By Mark Cotter
Got roused from our bunks just after 2 A.M. for a reported structure fire. With the address located in a residential section of our first due, the six of us on the engine were preparing for the worst case scenario. Our station is the only one staffed overnight, leaving us on our own for several minutes before assistance could be expected to arrive, a veritable lifetime in hyper-accelerated “fireground time”.
My position was seat #5, the initial duty of which is to help hook up the supply line to the pump (Seat #6 was manned by another volunteer, and he had the hydrant). Beyond that, I was anticipating my potential next assignment from the officer: maybe search the interior, throw a ladder, take out some windows, deploy a second line, or some combination thereof.
En route, we received an update that the involved structure was a garage, allowing me to shorten my list of possible urgent tasks, and the entire crew to breathe a sigh of relative relief. We spotted a hydrant just two doors from the incident address – and along our route of travel – making the lay-in a breeze. There was a bright glow from the rear of the homes as the building was well off, and the apparatus driver spotted the rig on the street at the end of the driveway, leaving about a hundred-foot stretch to the fire location.
The officer ordered a preconnected 1 3/4-inch line deployed and accompanied the two firefighters in the “mask” seats, one of whom carried irons, the other the nozzle. My first task was performed in seconds (gotta’ love twist-on couplings), and I reached the side compartment to don an SCBA about the same time as the other firefighter from the hydrant. A 6-foot pike pole was my tool of choice, while my now partner flaked out the kinks in the hoseline.
The fire building was a large single-car garage, fully involved, with fire blowing from a side window, and from a hole already burned in the roof just above that opening. The nozzle crew first attempted entry through a passage doorway in the front of the structure, which was easily forced. Unfortunately, the garage had been configured into a shop, and the door entered into a closet of sorts, separate from the main, fire compartment. Next, they forced the overhead door, using the irons, and propped the door with a Halligan bar in case the springs and tracks failed (which they eventually did, but to no ones harm).
The nozzle crew was opening up on the fire when I arrived and was directed to remove the failed side, and two intact rear, windows. The sixth member of our crew fed the hoseline into the attack team and stood ready, with me, to assist the firefighters inside if necessary, and the officer supervised and directed us while providing regular progress reports to the dispatcher and duty chief.
The fire was under control in about 30 seconds, or about a minute before the next-in units arrived to assist. For sure, they were welcome, and provided a variety of backup capabilities, including stretching a second line, laddering the roof, and relief personnel. At that point, though, none of those things was needed, the only real tasks then unmet being overhaul, fire cause determination (a heat lamp set up to prevent cans of paint from freezing), and equipment restoration (pick-up).
The comprehensive fire attack performed by our crew, while not extraordinary or unusual in any regard, illustrates the necessity of first-in units having a wide view of fireground tasks for which they need to prepare. Our early-morning call left us with a delay in backup companies, so relying on a second-in to perform any of the support tasks immediately required – forcible entry, ventilation, or the provision of a two-firefighter backup team – would have lead to an unnecessary escalation of this fire’s intensity, and subsequent harm. Had the fire involved a dwelling, the stakes would have been even higher.
Weekday fires in our jurisdiction are managed initially by a response of two engines and a truck, each staffed with a minimum of three career firefighters. Individual companies are able to focus on their respective, traditional tasks (i.e., water supply and fire attack for the Engines; Forcible Entry, Ventilation, and Search and Rescue for the Truck). As in urban settings, this separation or duties and responsibilities works well, most of the time.
Situations still occur when one company is significantly closer than the others, or one or more of the companies are tied up on other calls. In those instances, the first-in company needs to use flexibility in their choice of initial tasks. Sometimes, the initial company’s duties are expanded (the Truck is actually a Quint, so it can deploy hoselines, and the Engines, of course, carry ladders, PPV fans, and saws for Ventilation and Forcible Entry), and other times restraint is the proper approach (performing another company’s tasks makes little sense if there are some of your own to do that are just as pressing).
In many departments, it may be unusual to have six capable firefighters, as we had at our garage fire, show up in a timely manner at any call, especially one occurring on a weekday. Whether due to staffing cutbacks or the decline of volunteerism, operating with minimum, or sub-minimum, personnel numbers is the reality in a wide variety of jurisdictions. Furthermore, rural companies are often separated by significant distances from mutual aid companies.
For companies who cannot expect immediate backup, whether only on rare occasions or as a matter of routine, increasing the number of functions they are prepared and equipped to perform is a necessity. I have termed such comprehensive flexibility “Single Company Operations” (SCO). This name is intended to differentiate it from the traditional method of fire attack organization, taught and followed by fire service agencies across this country, wherein the responsibility for performing tasks at most incidents is distributed across several different teams, or companies.
In SCO, the focus is on preparing to perform the firefighting tasks that might reasonably be required to provide incident control, rather than the type of vehicle, or vehicles, on which firefighters respond. At our little garage fire, our crew of six was able to address such diverse issues as command, water supply, forcible entry, ventilation, search, overhaul, and fire control, unaided. Again, the arrival of assistance was welcomed, but it was not sufficiently timely to have made a difference in outcome, a shortfall that would have been even more evident if circumstances had been more dire.
Next week, we will discuss the process for developing this capability in any fire department or company. To a large extent, it requires looking at all fireground tasks in a new light, rather than purchasing special equipment or changing actual fireground duties. Determining how we can do everything we might need to with the personnel and equipment available is the key.
This week’s lessons:
1. Plan and prepare to perform whatever tasks might be immediately required at a fire in your jurisdiction.
2. Develop and follow SOPs for crew assignments, but leave them flexible enough to allow for addressing the wide variety of circumstances that will be encountered.
3. Endeavor to be ready for (just about) anything.
Mark Cotter joined the fire service more than 30 years ago, and is currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, emergency services consultant, and fire chief. You can reach him at [email protected].