Have you ever sat at a red light and in your side view mirror you see someone coming up too fast to stop at the light, and then you realize they have no intention to stop. Immediately you look at traffic coming through the green light and at that moment, what we like to call the pucker factor kicks in, and you cringe as the speeding car barely gets through the intersection without incident thanks to the well timed braking of the oncoming traffic.


If you are first to arrive at a house fire and have a fire showing in one or two rooms, you handle this fairly easy. Establish command, assign an attack crew, assign a vent crew, and have backups in place and as the attack crew makes entry, the vent crew breaks the window out in the room involved just as the attack crew fills the involved room with a fog stream, knocks the fire out and waits for the smoke to clear. Fast, easy, effective and somewhat routine.


Take the same scenario and as you pull up to the scene a woman runs up to you and frantically tells you her baby is in the crib in the back bedroom. You begin a size up and see fire in the room inside the open front door and also in what is probably the front bedroom. Remember that car running the red light? I’m certain you now have the same feeling. While it is never a good time to have some type of failure on the fire ground, even at routine calls, when life is at risk it is really not a good time. So, what do we do to minimize the opportunity for failure?


As the first arriving officer on the scenario above, establishing command at the onset becomes paramount. Establishing command lets other units know someone is on scene, someone is in charge, and that someone is the person all other companies need to get information to and from. The Incident Commander’s (IC) next steps should include size-up, verifying the location and ETA of incoming units, assigning a crew for rapid entry and search once a backup crew is in place, communicate with the mother to verify location of the child and if there are any obstacles or other things you should be aware of before entry.


Other items to consider include ventilation, fire suppression, EMS and transport, water supply if needed, power company, law enforcement and fire investigation to name a few.


So far we have;

  • Command established, size up completed
  • Entry crew assigned
  • Backup crew assigned (may include the IC depending on manpower)
  • Decision on need for water supply
  • Ventilation crew assigned (may be on arriving company due to life risk)
  • Established dialogue with mother
  • Notified dispatch of other resources needed.


This should all be accomplished within the first one or two minutes. As the entry team prepares to enter, the backup crew may need to perform some horizontal ventilation to relieve some of the smoke conditions inside. Notify dispatch when the entry team goes in and also give updates as the entry team reports back. This type of radio documentation could become extremely important at a later date.


If all goes according to the IC’s plan of attack, the search and rescue will be successful without injuries and will be uneventful.


Certainly in this scenario, the search and successful rescue of the child is all important. However, just as I consider fire prevention to be most important in the fight against fires, I also believe the first one or two minutes that the first arriving unit is on scene and assumes command is the most important two minutes to a successful outcome of any fire or emergency incident. Not only do we as fire service leaders want to have successful rescues, we also want incidents without injury to the citizens or our personnel.


We know that our firefighters do effective and exceptional jobs at emergency incidents. And we know it is because of the training everyone gets all the time. How much of that time is spent on training our officers about incident command and all of the things that go with it? I’m guessing it is a lot less. Certainly incident command training can be improved in almost every department. If possible, try some scenario-based training using buildings in your town. Another way is to have an officer bring in a pre-fire plan of a target hazard to your officer meeting, have them make a presentation on the building and why it is a target hazard, then create a scenario about that building. This gives each officer an opportunity to show their skills in public speaking, planning and command. I think you just might be surprised.


Remember, stay safe, Everyone Goes Home.

victim-under-tarpThere are probably no more terrifying words at an emergency scene than these three. Firefighters immediately look around, or feel around, to see if everyone is there that’s supposed to be. Company officers check to see if their entire crew is present and where they are supposed to be. After the initial shock of hearing the call, the Safety Officer and Accountability Officer begin going through mental checklists to make sure they have everything covered. The assigned Rapid Intervention Team (RIT), (you do have one assigned right?), begins checking equipment and prepares to enter the structure. The Incident Commander (IC) knows from the second he hears the call that he has to remain calm, cool, and maintain a good command presence as this shows confidence in his actions. After acknowledging the MAYDAY, the IC will begin to follow the departments SOG’s and begin to manage the MAYDAY call..

