Station Pride Articles

Bridging the Gap: Using School Stakeholders to help you create a School Size-Up Plan

Today, Schools have had to expand on what they know about school safety and preparing for potentially dangerous events.  School Administrators have a multitude of responsibilities and many are not well versed on Emergency Planning.  Schools are complex places that can present numerous problems for first responders.  As School Administrators are expanding their knowledge on Emergency planning and looking into their plans it is also a good time for local fire departments to create a dialogue with schools and help them with their planning.

School Administrators and members of the fire service have something in common.  Time.  There is not enough time in the day to complete all the things that we want to accomplish.  When it comes to creating a pre-plan for a school this can take hours of work.  I created an in-depth one for my school.  I like to think I left no stone unturned.  I did multiple assessments of the building and looked at other sources to make sure I was not leaving something out.

I started with doing a 360 of the exterior of the building and took pictures of each side of the building.  Once complete, I gathered all of the pictures inserted them into clear plastic, labeled all the classrooms, and then inserted them into my pre-plan binder.  I went to the science lab and made a list of all the chemicals they use and then used the Emergency Response Guide, Material Safety Data Sheets, and the NIOSH guide to learn more about the chemicals and the potential harm they can do in a fire or other potentially dangerous situations.  From there, I did a walk-through of the building with the custodian to see what else I can learn about the building that I may not be thinking of.  Our walk ended on the roof where I took more photos of the location of HVAC units and the surrounding area such as the parking lot to look at apparatus placement.    While adding all of the intelligence that I gathered into my computer I went to google maps and printed out aerial photos of the school labeling important areas of the building along with hydrant locations.  I put all of my findings into a binder and gave it to my building leaders.  When all the work was done I figured this took me about 40 hours to complete.  Lucky for me I love my work.  Something such as this is very time-consuming.  It did make me realize however that this is something that does not necessarily have to be done by one person.

Fire Departments have pre-plans for schools but how thorough are they?  Depending on the size of the schools in your jurisdiction this can be a very time-consuming project.  Schools want to know how they can help first responders before they arrive but some do not know how they can help.  This is what we call in education a “teachable moment”.  Schools have safety committees and meet regularly.  Ask them if you can attend one of their meetings and let them know what kind of information you will need from them to add to your pre-plan.  When you are putting together a pre-plan it is not just simply you and members of your department walking around.  You stop and ask questions such as: How many people do you have in the building?  What are the hours of operation?  Do you have any hazardous materials in the building?  Do you have any special needs students in the building and if so, what is your evacuation plan for those students?  The list of questions goes on and on.  

Before you do a walk-through of the building for a pre-plan put them to work and have a list of these questions emailed to them prior to your arrival.  Ask that they have the answers to these questions before you arrive.  Some of those questions School Administrators may have to find out themselves and it may require them to ask a custodian or look at an outdated safety plan.   Letting School Administrators know what you will be looking for before you arrive will save you and them time and make your size-up plan more accurate.  The worst answer you want to hear is “I do not know all of the chemicals located in the science lab but I will look into it and get back to you”.  We all know that the “I’ll get back to you” does not always happen.

If you get the opportunity to meet with School Administrators and or their Safety Committee teach them what the 13 point size up is and how it is a tool that first responders use to respond to incidents.  I have encountered numerous administrators and school staff that share the same passion that first responders have for their jobs.  You will not be disappointed as to how helpful staff members in a school can be once you tell them what you are looking for and why it is important.

Below is a summary of how the Fire Service uses the 13 point size up.  I wrote this for School staff to educate them on how first responders plan and how it is used to aid in strategy and tactics.  It breaks down the size up and lets School staff know what the Fire Department needs and how they can help to provide that information.  This was designed to be shared with the layperson (school leaders) so that they will have an understanding of what first responders need so they can put together a comprehensive plan.  The Size Up details below can and should be shared with building administrators so that the dialogue you have with them will be focused on the important elements of the plan.

