By David Werner
Is anyone else tired of hearing the phrase, "doing more with less?" Unfortunately, this mode of operation seems to have become the norm for fire departments across the country. Most career departments have seen reductions in staff, rolling company closures, and stations shut down; some have closed their doors for good. On the volunteer side, we continue to see a decline in the numbers of active members. Everywhere we look, we are faced with the harsh reality of doing more with less. Never before has it been more critical for us to know our job and be able to do it well. Our job gets increasingly difficult every day. The modern fireground has zero sympathy for complacency and mediocrity. A quick glance at the most common recommendation in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports confirms that we are failing at the fundamental level of operation. Firefighters have a lot working against us; therefore, we need to step up and raise the bar. Facing these challenges and working past them require increased effectiveness, communication, and skillfulness on the fireground. We need to be better at our job than we ever have been. Below are thoughts on those critical details that can help improve safety and operations at emergency incidents.
Having fewer boots on the ground does not just affect us on scene. The challenges begin as soon as we hop on the rig. Fewer bodies in the rig means fewer eyes, ears, and mouths. The response segment of an emergency is already a hectic and adrenaline-charged activity. There is a lot going on between the driver trying to get the crew there safely, the officer talking on the radio and forming a plan, and the firefighters riding backward preparing themselves for battle. For some departments, reduced personnel may mean four or five persons on the rig as opposed to six or seven. For other departments, the norm may be three people on the rig. In the rural setting, it is all too common to have just the driver. The point is that every person on the apparatus is responsible for being proactive and playing a contributing role in this critical phase.
Everyone on the apparatus should be listening closely to radio traffic. Listening to radio traffic helps paint a good picture in people's minds as to what they will be facing. All too often, we relegate any radio duties to the officer and simply wait for a knock on the glass to let us know if we will be going to work or not. It is very possible the officer may miss a piece of information broadcast on the radio. If everyone on the apparatus is listening, this is less likely to happen. More ears on the radio means less chances for traffic to be missed, and the crew will be better prepared to go to work when the parking brake is pulled.
Fewer eyes in the cab means fewer people to watch traffic. Many times, a jumpseat rider will have a better view of an intersection or a rearward approaching vehicle. It is critical that personnel in the jumpseats pay attention to traffic and alert the driver to anything he might miss. When approaching the scene, keep an eye on addresses. It is very easy to miss small address markers, especially at night. The driver has a tough enough job as it is. Anything we can do to assist the driver makes everyone safer.
Make a habit of keeping your map book with you when riding in the back of the cab. This serves several purposes. First, it will help you learn your district as you are riding around. If you see something new or out of place, you can quickly make note of it instead of forgetting about it when you get back to the station. Another reason for riding with your map book is that you will be able to locate the address and make note of where your hydrant will be, as well as where other units will be approaching from. If you already know where your closest hydrant will be, you will be ready when the rig stops for you to hop off. If you notice that your second-due has a lengthy route, you can be better prepared for possibly picking up the slack when you arrive. Having that map book with you will greatly improve your situational awareness.
While en route, it is vital that there is communication among all members in the cab. Talk about where you are going, if you have been there before, any known hazards, who needs to grab which tools, who needs to perform which tasks, and any other pertinent information. Some departments are blessed with enough staffing to have designated assignments based on seating position. Most of us, however, do not have this luxury. If the ride to the scene is made in silence, everyone is going to hop off the rig and wait for instructions. This wastes critical time that will be difficult to recover and increase the likelihood of freelancing. Communicate with the crew, anticipate what needs to be done, and be prepared and proactive. This is the time when you can set the tone for the rest of the incident.
As the rig comes to a stop and the parking brake is pulled, the size-up phase begins. All too often, we again pass the buck to the officer, expecting that he will complete the size-up. Although the officer may be the one who communicates the size-up, every person on the scene is responsible. This is another situation where fewer eyes and mouths on the scene can hurt us. As we prepare to go to work, we need to be taking in everything going on. The more information we can communicate back to dispatch and other incoming units, the better prepared they will be to jump into action. Take note of anything you see that will affect your operations, such as immediate rescue needs, exposure issues, fire and smoke conditions, utilities, structural issues, and others. Do not assume that the officer will always catch everything. The first couple of minutes on scene tend to be fairly chaotic with a lot of information to gather. Help each other out by using your eyes and ears to catch the important stuff. All this information needs to be incorporated into an incident action plan (IAP). What are you going to do with the information you have to mitigate the situation? This should not be a lengthy front-yard discussion. The plan needs to be made swiftly. Although speed is important at this point, taking a few seconds can make the difference between a successful firefight and a complete disaster. Take a deep breath, and keep your wits about you.