After the initial actions, the IC should request a Personnel Accountability Report (PAR) to ensure everyone is accounted for. It is a good idea to get another alarm responding to the scene. If it’s not included in the next alarm, request another EMS unit also. We all know it’s better to turn units around than to call for them. It is also a good idea to assemble a second RIT to back up the first. The IC has to also maintain operational continuity. Fire suppression operations must continue as those very actions may be keeping the troubled firefighter alive. One important step for the IC is to delegate the RIT functions to another command officer. There are those who believe they can perform both operations, but in this type of emergency, one should not attempt to serve two masters.

History shows that MAYDAYs normally occur in the first ten minutes of fire scene operations. What this shows is that it is typically (not always) a firefighter(s) from the first arriving units on the scene or one of the first crews to enter a structure. This illustrates the importance to listen and maintain radio communications at the scene or while enroute to the scene.

The IC should perform a face to face with the command officer in charge of the RIT. Make sure all of the information that is needed by the RIT is transferred to the RIT command officer. If possible designate a separate radio channel just for the RIT and have someone at the Command Post monitor that channel while the IC continues suppression operations. Hopefully, in the end, the RIT will communicate good news and everything will return to normal chaos.

The single most important step in the MAYDAY process is training and planning before a MAYDAY happens. It should always be taken seriously and the importance of a RIT should be reinforced at every opportunity. Because of the training you have had, if a MAYDAY call comes across your radio, your first thought should be, “We can handle this”!

Remember to stay safe and “Everyone Goes Home”.

dont-fail-to-planIn January of 2006, I was deployed with one other officer from pour department to Hancock County Mississippi to manage the planning section of the emergency operations center (EOC) for ten days. Although Hurricane Katrina had made landfall four months earlier on August 29, 2014, Hancock County was so severely damaged that the EOC was still operating out of necessity. Certainly volumes could be written on the damage Katrina inflicted on Hancock County, this is more about the Planning section of the EOC. Two days into deployment there, we were asked to develop a 30/60/90 day plan to present to the Emergency Manager before we left.

For those of you unfamiliar with this term, as I was in 2006, A 30/60/90 day plan simply provides a timeline and breakdown of actions and objectives that should be achieved within 90 days. It is a fluid plan, and flexible enough to be altered as needed.

For Hancock County I needed to provide objectives that should be reached within 90 days. These areas included;

  • Medical Facilities
  • What is and what will be the bed capacity
  • Ambulance Service
  • What are current and predicted response times
  • Temporary Housing
  • Work to get families from emergency housing (trailers) to temporary housing
  • Businesses: Retail, Grocery, Fuel
  • Department stores, groceries, gas stations
  • Transportation
  • Debris removal from roads, restoring traffic lights
  • Debris Removal
  • From roads, driveways, parking lots
  • Hazardous Materials Removal
  • Provide emergency response to Hazardous Materials issues
  • Government Services: Staff, Offices, Equipment
  • Provide computerized access to county records, plan for long term recovery of county complex

These are only the highlights of what the report included. For the plan to be useful, I visited almost all of the places mentioned above, met with FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers, County ambulance personnel, and the county sheriff.

In the end the plan turned out well and the Emergency Manage felt he had a better idea of what to expect within 90 days. I am sure at the end of the first 30 days, he had another 30/60/90 day plan developed.

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What can this type of plan do for you in your current capacity? It can be adapted to any process. If you are just starting budget preparation, do a quick 30/60/90 day plan to put your objectives on paper that others in the organization can follow and they will also know what needs to be done by when and by whom. If you have a big event in your community, you can use this plan along with the Incident Command System to make your event go as smooth as possible.

I have used this concept on a job interview. After researching the community and the department, I developed a 30/60/90 day plan to graphically show what my plans would be for the first 90 days. This usually makes an impression on the interviewer and you will also leave a good first impression.

You don’t have to be the chief to use this tool. Anyone can use it to set goals and objectives. And it can be altered to fit changes as needed. Give it a try if you haven’t already used one.

Stay Safe – Everyone Goes Home

employee-and-organizational-morale-1As leaders, we should constantly monitor our organizations morale and make adjustments as necessary. What are some of the steps, policies, mannerisms, or lead by example tips we as leaders can do to help build and maintain morale?


