As firefighters, we are asked to provide many types of services. Firefighting, EMS, hazardous materials, rescue, and other tasks that are usually menial. We respond when someone needs help standing after a fall, getting cats out of trees, and removing storm debris for hours on end. We teach CPR to local organizations, fire safety to children, and assist elderly residents with installing smoke detectors and vitals checks. We commonly refer to this as “service” when in reality these are “services.”
Service is not the duties we perform on a daily basis. Service is the art of putting others before yourself. Service is not a cheap buzzword to be used in mission statements or administrative meetings. Service is at the heart of our obligations. It refers to our heritage and tradition. It encompasses the meaning behind our craft as a whole. We are the “fire service.” Service is defined as, “an act of help or assistance.” This is what we do. This is how we make our mark in the future.
We serve three distinct groups of people. First, the obvious, our community. To serve the community we protect, we must continually strive to improve. If we fail here, we provide a disservice to our department and the name of all those who gave their lives in service. If we take our position for granted, we fail to help those in need. Our lack of preparation leads to a failure to provide assistance to those in distress.
The second group of people we serve are our fellow firefighters. My biggest fear is allowing one of my men/women to perish, knowing I could have done more to prepare them. When we fail to ensure the safety of our crews, our citizens, and ourselves, we perform a disservice. This disservice has a butterfly effect on the daily life of everyone we come in contact with.
The next group we serve are our families. We serve our families by making sure we are using effective, functional knowledge to ensure our safety. When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, they feel no more pain. They are burdened no more. But the lives and actions of their family, friends, department, and community are changed forever. They bear the burden of the loss, they feel the hurt, and they reap what you have sown. All too often we act as if everyone owes us something. Before you react, remember that you signed the dotted line. We asked for this job. No judge sentenced us to time in the fire service. We chose this line of work for a reason, and if you have any sense at all, it’s not the benefits. We are the ones who owe something. We owe our families more than just making another 24. We owe our brothers more than watching how to save his life on YouTube. We owe our community more than learning search procedures from an IFSTA manual. We owe these people. We owe our children the right to have a father growing up, by embracing the facts……We can be called to meet our maker at any time. We must exceed the status quo. There are too many amongst us that are not prepared to face adversity. I cannot and will not allow myself to become complacent in my “service.” I will serve others with a tenacity that scares the mediocre. I will not allow the opinions of others to affect my service to my brethren, community, and most of all, family.
It’s an honor to serve. It’s an honor to respond in a time of need. Don’t let disservice be how you are remembered for your service.
Bremen Fire Rescue
When I was first promoted to the officer ranks, I inherited a much older crew (in both age and tenure). The jubilation of the promotion coupled with the sobering reality that I was now the fall-back guy for anything that went wrong was quite the manic experience. My ego unwittingly got the best of me. I lived for a time under the delusion that as the officer, I needed to have the answers to every problem we would encounter. Trial and error was the order of the day with little progress and low morale. When I lost my driver to a transfer, I was able to convince a friend of mine from a neighboring station to replace him. Following his arrival, we set the standard of expectations of my crew. His frankness, professionalism, and intelligence prompted me to openly ask his opinion in many tough situations. I knew he would shoot me straight and was looking out for the crew and me, rather than having his own motivations. Before long, he spoke freely if he had a concern with any operations, but would always remain respectful that the accountability ultimately laid with me. “Everyone has a say,” was the culture we cultivated within our crew and because of this, we operated with impeccable production. Our relationship enlightened me that the greatest tool at the company officer’s disposal does not reside in a compartment, nor is it strapped onto his back; it rides belted in each occupied seat inside the cab. One of the smartest things an officer of any tenure can do is pose a simple question to his crew: What do you think?
It can be used in any situation where a fork in the road is encountered. Behind these four simple words is a thesis that tells the members that their experience is valued and that they have a stake in the operations at hand. Equally as important, it subtly encourages the crew to speak up without reservation which enhances the officer’s situational awareness.
Something to keep in mind is that there is a time, a place and a frequency to this approach. The officer must not hesitate to make the tough, split-second decisions that many on-scene situations call for and must understand that this question is not a way to dodge their basic responsibilities and duties. Accountability for the crew and their actions always lies with the officer, but when the situation allows for a second opinion, ask them what they think. The guys on the rig with you are motivated and driven human beings. In fact, they are some of the best and most caring individuals I have ever met. They want to be treated as such and significant ground could be gained by simply asking their opinion and letting their voices be heard. Their collective experience is the officer’s greatest tool, but like any other tool in the toolbox, you need to know how to use it most effectively, or you’ll be trying to vent a roof with a hacksaw. So I ask you: What do you think?
– Jake Henderson is a 30-year-old Captain with the Fort Worth, Texas Fire Department. He is assigned to Station 24 on the city’s east side which houses an Engine, Quint, and Battalion 4 as well as being a satellite HazMat station. Jake holds an Associate’s Degree in Fire Protection Technology and is HazMat Tech and Fire Inspector certified.
