On the Line: Waiting for the Big One

Article and photos by David DeStefano

As firefighters we spend much time, training, and preplanning in anticipation of “the big one”: a fire involving one of the most prominent target hazards or an incident of epic proportions based on some great potential in our district. These potential incidents must be discussed, planned for, and trained on. They are the high-impact, low-occurrence scenarios that give us all pause when we think of the potential risk to firefighters, civilians, and the stability of the community.

But while we are planning for the large-impact incidents that, fortunately, happen only sporadically during our careers, we must remember to plan for the hazards we face on the job each day that may be just as dangerous on a smaller scale. We respond to a myriad of incidents daily that can challenge our abilities and potentially injure or kill us if we are not prepared.

Do you know all you can about your district? You should not routinely be caught off guard in the first-due area when it comes to construction, demolition, or renovation of occupancies. What are the most common security devices used to deny entry in your response area? How prepared are you to quickly defeat them? There may be streets with tight access during the night because of resident parking or thoroughfares you should avoid during the morning and evening commute. If your response area includes limited-access highways, where are strategic on- and off-ramps located? Firefighters must know the locations of any service turnarounds on the highway between off ramps. Water supply on limited-access highways is often difficult. If you need more water than you carry onboard, where will your supply come from, and how long will it take to get it established?

Whether on a highway, a road in a commercial zone, or a residential street, firefighters operate around traffic daily. We must be vigilant about traffic safety, even at the smallest of incidents. Wearing reflective vests, properly using warning and scene lights, and positioning of apparatus as blockers to protect the scene are issues usually outlined in department guidelines. However, it takes firefighters proficient in these tasks–and company officers who supervise them–to be sure these measures are taken every time. When placing the apparatus at every incident, the driver/operator should be parking to protect the members exiting the rig.

As we investigate incidents and prepare to operate, each member must be equipped with tools appropriate for his assignment. The time to think about using the thermal imager or marrying the halligan and flathead ax is not when you are masking up on the fire floor. Likewise, the personal hardware each firefighter carries should be carefully selected to offer the most options while occupying the least space and weight.

It is important that we remain proficient in basic firefighting skills. Drills designed to increase company effectiveness and teamwork by training together on basic skills will show their worth at every incident. Practicing company operations with outside stretches, standpipe operations, foam application, as well as raising ladders and operating saws, will allow members to try new ways to accomplish objectives.

The lesson to be learned is that as firefighters we need to be prepared for every incident. We also must never forget that “routine” incidents that have the potential to end our careers if we are not properly prepared and in the correct frame of mind for the job occur each day.  

(1) Renovations may limit access and increase hazards at occupancies in your district. Projects like this should not catch the first-arriving units by surprise.

(2) Company drills that feature realistic scenarios will help develop proficiency and foster more effective operating methods. Aggressive companies look for any opportunity to hone their skills and learn more efficient methods.   

David DeStefano is a 22-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.  

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