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Incident Commander's Rules of Engagement: Rapidly Conduct a 360 Size-Up of the Incident

Previous articles summarized the rules of engagement for firefighters. This article begins the incident commanders' rules. You'll recognize that several rules from the firefighter series cross over to the incident commander rules. This provides consistency in safety objectives but they're applied differently based on responsibilities. In this case, the incident commander is responsible for the safety of all firefighters operating on the fireground. The first rule states:

Rapidly Conduct or Obtain a 360-Degree Situational Size-Up of the Incident

Objective: To cause the incident commander to obtain an early 360-degree survey and risk assessment of the fireground in order to determine the safest approach to tactical operations as part of the risk assessment and action plan development and before firefighters are placed at substantial risk.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the need for the incident commander to conduct or obtain a 360-degree size-up of an incident. NIOSH firefighter fatality reports repeatedly cite a lack of a complete size-up as a contributing factor in firefighter deaths.

Each side of the fireground has its own unique fire conditions and risk that must be assessed. There will be factors that are visually present and those that aren’t observable from the command post. The incident commander must know what’s burning, where it is and where it’s likely to go. Evaluating these factors will allow the incident commander to forecast future conditions and risk and to develop a safe action plan.

There are several approaches to obtaining the size-up. In a rural environment, it may be many minutes before a second-due company arrives on scene, providing a reasonable period for the company officer or incident commander to conduct a 360-degree size-up. Until other companies arrive, there are no other companies to command. Additionally, where the initial arriving crew is three members, the OSHA two-in/two-out rule prohibits entry until another crew or officer arrives.

In the urban or suburban environment, four-member crews will allow two members to stretch an attack line while the company officer completes a 360-degree size-up. Where barriers prevent this, multiple companies will be arriving on scene in a relatively rapid sequence, and it may be more effective to quickly assign fire crews or other officers to various locations on all four sides of the building, obtaining a size-up report via radio from company officers.

In some cases, the first arriving chief officer assuming command can drive around the incident building or conduct his own walk-around, in order to obtain a complete 360-degree size-up of the fireground while assuming mobile command and directing companies for a short period of time. Typically, only a few fire companies are on the scene doing this short period and the incident-commander function won’t be compromised.

Where the chief has an aide, utilizing this member for size-up duties can be very effective.

Once the rapid size-up is completed, it’s absolutely essential that the incident commander establish a stationary command post, preferably in a fire-department vehicle. Later-arriving chief officers should be assigned appropriate division or group assignments to improve the 360-degree size-up for the incident commander and provide ongoing progress reports.

You can’t under estimate the value of the visual observation of all four sides of an incident to the incident commander and effective command decisions. Without it, the incident commander will be limited in vital information. Until the complete 360-degree assessment is completed, the incident commander must be cautious in committing fire crews, must constantly monitor changing conditions and must be prepared to immediately adjust crew commitments or withdraw crews all together. 

The incident commander must also understand the size-up is an ongoing process, requiring frequent progress reports from all points of the fireground. Even with a 360-degree walk around, the situation will be constantly changing and ongoing information on conditions from division and group supervisors will be needed to keep the action plan current and safe.

Abandoned and dilapidated buildings are a special consideration for a 360-degree size-up and decision-making. Where an active and progressing fire is present and the fire isn’t rapidly knocked down, a defensive strategy should be seriously considered from the outset.

Chief Gary Morris is a director at large on the Safety, Health and Survival Section board of directors and was the team lead for the Rules of Engagement project. He was formerly chief of the Rural Metro Fire Department in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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