I know of a few departments around me who don’t let their juniors do anything, and by anything I mean throwing ladders, stretching lines, hitting a hydrant…You know, the basic things every firefighter should be 100% efficient at.
Up at my company, we look at juniors as the future of our company. They are involved in meetings, drills, hall rentals, cleaning. Everything a senior member can do at the station, a junior member can also.
I’m from a company in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, called Munhall Volunteer Fire Company #5. We run a Tower-Ladder, an Engine, and a Squad. In our borough, we have four different stations, one located at each end, and two in the middle. I can’t say we are a busy company, but every time we go to a call, we do it quick, proficient, and right. I really can’t stress enough about having a junior program in your stations. When I first started out, I was 14. I joined a company in the hometown I lived in, and it was called Whitaker. They ran two Engines, a Squad, and a Foam Unit. I fell in love with it the first day I joined. My dad was and still is the Assistant Chief there, and he helped me get through everything tremendously. If it weren’t for them having that junior program, I would’ve never had as much passion for the fire service as I do now.
After two years, I moved on down the street to the station I’m currently at. I joined when I was 16, and right when I joined they only allowed members 16 and up. But a few months had passed, and we changed our by-laws and are now able to allow members to join at 14. That was by far the best decision our company has ever made. We currently have seven junior members. I was the 8th, but I just recently turned 18 and have become a fully active member. When I was a junior, we had a junior officer line. I was the Junior Chief, my buddy Jake was the Captain, and the Chief’s son was the Lieutenant. Being able to already hold an officer position at that age was like winning an Emmy.
You must be thinking, “Oh, okay, they just had a title…” No, we had duties and responsibilities to handle by ourselves.
Me being the Junior Chief, my duty was to train the juniors up to my level and make sure they know the ins and outs of the fire hall. I was a pretty educated kid at that age, and I had my brother and my two uncles help me out along the way. Several times at drill, they put me as the lead guy, the front man, the role model for the other juniors to look up too. When I first started this, I would always wonder why they put a 16-year-old up on stage to teach the SENIOR guys. It took me two long years to realize why. The only way you are going to better yourself is by trying to better other people. If it weren’t for this junior program, I wouldn’t be as smart or as trained as I am right now.
When I teach at our weekly drill, I look at it from a junior’s perspective. I can see what they do and don’t understand; I was in their shoes for 99% of my time so far. No matter what we do at drill, the juniors do the same. When we cut holes in our simulator, they are right there doing the same thing. They watch us, then they do it. When they do it, we go step-by-step with them, making sure they don’t mess up, but when they do, we reassure them it’s okay. When you’re training, that is the time to make those mistakes. You learn a lot more from the mistakes than doing it right.
Many people criticize and bash juniors for being untrained “whackers.” Well, start training them. Get them involved with EVERYTHING. Every single time you’re at the station with them, go over the trucks, throw ladders, pull some lines, learn what every tool does and their names, learn the role of the officers, learn the different truck and engine duties. Teach every single junior how you would want someone coming to your house at 3 in the morning for a working fire. After all, those juniors will fill your shoes one day.
If you don’t have a junior program or you don’t train your juniors because they aren’t certified, then step up. Make a difference in a young person’s life and be their role model. Be the one that when they say they first started out, you helped them. There is no better feeling in this world than making someone’s life better, if you don’t think that is true, you’re in the wrong line of work. Every time you go to a call and see an elderly woman standing in her doorway telling you guys that the fire alarm was an accident, you check to make sure, and you smile and say have a good night to her. You just made her feel safer and one of the happiest people in this world. She now knows that when trouble occurs, people that have never even met her will drop ANYTHING to save her and that my friends is one of the greatest feelings you can have. Do not take this job lightly. Train, stay fit and treat everyone fairly. Just remember, you were a junior at one point in time also. Make sure all your other juniors act in the same manner of courtesy to that elderly woman, as you did.
– Jonathan Scripp
Munhall VFC #5
In apartment complexes and commercial strip malls across the country, we have issues with line placement through narrow or obstructed paths. These can be caused by parked cars, short setbacks, parking barriers, planters, shrubs, etc. With this in mind, one option available is to pass these obstacles before the deployment of the hose. This is what I like to call “The Delayed Triple Split.” This maneuver allows for the entire hose bundle (on a triple layer) to be deployed after passing through any obstructions or obstacles on the pathway to the building. A few considerations go into this deployment process; they are as follows:
– Placement for the aerial at buildings. The best practice is to have the first arriving aerial’s turntable at the center of the building to access the entire length of the building.
– Placement for the next engine company to bring water or supply a “booster back-up.”
– The width of the average car is approximately six to seven and a half (6′ – 7.5′) feet.
– The width of the average parking space is seven and a half to nine (7.5′ – 9′) feet.
– When spotting the hose cross-lays, use an object in the same area on the truck to act as a reference point, i.e. Piston Intake Valve, wheel well, strobe light, etc.
– The objective could be met with only two firefighters involved.
