On the Line: Focus on the Basics to be the Best

By David DeStefano

The fire service has a way of losing sight of the basics as we embrace the latest fad or gadget to prove what a forward-thinking and adaptive culture we have become. Although stagnation remains at the root of failure, basic skills save the most lives (including ours) at fires. Let’s be sure our basic skills and tactics are up to par before the next job. Following are some aspects of our job on which we MUST improve before we board the rigs.


Ground Ladders

Fire departments large and small have invested millions of dollars in aerial devices of all sizes and design. These devices are often the safest and most efficient way to access an upper floor or roof. However, like any other tool, they have limitations. Even the best placed device may be limited by access, power lines, narrow alleys, setbacks, and other geographic features.

Ladder company members should train regularly using all of the ladders assigned to their rig; not just raising the ground ladders at the firehouse but carrying them with their tool assignments to unusual locations such as down alleys, over obstacles, and even through buildings. We don’t always have the opportunity to train for these types of scenarios, so when they are available, company officers must take full advantage of any property we can use for this training.

Firefighters in a ladder company should be aware of neighborhoods or buildings that have notoriously bad access or a tough placement profile. They must develop and practice alternate means of laddering for ventilation, rescue, and firefighter entry/egress at these buildings. Establishing this plan and standardizing it in the company saves time by issuing detailed orders and explanations and allows members to operate most efficiently.



Since most ladder companies don’t have the opportunity to perform vertical ventilation every tour, constructing a roof prop (see my article “Roof Simulator” Fire Engineering Online 2/11/08) that can be stored and used in quarters is a great way to perfect techniques and have new members or those detailed to the company brush up on their saw skills.



When was the last time your company operated together on air while conducting a primary search in a residence? Many units replace members regularly through rotation, retirement, or promotion. Nothing breeds efficiency like familiarity. If your company is a new combination of firefighters, practicing search is a required drill. Understanding the speed, preferences, and techniques as well as commands to expect during an actual search is best discovered during company drill time. In addition, the approximate amount of air your company needs to search an area during an incident is best discovered under controlled circumstances to aid in air management.

We know that, combined with stretching the right diameter and length line to the seat of the fire, searches are the most important tactic we undertake on the fireground. The civilians we protect deserve the best prepared and most efficient company possible conducting this assignment.


Hose Stretches

Does your engine company have a plan that each member is familiar with to stretch and operate a hoseline at any location in the district? Are you capable of stretching a line at the windowless factory, the three-story garden apartment with no standpipes, and the rooming house set behind the row of vacant stores downtown? 

Efficient engine companies often start with a compliment of preconnected handlines that encompass the most likely stretches they will have to perform. In many districts, this means a 150-foot short line for small single-family dwellings set close to the curb and perhaps several longer attack lines for larger single-family dwellings or small multidwellings without standpipes. Engine company members should also drill with bundled hose for standpipe operations and stretching beyond the length of their preconnects.

Firefighters assigned to an engine company should never enter a building to investigate an incident without a plan as to how they will stretch a line to any point in the structure. This may involve a particular length preconnect, standpipe, or outside stretch. It may also call for the driver/operator to reposition the rig as needed or assign another engine to meet your company at a remote entrance point.

Stretching a line to the seat of the fire is normally the basic tactical objective of the first-in engine. If that company fails to plan and execute its mission, the incident tends to spiral downward very rapidly.



It has been said that attitude is everything in life; this includes life in the fire service!  Many fire departments have experienced an overall increase in responses with a decrease in working fires. This may lead many companies to expect every run to be a high frequency/low impact event. This simply isn’t the case. It’s the low frequency events with high impact, like working fires that have little room for error and put our skills to the test. We must always understand and be proficient in our core firefighting functions to operate safely and efficiently on the fireground.


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 dmd2334@cox.net.




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