Big City Tactics for Small Town Fire Departments: Have a Plan!

Fire apparatus with hoselines

By Bob Fields

Many small departments often try to emulate their big city counterparts, such as the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), Chicago, Boston, etc. As we all know, big cities have one thing in abundance that their little brothers may not have: resources. Larger cities may have a seemingly unlimited reserve of apparatus, staffing, equipment, and so on, whereas Bugtussel, USA, can often be stretched short of resources on even the smallest of incidents.

Your department may not be able to copy exactly the way the FDNY operates, but you certainly can borrow ideas and adapt them in a way that would work for you. You will also find quite often what works for them doesn’t necessarily work for you, and what works for you could never work for them.


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One of the first things any successful organization must do is have a plan. It doesn’t matter if you are a fire department, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, or a taco stand. If you don’t have a plan for how you will operate your business, you will be set up for failure.

Having a plan in writing is important so that everyone knows what is expected and they have a guideline how to carry out business. The most common written plan in our business of firefighting is referred to as standard operating guidelines or procedures (SOGs/SOPs). Whatever you call them, having a guideline in writing will make your department more successful in carrying out your mission of saving lives.

Your SOGs/SOPs are general operating plans for every type of incident you may have. Start simple such as non-high-rise building fires, high-rise building fires, motor vehicle accidents, gas leaks, EMS calls, etc. Keeping them simple allows latitude to adjust and adapt/improvise your plan as the emergency scene dictates. It is important to make sure you do not try to make your plan fit the situation; don’t try and make the chaos of a building fire with people hanging out of windows fit your SOGs/SOPS.

Once you have a general idea what SOGs/SOPs you need in place, break them down to what your priorities and actions would be depending on what your staffing/resources are with the initial-arriving units. A common method is to give the initial-arriving units predetermined assignments. Predetermined assignments are crucial so that everyone knows their job prior to arrival on the scene rather than learning their job during a huddle as a building burns to the ground behind you.

For example, first-in units perform fire suppression (fire attack/water supply), second-in units perform truck work (ventilation, search, and rescue), third-in units perform secondary water supply and backup line, and so on. This includes any automatic or mutual aid departments you depend on to assist you; ensure your mutual aid departments know coming in what their assignments will be.

You can do this by using running cards. This term originated when companies were turned out on runs from fire alarm boxes on street corners. Every alarm box had a number assigned to it, in the firehouse there was an index of running cards of each box number and what companies were to respond on each alarm. Some departments even had the companies listed in the order due.

You can adapt this type of system to your department. On each alarm you can list each company, or station, and even automatic aid department due to respond. It is much easier for the incident commander (IC) to request a second alarm when it’s predetermined what that entails rather than trying to remember which neighboring department is closest to the incident and what type of equipment they have. This saves crucial time and affords the IC more opportunity to concentrate on the incident and ensures that with one quick radio call more help is on the way.

It would be impractical if not impossible to write down or even anticipate every conceivable curveball that could be thrown at you. That is why we call them guidelines; they provide a basic plan of action. Officers and members must be able to improvise and adapt as the situation dictates. You must allow the initial responding officers some latitude if some unforeseeable situation arises.

If your area has a special target hazard or unusual occupancy, it is a good idea to have a specific SOG/SOP in place for that location. You may need to have extra units respond on the initial alarm and/or have automatic aid with special apparatus and equipment. Life safety, hazardous materials, or even just the size of the building is always a factor when responding to these locations.

Along with predesignated company assignments, you need to have preassigned tasks for each member responding. These are commonly called riding assignments. In the St. Louis Fire Department, we have four-man engine and ladder companies (one captain and three firefighters). Everyone on the rig has a preassigned task regardless of order due. As a company officer, very rarely at a fire do I have to give specific assignments to my crew. Whatever seat they are in dictates their preassigned duties so they can get off the rig and go right to work. On occasion, there are curve balls thrown at us and I direct them accordingly.

The fire department I was on before St. Louis did not have the luxury of four-man companies. Our normal mode of operation was two-man engines backed up by a medic unit with firefighter/medics. If you have a similar situation, you can still operate as a four-man company. It will take some discipline, coordination, and training but combining these two entities as one company will allow you to operate like a big-city department.

For example, on the pumper you have the company officer who can perform his or her duties sizing up the scene, directing crew members, assisting putting the line in place, etc. Your driver handles apparatus placement, operating the pump, and making sure he has a positive water supply.

The medic unit assigned to that engine can have preassigned riding assignments as well. The driver could be the nozzleman, the firefighter/medic riding shotgun could be assigned as the hydrant/backup firefighter making the connection to the hydrant and assisting with stretching the attack line.

The same company could be assigned truck duties at a fire depending on what order they arrive on the scene. You can assign truck duties the same way you would for engine work. By having preassigned “riding assignments,” operations on incidents go more smoothly, saving valuable time for the company officer and IC allowing them to focus on more critical matters.

A crucial part of successfully implementing SOGs/SOPs is training. This includes training for any mutual/automatic aid departments you may have responding. It is vital to not only present training material in a classroom setting, but to perform hands-on evolutions as part of the training. It is far better to practice and determine what adjustments need to be made during training rather than write hundreds of pages of SOGs/SOPs only to find out on a real fire that someone neglected to consider the aerial ladder or its placement.

As the saying goes, “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Having a written plan is crucial for operational success. Most of the time you don’t even have to reinvent the wheel. A lot of departments have their SOGs/SOPs available online. There are several websites where you can find FDNY operational plans. They have everything from riding assignments to high-rise procedures for anyone to review. I have yet to find a department where plans are classified; they are usually more than willing to share them.

Having plans in place and training on them like the “big dogs” do is just one way to have a professional organization. Being professional is an attitude, not just a name on a patch.

Bob Fields has more than 26 years of experience as a career firefighter. He has spent 14 years with the St. Louis Fire Department in some of the busiest companies and is a captain on an engine company. The first 12 years of his career was spent with a small department with fewer than 60 personnel in Northwest Indiana. He also spent several years as a volunteer in a suburban and a very rural fire department.

Interview with Bob about the article


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