Be cognizant of the need for additional resources. With staffing reduced to the bare minimum, it is crucial that we identify when we are going to need extra help. Additional units can always be turned around, but waiting for things to go south is not the time to call for help. Do not be afraid to call for additional incoming units to stage if the IAP is still developing. Using staging will allow the initial incident commander (IC) to avoid having units parked haphazardly on the scene.
Members should come off the truck with everything they will need to perform their job. A quick look at the latest fire scene videos always shows some great examples of what I call the firefighter relay. Running back and forth between the door and the truck for tools does nothing except wear you out and waste valuable time. Get the tool off the truck when you get there. You should have something in both hands when you walk across the yard. If you don't need the tool right away, set it by the door; it will likely get used at some point.
When pulling an attack line, be sure that the line is going to be sufficient for the amount of fire you are going to encounter. Automatically pulling the 1¾-inch is a nasty habit to get into. We need to be fully prepared to pull the 2½-inch and put it into operation with two people. It may not be the ideal situation, but we need to be ready to deal with it. Remember, your second-due may be a long way out. If you have the water to do it, a larger line may be the best way to get in and get the job done. If you shudder at the thought of muscling a 2½-inch, train with it, and spend a little more time in the gym. It can be done, but it takes practice.
You may be faced with forcing a door before help arrives. You may find yourself alone as the officer completes the size-up needed to gain entry. Believe it or not, there are ways to get through a door with one person. This is another task that involves practice to perform successfully. Know how to force a door with one person and have the tools you will need. Be prepared to perform horizontal ventilation before you make your push. I know this idea flies in the face of coordinated ventilation, but when there is no one else to break that window once you're inside, you need to think ahead. The officer performing a 360-degree walk-around may be in a perfect position to take a window. If done correctly, this should allow the crew to hunt the fire down more quickly. Again, be ready to perform outside of the box. With fewer people on scene, we need to pick up the slack.
Many times the initial officer on scene will be part of the interior attack crew. Yes, there are those who scoff at this idea, but sometimes it is the only option. On entering the structure, everyone's heads must be on a swivel. Don't just rely on the officer or backup firefighter to be looking around. With minimum staffing, we cannot afford to get ourselves into tight spots. Pay attention to what is going on. Look at, listen to, and feel everything that is happening around you. Talk to each other; let your crew know what you encounter. You may look up just as a wisp of flame dances on the ceiling. You may be the only person who noticed this critical sign. It is up to you to communicate what you see and act on it immediately.
Notify command of what you are doing, what you encounter, what the fire is doing, and any troubles you are having. So much of this is stuff we should be doing at every fire. The difference is that it becomes significantly more critical when operating with fewer people. Just because the lines have been charged and the hydrant connection made does not mean that the driver's job is done. The driver has an excellent vantage point from the pump panel to monitor conditions and keep the interior crew up-to-date. At this point, the driver may be the only eyes on the exterior.
As the attack line is advanced, be sure to sweep the immediate area for victims. Keep in mind that the most likely area to find victims will be the same corridor that you are operating in. Don't be afraid to branch off and sweep behind doors and into rooms. Although we shouldn't separate completely from those on the line, we can still attempt to search as much as possible. Use of the thermal imaging camera (TIC) at this point will greatly assist in sweeping areas as well as noting fire conditions. As rooms are passed, close any open doors. This will help slow the spread of heat and smoke to those rooms and protect those areas. Remember where those rooms are in case they need to be used as areas of refuge. Also, this will help protect any victims who may be in those rooms. Be mindful of windows that can be taken to assist in ventilation. Do not simply smash every window you come to. This can draw the fire toward your location.
