From The Jumpseat: Know The Tools To Do Your Job

It was at one of those particularly hectic MVCs: multiple victims, extrication required, and numerous units on scene. Our officer pondered the situation, directed other firefighters to place a protective hoseline and stabilization blocks, then turned and asked me to get some item that I’d never heard of from the rescue unit. My options were to go save face and look for it, guaranteeing a significant delay, asking someone else (the apparatus driver was visible, but engaged in his own responsibilities, powering up the generator and hydraulic tools), or admitting my ignorance outright, which is what I did. The officer quickly described the item required, and its location, allowing me to continue with my assignment and incurring a minimal delay.

Still, the embarrassment of nearly failing such a simple task set me to reviewing the location of all of the tools, on all of the apparatus in our station. My usual assignment is on one of our two engines, and I have thoroughly memorized equipment locations and operations on those pieces, learning even the subtle differences between the similar appearing units. In addition, we run a heavy rescue, quint, brush unit, ambulances, and a boat out of the same firehouse. At one time or another, I have been tasked with obtaining equipment from each of them.

Emergency incident scenes can be the setting for the ultimate in scavenger hunts. At a car wreck on some darkened roadway, beside a burning building, or at the entrance to a smoke-filled factory, you can be tasked with returning to your rig to retrieve the smallest, yet most vital, item for mitigating the hazard at hand. Will you know where to find it? If you can, will you know what to do with it? I have been at emergency scenes when a firefighter was ordered to perform a task, only to respond with an, “I’ve never trained on that,” excuse, leaving the assignment to be performed by someone else, or not performed at all. Though it might be an accurate statement that reflects a training shortfall on the part of both the firefighter and department, it is critical to avoid the need to utter it, and the complications and delays it brings.

Having been a member of multiple departments, I realize the difficulty of learning the locations of every item on an emergency vehicle is complicated by the need to “unlearn” the same information from my previous station. The dynamic state of many apparatus compartments can make it even more difficult to keep track of everything as the department purchases new equipment, temporarily removes malfunctioning equipment, or revolving shifts move equipment around. Still, there is a self-guided orientation process that I have practiced over the years, and which has served me well.

First, recognize that knowing your job is your job. Training and company officers have a significant role in this regard, and the better ones will bring you a long way toward reaching your full potential as a firefighter, but competency is also a personal responsibility. Firefighting is a craft that requires a great deal of both study and practice in order to reach a level of proficiency, and you must be willing to invest time in each. In addition to attending drills and other required training programs, you need to continually strive to identify, and fill in, your knowledge gaps. It’s up to the individual firefighter to pay attention to those doubts and questions that arise during certain situations or incidents in which their skill levels are not up to par with other company members – listening to those gut feelings that say “I need to ask about/look up/study that after this is over.” They alert us to our “teachable moments”, and must not be ignored.

Next, be your own instructor. Have frequent lessons (go over the apparatus every chance you can, using a senior member for help when available, but doing so alone if necessary), test yourself by asking what is in a compartment before you open it, eventually reviewing in your mind the location of each item in each compartment even when you are not in the station. Challenge yourself. As you begin to remember where everything is kept, learn how to inspect/clean/maintain/operate every different item, and progress to other apparatus. Finally, review everything you’ve learned often.

Finally, integrate your skills at finding and operating a tool or appliance with the different tasks you might be called upon to perform. In addition to participating in drills where different scenarios are played out, there is a wealth of other techniques available to rehearse your performance. These include reviewing your departmental SOPs regarding riding and company assignments, sitting in on incident critiques, reading descriptions of significant events in fire and emergency service publications, or even listening to “war stories” about previous calls your department has handled; and developing your own incident scenarios, based upon your response area and hazards. For each of these situations, real or theoretical, imagine what your own role would have been in those settings, what tools you would need, and how you would have performed the tasks required. Such strategy sessions can pay great dividends when you are confronted with actual demands at emergency scenes, even when they differ from the ones practiced (and they almost always do).

While firefighting is a craft, even the master must remain an apprentice. The tools, hazards, procedures, and people are constantly changing, requiring firefighters to work hard to keep up. Continuous learning is the key.

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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