It is always important to look professional. Personnel should not be showing up at emergency scenes with shirts that are torn, without names, patches missing or other unacceptable issues. Once I made lieutenant, I started taking my shirts to the dry cleaners so I always had clean and pressed shirts on. There were times when less than 15 minutes into a shift we responded to a fire and my shirt would get soaked and dirty. After returning to quarters and showering, I always had a clean and pressed shirt to change into. Can this be done 100% of the time? Probably not. But if you make the effort others (including your crew) will notice. And then there is the pants. I have seen the navy blue pants that have been washed so many times that they are a light blue. Make sure your replacement program includes inspections and recommendations for new uniforms when necessary. Just as important to looking professional is to act professional. It’s ok to cut up once in a while at the station. I think that’s one way we stay sane in this business. However, when there is company in the station, from family and public to other officials, it is that time we need to be the professionals we always claim we are. Act professional and be professional in the station and out in the public whether at an emergency scene, public education program, or some other venue. As the Company Officer, make sure your crew looks and acts the part. As the leader, you should always emphasize that we are here to do whatever the public wants whenever they want it. It is never an inconvenience, it is our job.

Building Your Team 

It is important for the company officer to build morale within the station. I have been at some stations where there is always one or two guys who want to be alone all the time. They bring their own food eat alone, watch television alone, and stay away from group conversation. It is hard for the company officer to bring these people into the group, but it is always worth trying. Make sure everyone trains together, meet in the morning to discuss the activities for the day or the latest news and weather and try to find something that these guys and gals have in common with everyone else. It takes time and you have to keep these activities up, eventually most of these loners will become part of the group and you will have your team. Remember to be nice, be positive, be friendly, and be a friend. Not everyone has the best days every day at the firehouse.

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Build Company Pride

I was a lieutenant when the movie Backdraft came out. Immediately many of us wanted to have our own company logo and flag for our apparatus. At the time, top officials would not allow it. We still designed our own t shirts with our own mascot and wore them at night. It was a start and a source of pride for those of us at that station. Now all the stations have their own mascot and flags for the apparatus. In today’s world many stations have their own Facebook page, Twitter account or Instagram (or all of them). If you decide to go this route, ensure it is in line with your department and or city policies on these types of social media. In some areas it is still not allowed.  If you do use these make sure you as the leader monitor the site and ensure the postings are appropriate. Once a year a week before Fire Prevention week, we have a department wide open house at all stations and invite the public in to see their stations and fire apparatus. In most cases this will be the only opportunity for the citizens to see a fire truck up close. And the adults like getting in the seats as much as the kids. As the firefighters are giving tours they show their pride in their job and their knowledge and the citizens will see that we do more than sit around all day. This is always important as it builds trust between the fire department and the citizens. These types of events always bring the personnel closer together.

Lead by Example

As the leader of an organization, you have to always have a positive attitude. If you are in this position, you learned a long time ago to leave any other issues at the front door. If you sense the morale is low in your organization, then the best way to start building morale is to show up; at the station, emergency scenes, public education, and other venues. Congratulate the new dads or moms and acknowledge any off duty accomplishments. Someone once said that your employees don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Show them that you do care. Lead by example. Ask questions to really understand why morale is low. If you get some suggestions, implement those you can and acknowledge whose idea it was. Everyone likes a pat on the back once in a while. As a leader, whether a company officer or the chief, you can’t fix morale problems just like that. But we always have to keep trying. That’s what we get paid for, to never give up and never stop trying.


Stay Safe – Everyone Goes Home

Recently a neighboring department had a fire that involved 2 structures. The department called for mutual aid from 2 neighboring departments and together made a great stop with no one getting hurt. Later, after the situation was mitigated the Chief used social media to express how proud he was of the team for their aggressive stop.  Well as happens many times on the internet it lead to a discussion about why must we be aggressive…..aggressive gets people hurt…….its irresponsible to risk firefighter lives.  It led me to consider is being aggressive reckless? In a time when we fight fewer structure fires and have faster burning buildings is it wrong to be aggressive?

As I delved into this topic I feel like we must first understand the meanings of “aggressive” and “reckless”.  The Webster Meriam Dictionary defines Aggressive as:
1a: tending toward or exhibiting aggression
aggressive behavior

b: marked by combative readiness
aggressive fighter

2a: marked by obtrusive energy and self-assertiveness rude, aggressive personality

b: marked by driving forceful energy or initiative : ENTERPRISING an aggressive salesman

Webster also defines reckless as:
1: marked by lack of proper caution : careless of consequences

2: IRRESPONSIBLE reckless charges

Notice these two words are not synonyms, neither word is in the definition of the other. They in fact have no where near the same meaning.