The 13 Point Size Up

When a Fire Department has to respond to an incident there are a number of things that officers, firefighters, and EMS members need to keep in mind when it comes to making decisions.  An emergency scene is very dynamic with many variables and a number of things that can go wrong.  First responders use Size Up to help them make informed decisions.  Size-up is the process of gathering information that will assist firefighters and fire officers in making efficient, effective, and safe decisions on the fire ground.  The more information responders have on a structures construction type, occupancy, the life hazard, the water supply, the location of the structure, possible hazardous materials, and other contributing factors, the more informed they will be to make quick decisions in scenarios where lives are on the line.

In Fireground Strategies by Anthony L. Avillo he breaks the information-gathering process into a useful mnemonic device COAL WAS WEALTH the size-up consisting of:

Construction

Occupancy

Apparatus and Manpower

Life Hazard

Water Supply

Auxiliary Appliances

Street Conditions

Weather

Exposures

Area and Height

Location and Extent

Time

Hazardous Materials

When responders use this acronym prior to an emergency incident and during an emergency incident it gives responders answers to questions about a building.  The more information that responders have about a particular building prior to an incident and during an incident at the said structure the better they will be prepared to handle the potential obstacles that come with a fire, a collapse, or disaster.  The 13 point size-up is geared toward fighting fires, however; no matter what the incident the COAL WAS WEALTH information gathering process is used for all incidents.   

When an emergency happens in your building responders are going to ask building leaders questions about the building and will want to know certain information about the building.  What they will want to know will depend on the situation.  The questions that responders will ask will be based on the 13 point COAL WAS WEALTH size up that they have been trained to use when responding to an incident.   When an emergency happens the building leader does not want to rely on their memory to answer questions when time is of the essence.  A building’s head custodian will provide a wealth of information to you and should not only be readily available during an emergency but should also be included in augmenting your emergency plans.  Prior to the incident, it is best for building leaders to have that information ready when responders show up. The building leader(s) and stakeholders in the school district can collect that information and have it available when it is needed.

 Below is a break-down of the 13 point size up.  Each step will describe what information responders want and how you can gather and provide that information. It would be best to have a collection of that data in a binder that will be with the building leader during an incident. In the binder be sure you place a date on when you completed the size up.  This will inform safety committee members and other stakeholders as to when it was complete and whether or not it needs to be updated.  

Construction

Knowledge of a building’s features enables the incident commander to decide on what strategy to use.  

What responders want to know

What the building is made of, if they are going to have problems entering, any recent renovations or extensions that may have been done.

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Blueprints or maps of the building, locations of access to the roof.  Any information about recent construction or alterations that have been made to the building.

Occupancy

A building’s occupancy can provide responders with clues to what strategy the Incident Commander will have to take.

What responders want to know

The most important thing responders want to know about an occupancy is what and who are inside the building. A building’s occupancy can give responders an idea of potential hazards and the expected life hazard.  The buildings use and its occupants gives clues to other hazards that may impact what decisions responders make and what tools they need to complete a task.  

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Information that administrators could have readily available that may be useful is the approximate number of people in the building.  Having exact numbers may not be important to responders, however; exact numbers could be important to school leaders for planning purposes or contingency plans.  

As  you gather  information your building and its occupants it might be helpful to answer the following questions when thinking about staff and students:

Staff

How many adults do you have in the building?  

How many teachers?  

How many administrators?

How many custodians?

How many Teacher Assistants?

Other support staff?

Having accurate numbers on the people in your building will help you in a number of situations that you can or can not anticipate.  For planning purposes knowing the number of Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) staff you have can be important.  In an emergency PPS (depending on their responsibilities) primary duties are not instruction.  Therefore you will have an adult that is not committed to supervising a classroom of students.  An administrator can find a situation where that freed up staff member can be useful.  Know what your staff members are assigned to do in the event of an emergency.  Do your best to utilize your people in a role that will put them in a role where they can be helpful.

Students

How many students do you have in the building?

Is there anything unique about your population?  

Do you have students with special needs?

Do you have students that have medical needs that need constant monitoring such as Diabetes?  

Do you have students that are in a wheelchair?

Do you have students in the building that are blind or deaf?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions then your next questions should be What am I doing to meet their needs?  How are we going to handle students who need assistance if there is an emergency?

