Circle-Checks & Size-Up

Side A/B

Side A/B

The other day, while talking about basement checks, the idea of a “circle check” came up.  This may show us hazards & conditions we would not be aware of if we just rushed in the front door…  Quite bluntly – the time to do this is IMMEDIATELY.  If we don’t know the whole story, we may employ inappropriate tactics, or worse, hurt/kill one of our own.

At right is a fire in Burtonsville, MD that occurred on September 20.  Take a look and think about your initial size-up.

  • Building use.
  • Building construction.
  • Building size/height.
  • Fire conditions/location.

Then click below to see what this fire has to do with “circle checks” or “side-C size-ups.

My initial size-up would have been: “1-story wood-frame single-family, smoke showing side’s A & D”.  Of course more would have been going through my mind, but that would be my initial radio return.

Capt. Dan Shaw talks about Fairfax County’s “circle check” policy, where the initial officer physically walks around the building (as long as its reasonable in size) and provides a complete size-up.  In the DCFD & PGFD the first unit to arrive in the front & rear provides a full size-up. There are a few reasons this is necessary:

  • Conditions may be evident in the rear that are not in the front.
  • Conditions may be evident on different floors.
  • The building may be of different size or configuration (ex: 2-sty in the front, 3 in the back).
This front/rear size-up issue was another factor in the May 1999 LODD’s of two DCFD firemen:  the 2nd due truck (in the rear) thought they were venting the 1st floor when they were actually venting the basement.  That led to a rapid “re-oxygenation” of a smoldering basement fire and subsequent rapid flame advancement, and subsequent: 2 funerals.  
So here is the rear of this fire:
Side C

Side C

What do you see now?   My return: “Engine 331, Side C, 2-story single family, wood-frame, smoke showing both floors – looks like we have fire in the basement”.
Wood-frame?  Looks like brick to me…  My bet is, based on experience & the neighborhood, that this is a wood-frame house with a brick veneer.  Even if I’m wrong, I’d rather err towards calling it “wood-frame”.  That is the weaker construction style and we can err more on the side of caution rather than assuming it’s the “strong” brick construction.
What’s missing here?  Ummm, the deck?  You see this alot – a builder makes the house and the owner gets to add on the deck.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.  Would this be a big issue if you tried to head out that kitchen door in rear?  This information should be SPECIFICALLY communicated to the IC and broadcast to all units operating.
“URGENT:  Command to all companies, be advised that the rear kitchen door does not have a deck attached – there is a 15 foot drop off at this location.  Use caution in this area, a ladder is in place”.
So you have ventilation & laddering responsibilities in the rear.  Did the guy in this scenario make the right decision?  I say he did.  If you only had one ladder to use, that’s where I’d have put it.  It will give us egress from that door and that door, by virtue of its size, provides the most ventilation.  I would certainly ladder & clear those other windows ASAP – but I think the door chosen in the picture above was correct for the first priority.  Remember your laddering priority:  Fire floor, Floor above, Roof, Floors in between.
Regarding 360-degree size-ups, in the DCFD & most of the PGFD companies arrive quickly enough for the size-up to be split among two companies: the first in the front and the first in the back.  However in areas or situations where the next arriving companies may be a while out, it is IMPERATIVE that a 360-degree size-up be completed and communicated immediately. 



6 Responses

  1. there is a link to a few additional fire ground pics. There is a good shot of how much fire they actually had in the basement, before realizing where it was…

  2. opps, link didnt post…sorry Nick.
    for those that are interested go to burtonsville’s links, find Laurel volunteer fire under MD..

  3. Nick,

    Thanks for the post. In regards to operations in Fairfax, we do not solely rely on the 1st Engine Officer to make a lap, rather we stress the “lap” to ensure that before a Company commits to a firefight on the 1st floor they should have a clear indication of what they are fighting, i.e – a basement fire when you think it is a first floor fire. If the 1st Engine Officer cannot make that lap we include provisions to cover the gaining of this vital information by making the 3rd Engine and 2nd Truck responsible for Side Charlie assessment regardless of what the 1st Engine officer did. Whether we are discussing FX, PGFD, or DCFD, the goal is the same – To identify what type of fire it is (basement, first floor, deck) and what correct tactics (line in thru the rear, VES, etc.) to employ to put the fire out quickly.

    As Nick cited, the Cherry Road fire in DC was an eye-opener for many of us in the Metro region. The one portion of that investigation that I commit to memory and is valid for anyone that goes to basement fires, is that they deducted the when the window was taken at the second floor and caused the re-oxygenation, that the fire travelled upwards of almost 20 mph up the stairwell right into the faces of the fallen brothers!

    Thanks for all that respond and please discuss with your fellow firefighters as this is vital information to share and discuss.

  4. In the FDNY (and other departments too I imagine) we elect to send a member to the rear, or have a member report on conditions in the rear from the rooftop via HT to the Chief in the front. Obviously, this particular photo does not address all buildings, so…the reporting member will need to be flexible in the way they get there. Specifically, when we have buildings in a row, large apartment complexes, High rise, ect… getting to the rear may be difficult to access.
    An outside vent or the member to the roof member may be the first to get a good look at the rear. If you are this reporting member, be sure to give conditions to the Chief over the HT loud and clear. Take an extra 5 seconds and think of the transmission that you are going to say, play it out in your head before you press the mic. A clear concise report will be heard by all members on the fireground. This message will let them know, clearly, what is… or is not…. going on in the rear (presence or absence of fire escapes, fire extending, extra floors in the rear, occupants at windows).

    Getting to the rear is another story that I will address shortly…..

  5. The City of Fairfax has issued a General Order mandating that first arriving officer complete a reconnaissance lap of the structure on all single family, duplexes and townhouse structures. If there is a physical barrier that prevents this he can delegate it to another unit but interior operations will not commence until this occurs. A radio report of the conditions on side Charlie shall be transmitted.

    This General Order was issued after reviewing a number of incidents in the Northern Virginia region where there injuries or a fatality.

    On a personal note one of my most embarassing performances as a company officer was after I failed to take 30 seconds to look at the rear of a garden apartment structure. Based on my quick view of front vestibule filled with light smoke and running water I assumed that sprinkler of the below grade storage room had extinguished the fire. A look at the rear of the structure, which was easily accessible, would have resulted in seeing fire showing from a window from and ajoining space.

    Having another unit announce they have fire showing after you have advised command that the sprinkler has extinguished the fire is fairly humbling. Having another company put out your first due fire is total embarassing.

  6. Capt. Munday,

    Very good points. Certainly there are a variety of personal motivators and an embarrassing situation is definitely not the least of them. After talking with people from around the country, it is SCARY how many departments (small & large) give no significant attention to the idea of sizing-up all sides of a building, by whatever means.

    Thanks for commenting and I’m glad you stopped by. I hope all is well with you and everyone at 403 and 433 – give a shout to the old crew from 433-B for me!


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