– Find the average length of bedded hose. The average car is about fourteen to eighteen (14′ – 18′) feet long. You need to find how many folds in the cross-lay are needed to reach the sidewalk, which is approximately twenty (20′) feet from the apparatus.
– The Nozzle Firefighter and Driver/Backup Firefighter go in opposite directions (Triple Split) with the loop and nozzle. This allows for short setback deployments.
– When choosing which way to separate the triple layer on the walkway, consider the need for the loop to advance with the building, not against.
– When Backup/Driver is pulling the loop section of the Triple Layer to the opposite side of the fire building, keep pulling it until the fifty (50’) foot coupling is at the entry to the breezeway/recessed area. This will allow the Nozzleman to walk in a straight path to the entry point and keep all remaining 100’ of hose in usable position in the yard.
– On the return trip to the pump panel or relocating to the front door for Doorman position, the last parts of the hose is placed onto the sidewalk/walk space to allow for clearance once the hose gets charged.
– The 50’ coupling is brought to the front door, with the accordion style layout in the open area between the stairs and building.
– If the 2nd-floor apartment is the apartment, take the nozzle and 50’ coupling to the top of the landing. This will further prove the need for the Backup/Driver to pull the looped section far enough to align the 50’ coupling with the base of the stairs.
With these steps, the training evolution was completed in approximately 1 minute from the time the parking brake was pulled. This is an easy way to allow for the needless pulling of the Triple Layer in a straight line, causing multiple steps to place in proper position.
The key to this process, as with any new training elements, is getting out and practicing. Finding those landmarks on the truck, the direction of the loop placement, and placement of the final layout in the yard or on the landing are the fundamentals to making this stretch successful. Unfortunately, many things in these types of properties will reach up and grab anything on the hose layout to hinder the progress. Couplings get caught on the edge of parking blocks, hoses get pulled under tires, etc. By moving the stretch to the fire building side of the obstructions, the layout will transition smoother with fewer locations for Murphy’s Law to apply.
– Joel Richardson
Our daily lives are completely reliant on decisions. Before we awaken, we have made a decision. Are we rising early to prepare for the day, or did we decide to sleep late and run behind? We decide to come to work on time or early. We decide to prepare ourselves physically. We decide to display pride in our craft. We decide to meticulously inspect our equipment, or we decide to do the exact opposite.
Did we decide to be lazy? Does drinking coffee and checking our Facebook take precedence over preparing to save a life? Does reading the latest article on celebrity gossip trump the duty you have to your brothers, to ensure you are not going to endanger them? Do we decide to spend more time armchair quarterbacking the decisions of others than making the right decision to drill our personnel to the point in which they cannot fail?
These decisions leave us at a crossroads on a daily basis take the easy path….or the right path. A friend of mine uses the saying, “The beaten path is for beaten people.” This is the heart of what’s wrong with the fire service as a whole. We’d rather concede and give people an excuse than hold them to a higher standard. That’s a decision in itself. Unfortunately for some, a difficult one to make. It should be automatic for us.
Every morning we should make the decision to go upstream, against the current. We must decide every morning not just to survive, but to thrive in a world where most would fear to go. Our job is to protect lives on both sides of the cross. If we choose the beaten path, we make a conscious decision to take the easy way out, to run the risk of having to live with ourselves knowing we allowed someone to be unprepared for the dangerous line of work we have. At no point, can we allow ourselves to let laziness be the order of the day.
Instead, we must DECIDE to awaken with a purpose. DECIDE to prepare for the worst possible scenario, physically, mentally, technically and spiritually. We must decide to make basic skills an autonomous response to stress. We must ensure we can make sound tactical decisions. This comes from deciding to prepare accordingly, deciding to prepare for your preparation of the unknown. As for me, I have decided that moderation is for cowards. I have decided that stronger people are harder to kill. I have decided that I will not waiver from my standards and expectations. I have decided that I will train with the intensity necessary to perform at a level higher than others. I have decided that I want to be the guy with the hard job, the crappy gear, the guy who can do more damage with a Halligan than most can with hydraulic tools. I want to be the guy everyone looks up to when the shit hits the fan. That’s my decision.
So, gentlemen, the day is yours……what did you decide?
You’re on scene of a large, type 3 structure, moderately involved in fire. You have no water supply established, and only 5 volunteers have arrived at the call. Clearly, you need back-up. The incident commander makes a call for mutual aid, but the call doesn’t go out to the closest fire department. Instead, the mutual aid is requested from a fire department much farther away with a much longer response time.
This selective mutual aid scenario plays out way more often than it should all across the fire service. Somehow, the practice is justified internally within the concerned department requesting the mutual aid, but is it really justifiable? The hard answer is NO, of course. From the outside looking in, this practice is incredibly dangerous. From the inside looking out, things probably appear more complex.
Let’s take a look at why this happens, where the ethics reside, and what we can do to minimize the TRUE victims of Turf Wars, the residents, and taxpayers of your community.
