The Qualities of an Effective Engineer-Driver


The engineer is one of the most important positions in the fire service. In some departments, it is a promotional rank. In others, like mine, firefighters are cross-trained to drive, to increase flexibility and help reduce staffing problems. Titles of the positions may be different in departments. They may include “engineer,” “driver/operator,” “driver,” “firefighter/engineer,” “apparatus operator,” and simply “firefighter” (the senior firefighter is rotated into the position for the day). Regardless of whether the position of engineer is a promoted rank or what the name of the position is for that critical role, the individual filling the engineer role should be qualified for the duties and responsibilities of that job and, more importantly, also have an extreme sense of situational awareness and regard for safety.


In no specific order, I have put together the top 10 characteristics of the profile of an effective engineer. The most important rule for engineers to remember is that the safety of their personnel, themselves, other responders, and the public should be at the top of their list when behind the wheel.

1 Slow down. Your personnel deserve a round-trip ticket every time they go to work. Before you drive anywhere, ensure that your personnel are seat belted. Don’t move the apparatus until they are. Dismiss the concerns and complaints you will receive from the folks riding in the rear jumpseat area, such as, “I have to put my gear on en route to the call, so I’m ready to go to work.” Yes, we want you to be ready to work as soon as you jump out of the apparatus. If you can’t get the gear on prior to sitting in your seat and applying your seat belt, guess what? You’ll have to put it on when you arrive. I’ll bet you’ll then learn to put it on quickly before the rig leaves or at least very quickly once you arrive.

2 If you don’t make it to the call because of getting into an accident, nobody wins.Too many times I see firefighters disregarding the speed law and actually driving in a more dangerous Code 3 (lights and siren) mode as opposed to Code 2. If you don’t come to a complete stop at red lights and stop signs or even uncontrolled intersections, you run the risk of not being able to avoid an accident. Keep in mind your safety and the safety of your personnel, other responders, and the public. As soon as you get into an accident (it doesn’t matter how small or how big), you have to pull over and check on your personnel and whoever you hit. If there are injuries, you will have to call additional fire apparatus and ambulances to assist you.

Don’t forget! You still have a call to respond to, but you cannot do so now. You cannot leave the scene of an accident. So, instead of arriving at the scene of a call for a baby who is not breathing within our goal of five to seven minutes (every department has a different time standard), you will be delayed at least another five (or more) minutes, depending on the locations from where the next available units are responding. For firefighters who think it is acceptable to go faster for a baby’s not breathing: Don’t discriminate; treat people the same when you respond to their calls for assistance; and keep in mind that any chance you may have had to save that baby is now out the window because of your negligence behind the wheel.

Oh, by the way, when you get into an accident, you must also contact your supervisor (typically the battalion chief), to respond to the scene and take pictures. You also need to contact the law enforcement agency with traffic investigative authority to take a report.

There is also a considerable amount of paperwork to complete. Even worse, you will have a lot of explaining to do to your supervisor afterward, especially if anybody was injured or there was property damage. Last, if you damaged your apparatus beyond the point of a quick fix at your shop, you’ll probably be stuck in a reserve rig that is 20-plus years old and definitely without the creature comforts of your newest apparatus.

One of the most commonly heard counterarguments is, “If I take the time to stop at red lights and stop signs and uncontrolled intersections, our response times are going to increase.” Yes, they probably will, but what is more important, your response times or the safety of your personnel and the public you serve and protect? Also, many studies have shown Code 3 driving typically does not save that much time in the grand scheme of things.

3 Know your assigned apparatus inside and out.Know its specifications—height, weight, pump size, fuel tank capacity, water tank capacity, width, and so on—so well that those specifications can be offered quickly if someone should ask. When you are driving a rig for the first time and have to go under a bridge with a height limit of 10 feet, 0 inches, you shouldn’t have to frantically ask your captain, “Will it fit?” That is not your captain’s job. It is something you should have known prior to getting behind the wheel. Be able to operate the apparatus in the dark and blindfolded. If you can do that, you’ll be in the top 10 percent of all drivers out there and when the situation gets ugly, you’ll be able to get yourself and your crew through the ugly situation instead of panicking or having a meltdown, increasing the risk of damage or injury.

4 Know as much as you can about each tool or piece of equipment carried on each apparatus at the station and within your department.Also, don’t forget the specifications and capabilities of all tools and equipment: what each is used for, how to use it, which tools or equipment items can be used in lieu of another (in case the preferred tool cannot be located, is already being used, or may not work just right). With the availability of the Internet and fire station libraries, there is no excuse for not knowing the necessary specifications and capabilities of any tool or piece of equipment carried on today’s fire apparatus. Virtually every power tool has an alternative hand tool that can be used if the power tool will not work or is not available. For example, if the chain saw is unavailable to cut a hole in the roof, a pickhead ax is available. Just because you are not assigned to another piece of apparatus does not mean you may not ever have to work on that apparatus. Train with that piece of apparatus; you may find yourself on that piece of apparatus on an emergency response one day.

5 Mentor your junior personnel, whether or not they desire to promote to engineer or drive a fire apparatus. All of us in the fire service need to know at least one job below and above our rank, in case we have to step in suddenly to solve a problem or get a task done. Take every opportunity of free time to explain to your personnel basic pump and driving operations. The better they can help you out, the better they will know their job, especially if they see how they fit into the big picture. On occasion, as a captain or a battalion chief, I have had to go to the pump panel to suddenly decrease or increase the pressure, assist with hooking up an additional hoseline, or assist with troubleshooting a problem.