So can we be aggressive without being reckless? First what is an aggressive fire department? In my mind an aggressive department is a culture. The upper level command staff has empowered line officers to be decisive, supports their decisions, and provides them the training to make sound decisions. This “aggressive” department trains their firefighters from day one to be prepared. they spend time on topics like building construction, fire flow path,  pump operations, scene size-up, and understanding engine and truck company ops. You won’t hear phases like ” That won’t happen here” ……” I took that class years ago”….. or my personal favorite” We’ve done it this way for 25 years.” They are always striving for perfection knowing its unattainable.  When these firefighters pull up on scene he come off the truck, dressed out, tool in hand, ready to go to work. The officer makes a size-up, The engine guys stretch the line to the door, the truck company prepares for the search and ventilation.  Decisions are made and everyone is working off the same sheet of music. How many time have you been on a scene that was like a grade school band concert? You know what I mean, yeah, all the kids are playing their instrument and the notes on the sheet but the timing is off and it doesn’t sound right. Well, an aggressive department works and trains so the timing is right and everyone knows their job and when it needs to be done.

What is a reckless department? I don’t think there are many intentionally reckless departments out there. I think most departments are well intentioned. I do feel like a department that doesn’t spend time on the previously mentioned topics may end up making reckless decisions.  Without understanding building construction or flow path how can IC make the determination whether and interior offensive attack is appropriate,  whether to send a vent crew to the roof,  or are there tenable spaces for potential victims.  Not having skilled firefighters who are well trained and having set procedures regardless of conditions is reckless, not having well trained officers is reckless,  having to wait for Chief, Assistant Chief, or Battalion Chief to start identifying strategic objectives is reckless. I was standing with a group of firefighters one afternoon at an event. A longtime firefighter whom had been an officer was telling me of an incident where they rolled the engine with himself, a 6 month probie, and a guy who was issued gear 3 days earlier. They arrived on scene and made an interior, offensive attack. When I asked why his response was that that’s the way they fight fire and you need to be aggressive with your attack…….That’s not aggressive, its RECKLESS!

I will go to battle with an aggressive firefighter who comes off the truck, tools ready and is smart enough to recognize potential hazard. A passive, unconfident firefighter make me nervous. Many time we see a professional athlete injured when the outcome has been decided and the effort is not where it should be. I want my crew to be giving 100% effort 100% of the time.  I want them to be knowledgeable, physically fit, and confident. I want them to be AGGRESSIVE.

Emergency scene size up can be defined as “A rapid mental evaluation of various factors related to an emergency incident”, or “An initial on-scene report by the first arriving unit that is clear, concise and relevant”.

The fire service loves acronyms and of course we have some for scene size-up. Some of these acronyms are long and difficult to remember. This one for example, COAL WAS WEALTH, may be easy to remember until you try to recall what all the letters stand for. Here they are;

Construction, Occupancy, Apparatus (and staffing), Life hazard, Water supply, Auxiliary appliances, Street conditions, Weather, Exposures, Area (including height), Location of fire within the structure, Time, and Hazards/Hazardous materials. While it is good practice to consider all of these during an initial scene size up, practice and experience are needed to become efficient at using it.

Another easier acronym is “A-B-C-D Size-up”. This is an easy one to remember and can especially be used by any firefighter or officer who is first on the scene. The letters stand for;

A-        Address- Sometimes the address you receive is not the address of the incident

B-        Building Description- Includes construction, floors, and occupancy

C-        Conditions- Smoke and or fire conditions, location of fire, weather conditions

D-        Deployment and directives- Which operational mode, (investigating, rescue, offensive or defensive). Provide additional instructions to specific units or to dispatch.

There have been thousands (I’m guessing) of articles, books, and training sessions devoted to scene size up. As humans, we all do size up every day. When we meet someone new, look at new apparatus, read an article, or sit in training, we are performing a mental size up of what we think about any of those particular items. And there are a ton of size ups we do in our everyday off duty life. It really is not that hard and is certainly something we shouldn’t be intimidated by. Take the first example above, COAL WAS WEALTH, and once you see what the letters stand for, you realize that you don’t really need to memorize each word in the acronym. Most of what you do in your initial size up is included in the first two words, COAL and WAS.

