By Daniel P Sheridan
My old captain was a stickler for proper apparatus positioning at fires. It would really tick him off when we went to a fire and he saw trucks not in the proper position. He would say, “These aren’t taxi cabs; they are fire trucks.” Engines and ladder trucks all should be in a position at a fire that will allow them to operate according to their respective function. Ladder companies should be in position to either access the roof, rescue victims, or allow a firefighter to vent, enter, and search (VES). Engine companies should either be on a positive water source or be in a position to stretch a hoseline near the front of the building. The chief’s vehicle should be somewhere close to the front of the building to serve as the command post.
THE USUAL FDNY APPARATUS SETUP
In the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), we operate a little differently from the rest of the world. I have visited departments where the first-due engine company gets close to the front of the building and has its water supplied by another engine company. If that is your standard operating procedure, fine; we still need to position apparatus at fires according to function. Engines in the FDNY normally take a hydrant, when possible, and get their own water supply; the second-in engine is responsible to make sure that the first engine has water.
For fires in multiple dwellings, in a perfect world the first-in engine company would stop in front of the building a little past the front entrance, and the firefighters would disembark from the apparatus and begin stretching a hoseline. The engine would then proceed to the closest hydrant and vacate the front of the building for the ladder company. The second-in engine company would then stay out of the block if feasible and take another nearby hydrant. If the building has a narrow frontage (less than 30 feet), the first-in ladder company would take a position in front of the building. The second-in ladder can either follow the first truck company in and raise the aerial ladder to the roof or come in from the opposite direction and ladder the roof from the other side. If the building is a large-frontage building (30 feet or greater), then they should split up coverage of the entire building.
When I was a firefighter I was assigned to a tower ladder, and I personally prefer the tower ladder in front of the building, I think that it is more versatile, but the down side is that it is slower. You can raise the aerial very quickly, and an outside vent firefighter can climb the aerial ladder faster than the time it would take to set up the tower ladder. If I have both a tower ladder and an aerial ladder on the scene in a perfect world, I would like to see the tower ladder in front of the building and the aerial ladder with its aerial raised to the roof. In multiple dwellings, our first choice for access to the roof is an adjoining building of the same height; our second choice would be the aerial ladder. For row frames and brownstones, the first choice for roof access is the aerial ladder.
At every fire incident, our apparatus placement looks something like this: Our first-in engine is pretty close to the front of the building, with its back step facing the front entrance so the firefighters don’t have to stretch around the apparatus. The two ladder companies have the building laddered and the chief’s vehicle is on the sidewalk across the street. Does this happen at every fire? Of course not. We are constantly battling with double-parked cars, cars on hydrants, traffic, one-way streets, and so on. Usually, on wider streets such as two-way streets or large avenues and boulevards, we can compensate for these issues because we have plenty of room to operate. It is on the narrow, one-way streets that we get into trouble. This is where having a knowledgeable chauffeur, operator, engineer, or whatever you call your apparatus driver is invaluable.
Know Your Response Area
Knowing your response area is of paramount importance. Many times we encounter issues at fires because the chauffeur was a relief or fill-in for the tour and didn’t really know the area. During a recent fire at which I was a spectator, the first-in engine made a wrong turn while the ladder went in the correct direction and wound up in the street without an engine. Chaos ensued. The second-in ladder followed the first-in ladder, and there was no engine near the front of the building. The engine finally got on scene and was nowhere near the front of the building. This resulted in a delay in getting water on the fire. The incident continued to go downhill from there. The fire did not go well and in fact was so spectacular that it made the front page of the local newspaper. This situation could have been avoided if the engine and ladder talked very quickly about the route they were going to take before responding; it takes only a few seconds. This is the reason it is so important that the engine precede the ladder when an engine and a ladder that are both “first due” are housed together.