6 Know how to troubleshoot any possible problem that may arise. Challenge yourself to be the best you can be and be able to troubleshoot any possible issue that may arise while on the scene of an emergency incident. Typical issues that may arise include insufficient pressure or water supply, sudden loss of pressure or water supply, incorrect coupling sizes, insufficient length or diameter of hoses available, and lack of necessary equipment. It’s not the problem that counts but how you recover from the problem.

As an engineer, your most important task is to ensure your crew members get home safely and your apparatus is not involved in an accident. Another important task is to ensure the personnel inside the structure fighting the fire have a continuous water supply and all of the necessary tools and equipment needed to safely and effectively perform their job.

7 Understand that being an engineer does not mean you just “hook up and look up.”As the engineer, your job is not complete once you park the apparatus in front of the fire; assist the nozzle person with stretching out the hose and obtaining a continuous water supply. The work is just beginning. Since the first-arriving engine is typically the primary pumping engine, it is also the one we typically take all of the tools and equipment from, leaving the other apparatus in an almost untouched condition. Let’s say you arrive at the scene of a single-story, single-family residence to what appears to be a room-and-contents fire. After you obtain a continuous water supply and have assisted your crew with getting the first line stretched, here are some other things you should consider doing:

  • Stretch the dry, backup hoseline to the front door, awaiting the next crew to arrive. When the next crew arrives for the backup hoseline, point them to the hose and tell them to let you know when to charge it. Whether or not the next hoseline needs to be the backup line doesn’t matter. By placing it at the front door, it is maneuverable and can be deployed almost anywhere.
  • Depending on the size of the fire, consider stretching a dry, third hoseline that would be ready to be stretched and charged at a moment’s notice.
  • Start creating a rapid intervention crew (RIC) tool cache, which can be supplemented by the RIC on its arrival and assignment. Get the salvage cover out, and start deploying equipment.
  • Place your roof or extension ladder (most can be handled and placed by one person) to the roof, so there are two ladders in place for the crew that may be assigned to go to the roof.
  • Start placing on the ground tools you anticipate other crews (or your own) may need, such as ventilation fans, salvage covers, chain saws, and spare SCBA bottles.
  • If it is dark, start setting up portable lights to make the scene safe and well lit.
  • As soon as something is removed from your apparatus, make sure you track it so when it is time to clean up, the crews know from which rig the item came. A good technique is to use a grease pencil and write on the side of your apparatus. Grease pencils can be cleaned with minimal effort and typically do not leave permanent markings.
  • Some may think that engineers should not undertake such tasks until directed to do so by their officers. I believe we should start empowering our personnel to be critical thinkers and to allow them to make decisions based on the situation at hand. The last thing I want to hear is, “You never told me to do that.” There may be some validity to this statement, but I hope we don’t micromanage our personnel so much that they cannot think on their own and determine if it is appropriate to do the above items based on the situation.

8 Physically do your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) daily pretrip inspection on your assigned apparatus. I have seen more times than I want to admit engineers who do not do the complete, daily DMV pretrip inspection. Typical things I have seen neglected include testing the air brakes, checking the slack adjusters, and checking the rear lights and turn signals. Why do these things get neglected? Probably because they typically take two people to perform: one to stay in the cab and the other to be outside signaling the outcome. If the DMV requires something to be done every day, then by all means do it. It’s the law!

Do not be lazy; your crew, your family, your department, and the public we serve deserve the best and should not have to settle for laziness or complacency. I have heard stories where the DMV inspectors have knocked on the door of the fire station and asked to see the assigned engineer. Once they located the assigned engineer, they then asked him to perform some of these tasks to confirm that the firefighter was competent to be the engineer.

In these situations, the outcomes were not favorable. The engineers could not perform those “seldom-used skills,” such as checking the air brakes or the slack adjusters, probably because they did not do them every day. Having this happen can make your day turn sour, especially after all of the paperwork and explaining you may have to do to your supervisor, as well as the department senior staff—not to mention any potential problems with the DMV for not being able to perform your job competently. Failing such a spot test also puts your department at risk for losing its ability to sign off and qualify its personnel as engineers. And there is the issue of not being able to drive if the engineer’s license is suspended.

9 Know your first-due area inside and out.Every engineer needs to be extremely familiar with his first-due response area and the neighboring first-due response areas. The smaller your department, the more you should know. Items you need to be intimately familiar with include the names and locations of all the streets; the address breakdowns (which way the numbers increase and decrease, on which side of the street are north/south/east/west addresses, where the streets begin, and so on); names, locations, and characteristics of all target hazards; water supply limitations and capabilities; locations of fire department connections on buildings; and anything unique, challenging, or necessary to allow you to better perform your job during the worst of conditions.

10 Take pride in your assigned (and reserve) apparatus.Ensure it is always cleaned, especially during inclement weather. If it is raining, you may not want to wash it. However, every time you return from being away from the fire station, before you put your apparatus back into the fire station, hose off any dirt that may have accumulated, especially in the wheel wells. If it is not raining, don’t let it go more than a few days in between washing your apparatus. Before you go to sleep for the night, take the time to wipe it down with a chamois (don’t use the chamois on the windows; use a glass cleaner), and put a rubber cleaner on the tires, to make the apparatus look sparkling clean for the oncoming crew. When wiping down the apparatus, wipe down the interior seating area, too; dust and dirt can easily accumulate.


No one said it is easy being an efficient engineer. If you follow the above recommendations, you will honestly be able to say you are doing your job well. The public (our bosses) deserves the best; let’s not just give them lip service.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a 15-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (Los Gatos, CA) Fire Department. He is also an adjunct faculty member of the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes for more than 14 years. He is the past president and an executive board member of the Northern California Training Officers Association. He is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, and master instructor. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a master’s degree in emergency services administration and is participating in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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