, firefighters try to gather as much information as possible about the incident:
- Is the reported address located in an industrial-commercial area, single-family residential neighborhood, high-rise business district, multi-story residential occupancy location, or in a wildland urban interface or brush area?
- Did dispatch receive multiple 911 calls, or reports of people trapped inside?
- Did dispatch provide information about the extent of the fire and type of structure involved?
- Is there smoke showing enroute to the incident; if so, how much and what type?
The list goes on and on.
Once on scene, firefighters work quickly to vet pre-arrival information and develop a clear picture of the incident. This information-gathering process is commonly referred to as situational awareness (SA). While firefighters are always in a general state of elevated awareness, during an incident, their focus heightens and centers on capturing and processing as many details as possible. The most effective way to effectively process so much information about the incident scene – and give firefighters the advantage – is the tried-and-true structure fire 360.
Why so much attention to detail?
Failure to be observant on the fireground can mean the difference between life and death. In that sense, SA offers valuable insight and clues to help accurately assess the size, scope and complexity of an incident. SA is the basis for emergency incident decision-making (EIDM) and the foundation from which incident commands (ICs) develop and revise their incident action plans (IAP), strategies and tactics, and ultimately determine the levels to which firefighters will be exposed to risk
Conversely, failure to gain and maintain SA may unnecessarily place the public in harm’s way, leave firefighters potentially vulnerable and put their ICs in a position of making decisions without all necessary information. This approach could result in unintended outcomes and should be avoided at all costs. Given that SA is the most crucial step in the EIDM process, conducting a Structure Fire 360 is a prudent policy and a practice that should be performed at every structure fire.
When a Structure Fire 360 is performed, SA is dramatically improved. Moreover, data suggests a direct correlation between the occurrence of mayday events and the lack of a 360 being performed. Essentially, the Structure Fire 360 translates into an opportunity to gain a more precise (and ongoing) picture of the incident and the associated risks, plus have an improved position from which to select the most appropriate strategy and tactics needed to mitigate the emergency more effectively.
What about standards?
Although SA is an ongoing process, the initial size-up or on-scene report can present its own challenges toward that end. In reality, the first-in officer usually conducts the initial report of conditions from the front seat of an apparatus, with limited time to do so and often with an incomplete view of the incident. Still, in most cases, the risk management profile and operational strategy or mode (offensive vs. defensive) are declared at that time, even though the full scope of the incident may not be known at that point. To offset this information gap – and help get resources properly positioned on the fireground – many organizations require a 360 to be performed and the findings communicated in a follow-up report by the first-in officer or another officer on-scene.
While many fire departments routinely employ a 360 as a matter of policy or routine practice, the actual procedural elements of the process may not be standardized across – or codified within – their respective organizations.
Where they are not standardized, agencies should strongly consider undertaking this task for several reasons:
- Standardizing the 360 process will serve to strengthen operational continuity across every rank and level in an organization.
- It provides a common platform in which to train, develop and measure personnel.
- Likewise, standardization helps speed the process to complete a 360 and eliminate uncertainty or assumptions as to what particular information an IC may require, as well as what information officers should minimally report when a 360 is performed.
What are the six components of the 360?
Every structure fire 360 should include the following six components. While listed here numerically, the actual order of completion may vary from incident to incident. However, the starting point for any officer assigned to conduct a 360 should be to confirm whether civilian lives are threatened or at risk, since preserving life is the highest priority.
1. Occupants: Victim rescue places firefighters at the greatest level of risk. Reports of occupants being trapped or missing should be quickly run to ground and evaluated to determine their level of credibility (e.g., a neighbor reports someone “might” still be inside versus dispatch receiving calls from those actually trapped inside). Likewise, when fire personnel observe clues indicating that people may still be inside, or areas where the survivability of victims may be possible, these findings must be communicated to the IC to ensure the strategy and tactics are in alignment with the operational risk management profile.