To dig into the meat of this situation, we have to look at the moments that lead incident commanders to make such a, seemingly, irresponsible decision. Typically, there is some type of tension that has festered between two departments. Even more likely, it’s mutual tension that has been inadequately addressed and communicated between parties. It’s likely that the majority of the moments that cause turf wars are situational misunderstandings or a member from either department acted inappropriately at one point causing a rift.
One specific scenario I’m familiar with involved one fire department with an explorer (junior) program and another neighboring department without an explorer program. The Fire Chief of the department without juniors believed that children didn’t belong on their fire scenes. Instead of having a conversation Fire Chief to Fire Chief a cold shoulder was bred and a Turf War was born. Mutual aid was never requested for years even though they shared a tight border in a business district. After several years, the two Chief’s finally had a conversation over a simple cup of coffee and a muffin. The two chiefs were able to iron out the situation by finding a compromise. No explorers allowed on mutual aid runs to this one district. The departments have been good with each other ever since.
A very simple fix to a long-running Turf War and all it took was a cup of coffee, a muffin, and conversation.
It’s important to recognize that working together and supporting each other will always be more beneficial than cold-shouldering your neighbors. In MOST circumstances simple communication will resolve the majority of misunderstandings. But you have to arrange the opportunities for communication to occur. If you’re a Chief Officer or Captain of a volunteer fire department and you aren’t friends or at least on friendly terms with your neighboring fire department and their members, you’re doing something wrong, and a change of behavior is needed.
Set up a monthly or quarterly coffee chats, or meet-ups over breakfast with neighboring Chiefs and officers. Strangers are more likely to ignore each other than friends. On scene, people are more apt to understand each other when they believe that friendships are at stake.
Take every opportunity you can to get-to-know your neighbors. Most departments are reaching out farther and more often for simple house fires they should be able to handle themselves. Making friends will always be more beneficial than making enemies. Bottom-line, Talk it out. Find some common ground. Chances are, you’ll end up finding you had more in common than you originally thought. In a perfect world, you should be training together, at least, quarterly.
This is the second part to our Three Part Series Titled: “Entitlement, Running People Off, & the Push for Higher Education.”
If you missed it…Check out the First part: “Entitlement”.
In this 3-part-series, we will be discussing, or more realistically, I will be ranting. You will read this and at the end, you may or may not feel mentally violated.
Running People Off
This subject is intertwined with what we talked about in “Entitlement.” When the type of new employee that I described as being from the “everyone gets a ribbon” generation comes into the department, they need clear direction on what they are to be doing from day one. They don’t learn firehouse etiquette in their fire science classes. They don’t learn how to deal with firehouse personalities either. They are thrown directly into your firehouse and are subject to all the dynamics and personalities of your crew, so don’t get your undershorts in a bunch when they don’t automatically know what to do.
We all walked down our own path known as life. When we grew up, we all learned things differently. Make sure your rookie knows that it is not wrong to ask questions. It is not wrong to not know what the morning routine is and it’s not wrong to be oblivious to the fact that they shouldn’t ask the Chief any questions before he has his morning coffee. It is not the end of humanity to do a task wrong the first time. As the senior member, you need to explain why things are the way they are so that the new guy/gal understands.
But so often, we don’t do that, do we? We turn a blind eye to the fact that the educational facilities in our area only teach these kids just enough to maybe not get killed in a fire. We ridicule them and browbeat them for not “knowing what’s up” or “getting with the program” when they have no idea that they shouldn’t ask the senior guy who’s topped out and hates riding the medic. The haven’t been around to even know what their job is, let alone know which way the toilet paper goes on the roll.
The new boot has a hard run in the beginning and each mistake, no matter how small, is blown up by the rest of the crew to be the equivalent of stabbing a kitten in the face. It’s ridiculous, and it’s our fault. The mob mentality takes over and gains momentum. We make it so hard for them that they often leave. Or, we use the bull shit stories we made up about the minor mistakes they have made to get them removed from the company. We high-five each other about taking care of the “problem” but sit around the table our next shift and bitch like a bunch of grumpy old women when we are short on the rig or have to ride the medic two tours in a row. I guess being senior employees makes us feel like we have the right to bitch but not offer solutions. Bitching without providing a solution is called whining!
We tend to be in the business of not even giving people a chance sometimes and then wonder why we can’t get recruits or why our department’s reputation starts to slide. We can’t get our heads out of each other’s asses to see that it is a situation we created. Hey, but we get to retire someday and get paid by a place that we didn’t even contribute to, right? Super sweet!
I’m not saying that you need to powder their asses as they work to fit into your department. There has to be a clear understanding of the objectives that they need to meet. A standard set of goals for every recruit. There has to be an understanding on the part of the crews that not everyone learns the same way. We are seeing a crop of kids that may have been home-schooled, e-schooled or in some alternative learning environment growing up. That doesn’t mean they are stupid or inept; that just means they learned differently than you or your crew.
