Matt Machala and Michael Wilbur: Positioning Apparatus for Success

By Matt Machala and Michael Wilbur

Time and time again, we witness poor apparatus positioning on the fireground. The by-products and repercussions of poor apparatus placement and positioning can vary from the relatively benign to potentially deadly. Offending or upsetting the driver/operator of another piece of apparatus is likely not going to carry over beyond the incident; however, a potential deadly by-product such as placing your aerial device short of making a rescue can carry over in a big way. Certainly, not everything about apparatus positioning is life or death, but it plays a major role in your everyday level of efficiency and effectiveness as a department, company, and firefighter. Aside from personnel, a department’s complement of apparatus is one of the biggest monetary investments. Investing millions of dollars in apparatus and equipment will only go so far if personnel are not properly trained to make the apparatus work for them. All of the best apparatus and equipment money can buy is only as effective as the firefighters riding it out the door. This article discusses the elements of structural fire response that relate to apparatus positioning and placement. When you arrive on the scene, first and foremost, you must position your apparatus. Notice we said position, not park! Many driver/operators settle for mediocrity and are okay with being a “parker” rather than tactically positioning their apparatus to enhance their capabilities as a crew and effectiveness of other incoming apparatus.

Building Blocks of Effectiveness

Ensuring that apparatus positioning and placement are emphasized in all facets of your department’s training program is the first step in making your apparatus work for you. Mastering the art of positioning and placement starts with understanding the vehicle you are responsible for driving, operating, or riding. From an organized and structured training program for driver/operators to a program for teaching new firefighters the basics of their vehicle’s operational footprint and setup procedures, all are paramount to developing good positioning and placement habits and skills.

Many departments begin and end training on the apparatus itself with the drivers and operators. Oftentimes, the newer, inexperienced firefighters are the most eager to learn about the apparatus and its capabilities and operation. Just because the newer firefighters will not be in the driver’s seat right away does not mean they cannot and should not be a part of the training process. Do not underestimate the entire crew’s role in positioning the apparatus, as they will benefit or suffer from the success or shortcomings of its position as they carry out their individual tasks to complete the department’s tactical objectives that will ultimately lead to a successful operation. Success does not happen by accident.

Setting the Stage

Skilled and successful driver/operators are thinking about positioning from the moment an incident is dispatched. Through training and experience, thinking about things such as direction of travel and other apparatus responding with you while en route becomes second nature. The mantra has been around for years, “The first two minutes dictates the next two hours.” This or some variation of the same is repeated and drilled in firehouses everywhere and almost always holds true to some degree. Positioning apparatus is the first thing that occurs when arriving on the fireground, setting the stage for everything that will be done from that point on.

As the first-arriving piece of apparatus on an incident, you have an empty stage, and it is your responsibility to set that stage for the “next two hours,” not just the “next two minutes.” It is easy to get tunnel vision as a driver/operator, especially on working incidents, when you want to stop apparatus so the crew can get off and get to work right away. So much is happening as you approach a dynamic and changing scene that it is important to take in the big picture, not just your corner or piece of “the stage.” For later-arriving apparatus, the game is much the same. While “the stage” has likely already been set for you many times, refusing to settle for a mediocre role is the mindset the later-arriving driver/operator must take to get his apparatus into an effective position.

Performance Evaluation

The term “performance evaluation” is scary to most firefighters. Known as being Type A personalities, we never want to admit defeat or inadequacy at any level. There should be a constant desire to be the best and perform at 100 percent all of the time with no excuses. A thorough performance evaluation at the conclusion of an operation is not to degrade or demean anyone’s performance or posture but to make us better at our craft.

When evaluating how apparatus was used at the conclusion of an incident, look at the example of “the stage” set when you arrived on the scene. Imagine that you could take an overhead picture of the entire incident at its conclusion with all of the parts and players in position and critically and constructively evaluating how the operation went based on apparatus placement. Could apparatus have been placed more effectively to better accomplish all of the tactical objectives? Was there something that went well specifically because of apparatus positioning? Conversely, was there something that went poorly and could have been improved by altering apparatus positioning or placement? Take these performance evaluations, and learn from them. Do this not only for working incidents but anytime apparatus is positioned and used. It is quite possible that you will end up at the same building or in the same neighborhood again at some point in your career.

Something for Everyone

As with most topics in the fire service, apparatus positioning has no one-size-fits-all answer for every department. From the smallest rural towns to the largest urban cities and every department in between, how apparatus is used plays a direct role in the successful outcome of incidents. It is imperative for every department to choose methods and best practices that suit their needs to accomplish the tactical objectives set forth at the outset of an incident. When making decisions regarding your apparatus and how the different apparatus that respond are going to work together, make sure those decisions are  the right ones for your department.


Matt Machala is an assistant chief with the College Park (MD) Volunteer Fire Department and a firefighter with Montgomery County (MD) Fire Rescue. He has been in the fire service for 10-plus years in career and volunteer departments and has been a driver/operator of a wide array of engine and aerial apparatus.

Michael Wilbur has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 39 years and a 31-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) from which he retired as a lieutenant from Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx. Previously, he served on Ladder Company 56 and on the FDNY apparatus purchasing committee. He guided the FDNY chauffeurs school through state certification. He has been published in fire service publications and served on the International Fire Service Training Association validation committees for the apparatus operator and aerial operator manuals and on the U.S. Fire Administration committees on Safe Operation of Fire Tankers and Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative. He is nationally recognized in the areas of emergency vehicle operations, apparatus placement, and apparatus purchasing