How to deliver a strong 360-degree size-up
A quick trip around the building can illuminate key factors related to victims, building access and fire location
By Brad French
As a company officer, operating above an unrecognized basement fire is one of the single most precarious positions for your crew. Increasing heat in the blackness with no apparent seat of the fire, radio calls from the outside of fire below, and fire licking up through floor vents or burn-through holes are all signs that should stop any officer in their tracks to reevaluate their current position.
The list of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) for basement-fires-turned-tragic is long and often-studied. Identifying the presence of a basement, along with any indications of fire conditions below and a more direct access, simply cannot be shortcut by the first-in engine or truck officer for the tempting expedience of rushing directly to the front door.
Other immediately important fireground factors – victims at windows on the sides or rear, indicators of multiple occupancy, the presence and status of utility meters, and paths of immediate ingress and egress – all point to need for the company officer to make it to the rear of the structure.
Few actions in the initial moments following arrival of the first-due apparatus can tip the balance of time spent vs. tactical benefit like a 360-degree size-up.
Experienced fire officers will be quick to concede that there are many barriers that can hinder a full lap around the building, but many will note time and time again that significant tactical alterations have been triggered by findings on the Charlie side. Not making it around to get a full view of the rear of the structure has been a direct contributor to several firefighter fatalities and countless near misses.
While topography, building size/layout, physical barriers and various arrival factors can certainly challenge or limit the “textbook” 360, the most prudent fire officers realize that it’s worth the time to make a quick lap while the initial attack handline is being laid out or while members are forcing the front door. Even more importantly, though, is that officer’s ability to quickly and decisively change their company’s course of action if necessary, based upon what is found on the back or the sides of the structure.
The walkaround: What are we looking for?
There are dozens of important general size-up factors to evaluate rapidly upon arrival. The fire service is certainly in no dire need of more acronyms, but the big points for company officers to remember while making a quick trip around the building can be easily summed up with PAL: People, Access, and Location of the fire.
People: Life safety always has been and always will be the primary strategic consideration on the fireground. While modern fire research has demonstrated that the rapid application of water may provide the best immediate overall tactical benefit for victims trapped throughout the structure, identifying any victims in an accessible position in need of immediate rescue is critical upon the arrival of first-due apparatus. The company officer making a quick lap around the structure should keep a keen eye for any obvious (or not-so-obvious) indications of a victim at a window or doorway remote from the front of the structure.
In addition to the obvious victims at windows not visible from the street, look for open windows that seem out of place, such as an open window in the middle of winter. A victim that recently opened it may be unconscious just below the sill out of sight. Victims may have jumped from windows prior to our arrival and can be located on the ground in the vicinity of windows.
While the officer may not necessarily stop and provide direct aide or victim removal back to the front of structure, rapid identification of these victims is crucial and can be communicated over the radio to subsequently arriving crews. Window A/C units are also a “people indicator” worth noticing on the Bravo, Charlie or Delta sides, as they may prompt a more rapid interior search prioritization of less-obvious areas, such as attics.
Officers failing to complete a rapid 360 are in danger of missing these clues and other critical life safety findings.
Access: The more information and intelligence a company officer can quickly gain about ways into and out of the structure, the better.
In addition to locations of doors and windows, the officer can assess the level of fortification on all sides of the building, including locks, board-up plates, window bars and commercially made property securing devices. The officer may even occasionally force a door remote from the front for a secondary egress before committing their crew inside from the front, but any door forced should be controlled to limit air intake in the early stages. In these cases, after making a quick sweep for victims behind the door and a peek for interior layout indicators, the door should be controlled back to the mostly closed position.
In addition to access points, the officer is continually formulating a “best guess” of interior layout during the 360 walkaround. While the true layout of a house may only be known if the crew is familiar with that particular home, or similar homes in the same area, experienced officers will mentally process exterior clues to quickly determine where in interior stairs are likely to be, how many bedrooms are probable, and if the house has a basement or not.
While on the Bravo, Charlie and Delta sides, look for the tell-tale “half-window” that seems to be between floors. This almost always indicates the location of an interior stairwell landing, and observing it during a walkaround can shorten the time to finding the stairs in a zero-visibility condition inside. In older homes, a more direct basement entry door often accompanies these “half-windows” on the exterior wall.
Additionally, note window size, as smaller windows often indicate kitchens and bathrooms. Smaller, ground-level windows indicate the presence of a basement, although many basements and cellars have no outside indicators at all.
Location of the fire: Trying to make a best guess on interior fire location and extent comes down to three simple factors: Ask the occupant (if there is one), read the smoke/fire conditions, and view all sides with your thermal imager on a rapid lap around the building.
In many cases, there won’t be an obvious occupant to ask. And of course, there’s a possibility that the information they give you won’t be completely accurate. But in addition to whether or not they know of anyone else still in the building (yes, we still search regardless), a quick statement of, “it started in the kitchen” or “smoke started coming up from the basement” may prove to be quite valuable.
Much has been written and taught about smoke reading by some of the best officers and instructors in our business, and those resources are out there for engaged company officers to read, watch and put into play on the fireground. What has gotten less press over recent years, however, is the importance of using a thermal imager for a rapid scan of all four sides of the building during a 360 walk-around. Even in the presence of obvious fire conditions or turbulent smoke, indicating the main body of fire, the thermal imager can indicate other key factors, such as strong heat signatures throughout stud bays (indicating active fire spread through a balloon frame) and any signs of heat around the foundation or ground-level windows (indicating a basement fire). The thermal imager is arguably more useful on the outside of the structure in more favorable conditions to quickly determine fire location and extent than it is in more challenging conditions while managing hoselines, poor ambient visibility, radios and debris on the inside.
Any indication of a basement fire on the 360 lap should be an immediate trigger for the company officer to reevaluate their default “front door” strategy and consider alternate means for attack.
What good is a 360 size-up if you don’t do anything with it? Well, none. This is the part where the company officer needs to directly manage their company.
I was once told by a company officer that they don’t do a 360 walkaround at house fires because their “crew would be in the door already” by the time they got back to the front. I appreciate aggressive fire crews as much as anyone, but if a company officer was somehow in such a poor position of leadership and crew discipline that a scenario like that actually happened, it should only happen once. Tactical commitment into the structure should take place only when all of the crewmembers are on the same page, geared up and ready to go.
If the company officer notices signs of a basement fire on a 360, their best tactical option is quite likely re-directing the engine crew to apply water from a more direct vantage point. If there’s a walk-out basement, use it. If there are ground-level basement windows, use them. If there are stairs directly down through a Bilco-style door or side/rear entry, take those instead. Getting water on the seat of a recognized basement fire as quickly and directly as possible is the single most critical reason for a 360 walk-around.
Take the time!
Honor the sacrifices made by others. Learn, study and ask questions. As a company officer making tactical decisions in the early stages of a house fire, it’s always worth the time for a quick 360 with a thermal imager, and it’s critical to make rapid shifts in fire attack location and other tactical decisions based upon what you find.
About the author
Brad French is a captain in the Dayton (Ohio) Fire Department. He is a 20-year member of the fire service, and holds degrees in fire science and fire administration. French is a former member of the Board of Directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), serves on the technical committees for NFPA 1700 and 1402, and is a member of the technical panel for the UL-FSRI Coordinated Fire Attack study.