Assembly line education was great, wasn’t it? I mean, being made fun of and bullied or called a nerd for being different, that was neat, right? My scars run deep Mick; they run deep. Ahh, the memories….
All I am saying is keep an open mind when training the new recruit. They may need you to work outside of your comfort zone to help them learn. What they don’t need is an environment where no one can learn from a mistake. They don’t need to be pushed out of your department because you or your department leaders are too short sided or ignorant to find a way to help them. They don’t need to be asked, “What don’t you understand?” or “What don’t you know so that we can teach you?” They obviously have no clue what they “don’t know.” So why even bother asking? Are you there to teach them, or are you just there? Sometimes neither is helpful. And it’s not the new firefighter that is the “problem”; it’s YOU!
Next time we will talk about higher education. As the son of an attorney, higher education was the “end-all, be-all” in my house. Needless to say, I didn’t follow the same path as my sister. What’s it like sitting at a desk all the time? I can’t even imagine….
Stay Tuned for “The Push For Higher Education.”
Volunteer firefighters are expected to train for hundreds of hours and perform the same tasks as their career counterparts in their spare time after working a full 40-hour week elsewhere. Across the nation volunteer fire departments are struggling to keep their doors
open for one reason or another. For those of us that have been in the fire service for the last ten years, you have heard time and time again that volunteer firefighters are a ‘dying breed.’
According to a 2014 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) profile, there were 1,134,400 career and volunteer firefighters across this great nation. Of those firefighters, 788,250 or 69% were volunteers. It is clear that emergency calls are up everywhere, but the number of volunteers has declined more than 10 percent over the last several decades.
This nation-wide obstacle is not an issue in a small southwest corner of Augusta County, Virginia where one fire company is beating the odds and winning. Swoope Volunteer Fire Company (SVFC), under the direction of Fire Chief Kevin L. Wilkes and President Linda Brooks, both of who will argue that volunteerism in their department is blooming like never before. SVFC is one of only four fire companies left in Augusta County that remain 100 percent volunteer, even though many volunteer stations have been assigned career personnel from the Augusta County Fire & Rescue Department to supplement staffing.
SVFC is a rural fire company just outside of the city limits of Staunton, Virginia located in the Shenandoah Valley at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Surprisingly SVFC does not have the problem most other volunteer companies have. Vice President Jessica Botkin stated, “We can barely keep up with new applications for membership.” Since
Wilkes moved to the area and joined SVFC, he has been directly responsible, along with few other key personnel, for the rise in membership from only 14 members in 2005 to over 56 active members today, 21 of whom are female. Wilkes has personally recruited over 25 members in the course of the last two years. Wilkes attributes a great deal of his success to his mentors in the fire service, a few of which are former Fire Chief Brian Butler who is currently assigned as a Fire Captain for the City of Staunton and Rick Lasky who is an emergency services consultant, motivational speaker, author of Pride and Ownership: A Firefighter’s Love of the Job and co-author of Five Alarm Leadership: From the Firehouse to the Fireground.
Many people want to know how Wilkes does it when so many other volunteer fire companies are losing members to second and third jobs, lack of good leadership, family commitments, divorce and other stressful situations.
Wilkes stated that it is simple and he has a secret weapon… “Treat ALL of your members like they are family, your family!” Wilkes goes on to say, “Never demand, always ask while leading by example.” Each new member is assigned two mentors during their probationary period to help guide them through the initial process of the fire service and to make good decisions. President Brooks stated, “We have a great opportunity here with our new members, not only to watch them transform into fire service professionals, but to mold them the way we desire, turning them into highly-motivated individuals with critical-thinking skills who save life, property and the environment.”
This kind of teamwork and coordination is paying off big for the company who is very proud of their annual ‘out-of-chute’ average time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds, only missing one call in the last two years, all while averaging nine volunteer members per call.
Wilkes admitted he has worked for a few ‘not-so-good’ leaders in past and knows what not to do, reminding his members to ensure they have fun when they come to the firehouse. “Our Company Core Values are P-R-I-D-E; Professional at all times, Respect Team Members and the Community, Innovation – Always Raise the Bar, Determination – Never Give Up and Everyone Goes Home – We’ve Got Your Six!” Wilkes stated proudly. “Little things make a BIG difference, my officers and I will be the first ones to take out the trash, mop the floors and wash dishes,” Wilkes explained. “All of our members have Pride and Ownership in their company, and it shows.” Wilkes mentioned that with a very modest budget for a rural department, leadership can’t afford NOT to consider rewarding and recognizing members.
SVFC has many programs to help their members relax and enjoy the ‘family’ environment, but also become successful and grow personally and professionally. With exciting programs like; regular family movie night, karaoke night, fitness sessions, family meals, study groups for fire service and high school classes, sessions that provide guidance for members looking to go college, cookouts, and mentorship programs, what is not to love? Members are encouraged to bring their family, neighbors and friends to events to watch a movie on the big screen or to help Santa Claus during the holiday season, who visits the community on a fire truck passing out candy canes to children or all ages. “People come to visit the firehouse and see our comradery and family spirit, and they want to be a part of this team,” stated Deputy Chief Chris Botkin.
