The Successful Short-Staffed Engine
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.
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