The First-Due Engineer


The performance of the engineer, operator, chauffeur, driver, or whatever the position may be called in your department is crucial as far as success or failure on the fire scene. We are familiar with the sayings, “The first 10 minutes can make or break the first-due engine” and “What happens in the first 10 minutes at a scene dictates the outcome.” I am offering another fireground truism: No matter how well the firefighter stretches the line, if the engineer can’t get the line charged in a timely manner, the fire is not going to go well!

I am an engineer for our department, assigned to a very busy engine company. It is a promoted position, and I take it very seriously. This position, like all positions in the fire service, comes with a great deal of responsibility. The driver sets the tone for the call. If the driver rushes to the truck or drives fast to the call, the entire crew tends to do the same. The adrenaline builds to the point where we may perform an unsafe act on scene or miss something we would otherwise not have missed. The following is a list of duties and responsibilities the holder of this position, from the rookie driver to the senior engineer, should do at every tour.

AT THE STATION Morning Engine Checkout

You must thoroughly check the rig every morning. Just because the driver being relieved did it yesterday or reported that everything is accounted for and operational doesn’t mean that it is so. It is the engineer’s responsibility to make sure all is well. It is easy to blame the other driver or the “probationary” firefighter, but, again, it is the driver/engineer’s job. The job includes checking all fluids, looking for leaks, running the pump up to pressure, checking the foam system, ensuring that the ladder rack is operational, running ALL tools, making sure all the lights are working, and taking a thorough inventory of the rig every shift. This will ensure that you can count on a saw or ventilation fan when you need it at an incident.

Become Familiar with Your First- and Second-Due Territories

Sure, the officer has a map book, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to know where you are going! In our department, many of the company officers use an electronic notebook. However, the driver should at least know in which direction to start when the tones go off. The officer has enough to worry about. He may be a new officer or have a rookie firefighter to look after. A good driver will know the primary routes to different parts of the response area, have a good understanding of the area’s water supply capabilities and limitations, know hydrant locations, and be familiar with hydrant marking systems (for use at night). The engineer should also have an understanding of the occupancy types, the challenges posed by narrow streets and complexes with limited access, and hazardous occupancies in the response area. Our engine company runs between 15 and 20 calls (or more) per shift. We drive all over our zone every day. Not only are we doing some good public relations for the community, but driving the district also benefits the entire crew.

Drive Safely and Buckle Up

This probably should have been Number 1. This is extremely important. The officer has an obligation to make sure his entire crew goes home safe at the end of the shift. SO DOES THE DRIVER! Apparatus accidents to and from incidents are among the leading causes of death in the fire service today. Pay attention to your speed, road conditions, and traffic. Watch for other emergency vehicles. Yes, every second counts, but if you don’t get there at all, whom are you helping? When you slow down the rig, the entire crew slows down and is less prone to making a mistake on scene or getting hurt. Make sure everyone is buckled and in their seat. I would be lying if I said I buckled up every time I rode “backward”; too often, we get complacent and take the unnecessary risk of not wearing a seat belt.

ON THE FIREGROUND Slow Down on the Incident Street

As you approach the scene, slow down and look for what I call the “Three Hs”: hazards, hydrants, and hindering obstacles. By slowing down, the driver allows the officer to perform a good size-up and recognize what resources will be needed on scene. As a driver, you can notice immediate hazards that will prohibit you from doing your job (such as propane tanks, power lines, hazardous materials, and signs of potential collapse). Driving a bit more slowly near the incident ensures that you will find the closest hydrant for a water supply. If you are the second-due engine and need to obtain water for the first-due engine, the driver can make the decision whether to do a forward or reverse lay to the hydrant. Look for any hindering obstacles in your company’s path such as vehicles blocking a hydrant or obstacles blocking the initial hose stretch.

Apparatus Placement

Spot the apparatus appropriately. If you are pulling up to a residential structure, drive past the fire building so you and your officer can get a view of three sides. You may not have this option if it is a commercial structure. A mistake inexperienced drivers often make is to pull the engine directly in front of the building. This area is for the ladder or truck company. Obviously, there are times the aerial unit will position at the corner of the structure, depending on the building. However, for most of our bread-and-butter residential fires, the area directly in front of the burning building is for the aerial apparatus. The other rule to keep in mind is not to park the rig in the collapse zone-the rule of thumb is to establish a collapse zone of 1.5 times the height of the building.

