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How to deliver strong initial on-scene size-up reports

Size-up reports are an essential part of effective fireground operations – and can save firefighter lives

Many National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality reports list the following recommendation as a critical factor that can influence line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) on the fireground and many other emergency events: “Ensure that an initial size-up of the incident scene is conducted before beginning interior firefighting operations.”

Conducting that initial scene size-up and establishing an effective incident command structure early in the event not only helps the incident run smoothly, but can also save firefighter lives. And with that comes training to ensure this practice is conducted repeatedly at every event to which we respond.

Establishing command – and a plan of action

Firefighters and company officers too often gravitate to operating at the task level – that operational level that includes operating a nozzle on a hoseline, laddering a building on a structure fire, operating an extrication tool at a motor vehicle crash, and related duties.

All of these actions are very important in the mitigation of the incident. However, there first must be some form leadership to provide an overall direction for the event – and this comes from the incident commander (IC). One department member to step away from the task-level duties and step up to the tactical/mid-level management so there is a vision for scene management. In other words, someone must be in charge.

The very first unit on the scene should assume that role and deliver a brief initial on-scene report as well as provide a plan of action to other incoming units. (Note: This does mean the first individual, no matter what rank, should assume command and give the initial on-scene report if they arrive first. They can let the responding units know what is happening at that moment and begin to gather information, such as if everyone is out of the house and accounted for. Command can easily be transferred once a ranking officer arrives.)

Even though the task-level actions still must be completed, it is essential for someone to develop an overall plan to coordinate every task to ensure that the plan comes together. Before you throw your hands up and say, “We don’t have time for this!” remain calm and train on it.

The “first unit”, in a volunteer department could be a young female firefighter that lives just down the street. She should be prepared/trained to give an initial on-scene report if there is a fire or any type of event at 2am. What a waste of valuable time for her to stand in the yard waiting for other units to arrive on-scene. She can make a 360 and gather further information to pass along, identify hydrant location, communicate safety hazards to other members. Of course, all this should be trained upon.

The problem with failing to provide detailed information

I know most of you have likely used the radio to call on scene at some point in your career, and it probably sounded something like this: “Engine 2 is on scene at 1234 Smith Street, Engine 2 will be command.” Then … nothing.

But what if it was just a smoke alarm activation with nothing showing? Additional apparatus are still rolling down the road to your location, with lights and siren blazing, not knowing that you are talking to the homeowner about the smoke alarm that has been going off for the last hour. If you wait long enough, units will arrive on scene and begin to self-deploy, performing what they believe should happen, and trust me, this will take place no matter what the situation, as I’ve witness it many times.

Taking control and providing a detailed size-up

Let’s start with the basic on-scene report, as it sets the stage for the entire management of the event. The ultimate goal: Your crews develop a pattern of radio traffic that will become automatic.

An example of an initial on-scene report for a working fire: “Engine 7 is on the scene at 1234 Smith Street. We have a one-story residential structure with light smoke showing from the A/D corner. Engine 7 will be laying a supply line and going in with a handline for search and rescue. This is an offensive fire attack. Show Engine 7 as Smith Street command.”

An example of an initial on-scene report for nothing showing: “Engine 2 is on scene at 1234 Smith Street. We have nothing showing and will be out investigating. Have all responding units slow their response and stage at Smith and 2nd Avenue. Engine 2 will be command.”

In both examples, the first unit on scene takes command of the incident, completes a quick size-up or begins an investigation of the scene and provides direction. This should happen at every event.

Practice makes it easy: Training on size-up reports

Arriving on scene and establishing command should always priority – and this must be practiced in training.

In training, have crews start by practicing their on-scene reports over a portable radio to give that true feel of actually keying up the radio and transmitting a message to dispatch. (Of course you will be utilizing a tactical or talk-around channel to not disrupt normal operations of the district.) Additionally, crews can use a small whiteboard to write out their on-scene report to hit all the marks. Remember, the goal is to have members who can give a good report and begin to formulate an action plan as they arrive on scene.

As they are getting comfortable, it is time to create a more real-world environment. There are several simple simulation software programs that allow you to work with pictures you take from your own district. You can then add smoke and flames to the photos to show many different scenarios.

The next step is to show these different scenarios, whether on your computer, smartphone or projected onto the wall in the apparatus bay next to the engine. Have your crew take turns serving as the company officer, completely dressed out in their gear as if they are responding to a fire. They should be seated in the fire apparatus and give that on-scene report over the radio as if they are just rolling up on the event, and have that “windshield view.” This creates the most realistic training you can get in such a small area.

Swap the scenarios from a small residential structure to a multi-family apartment building to an industrial complex. The selection options are endless but should focus on whatever structures are located in your district.

For those departments that don’t have access to simulation software, you can still practice size-up reports.

Start with your firehouse. Take the fire apparatus and park it in front on the firehouse, then tell the crewmember that they are arriving on scene of a residential structure fire, either a one-story or two-story, and where the smoke and fire are located. Have them visualize what you’re describing and then give their initial on-scene report over the radio.

Another scenario would be a two-car motor vehicle crash. Place two vehicles in a simulated vehicle accident position, and have a few of the other crewmembers act as victims. The acting company officer can give the initial report and then have other crewmembers access the simulated victims. Once this has been completed, have the company officer give a patient update over the radio to the responding transport unit that is still en route.

Understanding the end goal: Saving lives

When developing a training drill such as this, department members must understand the importance of learning the skill. As stated, NIOSH reports have documented the lack of size-up reports as a major concern in many LODD incidents. Having crews give on-scene reports is an excellent way to drive home the point of completing a good size-up, which may also identify safety issues.

Be safe and train hard!

Command Post Management for New Officers
In this four-part video series, Chief Marc Bashoor provides an overview of command post management for new officers.
Critical tips for new officers running incident command, including an acronym to help control the scene
Detailing the pros and cons of the incident commander’s three options for the command post: inside the vehicle, at the back of the vehicle and in front of the incident
Detailing three parts of the incident command acronym LABOR: Announce, box and observe
The final step in the LABOR acronym, relax underscores that ICs must not bring more chaos to an already dynamic scene

This article, originally published on July 22, 2019, has been updated.

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.