2. Location and extent: To the degree possible, every effort should be made to quickly determine the location and extent of the fire. Efforts should be focused on establishing whether conditions indicate a contents fire, structure fire or both. This is a good time to make a fire behavior prediction based on where the fire is located, where it is projected to be and by reading the smoke conditions that are present. Together, this information is key to validating the operational strategy and guiding ICs through the EIDM process, development of their IAP and the extent to which firefighters are exposed to risk.
3. Construction, size and business type: The construction type, size and nature of business operating within the occupancy are all critical pieces of information. Generally, lightweight construction will have a shorter burn time and failure rate than that of conventional construction. Walls with fire-stops tend to limit the spread of fire more effectively than those erected using balloon-construction. Buildings constructed using unreinforced masonry have a greater potential for collapsing than those built in the modern era and regulated with stricter building codes. Larger scale occupancies (even single-family dwellings) may trigger the need for more resources and a greater gpm flow than the initial assignment is capable of providing. The type of business can alert firefighters to special concerns or risks that could potentially be encountered. This information should be used proactively to develop alternative strategies and tactics should conditions change.
4. Access and egress portals: Identifying all access and egress points is critical to the development of the IAP and aides the IC in formulating alternate plans of attack should the primary entry point(s) prove ineffective. When fire resources are known to be operating from specific points of entry and egress, it generates a more accurate company accountability report and quicker rapid intervention team (RIT) deployment should a mayday response be required. Equally important, identifying all points of entry and egress increases the likelihood of accounting for occupants, since they will likely flee from, or congregate in, these areas during a fire.
5. Hazards: Any condition that presents a hazard or even potential threat to the health or safety of firefighters working on scene should be reported during the 360. Imminent threats that could lead to a mayday if not addressed immediately should be reported consistent with department or national emergency traffic standards (e.g., wires down, impending flashover, impending roof collapse). The presence of chemicals, flammable liquids, fall hazards, excessive storage, facades, 704 placard, and propane/fuel tanks represent other types of hazards firefighters should be alerted to during the 360.
6. Exposures: If left unchecked, nearly every fire has the potential to spread and create a threat to other properties, people and the surrounding environment. The 360 should include the type of exposures involved, the level of involvement, order of priority and a general assessment of resources needed to address the situation. The type, number and level of involvement of exposures may trigger a greater response level and expansion of the ICS to effectively command and control the larger incident.
When is the 360 completed?
Ideally, the 360 should be completed following the initial size-up or on-scene report. Prior to communicating the findings, the IC should first be alerted to standby for the 360 report. This notice to the IC serves ensures the IC is ready to capture all the information contained in the 360 and alerts all fire personnel that a more comprehensive SA report is forthcoming and to maintain radio discipline.
The 360 should be an ongoing task with the passing or transfer of command. This ensures the IC is updated with the most current SA in the event conditions change between reports or important findings were not previously communicated for whatever reason.
Ultimately, the structure fire 360 is intended to validate fireground conditions and potentially revise the risk management profile and operational strategy that was established at the onset of the incident. Additionally, it provides opportunities to modify the initial IAP. Actions seen as optimizing the strategy and tactics should be communicated to the IC during the report.
What are the alternatives?
Understand that not all structures or occupancies will allow for a complete 360 for a variety of reasons. In these cases, the officer assigned to conduct the 360 should inform the IC that a complete 360 could not be accomplished, indicate what areas were not seen and then report their findings for the geographical areas they covered. In turn, the IC should not abandon the rest of the 360, but rather develop a contingency plan to obtain a report on the areas not covered, as a matter of priority.
Final thoughts on the 360
Every opportunity for success must be capitalized on to ensure everyone goes home at the end of their shift. The process presented here offers a standardized approach to complete a structure fire 360. It gives firefighters a decided advantage on the fireground and a foundation to better understand the connection between their observations and how they are used to positively influence command decisions and avoid unintended outcomes.