Put the Pump in Gear, and SLOW Down

If you are a new driver, don’t forget to put the pump in gear before exiting the apparatus! Remember these steps to get the truck in pump gear: Slow down, take a deep breath, and don’t get tunnel vision. It’s great if you can spot your rig on a close hydrant. In driver training, we practice this until we can do it in our sleep. However, in reality, once we park and are in pump mode, we are not moving the rig. The second due-engine company gets the water supply in our department or assists the first-due engineer if the hydrant is close to the apparatus. Engage the pump, open the tank to pump valve, and operate the primer pump to ensure the pump is primed so you are ready to charge lines when called for. Water supply is everything; without one, we are doomed to fail from the start.

The Right Line for the Right Job

The typical bread-and-butter house fire can usually be extinguished with a 1¾-inch line. But, there is another saying in our line of work: “Big fire, big water,” meaning if we pull up on a commercial structure, we should be thinking about pulling the 2½-inch preconnect, not the 1¾-inch line, at least initially. There are multiple theories on what works best for a given fire. Your department’s standing operating procedures will dictate your actions. Our department uses smooth bore nozzles as the primary choice for structure fires. We use fog nozzles for dumpster fires, vehicle fires, and hazardous materials calls. Realize that each incident is different. The guidelines discussed here are just that-guidelines that you may have to change based on what you have on arrival.

Set Pressures, and Watch the Gauges

Know the required operating pressures for the size and the length of the hose stretch and nozzles you are using. Know your intake pressure, discharge pressure, and hydrant pressure. In addition, it is the engineer’s responsibility to monitor oil levels, transmission fluid, foam levels, and any other fluids associated with the rig. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to calculate the correct pressure for the lines in operation, but a good engineer should have a fundamental understanding of hydraulics and how to troubleshoot should issues arise on the fireground.

Water Supply

Every department is different when it comes to water supply. In our department, the second-due grabs a water supply if the first engine is too far to hand-lay to a hydrant. At high-rise operations, the third-due engine catches the plug. Other departments require their first-due engine to lay its own supply line. For some, the forward lay is standard. For others, the reverse lay is the best practice. Regardless, securing a water supply directly affects the outcome of the fire. Earlier in this article, we mentioned driving around your response area. This practice is also beneficial to understand where hydrants are located, water main sizes, and hydrants that are out of service. As the driver/operator, it is one of your primary responsibilities to secure a water supply as quickly as possible. The lives of the interior firefighters depend on it!

Be Proactive, Not Reactive, on the Fireground

Anticipate what the officer and your crew will need before they ask for it. This includes incoming units that will most likely pull tools off your truck. Pull a second (backup) line or an exposure line. Throw a roof (14 to 16 feet typically) or a 24-foot ladder as a second means of egress. Have a staging area for hand tools, hooks, salvage covers, ventilation fans, and lights somewhere close to the front of the building but out of the way of operations. This is not considered “freelancing” on scene. This is being comfortable with your job as an engineer and motivated to think like the officer in command. I would recommend staying within a comfortable distance of the pump panel in the event the water supply is lost or you need to troubleshoot a problem that might arise. The common practice in our department is to have the first-due engineer pump the fire and the second- or third-due engineer assist the first-due engineer with all the other tasks mentioned above. It is a team effort and works like a well-oiled machine when implemented on scene.

Return the Apparatus to a State of Readiness

After a busy incident, it is equally important to make sure everything that was taken off your truck is returned. Although we train to let the engineer know when we are taking a tool off the truck, many times firefighters take equipment off your rig without letting you know. Before leaving the scene, make sure appliances are secure, hooks and forcible entry tools are returned to their proper places, and self-contained breathing apparatus bottles are topped off with air, ready for the next run. Fill your booster tank before returning to service. Cleaning equipment and hose is a good practice but can be done back at the firehouse. Get that engine or truck ready to respond to another incident as soon as possible. A good, complete walk-around will help ensure all the equipment has been returned to the rig and is properly secured in its place.


Much of what a driver/engineer has to do must be done in the first 10 minutes of an incident. This job is as important as anyone else’s job on the fireground. Train, train, train. Practice spotting hydrants. Practice field hydraulics. Talk with your company about what they expect of you and what you expect of them.

MARK ROSSI, a 12-year veteran of the fire service, is a driver/engineer on Engine 46 in the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Department, where he has served for the past seven years. He is an LFTI, fire instructor III, and EMS instructor for a local college. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in business from the University of Florida. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education leadership.

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