By David DeStefano

The modern fire company tends to spend most of its active time mitigating many high-frequency/low-impact incidents and routine duties. EMS and public service calls as well as the daily response to numerous alarm activations increase run totals, but how do they affect firefighter readiness?

With many engine and ladder companies responding out the door more times each year but encountering fire conditions only a fraction of the time, are we really expecting fire? Every firefighter knows when a dispatch is “hot:” additional companies may be automatically added on the initial alarm the dispatcher pushes out the run at a faster pace, or indicates numerous calls reporting a fire. But when a dispatch goes out for a frequent address or a seemingly routine alarm activation, will you be ready?

Each officer and firefighter must expect fire every day and every time out the door. This mindset will not only foster the highest state of readiness in quarters, it will help ensure carefully calculated fireground operations. Expecting fire begins with mental and physical preparation before “the bell.” It includes the little tasks in the firehouse that are not so little at 0300 in front of the fire building. What hydrants are out of service? Is my flashlight charged? Are my mask straps tangled and worn out?

But expecting fire involves more than just preplans and checking gear; it is the mindset that never allows you to be surprised when you enter the block or make the stairs and see smoke or flames. Firefighters who expect fire are ready to engage in their job until a thorough investigation allows them to think otherwise.

There are many aspects of our response that the philosophy of expecting fire may change for some of us. They are tactical issues that vary in complexity but will always be resolved more efficiently by a company that expects to find a fire on every run.

How do we locate, confine, and extinguish? We know that the preceding three goals are key to an effective operation at virtually all fires. Firefighters who expect fire always approach the building with their heads up, sizing up conditions as well as access and egress points. Identify building features that will aid efforts to confine the fire as they approach and make entry. Notice fire walls that penetrate the roof, the construction type of the building, and the type of occupancy. Always expecting a fire includes interviewing occupants evacuating as you enter, as well as reading the fire alarm control panel. Although civilians can’t be relied upon for an accurate report of conditions, they may shed some light on the origin of the alarm as well as the most expedient route through the building.

As a member of the first-in engine company, you will be tasked with stretching the initial attack line on the fire. When you expect fire on every alarm, your company will always plan for the most efficient route of travel for a hoseline to the reported fire. This may include noting the location of standpipes or whether hose can be stretched “up the well” in the stairs. Understanding distances in terms of hose lengths rather than feet on a ruler will help keep your company from coming up short on a long stretch. Expecting to find a fire when your company is operating beyond the reach of its preconnects is particularly important. These longer stretches may involve coordination with the driver/operator for an outside stretch using utility rope off a balcony, fire escape, or out a window. The main goal for the first-in engine always expecting fire involves knowing how firefighters will stretch in and attack with the initial hoseline. Too often, an engine company making an investigation will commit well beyond the reach of a preconnect without a plan to stretch a line to their location.

Does the hydrant work, and will it supply the required flow? The engine company responsible for water supply may be even more inclined to relax their stance if the first-in company has nothing showing and is investigating. However, if they are expecting that the investigating units will report a working fire at any time, the water supply company must ensure that the hydrant they have chosen is usable and flows water. They will not be able to gather this information from inside the apparatus. The members should dismount, check the condition of the hydrant, and open it to be sure it actually works. The officer must be confident that the hose layout is within the limits of his supply hose. Later-arriving companies should consider a secondary water supply. Large buildings or incidents where the primary pumper must relocate to operate may require a different hydrant be used. No later-arriving engine staged while an incident is investigated should pass their last available water supply in their direction of travel. Companies expecting fire will not line up in front of the building like a parade.

What about the truck? Truck companies arriving any time during the investigation phase of an incident should operate as though they will encounter fire. This involves positioning the rig either to a point of best advantage on a small building, where the roof and two sides are within the scrub area of the aerial device, or staging the rig in a neutral position at a very large building. In this way, the driver/operator may position based on radio reports from the interior. If two aerial devices will arrive within a reasonable period of time, the first may stage at side A and the second arriving on side C or as directed. The critical points to remember include spotting the rig for use even if there is no fire visible. Not only is this excellent practice at a variety of buildings, it ensures the aerial device will be usable if needed. The truck company must then begin investigating the incident alongside the engine company.

Expecting fire, truck members must always equip themselves for their function in the company and the likely scenarios in the structure. The usual assignment of halligan tools, flatheads, mauls, hooks, thermal imager, and at least one can (water extinguisher) may be beefed up to include a rabbit tool or hydra-ram or through-the-lock kit. Longer hooks for commercial or industrial occupancies, a mainline search rope, or a rotary saw for forcible entry may also be advisable for some occupancies. Members must be prepared to search, force entry, and vent as necessary when the fire is discovered. Returning to the rig for basic equipment may endanger the entire operation.

 Allowing a fire to take your company by surprise in not acceptable on the modern fireground. Although our mission has evolved to include a great variety of emergency and public service needs, the high-impact nature of firefighting allows little margin for error and complacency. Expect fire each time your rig rolls out the door!

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 [email protected].