If you have been assigned to searching, you, too, have a responsibility to adequately size-up the structure. Notice the type of construction and type of occupancy. Look at the locations of doors, windows, and roof vents. The more you can learn from the outside of the structure, the better organized your search will be. Pay attention to where attack crews are working and what areas they have covered. It is possible that they may have adequately searched a portion of the structure as they pulled their line. Having this information will prevent you from duplicating their efforts. Be sure that you have the tools that you will need. This may include the TIC, search rope, irons, and anything else you might need. Anticipate more forcible entry problems. You may encounter numerous interior doors that need to be forced. If you don't have the proper tools, you will waste valuable time either getting them yourself or having someone bring them to you.
Through proper training and practice, you should develop the skills to move swiftly during your search. Your crew needs to work together to maximize the efforts of each other. Learn how to spread out and cover as much area as possible. Learn how to not get bunched up in smaller rooms. Learn how to use the TIC to effectively search open areas while also understanding what the TIC can't see. Communicate with command and other interior crews on positions and what you are encountering. You may find yourself looking up into an attic full of fire. If this fact hasn't been discovered yet, it needs to be brought to the attention of those with the wet stuff. You are another set of eyes in the structure, and you a responsible for making others aware of what you see.
Vent work can be daunting for those who are not skilled in it and lack confidence. Working with fewer people means more working with fewer hands. You need to learn to accomplish effective ventilation quickly and efficiently. The reason vent work can be intimidating is that it involves several areas of operation, including ladders, saws, and hand tools. Unless your crew is called to vent on a regular basis, the need for effective training is critical. You need to be able to use two personnel to accomplish effective vent work. This requires both strength and smarts. You must be able to size up the situation and make the best use of limited resources. Observe the structure to determine where you will approach, cut, and exit the area. Anticipating these moves will allow you to make the best selection on tools and tactics. Look at such things as ground slope, ground condition, overhead obstructions, and fire conditions.
Observe the type of construction to make sure the appropriate saw is used. Making the first plunge is not the time to realize you need a different saw to make your cuts. Be ready to use hand tools to get the hole you need. Saws break down, blades break, and pull cords will always fail at the worst time. A wise firefighter once said, "Axes always start."
Make note of the best location for the vent opening. Recognize that the best location may not be the safest. Many times, the cut location will be a compromise between the best and safest locations. As you are laddering and climbing be sure to communicate what you see and find. You may notice something from your position that the IC can't see. Be prepared for difficulties with ladders. Uneven ground, vegetation, overhangs, and stuck pawls can create problems. If your initial location does not work, do not hesitate to move to another spot. Also, be cautious of placing a ladder over a window. Fire venting from that window may damage your ladder, and you may be blocking an exit in case interior crews get in trouble.
Have plans for a secondary means of egress from the roof. You may be able to ask another crew to ladder the opposite side of the building, or you may have to accomplish this yourself. If you determine that the roof ladder will not be used, carry it to the opposite side of the roof and use it as your secondary egress. No matter how you do it, make sure you have that second way off.
Make sure your vent opening is going to adequately vent the smoke and heat from the structure. You are trying to make things better for the firefighters inside. A hole the size of a dinner plate will not do any good. Pay attention to conditions in the attic when your cut is complete. Relay these findings to the IC. Do not forget that once your cut is complete that the ceiling will need to be pushed through. Interior crews should be warned before this is accomplished to avoid dropping large sections of ceiling on them.
Note the effectiveness of the vent opening. Is there a strong flow of smoke? If it becomes apparent that the vent opening did not have the desired effect, it may be necessary to make another cut. Only make additional cuts if roof conditions will allow continued operation. Keep a constant eye on conditions, and monitor the progress of interior crews. If your initial vent opening is sufficient, it is time to get off the roof and find another assignment. There is no need to linger on the roof.
Everything we have talked about involves performing fireground tasks with reduced personnel. We know that putting six people on a 2½-inch line makes it easy to maneuver through a building. We drill over and over on two-person extension ladder carries and raises. We learn how to use four individuals to carry out a vertical ventilation evolution. It is crucial that we learn how to perform these tasks with one or two people. There are ways to safely perform these tasks with a crew of two. The key is using the proper training to build proficiency and confidence. When we have become skilled in performing these tasks by ourselves, we don't hesitate on the fireground. The following are some examples of skills that need to be learned.