According to Wilkes he has a second secret weapon, “We strive to make every member not only feel like this is their ‘home,’ but also to accomplish their goals, and never except failure.” Wilkes proudly boasts about his volunteers, “thirty percent of this rural fire company has earned or in the process of earning a college degree,” and “we currently have twenty-two certified firefighters and twenty certified EMTs.”
On August 16, 2016, Wilkes was presented with the Community Builders Award by the Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Masons of Virginia, for Recognition of Outstanding Service to the Community.
In today’s fire service that is ruled by the almighty dollar, staffing reductions and lack of membership response have created a unique set of challenges. Regardless if your department is career, volunteer, or combination, we have been tasked with doing more with less. Less funding, less equipment, and less staffing. The mission statement of my department states in part, “…meeting the needs of our community in Fire Prevention, Fire Suppression, Rescue Operations, and Emergency Medical Services.” Nowhere in that mission statement did it say we could merely approach the needs of the community because that is all we could do with the staffing and equipment we have. We, as the fire department, are still expected to solve every problem that is thrown our way. In order to do that, we must adapt and overcome. We change our tactics and operations to incorporate the increase in responsibility and decrease in staffing. The most common “change” that has been made is to operate with a crew of 3 personnel on engine companies. While this is no doubt less than optimal, it is very attainable when you become extremely effective through training and practice. My department has taken to this change by creating riding positions that are followed on each alarm. A three-person engine crew has a driver/operator, an officer, and a nozzleman. Let’s look at some specifics of each position and how they interconnect to accomplish our mission.
The driver/operator of the engine is one of the most important and complex positions to fill on the fireground. There is an abundance of activities that need to be done in rapid succession and without them, the efforts of the crew will fail. The driver’s responsibility starts before even leaving the station. The driver/operator should drive the apparatus wearing bunker pants. This affords the driver greater flexibility once on scene; something we will cover in depth later. The driver should know the location of the alarm, the route to take to get there, and the hydrant location before he/she leaves the station. Trying to understand directions yelled over a blaring siren while trying to anticipate the reactions of the other drivers on the road will lead to confusion, missed information, and inattentive driving.
Once in the area of the alarm, the driver should approach the scene in a way that provides the officer with a view of three sides of the structure before the truck comes to a stop, if at all possible. This will help in the speed of the 360 size up since three sides have already been visualized from the front seat. The driver/operator needs to position his engine either past or short of the address building, leaving adequate room for the ladder/truck. Always take into consideration the orientation of attack lines and lengths. Know how to judge distances, and don’t park so far away that you make your attack lines ineffective. Positioning the engine is something that you only get one chance to do correctly. Once the engine is in pump gear and lines have been stretched, you can’t move to give the truck more access. Take your time and make smart decisions. Do it correctly the first time.
The driver/operator needs to be able to quickly disconnect the supply line and attach it to the pump panel. While this is being done, the officer will be completing his size-up and the nozzleman will be stretching the line. The driver/operator should then help the nozzleman stretch the line past obstacles and chase kinks. Remember, there is no backup man with a short crew. Once the officer and nozzleman have readied themselves, the driver should charge the line when called for.
At this point, the driver/operator will be the only member on the exterior of the structure. This makes him the only level of safety for the members operating inside. By driving in bunker pants, the driver/operator is already half dressed. The driver should stage the remainder of his PPE to include an SCBA together in a location close to the engine but out of the immediate work zone.
Until the arrival of next-in companies, the driver/operator is the initial RIT. This may necessitate quickly donning full PPE should something go wrong. Having it all together and staged makes this a quicker event in a time where every second counts.
Every engine in the fire service carries at least two ladders. Those ladders do no one any good when they are left on the apparatus. The driver/operator should throw ladders to the upper floors on each side of the building and the roof in the position of greatest benefit. If your crew has found the seat of the fire and the truck is still not on scene yet, you should perform coordinated horizontal ventilation to make the conditions inside more tenable. Remember, if the engines are short staffed, most likely the truck is short staffed as well. Use your time and energy wisely to create the best possible advantage at every opportunity.
Re-check the Charlie side. Make sure conditions haven’t changed or something wasn’t missed in the initial size up. The operator must be the outside eyes and ears for the officer on the inside. Be able to judge progress or lack thereof by the conditions that are presenting themselves outside. Understand building construction and be able to read smoke to ensure interior reports match exterior conditions.
Above all else, it is the job of the driver/operator to get the nozzleman water and to ensure a continuous water supply. You, as the driver/operator, need to know your apparatus inside and out. You need to know which valves open which lines without looking. You should be able to operate your pump blindfolded. Know the sounds that your pump makes when the line is flowing fully open, when your tank is nearing empty, and when the crew is having difficulty regulating nozzle pressure. By being able to judge these actions by sound, you can perform other critical functions away from the pump panel and still be able to correct problems quickly.
