Surviving the Tour

By David DeStefano

Firefighters make thousands of little decisions and choices during the course of the typical tour of duty, many of which are mundane and of little consequence. However, within the context of any given shift, a firefighter may be called on to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life or the lives of any number of firefighters or civilians.

To enhance your safety and efficiency, attempt to operate in a proactive mode whenever possible. Make conscious choices based on solid facts that you have contemplated long before an incident. Following are choices that, if employed correctly, will allow you to operate more safely and prepare for a variety of conditions to help you survive the tour.

Know your district. Making an effort each tour to spend time in your district will pay multiple dividends during a variety of incidents. With prior knowledge of common building construction and layouts, firefighters will make more efficient stretches and have a greater depth of knowledge regarding roof features and access points. Learning alleys, rear access points, hydrant locations, and the best routes to various points in the first-due area will put members a step ahead during an incident. Local district knowledge should extend to buildings under construction, renovation, and demolition. During these projects, buildings are most vulnerable and most likely to have access, building protection, and floor plans that are compromised.

Train regularly and realistically. Companies that train on a regular basis above and beyond that which is mandated by department policy are usually the best functioning units during any incident. Members are most familiar with their equipment and instinctively know each firefighter’s place during an operation. Officers in a company that trains often find they give less direct orders and have little or no trouble with accountability; their unit is disciplined and cohesive. Realistic training scenarios for seasoned crews are vital to keep skills sharp and interest levels intact. Practice common skills like hose stretches and ground ladder placement in challenging environments. Raise ladders in narrow alleys and practice hose stretches beyond standard preconnects. Remember to “train how we fight.” Wear full personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus as you would during any incident. Company officers may consider creating a scenario and letting a senior firefighter choose the tactics, acting as the officer. This goes a long way to building confidence and readies that senior member for more responsibility.

Practice your Mayday message format. Transmitting a Mayday for yourself or another firefighter may be the most stressful thing you ever do on the fireground. Make the conscious choice to think about your department’s Mayday policy on a regular basis. Practice transmitting a Mayday for a variety of emergencies. When you are out surveying your district or taking up from another call, put together a quick scenario that would require a Mayday. When you conduct building familiarization walk-throughs in large or complex occupancies, stop periodically and practice reporting your location.

Stay current. Stale firefighters eventually become dangerous to themselves and everyone on the fireground. Read trade publications and attend training classes and seminars beyond the minimum requirements of your job. Department bulletins, policy revisions, and general orders are published because they are important to your jurisdiction. Take time on a daily basis to check the computer, logbook, or bulletin board for new information that impacts your daily routine. It is especially important that company officers are vigilant in this practice, and follow up with members of their company to ensure everyone has the latest news on department conditions and events.

Drive or ride safely. If you are a driver/operator, the safety of the apparatus and crew rest on your shoulders every time the rig leaves quarters. Take this responsibility seriously; anything less than your full attention to the road and adherence to all jurisdictional laws and policies means you are not operating your vehicle with due care and may be putting firefighter and civilian lives in danger. Always drive defensively, wear a seat belt, and park the apparatus in a defensive position. Members riding on the rig have just as much at stake; they must remember to exit the vehicle safely when parked on roadways, making sure the apparatus is fully stopped. Taking the time to act as a spotter for the driver and always wearing proper reflective apparel on the road may be the small choice that brings the entire company home safely at night.

Violent confrontations. Making the decision to withdraw from a potentially violent confrontation before it escalates means you will be able to return and render aid when the scene is secure. Inserting firefighters into scenes for which we are not trained or equipped to mitigate is dangerous to members and may pose additional threats to other bystanders.

Expect fire. No matter how many other missions with which your agency is tasked, you are still the FIRE department. Expect a fire on every call; even the usual runs to the same buildings multiple times each day. Eventually, someone will have a fire there. Be prepared for it! Driving through your district on the way to lunch may cause you to stumble across a fire with people at the windows. If you are in “fire mode,” your response will be smooth and professional; not a confused, disorganized reaction.

Every firefighter makes choices throughout the day that may be of little consequence most of the time. However, under certain circumstances, consciously making the right choices about seemingly routine decisions may avert disaster. Each of us should put in some extra thought and make the necessary efforts to contemplate how you can avoid falling into a mindset that may result in making poor decisions. Staying focused in your routine decisions will help you and your brothers survive the tour.


David DeStefano is a 23-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at



Buyers Guide Featured Companies

More Buyer's Guide >

Fire Dynamics

Survival Zone

Extrication Zone

Tech Zone