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Let's Talk Fire: First Impressions

Updated on December 30, 2015

First Impressions

You arrive on scene to a two story structure with fire showing in the second story window on the B side. As you exit the truck a lady meets you to inform you the residents have been on vacation and where not home during the fire. Another person offers to help you get hoses off the trucks and tap into a hydrant. This scene is full of vital first impressions but only one is important to what you need to do as a firefighter.

First impressions are a very pivotal part of the human psyche. We make assumptions, plans and place our emotions in the appropriate state for things based solely on first impressions. Was it the heads up that the residency was empty that made the major impact or was it the man who offered to assist in getting water to your truck that made the most vital part of our first impressions? It was actually neither. The first impression that is most useful to us as firefighters is the fire itself.

What if....

This is the first thing you see pulling up.
This is the first thing you see pulling up.

What Do You Mean?

I realize I may have just thrown my readers for a loop so let me elaborate on what I meant exactly. How we act on a scene, how we plan our mode of attack, and even how we ourselves prepare for the task at hand all depends on that initial roll up and the first impression that fire gives us. If we see light smoke and no visible flames we usually tend to be a bit more calm and collected and we don't get ourselves worked up. Now let's change the scene and say the first impression we get is a 1 story townhouse, fire showing in the A side front room with a mini van in the drive way. We now have a notion that what we are dealing with is a family home with potential residence inside.

It is that first impression that really drives a great deal of our actions, even prior to our 360 degree size-up. The trickiest part is what exactly should we be aware of when looking at the first impression the scene gives us? That is one of those questions even some veteran firefighters have had some level of difficulty in deciding.

Do you see it?

The debris around this house is going to complicate operations.
The debris around this house is going to complicate operations.

What we see VS what we should see

Arriving on every scene presents us with several first impression observations that we need to be aware of and take keen notice to. Primarily what the fire looks like. Is it fully involved with heavy plumes of black smoke, or does it appear to be contained to one specific area with moderate levels of smoke? These are important observations because the way we perceive the fire is what we are going to use as a guideline to how we choose to confront it.

Make sure you get the first impression the structure gives you. is it two stories with a tin roof or one story with clay tiles? Once again this is a vital aspect of our plan of action. The structure can also let you know if you will even be able to consider a full on interior approach of if defensive tactics will be the primary attack tactic. These are all things we will look for in our size up but noticing them sooner than later can and often will bring the scene to a quicker and more efficient close.

When we pull up on a fire we want to notice what is going on around the scene. Are there suspicious people wondering around with no real reason to be present at the scene? Are there signs that indicate that someone is home? These can include vehicles in the drive way or even lights being on in the house. One of the biggest issues is the type of vehicle. A family type car can cause even the most hard of firefighters to get edgy. When we assume a child may be in danger we get much more aggressive to bring the fire to a close.

The problem is lots of people drive mini vans and don't have kids. We can never assume that certain aspects that we spot dictate truths on the inside of that fire. It is hard not to but we must make preparations based on what we see but still always proceed with caution and let our training dictate how we work.

Emotions Ablaze

Our first impression of a scene dictates the emotional standing we have for that scene. We don't get worked up as much over light fire showing with minimal smoke as we do for a full on blaze. This can be a hazardous situation if we look at the big picture. When we allow our self to get overly emotional and overly excited we tend to make mistakes. Now considering the biggest emotional fires are also usually the dangerous we cannot afford to make those mistakes.

The trick is to get that first impression working toward the next step of solving the problem which is to not panic or get worked up. Sometimes it is best to step back and take a deep breath. Take off the firefighter blinders we get so famous for and look at the whole scene.


Take heed of the first impressions the scene gives us. Let them be a guideline but not the entire motive for your actions on that scene. I often tell the people I work with, especially the new people on my two departments that being able to observe the fire a few seconds before we attack it can be the difference in an appropriate and quick scene or a drawn out scene with huge loss. So the next time you arrive on a scene let that first impression be your phase 1.


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