The Fire Ground Size Up

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

Patrick currently serves as a Firefighter/Paramedic for Wapakoneta Fire-Ems in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He has eleven years in the fire service. He is married to his wife Ashley and has three children Haley, Ethan and Ava. Patrick has a Bachelor’s of Fire Science degree from Columbia Southern University and an Associates of Applied Science in Ems from the University of Toledo. He also serves as the Coordinator for the PALS program and AHA outreach for Lima Memorial Health Systems. Patrick Is also a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association Maxwell leadership Program.

Posted in Command, Fire Service, Fire Tactics, Firefighting, Patrick Mullen, Tips.