Training Day - Conducting an emergency scene size-up

This column is the second in a two part series discussing the importance of the scene size-up and how to train to perform this vital function. The first column offered an overview of the13-point size-up and specifics on some of the points. This column will finish discussing the individual points of the COAL WAS WEALTH size-up (so far the COAL points have been covered leaving us with WAS WEALTH) and finish with some ideas on how to utilize and conduct training on it.  

There are numerous weather conditions to consider. Temperature extremes of both hot and cold can be debilitating to operating personnel as well as victims. In addition, snow and ice can hinder both response and operations, possibly freezing potential water supplies. Temperature can have a major impact on the effects of a chemical release (e.g. a chemical may have a low volatility at low temperatures but develop a major vapor hazard at high temperatures). Another major consideration in any hazardous material release is the wind. Wind can also have a major effect on the spread of fire in both an urban and a wilderness environment. While wind can negatively affect forest fires so can dry weather.  Conversely while rain can help control a forest fire it could prove problematic during the release of a water reactive chemical.

The apparatus, equipment, and personnel needs are dictated by the incident. This is not just an assessment of what is required but also what is available. When assessing these items one should be proactive as many items will not be readily available. There are numerous types of apparatus and equipment to consider such as: ambulances, breathing air compressors, lighting, elevated platforms, and food trucks for long term operations. Some examples of items to consider would be apparatus and equipment compatibility and the incidents GPM requirements.  

This section refers to more than just street conditions, it refers to anything affecting the avenue of access to the area of operations, including any terrain or water features. An example would be a scenario requiring a response via fireboat due to weather conditions, such as heavy snowfalls. In an industrial facility narrow roads and low hanging pipes crossing roadways can hinder access. While evaluating this point, access of various specialized units and equipment that could be required must be taken into consideration.  In regards to terrain (and weather) it is usually a sound tactic when responding to a hazardous materials release to set up uphill and up wind. The reason for this was demonstrated at the 1996 fire at the Heaven Hills Distillery. High winds initially caused the fire to spread to other buildings and hilly terrain allowed flaming bourbon to spread the fire to several other structures downhill.1  

Water supply includes the availability of fire hydrants, bodies of water to pump out of, or any other water source. It can also include the apparatus necessary to pump and otherwise transport the water. For FDNY, this can include fire engines, fire boats to pump water, satellite units consisting of high capacity pumpers, and hose wagons to lay various large diameter and specialized hose line through which to pump water. Water supply can also include buildings systems, such as standpipes, sprinklers, and pumps. Establishing or maintaining an adequate water supply after a catastrophic event has long been a concern for FDNY. This dates back to a time when members of FDNY were assigned to the London Fire Brigade during World War II to observe the tactics that London FFs had established to respond to the bombings of London. Interrupting the water supply at any link in the supply chain has the potential to prove disastrous in regard to firefighting and other emergency operations. This interruption could be secondary to an emergency that involves an explosion or collapse that damages supply lines, or it could just be due to the logistical difficulties of supplying the large quantities of water that can be required at an industrial incident.  Water is also a critical component of other emergency operations, such as gross decontamination operations during a hazardous materials incident. Due to its great importance, the FDNY has many contingency plans to supply water in various situations such as using a hose wagon from a satellite unit to lay large diameter hose line to be used as a replacement for damaged water mains. This hose can be supplied from a fireboat, with access to a limitless supply of water, which pumps at a capacity of 50,000 GPM.2  This can be of even greater concern at a large scale industrial incident due to the tremendous amount of water and/or extinguishing agents that could be required.  

In regard to fire operations, exposures are generally referencing adjoining buildings or areas adjoining the fire area within the fire building. Exposures are the areas that are susceptible to the spread of fire and toxic gases, resulting in a life hazard. Exposures can also be close enough to suffer damage if the building on fire collapses. Think of exposures as any area that can be affected by or affect the area of operations. As in collapse operations, this refers to the six sides of the area of operations: left, right, front, back, above, and below.

