From the Chief’s Corner

Deliver an Academy Award-winning size-up!
By Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Verdugo Fire Academy/Lexipol Consultant


This weekend is the 89th Academy Awards. Stars will walk down the red carpet and then, a lucky few will have the honor of taking home an Oscar. Each year we honor these actors for their impressive performances — their ability to move us, to bring characters to life on the screen, to communicate something profound.

What does this have to do with the fire service? We have opportunities to put on our performances at every fire and emergency scene we respond to. But there’s one thing we routinely do in which our power to communicate is truly profound: the size-up.

On a working fire, nothing is more rewarding than being first-in and giving an “Academy Award-winning” size-up. Conversely, being unprepared and giving a bad size-up is not a performance you want to be known for. Not only is giving a poor size-up embarrassing; it also can create confusion, lack of crew cohesion and improperly assigned resources — all of which pose dangers to those we’re protecting and the incoming personnel responding to the incident.

When I was a rookie firefighter I always admired the captains who stayed calm and composed while suiting up, responding in with focus and calmly relating the conditions they encountered. These incidents always seem to go flawlessly. That was in sharp contrast to other captains who reacted recklessly when the alarm sounded, rushed and panicky. They came across very “hyped” on the radio, giving a terrible size-up. And not surprisingly, these incidents resulted in far more damage to the structure, and several resulted in firefighter injuries.

So what makes an Academy Award-winning size-up? It may sound obvious, but first, you better make sure you’re on stage. Some of my best performances were either when the radio was off or I was not on the proper tactical frequency. When this occurs during a working incident, it’s hard to recover and the incident generally goes south very quickly. Your composure is thrown to the side.

Second, it takes practice. Actors win Academy Awards because they make it a personal policy to rehearse over and over. Even those few actors who “ad lib” scenes train for their craft, staying focused and disciplined prior to show time.

The same with you. Award-winning size-ups take practice, focus, discipline, composure and training. It doesn’t happen overnight.

I make it policy to regularly bring personnel together in the training room, at the tower or in the field to practice size-ups. Get your radios, ask command for a training frequency and practice, practice, practice. Using a radio — while keying the mic and actually speaking — proves far more effective training than just speaking out loud. When your mind must perform several additional functions while speaking (not to mention when smoke and flame is showing) it is totally different. Like night and day difference! The more you can simulate realistic conditions, the more “muscle memory” you’ll build so you can perform effectively during the real thing.

Everyone in the organization should practice. A rookie with one month on the job assigned to the cooking detail could be out in the utility, patrol or squad vehicle and end up first-in on an incident. First-arriving resources are not just our engines, squads and truck companies with tenured personnel. It can be anyone — yes, even you, Chief! Not to mention your surrounding agencies are likely listening once a structure fire call goes out. It’s our nature and we hope to catch the second or third alarm if it goes to it.

Finally, figure out a way to remember the information you need to convey in your size-up. There are lots of different variations. One acronym I find useful and effective is the A-B-C-D size-up:
  • A — Address: “Engine 101 on scene 824 Colorado Boulevard.”
  • B — Building description: “Three-story commercial.”
  • C — Conditions: “Heavy fire from the third floor, center of building.”
  • D — Deployment and directives: “Engine 101 establishing command, assuming fire attack. Engine 102 assist E101, Engine 37 RIC, Truck 105 to the roof. Command, start a second alarm.”
Whatever your department’s size-up procedure is, look it up, practice it and adhere to it. Train, train, train as if your life depends on it—because it does (and others do as well!).

Before you know it, you’ll be taking home the Oscar for Best Live Radio Performance at a Working Fire!

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.