The officer of the first-in engine sets the tone for the entire incident and is looked to for guidance and leadership throughout the incident. As soon as an alarm is received, the work of the officer begins. The officer needs to know the address, be able to tell the driver/operator what route to take to get there, and locate the closest hydrant. This needs to be done before leaving the station.
Once on scene, the officer needs to give a detailed and appropriate size up. This size up paints the picture of the scene and allows later arriving units the ability to envision the conditions encountered by the first arriving units. This mental picture will allow them to perform a quick assessment of the progress the first engine is making on the fire. No size up is complete without a 360-degree survey of the scene. By instructing and training your driver to pull past the address, when appropriate, you already have seen three sides of the building before you even get off the truck. Your size up can be easily completed by running down the Bravo or Delta side and looking across the Charlie side. As long as you can see the opposite corner of the building, you do not physically need to walk completely around the building. If the rear of the building has an addition or a wing projecting from the Charlie side, then you need to continue to a point where you have seen every side of the building.
With a short crew, traditional Incident Command is not possible. You cannot stand outside and send your nozzleman inside by himself. Pass command, or at least give instructions to the next-in companies over the radio at the conclusion of your report before heading in with the nozzleman. The next-due officer can assume command or can relieve you when they arrive. You will do more good for the incident operating inside then you will standing outside giving assignments.
You, as the officer of the short-staffed crew, become the “utility player” of the team. Not only do you have to perform the normal functions of the officer, but you also need to pick up the responsibilities of the forcible entry firefighter. For this to be effective, you need to be proficient at forcible entry. Your nozzleman is relying on you to create access for him to stretch his line to the fire.
The single most important responsibility of any fire officer is to ensure the safety of his people. This is paramount. Safety of firefighters is reliant on many factors, some of which are a solid risk vs. reward benefit and a thorough understanding of building construction. Both of these components are interdependent. The type of construction will determine how long you have to work inside the building before it becomes unstable. Modern construction is made of lightweight wood and pressure plate connections. This type of construction has a very short resistance to fire. It will fail quickly and possibly all at once when exposed to direct flame impingement. With today’s furnishings inside of the houses made up of polycarbonates that burn hot and fast, the amount of time it takes for direct flame impingement to reach the structural components is relatively short. Couple that with the increased time of notification, response of membership and turnout time. Most fire departments are arriving within minutes of flashover and collapse.
As the officer, you need to perform a solid and thought-out risk vs. reward assessment before putting your people inside these buildings. This assessment needs to take into account the time of day, occupant status and advancement of the fire. If there is nothing to gain by placing your people in an immediately dangerous situation, don’t put them there. It is your decision as the first-in officer to allow your members to enter a structure on fire or hold them outside and go defensive. Don’t let your pride in being a super aggressive company get someone killed, alternatively, don’t let a scary fire stop you from saving savable lives or property.
The third and final position on the short-staffed engine crew is the nozzleman. The nozzleman is the one who will be doing the main work inside the fire building. For this reason, the nozzleman needs to be highly trained and competent. As the nozzleman operating without a dedicated backup person, you need to know your job and do it well. It takes tremendous discipline to complete the tasks assigned to you regardless of the surrounding circumstances. ALL problems on the fireground go away once the fire is out. Therefore it is imperative that a line gets stretched to the seat of the fire quickly and efficiently. For this to happen, the nozzleman must be proficient in pulling lines by himself. There won’t be anyone available to help stretch the line, so the nozzleman must be able to manage the entire pre-connected length by himself without assistance. This is not something that comes easily or naturally; it takes a lot of practice. Take the time to learn how to and practice stretching lines by yourself.
Just like the other members of your crew, you as the nozzleman need to be able to judge distances and know the capabilities of your lines. Know your district, know your equipment and practice constantly. Always err on the side of caution, and pull a line that is longer than you need. Remember, each floor of the building between the entrance door and the fire will take up 50 feet of hose, and you should have 50 feet available to you to make the room of origin. Add that up, and you are at 150 feet for a two-floor house not counting any setback you might have, such as a front yard. Make sure you pull a line that is long enough to cover the distance and still leave room to overcome any unforeseen obstacles in that process. Nothing will have a more detrimental effect on the operation as will stretching a line that is too short. Overshooting the lay is better than stretching too short.
Along with stretching the line by yourself, you will have to operate it by yourself too. Understand the nozzle reaction that will come from the line. Be able to overcome that nozzle reaction and force it to work for you not against you. One of the most common hose/nozzle configurations, a 1 ¾” hoseline with an automatic fog nozzle designed for 150GPM at 100 PSI creates approximately 75 pounds of back pressure. Anything over 50 pounds of back pressure will be difficult to overcome while still being effective. There are ways to overcome this reaction, though. Be comfortable using the walls, doors and furniture as your backup. By placing the line between your leg and the wall, a portion of the nozzle reaction will be passed on to the wall and therefore will lessen the amount that you will have to withstand. If possible with the layout of the building, create an “S” configuration of hose in the hallway. The more surface area of hose you have contacting the ground (friction), the less reaction you will feel.