In a hazardous materials release, this could include the area expected to be engulfed by the plume or, in a hazardous materials release in a high-rise, an immediate exposure problem would be areas serviced by the same HVAC system. Finally, exposures are not just problematic; they can be useful for such purposes as providing access to the area of operations.  Some examples of exposure protection from hazardous materials would be blocking or shutting down air intakes, using a fog stream to dissipate and direct a gas leak, and blocking contaminated runoff from entering sewer systems or waterways.  

Most commonly in the urban FS, area and height refers to the area of the building or occupancy. However, these could refer to a much larger area, such as a forest fire or a large scale chemical release. It can also refer to a pandemic spreading throughout the country. Area and height can be indicators of the numbers of victims and the difficulty of evacuation. These factors can also dictate tactics due to equipment limitations, such as the length of aerial ladders used by the FS for access and egress, or by established SOPs, such as the common practice in the FS of utilizing standpipe systems to access water for firefighting in structures, such as high-rise buildings, bridges, and stadiums.

In fire operations, depending on the type of structure, the location of the fire indicates such important factors as where the fire could spread to and the potential for collapse. In addition, areas above the fire area can become isolated, and if these areas are out of reach of fire department ladders the opportunities for victim removal are limited. At incidents in remote areas like the upper floors of a high-rise, removal can be problematic, even if the area does not become isolated, due to the excessive distances involved. Problems with the means of egress, such as the elevators, can exacerbate these difficulties. This isolation can also take place during other incidents, such as a chemical release. Another example would be an incident occurring below grade. Venting toxic gases whether from fire or from a chemical release can be very difficult. In an industrial setting I would also include with the extent of the incident, processes that could be affected by the situation or the attempts to mitigate the situation.  

Time of day along with the type of occupancy will generally dictate the life hazard. For example, during a fire at 3 AM, a multiple dwelling can be assumed to contain many sleeping occupants, as opposed to a fire at the same time in a factory. An industrial facility at that time may well be closed for business and contain no life hazard. Time also takes into consideration the day of the week that an incident occurred on, as well as anything else notable in regard to the date. On a Sunday, a grade school may be closed as opposed to on a weekday. Holidays must be taken into consideration when estimating the life hazard present.

When responding to an incident, the amount of time that has passed since the incident occurred must be taken into consideration. This is important in determining, such items as the stability of a structure exposed to long periods of fire or the viability of victims buried in a collapse or exposed to a chemical release.  In an industrial setting another consideration is that at 3 AM, while there may be less of a life hazard, an incident such as a fire can be more advanced before it is detected, darkness can hinder operations, and there may be no members of the fire brigade on site to respond.  

The presence of hazardous materials is always a consideration when responding to an emergency situation. Fires, flooding, auto accidents and collapses are just a few examples of emergencies that can result in the release of hazardous materials.

Many components of the 13-point size-up will tie together and overlap. The time of day can indicate different life hazards. On Monday afternoon a school may have a greater life hazard than a church; however, this could switch at the same time on a Sunday. However, if Monday falls on December 25, the church could be the greater hazard. Yet another example is how the type of occupancy can indicate the presence of certain hazardous materials.  Information that is obtained be utilizing this 13-point size-up could also be useful in planning, and planning your training for an emergency.

Initial training for size-up can be as simple as looking at a structure (or picture of a structure) and writing down your assessment of each point of the size-up.  I just returned from a course on situational awareness, and performing and making decisions under stress given by the FDNY.  Presentations were given by training experts from the U.S. military and psychologists from professional sports and academia.  All of them were big proponents of mentally rehearsing or visualizing scenarios.  Applying this to training for size-up can be accomplished through the use of pictures and a brief written description of the scenario envisioned or verbally while looking at a given structure.  These methods can be both effective and cost effective.                     C

James Kiesling is a Captain with the Fire Department, City of New York’s Special Operations Command.  He holds as AOS in fire protection technology from Corning Community College, a BS in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an MA in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School.

 1 The chapter “River of Fire” in Disasters Man-Made by David White and Anton Riecher; and the 1994 Industrial Fire World article “Whiskey River Scorches Heaven Hill”.  
2 Standard FDNY engines pump at 1,000 GPM with some specialized engines pumping at 2,000 GPM.

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