This is how it typically happens in the fire station: Everyone is sitting around the kitchen table one second, then the tones go off and everyone races to the apparatus. It happens very quickly. Firefighters get dressed, hop on the truck, and race to the scene. The dispatcher is letting the responding firefighters know en route that they are receiving numerous calls and it looks like the companies are going in on a working fire. The firefighters’ adrenaline kicks in, and everyone is focused on getting to the address as fast as possible. That is the nature of the job. We don’t have time to meet somewhere and stop and a have a quick planning meeting. Imagine if that were the case! You all pull over, and the chief gathers all the officers around and gives every company a position and an assignment. What usually happens is that some companies are delayed, perhaps getting stuck in traffic, and any other number of problems pop up. We end up just adapting to the situation. It usually works out, but not always.
That being said, at some point the officers and chauffeurs of the responding apparatus need to put some thought into what they are doing and how it may affect everyone else. Recently, I was working in a part of the city with which I was not very familiar. We received a single source for an address with no additional information.
On arrival at the scene, we received a second source indicating a fire on the fourth floor. The first-in engine came in and took the front of the building next to a hydrant. The street was extremely narrow. The next two companies in were both ladder companies; they came into the block against traffic and were nose-to-nose with the engine, two buildings away from the fire building. The second ladder company, which was supposed to be first in, was now in behind the first ladder company. At this point, I received a report from the first ladder company that they were on the fourth floor and heavy smoke pushing was around the door jambs, and the door was hot.
My vehicle was blocked in at the end of the street, and I was about 200 feet away from my car. I had a fire in an occupied building on the fourth floor of a five-story building with no ladder truck in front of the building. I ordered the second ladder company to back out of the street and come around the block to position in front of the building. They were unable to do so because of double-parked cars. To make matters worse, the first-in ladder company raised the aerial ladder to the roof and crushed a bumper on a parked car.
Luckily, the fire was knocked down quickly, but what if it wasn’t? In such a case, what would have been my choices? Do I call for an additional ladder company or put the Firefighter Assist and Search Team (FAST) truck to work in front of the building? My department frowns very much on the latter. If I had to use my FAST truck, I probably would have designated the squad company as FAST temporarily until another FAST truck arrived. What I still don’t understand about this incident is why the first-in engine company didn’t pull into the driveway that was next to the hydrant, freeing the front of the building for my two ladder companies.
In hindsight, I probably should have made the engine company move, but it is hard to do when it is hooked up to a hydrant and has a line stretched. I really don’t want to stop the water supply. The fire was knocked down so quickly that it became moot.
NEAR MISS AT A MULTIDWELLING
Fire apparatus are meant for rescuing civilians; but, more importantly, they are for us, the firefighters. I remember a fire at which I was working when I was a firefighter. There was fire in a five-story multiple dwelling on the third floor. The building had two apartments per floor, which are referred to as “railroad flats” because they are laid out like a railroad car, each room opening into the next. The kitchens and bathrooms are in the rear, the living room is next; and bedrooms are in the front. Usually, there are two entrances with a rear fire escape. We had a heavy fire on the third floor, and we were assigned to go to the floor above to do a primary search. When we arrived on the floor above, fire had already entered the kitchen and the bathroom. We made a calculated decision to pass the fire and search the rear bedrooms. I thought that if we got cut off, we could use the other entrance door in the front.
We made our way to the front of the apartment, and our search results were negative. The fire that we had passed in the kitchen had now grown. At this point, going back the way we came would have been tough; I checked the front door, and it was nailed shut. There wasn’t any time to start forcing a door inside an apartment that was starting to take off. My next thought was to go to the window in the front of the building. I figured I would call the firefighter in the bucket to come and pick me up, but as I opened the window I looked out and in utter disbelief saw the tower ladder parked in front of the building. No one was on the pedestal, and no firefighter was operating the bucket. Now we had no choice but to go back the way we came in. I remember our lieutenant at the door yelling at us like the guy in the movie Jaws, where he was yelling at Charlie to swim very fast and don’t look back. We barely made it out. We were forced to duck under the flames to get out.
Take the time to think about your response. If you are delayed, let the dispatcher know that you will not be arriving the way you were assigned. If you are going to enter from a different direction than normally expected, again, get that message out on the radio. If you are a ladder company, get into proper position and be prepared to operate. If you are an engine and not first due, stay out of the block if possible, but get on a positive water source. It’s the little things sometimes that cause all the headaches.
Daniel P. Sheridan is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief in the First Division. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America.