From The Jumpseat: Everything in its Place

By Mark Cotter

Hide-and-seek is not a game when lives are at stake. The average engine or truck probably carries at least a hundred different items in several dozen compartments or locations. On rescue vehicles, you can easily double those numbers. At an emergency scene, trying to find that one item needed to resolve the chaos at hand is no fun, especially when it seems that the entire assembly of victims, emergency workers, and bystanders is counting on and watching you.

Our emergency vehicles are typically the motorized equivalent of “10 pounds of ‘stuff’ in a five-pound bag.” This is understandable, because although space on apparatus is limited, the number of possible tools we can attempt to carry is virtually infinite. Simply put, it’s easier to accumulate new things than it is to find places to put them. Some tradeoffs are a necessity.

Also, although the natural life span of an apparatus is several decades, new tools are developed constantly, creating a natural mismatch of space versus contents. In my career, the initials LDH, TIC, and AED represent but a few of the pieces of equipment for which storage had to be found on vehicles that had been designed and constructed without those items in mind. This leads us to the problem at hand: How do we store all of our stuff in the limited space available so that we can also find it quickly?

The ability to locate, if not operate, each piece of equipment on assigned apparatus is a basic skill required of all firefighters. (See “From the Jumpseat Know Your Job”). Except for using the tradition of using the game of “stump the rookie” as a teaching tool, making attaining such mastery unnecessarily difficult serves no purpose. An ideal strategy maximizes both storage capacity and the ease of locating specific items.

As sensible as this sounds, obtaining buy-in on the need for logical equipment storage process can be difficult. Veterans who might have worked with a particular vehicle for years can easily forget the difficulty involved in learning the contents of every nook and cranny of their apparatus. Also, every company or shift has at least one member who knows where every single item on an apparatus is located and can also tell you when that item was purchased and why. Unfortunately, this expert is usually not standing next to you in the midst of some crisis when you are frantically searching for that one thing that has been stashed behind all of those other things.

I have been involved with fire departments where the location of some tools was changed with almost every shift. As the new crew came in, they routinely removed, replaced, or rearranged multiple items on their apparatus. They took pride in their careful placement of each of their tools and were able to explain at length the rationale for their actions. In contrast, they were equally disdainful of the crew they relieved, which obviously lacked insight into the importance of ideal gear placement, at least as far as those currently on duty were concerned.

Silly as this was, such actions were accepted by the other shifts as a fact of life, and most merely moved the equipment back to their favorite locations on returning to duty. Even more amazing was that the department’s management tolerated this pettiness (disguised as “preparation”) for far too long. When it comes to tool and equipment storage, consistency is a necessity. Any time lost searching for an item is time taken away from resolving an incident, and time is one item of which we do not have a surplus.

The opposite approach–standardizing equipment storage–has its own pitfalls. I have never worked in a department that had all identical apparatus, even large cities that purchased dozens of pieces at one time and had vehicles built to their own detailed specifications. Maybe a different brand was the low bidder one year, or chassis types were discontinued, or trying a new apparatus configuration was thought to be more important than continued uniformity. My own company’s engines, put into service just last year, were the product of an exhaustive design process involving a cross-section of department personnel. Since then, however, that model has been discontinued, never to be duplicated.

Even with a variety of different brands and configurations of vehicles, gear storage can be standardized to a great extent with the use of zones, with similar items stored in similar areas on all apparatus. Already, virtually every engine is configured with the engineer’s tools (mallet, adaptors, and so forth) adjacent to the pump panel. Extending that theme–placing all items close to where they will be needed and the person who will use them–is a logical next step. (See “From the Jumpseat: The Well-Equipped Jumpseat”). A similar approach would be storing ventilation fans in the same quadrant, say driver’s side rear, of every engine in the department.

One elegant example of logical and functional gear placement is the policy of keeping all tools required for automobile extrication on one side of the vehicle. In addition to the efficiency of locating related equipment, it improves personnel safety on roadway incidents. Merely parking the apparatus angled away from the side where the tools are stored protects the scene and operating personnel from passing traffic by placing a substantial roadblock (a multi-ton truck) in the way.

Another consideration is ergonomics. For instance, if something is heavy, it probably should not be stored on top of apparatus, at least not without making some accommodation to facilitate access to and movement of the item without the danger of injuring a firefighter (e.g., a ladder to allow personnel to reach the item and a hoist to lower it down).

(In the midst of writing this column, I took a break to attend a nearby fire convention. There, seemingly for my personal amusement, an apparatus manufacturer displayed a storage bin designed to be is carried on top of the apparatus that is mechanically lowered to the ground for easy emptying and filling, without requiring a trip topside. Maybe if I wish for a map program that always calculates the best route to a fire scene that also passes by the nearest hydrant…)

After all of this careful preparation, there will come a time when something–maybe even everything–needs to be moved. Perhaps a new model widget is purchased and it won’t fit where the old one was stored, or perhaps the new apparatus has a different arrangement and sizes of compartments, as they almost always do. Even simple modifications of equipment locations can initiate a domino effect, leading to the displacement of yet other items. Rearranging equipment locations without negating all previous successes requires detailed planning, preparation, and education.

Too often, the placement of equipment is given little, if any, thought, resulting in chaos and confusion. Remember, everyone needs to be able to find every item as quickly as possible under the worst of circumstances (i.e., stress, darkness, fatigue). Make every operation more efficient by carefully deciding where to place equipment, ensuring items stay where they belong, and keeping everyone informed of locations and changes.

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

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