First-Due Battalion Chief: The Can

First-Due Battalion Chief: The Can Firefighter
Bill Brosnan, L15

Article and photo by Daniel P. Sheridan

In the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), our ladder companies are staffed with five firefighters and one officer, either a lieutenant or a captain. The company is broken down into two teams: the inside team, comprised of the officer, forcible entry (irons), and "The Can" firefighters, and the outside team, made up of the chauffeur, outside vent, and roof firefighters. The purpose of the ladder company (the truck), among other things, is to initially locate; confine; and, if possible, extinguish (LCE) the fire. The function of the truck is usually to get ahead of the engine company and perform LCE. The truck members act as sort of a recon team.

The can firefighter is usually assigned to the junior firefighter on the team. His task is to stay by the officer's side with his can and six-foot hook. I remember being glued to the officer's side my first few months on the job. We didn't have radios back then, so it was very important to stay in voice contact. I "carried the can" for approximately four years. I never complained. I thought it was the best position in the truck. I recall many times crawling down the hallway and getting the can on the fire and then closing the door, sometimes knocking the fire down enough so that the engine was left only with "washing down." The engine firefighters were never too happy about that.

The idea of sending a team of thee firefighters into a hostile environment with only 2½ gallons of water as their only protection seems insane, but we have always operated that way. It is an aggressive tactic, but we have saved hundreds of lives operating this way--the idea is that the Can firefighter should hold the fire while the other part of the team searches. One of the lieutenants from my old company rescued two kids at a project fire one afternoon; the Can firefighter held the fire in check while he and the forcible entry firefighter went to the rear bedrooms and rescued the two kids.

At another fire to which I responded one Fourth of July evening, the same officer, my good friend Billy, an incredible firefighter, had the Can, and I had the irons. We got to the front door, and the living room was fully involved. Billy told me to go ahead and get to the back bedroom. "I got it," he told me. I had total faith in him--if he said he got it, I believed him.

I headed to the back and heard what sounded like a baby crying; it turned out to be a cat (oh, well). The point is that we were able to do incredible things with the Can in those days.

Under Control?

The other night, we received a phone alarm for a fire on the fourth floor in a five-story multiple dwelling. I was working in a battalion that is housed with a single truck company (there are only a few single-trucks in the FDNY), a very good truck company with an excellent reputation. I followed them out of quarters; as we proceeded around a corner, a door opened and some tools fell out of the compartment. We had to stop for a moment to pick up the tools. This was not a problem; the company was second due; but with every action, there is a reaction. Even the most mundane thing can cause a ripple effect that can compound later at a fire.

As we headed north up the avenue, I saw that the second-due engine was waiting outside the block to allow the truck to get in front of the building. Excellent firefighting so far. I knew the officer from the engine; he had worked in a busy Bronx engine company and had about 20 years on the job. It showed great discipline to wait and allow the truck into the block. What I didn't pay attention to, however, was that a police car with its lights flashing was behind the engine. I was thinking, "How cool is this? The police are actually helping us here by blocking the street." As the truck rounded the corner, the police car sneaked in behind it and jumped on a hydrant. Now, my second-due engine, which is responsible for water supply, was 500 feet away on a more-distant hydrant.

I established command in front of the building, trying to get a handle on what we had at the box. I saw the occupant in the lobby of the building, so I had a sense that something was going on upstairs. I then heard the roof firefighter call to his officer, asking if he should take the glass on the skylight. Did we have a good smoke condition? Why weren't they stretching a hoseline? I ordered the second-due truck to check the floor above. I heard the officer call the officer from the second truck asking for another Can. When I asked what was going on, he told me that they were knocking down the fire but still needed another Can to finish the job. I was now in the front of the building wondering why they were not stretching a hoseline.

As a battalion chief, I try to let the officers do their job. I knew all the officers working there; they all had worked with me in the Bronx. They all had a good amount of time on the job. I let them do their job and try not to micromanage, but my limits were being pushed in this instance. I was getting reports of heavy smoke and that they couldn't get a handle on knocking down the fire, but I trusted them. I think that if I had been in any other battalion that night, I just would have ordered a hoseline stretched, but I knew the players here and continued to trust. I finally had to make a decision. I found those two cops on the hydrant and politely asked them to get off my hydrant. I ordered the second-due engine to come closer and get ready to get a hoseline if needed. I then headed upstairs.

On arrival to the fire floor, I found a heavy smoke condition, but no heat. The truck was inside venting and searching. The fire was contained inside an oven. The occupant had turned on the oven without checking inside first. There were some towels inside that had caught fire and ignited the grease in the dirty oven. The oven also happened to be on an outside wall, and there were no cabinets above it. This was the best-case scenario, since there was no possibility for extension. So even though what I was hearing was true--the firefighters were having trouble extinguishing the fire, and we had a good smoke condition--they actually had a handle on it. This is where knowing your officers pays off, but sometimes things happen.

When In Doubt, Stretch a Hoseline

A friend and fellow chief had a "food on the stove" call one day that ultimately wound up on the cover of the department's internal magazine (it is sort of a joke on the job that you never want to have one of your fires on the cover). His companies were up in the apartment and had a stove fire that appeared to have been knocked down and out. The companies were in the process of taking up when the roof firefighter radioed his officer and told him that there was a good smoke condition on the top floor. The companies then opened the walls and found that fire had gotten into a void and had now spread up into the cockloft. It eventually went to six alarms.

Whenever you get a fire of any sort, you need to be thorough and check any area where you think it may have the possibility to spread. When I was still a captain, we had a fire in a private dwelling. I was working in the second-due engine. The fire was in the bedroom. I kept hearing the truck calling for more Cans. They used three or four. I was thinking, "Why isn't the chief ordering a hoseline stretched?"

The Can is a great tool, and I had a lot of fun carrying it when I was a firefighter, but it has its limitations. When I was first promoted to lieutenant, I was working in a very busy engine company. The truck was out, and we received a verbal alarm for a fire on the top floor of the five-story building next door. I transmitted the alarm and headed up the stairs to the report of the fire. The truck arrived, and I radioed down that we had a bedroom fire which we could probably extinguish with the Can. The engine firefighters asked if they should stretch a hoseline; I told them to hold up, that we probably could get it with a few Cans. I thought I was doing them a favor by saving them from having to stretch a hoseline. (This is the problem with new lieutenants working in the engine--we still think like truckies. It took some time to change my thinking. I eventually spent the rest of my time in engines.) Afterwards, the guys asked if they could talk with me. They politely informed me that they actually like stretching hose. That made me feel like a dope.

If you have something and you are not sure whether or not to stretch a hose, stretch it--the guys like doing it, and they need the practice. The worst thing that could happen is that you don't charge it and you wind up with a good drill. In hindsight, we should have stretched on that fire the other night. I had almost a hundred years of experience with my officers working and didn't want to overrule them, but it is a bad practice not to stretch. When I was a probie, the engine company that we responded with had a captain who made the guys stretch for every phone alarm. We started doing it a few years ago: The engines would stretch for the first alarm of the tour, but I think that practice fell by the wayside. I would like to see us go back to doing this, as we don't stretch enough hose. When in doubt, stretch the hose.

Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief assigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for www.mutual-aid.org.

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