Size-Up Communication: A Critical Aspect to Situational Awareness

Blog by Ed Hadfield
In the first part of this series, we discussed the important aspects of the Incident Commander and his/her ability to capture the appropriate level of situational awareness on the fireground. Based upon the presentation of facts within the interior fireground, through intel from group leaders, as well as the intel in which the “Inside Man” presents to the Incident Commander. This article discusses the necessity for the continuous size-up and the situation status report, which will give the individual in charge the ability to make strategic adjustments.
First, the process must be defined and known to all personnel so they understand operational goals of the incident. Often, first arriving command personnel fail to identify the operational objective for all personnel. It cannot be assumed that all personnel arriving have a complete and full understanding of the Incident Commander's intent. An example would be the Initial Size-Up or “952/Report on Conditions.” An appropriate Size-Up or 952 would layout similar to this:
"Battalion 1 and all incoming units, Engine 1 is on scene with four at 1313 Mockingbird Lane of a two-story single family dwelling with heavy pressurized smoke coming from the upper floors and visible fire on the first floor in the Bravo / Charlie corner. Engine 1 has established a water supply and will Fire Attack in an offensive mode. All incoming units continue primary staging. Engine 1 is Establishing Mockingbird Command with the Command Post in front of the structure."
If we break this down, we can see how the initial Size-Up/952 lays the foundation for a successful command mode and safe, effective fireground operations based upon the established situational awareness of the first arriving Command Officer. The language in the primary announcement, “Battalion 1 and all incoming units," is the “heads-Up’ indicator that the first arriving company is about to announce their size-up. This is important for all units to understand and operate under a radio discipline procedure to allow the first arriving Officer to have a clear radio frequency to provide his size-up/952. There is nothing more frustrating for a company officer, than trying to give his report and being drowned out by other units providing what they feel is important information.
The next aspect is to announce the unit identifier and crew strength. This begins to develop the initial accountability profile for the incoming Battalion Chief or other command officers. The “With four” announcement indicates the unit has arrived on scene with all four members. This is critical for second due arriving units to understand as well, given a reduction to “With (3) three” may indicate the second due units maybe assigned the single firefighter on Engine 1 as part of Fire Attack. The next arriving Engine may be assigned a split Company Operations with “Fire Attack and Search” with the firefighter from Engine 1. This is important to anticipate if you are the second arriving Engine Company Officer.
The address indicator is important as well. Although we are generally assigned from dispatch to the correct address on most SFR fires, on multi-family habitations and other larger complex fires, it is important to provide for a corrected address to all incoming units. Particularly for the truck company that may be responding from an opposite direction, to provide for an appropriate spot in front of the structure or to get a good look at three sides of the structure when approaching.
Observations should include the following:
  • Height of Structure: 1 / 2 / 3 Story
  • Type of Structure: Single Family / Multi-Family / Commercial / Industrial / High-Rise
  • Grouping: Center Hallway / Garden style / Strip Mall / Light Manufacturing
  • Conditions: Smoke Showing from the…. Fire Showing from…. Imminent Rescue at the….
  • Identified Hazards: Wires Down / High-Density Security Devices / Possible Collapse Situations
All of the above mentioned factors are designed to “Paint the Picture” for incoming units in order to prepare them for the mode of operations. This short, yet concise, report will speak volumes to those responding to the fireground in the area of positional tool assignments, operational consideration upon arrival, spotting/positioning and set up of apparatus, and overall fireground safety communications to personnel.
Communication of your actions is a required field to accomplish. Identifying the aspect of water supply and your initial actions, establishes the foundation of all other operations on the fireground specific to those other units awaiting an assignment. First, you must announce whether you have captured a water supply or not. If you have chosen to come in on the tank and require additional units to bring you water, you need to clearly identify that in the initial Size-Up/952. Otherwise, units will blow past water supply opportunities, come into your scene and potentially block out opportunities for subsequent responding units to quickly bring water.
Next is your decisive action plan…
NOTE: Hoping for the best is never an action plan.
Make a decision based upon known facts, and identified hazards and risks. Then put the plan into play and support all those associated with the action. In other words, either put the fire out or stand outside and watch it burn. On another note, if you are “On Scene, Investigating” you are NOT, and I repeat...NOT, "in command." You are investigating and will provide the responding resources with updated information upon its availability. You cannot be “On scene, investigating, and establishing Mocking Bird Command” all at once. Remember, you must have an incident to be in command of it.
Establishing staging or directing units is critical for scene management; particularly in truck placement applications. You may find yourself directing companies to stage away and come in on foot to allow the truck the appropriate spot to utilize ground or aerial ladders. If your organization has a policy that establishes, or directs all incoming units to stage and receive an assignment prior to coming into the scene, you will want to pay particular attention to those specific details to avoid potential congestion at the scene with apparatuses that could eliminate truck placement or additional water supply. If you are striking additional alarms, you MUST establish a staging location and should consider a staging location manager if the alarms are over two.
Last but not least...Make a strong command, and establish a strong command presence. Far too many junior Company Officers are of the belief they need to "Pass Command" and go "Quick Attack."
The bottom line here is they want to fight fire. They haven’t made the transition from line personnel to Officer and Commander. Now, I’ve heard all the arguments about the need for a quick attack, but the bottom line is this: A strong, established Incident Command System placed into an incident early on will provide the safest of all firegrounds.
The key is to understand that upon arrival, a Company Officer's size-up and report on conditions are what provides him with the greatest ability to establish a bona-fide action plan, based upon visual observations and critical information at that specific time. Another company officer arriving just a few minutes later is going to see things differently and could assign resources differently based upon those conditions, which could be contradictive to those original actions of the first arriving officer. This is dangerous and counter-productive to the overall fireground.
Identifying the command post is important for all personnel, particularly in those cases of utilization, accountability and direction of resources. The command post can be a generalized location in which personnel, particularly the arriving B/C, would be capable of finding the initial I/C. Optimally, the CP is located in an area of observational awareness and ease of locality.
Size-up communication is a critical component to establishing necessary situational awareness on the fireground.
About the Author

Ed Hadfield has more than 26 years of fire service experience after rising through the ranks from firefighter to division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. For more on Hadfield, please check online at


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