Situational awareness starts with capturing clues and cues in your environment. It’s really quite a simple premise. To capture clues and cues requires seeing or hearing them. At a structure fire, the visual clues and cues occupy a finite environment- the building and the space around the building. I am nothing short of astounded by the number of firefighters telling me they don’t complete a 360° size up of a structure fire before making entry. I was inspired to write this article from two recent accounts shared with me.
Into the basement we went
The first account came to me by way of a firefighter sharing a near-miss event with me following a Mental Management of Emergencies program. She was part of a crew of two that did not complete a 360° size up at a residential dwelling fire. They made entry through the front door and they fell through the floor and were trapped in the basement. As she recounted the details, I was reminded of a similar residential dwelling fire that killed two firefighters in Colerain Township, Ohio (Click here for the NIOSH Investigation report). The firefighter I spoke to, and her partner, fared much better as they were rescued and survived.
These pictures are from the NIOSH Colerain Township LODD investigation report.
Getting yelled at for completing a 360° size up
The second account came to me by way of an email I received from a firefighter who offered up the topic for my upcoming situational awareness conference call training program for firefighters on June 19 (see the home page of SAMatters for details). Here’s what he wrote (less the parts I removed to ensure his confidentiality):
At my department the 360 is almost frowned upon. When we catch a job I always have the driver pull past the house to see 3 sides and then I try to do a walk around. It never fails I get yelled at to get in the fire. Now, I LOVE going into burning buildings but having lost a firefighter because he fell through the floor (because nobody did a walk around and saw the basement on fire) I feel a good walk around saves lives. I find myself peer pressured into just going into the fire.
360° size up should be standard practice
I am disappointed with how many fire departments have no written standard requiring a 360° size up. I am even more discouraged when I learn that departments have a standard but it is not practiced. I am appalled when firefighters share with me the practice is discouraged.
There are few things first responders can do to help build the foundation of situational awareness like conducting a proper size up. A 360° size up at a residential dwelling fire allows you to capture and process some very important clues. Not only can you see the conditions from all angles, but you can also observe important clues about construction, exit points and floor plan layouts.
Excuses for not completing a 360° size up
I’ve heard some creative explanations for why a responder would not complete a 360° size up. Included on the list are some obvious (expected) response and some that less obvious (surprising).
1. “The building was too large and it would have taken too much time for me to walk around it.”
2. “There was no access to the back side of the structure.”
3. “We did a three-sided size-up by having the driver pull past the structure.”
4. “I got yelled at by the incident commander for trying to do a 360.”
5. “The next-in crew took our hose line and went in while we’re doing the 360.”
6. “I knew I was supposed to do it but I got distracted by the homeowner talking to me.”
7. “The fire was coming out the front window. I didn’t need to go around back to see the obvious.”
8. “The back yard was fenced in and there was a big dog in the yard.”
9. “There was a victim inside. We didn’t have any time to waste on a 360.”
10. “The second-in company will do the 360.”
The front view and the back view can be VERY different!
I am not here to judge these explanations. Whatever reason offered, it is important to know that failing to complete the size up is a barrier to the formation of situational awareness. As I read the casualty investigation reports where firefighters die in residential dwelling fire, the failure to complete a 360° size up is very often cited as a contributing factor.
Chief Gasaway’s Advice
Develop and implement a standard that requires the completion of a 360° size up. If your department has this standard, ensure it is being practiced. If you find out 360 degree size ups are not being done, start asking why. Expect to hear many of the explanations that have been offered to me.
I acknowledge there may be conditions that make completing a 360° size up difficult, if not impossible. For example, on June 2, 2011 two firefighters were killed in a residential dwelling fire where a 360° size up was not completed. The house was built on the side of a steep hill, making it very difficult to complete the 360. (Click here to access the NIOSH investigation report). An inadequate size up was a contributing factor.
Completing a 360 degree size up is not going to start occurring automatically simply because a standard is developed or an administrator puts a directive. The size up must be built into routines of responders and this gets done through practice and repetition. This includes building the size up into training evolutions. Responders need to be taught what to look and listen for – the clues and cues that are present AND the clues and cues that are absent.
If your department does not complete 360° size ups now it may be engrained in the organization’s culture. Like the examples noted above, if someone fears getting yelled at for doing it, they may not complete the size up. If someone thinks another company is going to take their hose line inside while completing the size up, they may not complete the size up.
1. Discuss your department’s cultural norms about completing a 360° size up. If it would be discouraged or there’s a possibility another company would take your hose line, discuss strategies for how the organization can overcome these factors.
2. Discuss a time when a 360° size up was not completed and it caused situational awareness to be flawed. This incident discussed does not have to be one where there was a consequence.
3. Discuss a time when a 360° size up was completed and how it improved situational awareness.
The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.
Safety begins with SA!
Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.
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