Building History

Do your best to become as knowledgeable about the building as you can.  Know when it was built.  If you have access to plans get a copy of them.  If alterations, renovations, or additions have been made when did the construction take place?  Do you have blueprints or plans?  

Apparatus and Manpower

An Incident commander wants to know what they have available to them during an emergency incident so that they can properly manage their resources.  

What responders want to know

How many personnel are they going to need at the incident? What additional resources are they going to need?  What kind of specialized equipment are they going to need?  Where and who will they get the resources from?

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Pictures of the exterior of the school.  A picture of the doors will tell responders what forcible entry tools they will need to gain entry into the building.  Additional pictures of what the doors look like would be helpful to help determine what forcible entry tool would be needed.  Information provided to responders prior to the incident will allow them to determine how much personnel they will need at an emergency incident and if they need additional resources from a neighboring agency.  That information will enable the responders directly responsible for the school in question so that they can incorporate outside agencies into their response plan.   

Life Hazard

The life hazard is not often determined until responders are at the incident.  Prior to the incident Fire Departments gather this information to make it easier to determine how significant the life hazard will be.

What responders want to know

The location and the extent of the incident in order to decide how to utilize personnel and resources.

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

The locations in the building that will see a large number of students.  For instance the location of the Cafeteria, how many students in the cafeteria, the time that you begin serving lunch and when it ends.  Location of assemblies or pep rallies.   

Water Supply

In the event of a fire if the fire department does not have access to water or has difficulty ascertaining a water source this will interfere with getting water on fire quickly.

What responders want to know

The location of water sources such as fire hydrants

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

The locations of fire hydrants in the surrounding area.  If the hydrants in the area are sufficient.  Pictures of the locations of the fire hydrants.  Aerial view map from google map pointing out locations of hydrants.  

Auxiliary Appliances

What responders want to know

Whether or not a building has a sprinkler system or standpipe system.  What type of system it is, the location of the system, where the standpipe system is located, and how to shut it down.

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Location of the systems on a map and pictures of the locations.

Street Conditions

What responders want to know

Best possible routes to get to the location. Areas under construction en route to the location of the incident.  Where to position their apparatus when they arrive at the incident.  The location of power lines that may interfere with using an aerial ladder vehicle from laddering the roof from the parking lot or the sidewalk.  

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

From the roof, you can take pictures of the parking lot and adjoining streets.  In addition, you could provide pictures of what the exterior of the building looks like at the beginning of the day when buses are in the parking lot and at dismissal.  These pictures, when provided to the responders, will help them to anticipate where to put their resources, possible traffic problems, where to place apparatus.

Weather

It is almost impossible to plan for weather.  Weather is a part of size-up during the day and during the incident.  Firefighters will be concerned with the wind because it will aid in spreading a fire. Another weather related factor is the presence of snow and ice.  A heavy load of snow on a roof that may be weak can be a contributing factor to a potential collapse.  

Exposures

Exposures are buildings located next to or behind the building.  The concern that firefighters have is the fire spreading from one building to the next.

What information do responders want

The construction type, occupancy, presence of hazardous materials, and the presence of auxiliary appliances for adjoining structures to the school.

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Pictures from your building showing responders the adjoining building in relation to your building.  Pictures should show the proximity of the building as it relates to your building.  

Area & Height

What information do responders want

Knowing the depth and area of the building, along with potential setbacks, differences in elevations on different sides of the building, locations of stairways in relation to the entrance.  Information on the area and height will dictate what strategy to use, what resources will be needed, and potential problems.  They may also want to know potential dead spots in radio communication to the Incident Commander.

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Exterior pictures of the building on all sides of the building.  On the pictures point out the classroom numbers, the location of stairwells, if it is a classroom where special needs students are educated include that as well. You may also want to include pictures and locations of emergency shutoff valves, location of HVAC unit, pictures of the roof, pictures from the roof of the surrounding area, and any additional information that you feel would be useful.