A sample size up could be something like this;

Engine X on scene of a one story, wood frame residential structure with smoke showing from side B. There is no apparent life hazard, the street is clear for placement, have Engine W secure a water supply.  The only letter missed was A for Apparatus, and we should know how our units are staffed before we leave the station. I would include exposures in the initial size up, if there are any, we know what the weather is, and fire is close to or at Side B. So we hit all the letters without mentally checking them off. As a last item and after taking command, the officer should report the mode he is in (fire attack, rescue, protect exposures, passing command to another unit on scene, etc).

We must remember there usually is not a lot of time to identify these points, develop a plan of action, communicate that plan to incoming units, and start whatever action you have decided on. Most of the time putting the fire out is the plan and may be done before other units arrive. However, we cannot fail to mentally develop a plan and communicate it so others, including whatever ranking officer is responding, will know what you are doing.

The objective is to implement a structured size-up process in your department, then educating your officers and firefighters in your department’s size-up policy.

Remember to stay safe – “Everyone Goes Home”

It’s 1500 hours on a bright sunny day. You are dispatched for a residential smoke detector activation. You and you crew respond and like most days, this should just be another routine call, right? While approaching the scene you see a column of smoke, you realize this is a working job. When you arrive on scene you find a two-story, wood frame, single family dwelling with Heavy smoke showing. Does this Sound like a call you have been on in the past? A good scene size up will set the pace for this scene and let your incoming resources know what they have and that they will most likely be going to work.

So, where does scene size up start? It starts before the incident even comes in. This is done by getting out of the fire house and learning your first due area. Know the building construction for the different areas in your district, know the residential vs commercial. Look for old vs new construction, as well as lightweight materials. Note these areas, either on a map or in a department database. Also, learn the water supply in these areas. Knowing if you will need more resources due to poor water goes hand in hand with initial size up.

Let’s break this down now, with residential vs commercial. With commercial structures, we can usually gain access to these buildings through either, fire inspections or pre-planning. This allows us to get the floor plan and note any fire safety issues like light weight building materials. They also help us to learn what fire safety features they have with these buildings, (ex. Sprinkler systems). When it comes to residential this becomes much harder. We usually have no authority to enter unless we are either invited in or are on a call there. This creates a unique opportunity of us. Most of our runs today evolve around ems calls. We can use these calls to get a quick layout of the residences we respond to. This becomes our pre-plan for residential structures.

When you arrive on scene what do you need to report? Start with the basics and use the following to guide you.

  • (Unit #) On scene
  • # of stories
  • Type of construction
  • Residential/Commercial
  • Conditions/Nothing showing
  • Who has command

Here is what this would look like in a radio transmission, “Dispatch engine 1 is on scene of a 2-story, balloon frame, residential structure with smoke and fire showing from the Alpha Delta corner, Lt. Smith has command, stand by for a 360.” This is just an example, but could you get a picture in your head of what was being described?

The second part of this would be after your 360 size up and could be something like this, “command to all units, 360 complete, heavy smoke and fire conditions on division 2 Alpha bravo corner. We will be initiating an attack through division 1 alpha side, engine 2 catch the hydrant and ladder 1 perform a primary search of division 2 and division 1. Does this sound like something you have heard before? Not all incidents or departments have the resources on scene immediately to have a report like this. It can be spread out. This just paints the picture of what you have and what needs to be done.

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After the initial scene size up the rest of the scene can be run with the three-way size up. Chief Billy Goldfeder from Loveland- Symmes Fire department in Ohio, has come up with the three-way size up which goes as follows:

  • What do we have?
  • What do we want to do?
  • What resources do we need?

If you follow the three questions stated above and continue to do reassessments as needed then you will have a winning plan when it comes to scene size up.

This will take some practice on your part to learn. The best way I have found to practice this is to find pictures of different fires on the internet and call in a size up. Practicing this way can be done at any time and under any weather conditions. The second way I recommend practicing this is to drive your first due district and start calling out size ups as you drive past different buildings. Having good sound knowledge of building construction will also help with sizing up a building. There are many different types of buildings out there and having good, sound knowledge of the type of building you are seeing will lead to safe and effective fire attack.

In conclusion, a size up is a vital part of what we do. It starts before the call, then continues to the initial call in. From there we have a continuous ongoing scene size up answering the key three questions. Practice this skill often and it will become second nature to you. Good luck and be safe.



Billy Goldfeder – Pass it on

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