While stretching the line through the building to the seat of the fire, you should also be searching the areas around you. Remember that all members of the crew need to constantly be multi-tasking and making the best use of their effort. It takes no extra energy to search the area immediately around you while you are stretching the line down the hallway and through the rooms. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you are fighting your way down a hallway engulfed in fire, and don’t put the line down to search. If at all possible, take a moment before opening the line to use the light of the fire to look around the room. You may notice things you wouldn’t otherwise. Above all, remember that all problems go away when the fire goes out.
As members operating on a short-staffed engine crew, you need to be proficient in all aspects of the job, collectively and individually. As the fire department, we are looked at as being “Jacks-of-all-trades” and we are expected to handle any and every emergency thrown our way. We have been entrusted to protect the lives and property of the citizens we serve. The conditions that we work under will not be getting better any time soon, nor will the amount of staffing increase. We need to take it upon ourselves to overcome the challenges that are thrown at us. By utilizing the positions and operating as a cohesive group, a short-staffed engine can still be very successful and effective.
– Tim O’Connor is a Deputy Chief and Training Officer in a combination company in New Castle County, Delaware. He has been in the fire service for 14 years and has held various positions during that time. He is employed as a Firefighter/EMT in a combination department.
Plan for you, so we can plan for them.
Compartmentalization. It’s a big word, with huge meaning, bigger consequences and a humongous impact on our community. Now do me a favor and pump the brakes for a minute. First and foremost, emotional trauma and our day-to- day stressors pile up. They get us individually and can impact the department’s we serve. There’s a whole lot of cultural change happening right now in the fire service.
Who am I kidding? It’s built on change – but one thing undoubtedly remains the same. The calls keep coming in, and we keep going out. We drop our tools, meals, and jokes in the house and leave them behind to go out the door to help someone else. It’s what we do, and we do it pretty well as a service. Gordon Graham once said, “Whatever you’re doing, do it well and get it done.” I find this to be quite true regardless of the emotional weights we carry every day with us.
The big question on my mind, and hopefully yours, is who is watching your back? I have concluded that I have learned a lot from several people that influence me in my career; some of which are my dad, my peers, and the probies that have come after me.
Just from my experience, the calls stack up and will get you at some point. Your reason might be different than mine, but stay with me for a second and make your own analogy. For me, it was one call that did it and like many of you, I didn’t know it at the time.
To paint the picture for you, the call summed up was as such; two-vehicle accident, multiple entrapped, three kids ejected, and there were three of us on the first due – and we were it…for 10 minutes.
We all have this call. It got me six months down the road one day when I saw one of the kids at the grocery store. I talked to my old man about it. He’s been in the service for 35+ years now, and he leveled his call with me. The canvas for his looked like this; single-wide trailer, fire blowing out hard upon arrival. He was on the first due engine which arrived directly after the Battalion Chief dispatched. They stretched a line, forced the door, and then found a family of five stacked up directly behind that door. The crew let the BC know over the radio, who said something along the lines of, “We ain’t fighting no fires today, everyone come forward to do CPR.”
There were three kids in the family…one of them looked exactly like me.
We all have this call. It got my dad the next morning when he saw me coming off shift. All of us have a duty to ensure that everyone on our shift goes home. Making a point about that to the next generation is absolutely necessary, and talking about the stressors, trauma, or your “call” to the current generation is just as important. What I want you to do now is ask yourself if you have someone to talk to. Then ask yourself who your buddy has to talk to. Then ask yourself who the probie has to talk to. It is important to have someone you can call at midnight because something’s bothering you. It’s important to be open about it with yourself as well. Find yourself that battle buddy and make sure that everyone on your crew, young and old, has one.
Now back in my day, we still had dogs in the house for the horses, and so, the firehouse dog was born and brought into the fire service. What I’m about to say, I understand, that there are departments that have policies against dogs in the station, however, I’m just giving you another tool in the toolbox. Studies have overwhelmingly shown that what we do is stressful, and takes the cake as the most stressful job out there. Studies have also shown that spending time with dogs reduces stress levels on a physical and mental scale. I want you to think about introducing a furry friend to the family, maybe not a station dog, but one that you and your crew can all see together on a fairly regular basis. I find that it helps me get through the day-to-day things that pile up on me.
It is my hope that in reading this, it might help you too. So next time you sit down after calls with your crew, and a cup of coffee in hand, bring a furry friend to hangout with and let them watch your back for a change.
Many of us are social people; we are a family, as you very well know. Day-to-day we tend to compartmentalize, though. The little things build up and can knock us off our game. My hope is that by being open and having a plan in place for ourselves, we will be prepared for when the little things have piled too high or “that call” hits you. In my mind, it’s just one logical thing to do to keep us a little bit sane. Think about it, talk to your crew, and make a difference for them and you.
After all, I am here for we, and we are here for them. Bump up and plan.
– Lt. Will “Grandpa” Parry
– State of Alaska