Location & Extent

What information do responders want

This part cannot be determined until responders arrive.  Location and extent determine the life hazard which will determine what action needs to be taken.  If a trash can was on fire on the exterior of the building responders apply water to the fire and everyone goes home.  If that same trash can was in the woodshop class of a school a host of challenges and decisions need to be made.  

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

Classrooms and locations of potentially hazardous materials.  Location of classrooms where students operate machinery.  

Time

The time of day the incident takes place will be important to responders.  If a school is on fire at 4:00 AM that changes the decisions they will make as opposed to the time being 11:00 AM on a Monday.  

What information can you provide for them

-your hours of operation.  

-when after school activities begin and end

-late bus pickups

-weekend activity hours

Hazardous Materials

What responders want to know

Knowledge of what chemical or compound is within an occupancy will help determine what actions responders will take if materials are involved.

What information school administrators can provide to first responders

If you have a school that has a science lab begin with making a list of all the chemicals that you have.  Many of these chemicals alone are probably harmless, however; if the conditions in a building change such as a fire, knowing what chemicals are present and where they are located will help responders in decisions they will have to make. Once you have a list of these chemicals locate Material Safety Data Sheets on each chemical.  You can find most chemicals on sciencelab.com.  You can also use a NIOSH (National institute for Occupational Safety and Health) guide along with an ERG (Emergency Response Guide).

Another area that you may want to pay attention to is where custodians keep chemicals they use for cleaning.  Again, make a list of those chemicals and find MSDS (Material Safety Data) sheets for those chemicals.

Building Maps

A building map can provide a wealth of information to personnel who are about to go inside to a structure to handle an emergency situation.  In the event of an emergency, the building leader will be outside of the structure with the Incident Commander answering questions about what is in their building and the location of key areas.  

A map showing the location of corridors and classrooms will be useful, however; a school map usually contains classroom numbers, the location of the cafeteria, and the gymnasium.  If you go one step further by taking that map and then labeling the classrooms that are different from your standard classroom with desks and books that will provide responders with information on potential hazards or obstacles.  On the map label:

  • Family and Consumer Science classrooms that have kitchens and appliances
  • Technology or Woodshop classrooms that contain power towels and leftover wood and other carpentry or electrical materials.
  • Location of classrooms where Special Needs students are located
  • Location of access points to the roof
  • Location of fire extinguishers
  • Location of fire doors in the hall that close automatically when the school alarm is activated
  • Location of the kitchen

It is important that when labeling additional information on the map that you take a walk around the building with the map to confirm that what is on the map is what actually is actually on the interior of the building.  You may find that classrooms are not properly labeled on the map.  This would be a good time to make those corrections. You may have a building map that has not been updated in 10 years or a map where a minor mistake was made and could not be fixed because it was too expensive to fix it.

Use of Pictures

When a Fire Department Officer arrives on scene they will try to orient themselves by getting a quick look at the exterior of the building by looking at all four sides so that they may begin to size up the scenario.  From there the Fire Officer will establish a command post where they can receive communication and monitor progress (usually towards the front of the structure).

As the building leader, chances are the Incident Commander is going to want you at or near the Command Post if they need additional information.  As the building leader, you are going to want to provide accurate information.  Having pictures of the all four sides of the building will provide a clear picture at the command post of what the area looks like and what additional resources may be needed in that area to accomplish a task.  In those pictures be sure to:

  • Provide the classroom numbers of the window(s) in the picture
  • Label, where emergency shut off valves and HVAC units, are located
  • Label locations of staircases
  • Offices
  • Cafeteria
  • Conference Rooms
About John Heeg (3 Articles)
John Heeg earned his undergraduate degree in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in Secondary Education in 2000 from Dowling College, Oakdale, NY and holds permanent certification in Social Studies from grades 7-12. He then went on to receive his Masters Degree in 2006 from Touro College in Special Education and a Post-Graduate certificate in School Administration from Stony Brook University in 2009. Following his deployment to Iraq as a Hospital Corpsman he pursued a certificate in Fire Protection at Suffolk Community College and finished in 2013. John has been in the fire service since 1994 serving as a Firefighter, Emergency Medical Technician, and as a Rescue Technician for the Suffolk County Urban Search and Rescue Team.

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