One-Man Extension Ladder Carry/Raise
Whether it's a 24- or 28-foot extension ladder, we need to be able to get it from the truck and raised into position with one person. At first, this is a cumbersome and difficult task. The key is to use the momentum of the ladder to move it around. There are numerous instructional videos out there demonstrating different ways to accomplish this. Learn to balance the ladder on your shoulder. Once you feel comfortable moving around with the ladder on your shoulder, practice throwing the ladder from your shoulder to the ground with the butt spurs firmly in position. Once this movement is learned, practice balancing and raising the ladder to the desired height. Once this is all put together, be sure to perfect it wearing all of your gear along with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). You will quickly discover how your gear can get in the way. This may not be a skill you use often, but it is invaluable when needed.
Attack Line Stretch
You need to be proficient in stretching the attack line from the truck to the door. It is very likely that there will only be one person available to accomplish this task. Practice getting the line laid out with no kinks and in a position that will allow an easy pull through the door. Practice scenarios with minimal space in between the truck and the door. Practice scenarios with a lengthy distance that will require additional hose. Experiment with different hose loads. You may find that your current hose load does not work well with a one-person stretch. Do some research on different types of loads and what works for other departments. Who knows? You may even develop your own load that you can pass along to others.
All too often, this line comes off the truck once a year for hose test. If this is the case, you are setting yourself up for failure. Despite the fact that you may not use it often, you need to be ready to put it into service and use it effectively. There are many ways to maneuver this line with only two people, and they don't require sumo wrestlers; it is all about good body mechanics and synchronization. Practice going up and down stairs, around corners, and through doors. Make yourself comfortable with the big line so that when the time comes, you will be ready to put it to work.
One-Person Door Force
With the right tools, one person can handle forcing doors. Obviously, steel doors in steel frames in reinforced walls may not apply, but most residential doors should not be a problem for one person. This skill comes down to training just like everything else we have talked about. There are endless techniques for forcing doors with one person. One technique uses a New York hook as the driving tool to force the halligan forks into the gap. It is all about being creative with the tools you have. Spend time reviewing various techniques and practice them. Standing in front of a door and vocalizing a plan will not cut it. Hands-on, destructive practice is the only way to ensure you will be prepared for this task.
Two-Person Vertical Ventilation
The biggest hurdle in performing vertical ventilation with two people is getting all of the required equipment to the roof without making a second trip to the truck. In most instances, you are going to need an extension ladder, roof ladder, saw, pike pole, and a set of irons. When you start adding up the pieces of equipment and available hands, you realize this is a challenge. The key is to be comfortable with your ladder carries, and make use of slings and straps. Having the irons in a strap, and a strap or sling on your saw will make the task doable in a single trip. Because every rig is set up differently, be sure to practice having people carry the tools. Determine what works best as far as who carries what tools. Practice getting the ladders into place and getting into position on the roof. With enough practice, it is possible to go from truck to completed vent opening in a minute or two. Obviously, this skill needs to be practiced in full gear and SCBA. This is another opportunity to practice starting your saws. The fireground is not the place to relearn these skills.
As I said before, none of the things we have discussed are new ideas. The main theme is that with fewer people on the fireground, we need to be more creative and proficient in what we do. These days, there is no room for the unconfident, unskilled firefighter. We must be fully confident and prepared to tackle all of the tasks on the fireground with just a handful of people. We need to increase our level of situational awareness, communicate what we see, and recognize dangerous situations. We also need to be prepared to cross over and accomplish tasks that would otherwise be performed by another company. We no longer have the luxury of just assuming something will be performed by the next-due company, since that company you are relying on may be fighting its way through traffic. We need to get out of the mindset of relying on officers and chiefs to accomplish size-up. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else on the fireground to hone our skills in reading buildings and seeing what is going on. It will make us better firefighters, and increase the chances of survival for everyone involved. Practice and train on these skills until they are second nature. Understand what muscle memory is and how to use it. Remember, to perfect something is to practice until you get it right. To master something is to practice it until you can't do it wrong. Stay smart, and stay combat ready!
David Werner is a firefighter with the Gantt District Fire Department in Greenville, South Carolina. He holds an associate degree in fire science and administration from Lake Superior College. He serves as an instructor with the South Carolina Fire Academy.