You cannot make appropriate decisions without first obtaining accurate information. The size-up is the process of gathering this information. - Abbey News

You cannot make appropriate decisions without first obtaining accurate information. The size-up is the process of gathering this information.

Abbey News

A size-up is the continuing assessment of the situation encountered by the emergency responder. This process starts with receiving the notification of an emergency and continues until the situation is mitigated.

This procedure should be performed by all of those responding to the incident; although different responders will conduct it to different levels and have different focuses. You cannot make appropriate decisions without first obtaining accurate information. The size-up is the process of gathering this information.

In the fire service (FS), COAL WAS WEALTH is an acronym for the 13-point size-up that is often taught as a mnemonic device to aid firefighters with conducting a size-up at a fire or other emergency operation. While there are several other popular methods, they are all very similar. I chose the mnemonic COAL WAS WEALTH because it is the one utilized by FDNY and is hence the one that I am most familiar with.

However, since the traditional 13-point size up was designed with structural firefighting in mind I have made several changes to make the assessment more pertinent for industrial applications. Some of these changes were taken from similar mnemonics others are my own thoughts.

One change to the mnemonic was introduced by Deputy Assistant Chief John Norman, a retired member of FDNY, Special Operations Command (SOC). In his book the Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, he made a change that I feel is particularly pertinent when applied to industrial incidents.

In his version, Area is combined with Height, allowing the final H to be designated as Hazardous materials. Another version is COAL TWAS WEALTHS. In this version the initial T stands for Terrain; the first A, that usually stands for Apparatus, now stands for Apparatus and Personnel; and the additional S stands for Special considerations.

As taught by FDNY, COAL WAS WEALTH stands for:

  • Construction
  • Occupancy
  • Auxiliary appliances
  • Life
  • Weather
  • Apparatus and equipment
  • Street conditions
  • Water supply
  • Exposures
  • Area
  • Location
  • Time
  • Height

Modified for industrial use COAL WAS WEALTH stands for:

  • Construction
  • Occupancy
  • Auxiliary appliances/Process control
  • Life
  • Weather
  • Apparatus, equipment and personnel
  • Street conditions/Terrain
  • Water supply/Extinguishing agents
  • Exposures
  • Area and height
  • Location and extent
  • Time
  • Hazardous materials

While this size-up format, and others like it, was primarily designed to assess building fires, they are regularly utilized to assess fires in other structures such as ships and planes, and during other emergencies such as collapses. The information provided by performing this assessment can be utilized in many emergencies including those in an industrial facility. This may require minor substitutions to points of the size-up; but these substitutions are simple once the principles are understood.

As an example the categories of: construction (the method and material by and of which a building is built) and occupancy (what a building is utilized for) could also apply to an emergency involving a pipeline carrying aviation fuel. In this case the pipeline = construction and the aviation fuel = occupancy.

When conducting an assessment utilizing this 13-point sizeup, it is important to note that, many points when examined will provide information on other points. In fact there is a substantial overlap.

Some examples would be: time can be an indicator of the life hazard (e.g., an apartment building at 3 a.m. can be expected to contain numerous sleeping occupants); occupancy can be an indicator of the presence of hazardous materials (e.g., an occupancy involved in plastics manufacturing can produce plastic dust which is explosive); and construction can be an indicator of the auxiliary appliances that are present (e.g., many buildings of type 1 construction have standpipe systems).

The following list is an explanation of each point of the 13-point (COAL WAS WEALTH) size-up, along with examples of their standard applications during fires and their potential applications during an industrial incident.


Generally the FS utilizes the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA’s) method of classifying construction types, dividing building construction into five categories: type 1 (fire resistive), type 2 (noncombustible), type 3 (ordinary), type 4 (heavy timber), and type 5 (wood framed). Every type of building construction has different firefighting and emergency operations SOPs associated with it. This is due to such factors as how fire affects a structure, how fire and smoke spread, and the collapse dangers of a building along with likely collapse patterns.

Type 1 Construction: Fire Resistive

Fire resistive buildings, the most common of which are known as “high-rises,” are more than 75 feet tall and are constructed of concrete and fire protected steel. These structures generally limit the spread of fire and are resistant to collapse during usual fire conditions.

