Suburban Firefighters: Ready or Not, You Will Be Called First

By Jerry Knapp

The vast majority (85 percent) of fire protection is provided in our country by small to medium-sized fire departments. These may be career, combination, or volunteer. Many are suburban firefighters around large cities or distributed in communities throughout our states. The hard reality is this: Suburban firefighters will be first- or second-due to any type of incident in and around their district or in nearby communities with which they have mutual aid agreements.

Think about it for a minute. If a power line goes down; a heavy rain causes flooding; a basement fills with water; snow collapses a roof; a hurricane, a tornado, or an ice storm strikes; if there is an explosion or a bomb threat; a distraught person threatens or attempts to jump off the bridge; a bridge collapses; a train derails; a locomotive with 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel has a punctured tank and is leaking; a gasoline tank truck sideswipes a retaining wall; a tractor trailer on the interstate has a spill of hazmat inside the box; a child gets lost; someone or someone’s pet falls through the ice; a house or other structure burns; and so on, who is going to be called FIRST? Correct, the suburban firefighter.

 In larger-city fire departments there are specialized teams to handle these calls. There may be rescue companies, each with a particular specialty. Squad companies may supplement rescue companies with specific tasks. There may be special collapse units, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) units, urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, and may be a fully staffed hazmat unit.

The first answer I always hear is this: “Oh, we don’t do bombings, bomb threats, or this or that.” Really? So when the call comes in, are you not going to respond? In 35 years of experience, I have not seen this yet! The taxpayers have provided you with several million dollars worth of equipment, paid for your training, and you are not going? So when the dispatcher reports an explosion at the mall, school, church, you are not going to go?  I seriously doubt this. You are going, I’d go. We would all go. It is what we do: respond to the alarm and do the best we can.

Recently, while doing a railroad emergency response exercise for a local department, one of the assistant chiefs claimed he would not go to a rail incident on a mutual-aid call because it was “too” dangerous. So a house fire, which we know from experience is the most dangerous call for us, is not “too” dangerous?

At another training session, again with a very well-versed and experienced fire officer, I heard him say, “I’m not interested in [x] call,” meaning “I’m not going to get myself prepared for this type of alarm.” I asked him if he would go when called, and he responded, “Yes, sure.” So because you may not like it or it may not be “your thing,” you will not train to be able to be part of the solution? Let’s say that turned out to be a lively discussion.


So how do you sort out this assumption that your fire department can and will do everything. There are two steps:

1. Conduct a risk or hazard analysis. Scary words for a simple and fun task. Gather up about eight to 10 of your senior people and identify what types of calls you have gone on in the past 20 years. This sorts out and identifies likely threats—likely because you have actually experienced these calls in the past and likely will again. This also sorts out unlikely threats. Obviously, if you don’t have a railroad within 50 miles of your firehouse, you don’t have to prepare for a railroad emergency. The same with other calls or hazards that are not applicable to your area. You have just taken a large bite out of the problem. Remember how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

There are excellent computer programs available through your county, state, or federal emergency management office that makes this process very easy. The computer programs identify and rank by numerical rating the hazards you may be called to respond to. These rankings are based on the input of your group based on their experience and expertise. The results are weighted based on the frequency of the event; the potential for death, injury, and damage; and how a widespread (how big a population) will or may be effected. It is a bit subjective, and you could argue incident number four should be number three in priority, but it gives you a great snapshot of what you may be called to and what you should prepare for and how much relative effort you should put into each.

2. Write a mission statement. Don’t do this in a vacuum! Again, gather up a few experienced members and brainstorm some thoughts. The mission statement is a simple (one page or less) statement that states or defines what types of alarms you will respond to, be equipped and trained or prepared for. For example, your mission statement may be something like this: The Suburban Fire Department (SFD) will provide cost-effective fire protection and rescue services to the community of Suburbia. This will be accomplished by [spell out basic details.]

In the second part of the mission statement, go into detail regarding what specific types of calls you will train for, equip for, and respond to. Additionally, you may decide that the SFD will not respond to calls for swift water rescue because you are not trained or equipped for that response. You may also spell out what types of calls SFD will be the lead for and what calls you will be in a supporting role.

Although this sounds like a lot of useless paperwork to satisfy some bureaucrat in a state office, it actually defines your department and protects your members from going to a call for which they are unprepared (no training, no equipment) and trying to improvise and getting themselves hurt or killed. It also suggests funding requirements for training and equipment and helps to define your training plan.

After you have defined what you can and can’t do, the next step is to look for those agencies in and around your area that can. For example, is there a county-level hazmat team? If there is, you can meet with it to determine what resources it can provide to you during a hazmat call. More importantly, it can tell you what action you can and should be taking while awaiting its arrival. These actions will be within the SFD’s limits of training and equipment (especially in the case of a hazmat incident; there are many things the home department must do to begin to control the incident before the specialist team arrives.) Those tasks can and will be written into your mission statement (what SFD is going to do), and you can then build your annual training plan off that. I will cover an annual training plan based on your mission statement in future columns.

It is clear that you cannot be an expert in all or even most of the scenarios I mentioned at the top of this column. But what you can do is conduct a training session, maybe once a year or so, to just keep what I call critical information in your back pocket for these infrequent calls. We don’t have to be experts and solve the entire incident, but as suburban firefighters, you often have to start the process correctly, know when to call for help, and meld that assistance into your command and control system. This generally means that incoming units need a good briefing as to what sort of incident you have, what you are doing, and what you need from them. The National Incident Management System 201 form is an excellent tool for this and will be covered in another column.

Until next time, stay safe and take a few minutes to evaluate what calls you think are possible in your area. Look specifically at the most likely calls, the most dangerous calls, and those that can have the most impact (death and destruction). This simple process will help keep your members safe.

JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.