Important features found in this type of construction can include a HVAC system, the components of which penetrate the structures fire resistive barriers, and other auxiliary appliances, such as standpipe systems that provide water for firefighting. The HVAC system can not only spread the products of combustion and other hazardous materials, it can also be used to contain and control the spread.

Type 2 Construction: Noncombustible

The structural elements in noncombustible construction, while they are noncombustible, do not have the fire-resistive rating of type 1 construction. Type 2 buildings are most often made of steel and can include structures such as warehouses and schools.

Since these structures are constructed with noncombustible materials the fireload is determined by the contents. Since these structures are not constructed with fireresistive materials, they are prone to collapse under fire conditions.

Type 3 Construction: Ordinary

Ordinary construction, also known as “brick and joist” construction, is commonly made with non-combustible masonry walls and a wood roof and floors. This type of structure can have hidden areas where fire can spread, such as in separate but adjoining structures that have a common cockloft (attic).

Type 4 Construction: Heavy Timber

This type can also be known as Mill Construction due to the fact that this type of construction was often used to house textile mills.

Heavy timber construction has masonry exterior walls that are load bearing. Interior structural members are of wood and to meet the type 4 criteria must be of sufficient dimensions. Some common uses of this type of structure are found in commercial applications such as manufacturing or a warehouse.

Type 5 Construction: Wood Framed

Wood frame construction is very common and is generally utilized in the construction of private dwellings as well as other structures. Type 5 construction is found in many modern homes.

This system of classifying structures into five types is just a guideline as not every structure will fit perfectly into a given category. However, using the knowledge of construction enables an assessment of a structure’s strengths and weaknesses.

A fire or emergency in something other than a building can also be covered by the construction point of the 13-point sizeup. Some examples would be: planes, trains, bridges or a subway system; or in the case of industry: pipelines, pressurized storage vessels, cable trays and storage tanks. This can also be applied to the next point, occupancy.


There are many categories of occupancy, such as, “Is the structure residential or commercial?” However, basically occupancy means, “What is the structure used for?” This can be an indicator of many things such as the life hazard.

An apartment building would probably have a greater life hazard than a storage facility, and an assisted living facility would probably have a greater life hazard than an apartment building. The type of occupancy can also indicate a structure collapse potential. A structure that is subjected to the load of heavy equipment is generally a greater collapse hazard.

Auxiliary Appliances/Process Control

The main items that the FS is concerned with when referring to auxiliary appliances are standpipe and sprinkler systems; as well as other specialized fire suppression systems, such as halon, foam, or dry chemical. Standpipe systems are what the FS utilizes to provide it with water for firefighting operations. Sprinklers and other fire suppression systems can also aid in firefighting efforts.

In addition, auxiliary appliances can also refer to various detection systems, such as smoke, chemical, carbon dioxide, or heat detectors. Many of these systems can become damaged during an emergency and exacerbate the problem.

For instance; the pipes supplying water to a standpipe system in a high rise building could be damaged by an explosion. This would make getting water to a fire on the 80th floor extremely difficult. In addition to these systems, in an industrial environment, I would include systems for operations such as: process control, isolating the fuel source, and transferring product.

Life Hazard

Life hazard is always the primary concern in any emergency. Factors to consider when assessing the life hazard are: how many people are in danger, what is their location (will removal be difficult such as in a subway system), and what is their physical condition?

The occupant’s condition could be an existing one, such as when responding to a hospital, or it could be secondary to the situation, such as incapacitation due to a chemical release. Life hazard does not just have to be those that are caught in the emergency. Life hazard can include the emergency responders, who in some cases may be the only life hazard.

The next column will finish discussing the individual points of this 13-point size-up as well as how to utilize and conduct training on it. Conducting a size-up is a crucial skill that is often overlooked due to the intuitive nature of much of it. Done intuitively - you arrive on scene, observe the situation, make a decision, and take action. The advantage of practicing a more structured format is to decrease the likelihood of omitting crucial information from your decision process; and by doing this avoid taking incorrect action.

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.