ENGINE OFFICER DO’S AND DON’TS

ASK YOURSELF EACH DAY, IS MY CREW READY TO DON THEIR SCBA, STRETCH THE PRECONNECT, AND ACHIEVE PROPER PRESSURE TO ATTACK THE FIRE QUICKLY AND EFFECTIVELY?

BY TOM MURRAY

All engine officers should constantly eval- uate their performance and the performances of engine crew members to more effectively lead, train, and motivate their firefighters to success on the fireground.

Below are some pointers for maximizing your efficiency and that of other department members under your supervision. The points presented here are simple truths that I and other fire service leaders with whom I have had the honor of becoming acquainted have come to understand during our years in the fire service.

PRIOR TO THE ALARM

  • Get your attitude together. Remember, your attitude affects others’ behavior. Good day? Bad day? What’s it going to be? Often, it’s the attitude you bring to work and the manner in which you handle the routine and unusual events that set the day’s events up for success or failure.
  • Know and admit the limitations of your resources, particularly your crew. Firefighters come in all sizes and ages; with various levels of physical abilities, years of experience, training, education, and skills; and with different attitudes. You need to become a perceptive leader who can quickly, objectively, and accurately determine the emergency incident value of each crew member and what the member can contribute.
  • Develop a realistic operating plan based on the resources at hand. The engine officer’s “I want” statement must reflect what can actually be accomplished with the human resources (your crew) and equipment available. Leading a large line into a building is possible if you have the right crew. It’s possible to conduct interior operations without a truck company, but the way it will be done will differ from the approach used by city departments with truck companies. Plan accordingly.
  • Make sure your engine company officers and firefighters read and understand how to extinguish a fire. Require that your crew read the most important and up-to-date fire science explanation of fire chemistry and fire behavior in “Little Drops of Water: 50 Years Later,” Parts 1 and 2, Andrew A. Fredericks, Fire Engineering, February and March 2000.

Be sure your engine crew understands the conditions causing hallway/room flame rollover, flashover, and backdraft. Discuss the phenomenon of black fire. Regarding black fire, we must realize that fuel loads in buildings are greater today than they were 30 years ago. These fuel loads combust at lower temperatures; burn hotter and faster; and produce more black, dense smoke than ever before. The tremendous heat produced during the burning of these newer fuel loads moves to areas adjacent to the fire without flame production. This black fire must be controlled with proper ventilation and/or nozzle application.

Review with your crew how to control these events with the nozzle application. Emphasize that each member must always keep in mind a way out of the building and must keep the exit clear.

  • Set company level priorities. Your department may have many plans for your engine every day. However, your department’s schedule may not include an SCBA skill evaluation, a fully deployed preconnect wet drill, and a driver/operator pump drill.

Ask yourself each day, Is my crew ready to don their SCBA, stretch the preconnect, and achieve proper pressure to attack the fire quickly and effectively? Fire suppression skills must be the number one priority of the engine company officer and members.

  • Who’s in charge, you, the officer, or the firefighters? Do the firefighters respect you as the officer and accept your instructions and orders? Who’s in charge in the station? On the engine? At the incident? This does not mean that the officer must have a heavy hand and be Mr. Rules & Tools. It means leadership.

Much has been said about the “X generation’s” having a take-charge attitude; however, it’s not the firefighters’ fault if they take charge. Someone had to give up his responsibility for them to be able to take over.

  • Conduct a roll call, and assign a “riding list.” Perhaps the most important act an officer can perform is to take a roll call. This task includes making daily assignments and the passing on “you should know” information about issues affecting the fire service, your department, and your station.

Roll call is not just a check to see if members are present; it is also the time to determine if they are fit to work. This is the time to make assignments: day watch/night watch duties, cooking, driving, the designated EMT, the hydrant firefighter, the nozzle firefighter, and so on. Don’t wait until the bell goes off to determine who is doing what and whether they can perform the assigned tasks.

During the roll call, you should also establish who is going to buddy up together when entering the fire building for the fire attack or performing a search and rescue. Remember, we never do anything by ourselves; it’s always in a team of at least two, especially for those times when the crew must separate. The least experienced member (rookie) should buddy with the officer.

  • Set a standard for individual and company-level performance. I have asked firefighters with whom I worked for the first time how they would, or do, perform a specific task or job. Often they look puzzled and ask, “What do you mean?” Once again, if your department does not set down performance standards for tasks and duties, then you must-whether it’s the day watch duties or the doorway position on an interior attack hose stretch.

Performance is either the result of drills and training or “you get what you get”-and whose fault is that? People only know what to do when you let them know what you expect and that what you expect is what they must do.

Remember, as long as you have two stations in your department, the slacker or “I won’t do what this captain wants” does not have to be at your station. Make your station a well-managed one that attracts those people who know their jobs, are competent engine company members, and are proud to be a member of your crew.

  • Be familiar with your first-alarm response area, target hazards, response patterns, and the capabilities of other responding units.

Remember that the second leading cause of firefighter injuries and fatalities is responding to and returning from an alarm. The driver/operator should know the streets. Using station street maps and frequently driving through the first-alarm area are the best ways to learn the streets and hydrant locations. Identify difficult streets and target hazard locations. Know at which intersections you can expect to meet other responding units.

Can you count on the second- and third-due engines for a water supply or a backup line into the fire building? Can these supporting engine companies to your first-in fire attack just plain do the right thing? Check the roll call of the second- and third-due units. Evaluate whether you can count on them based on their reputation.

  • Check and exercise your apparatus and equipment. Insist that your driver complete pre-trip vehicle and fire equipment checks each morning. Often, you can prevent a potential breakdown, detect faulty equipment, and note missing equipment during the morning check.

Weekly wet drills, quarterly drafting drills, flow testing of fog nozzles, and periodic checking of fittings and tools will keep your engine ready for fire suppression. You and your firefighters should know the inventory on the engine as well as that in their home kitchen drawer.

Firefighters should know the gpm flow of each nozzle on their engine, why a solid stream nozzle is important, and that the straight stream position should be used with a fog nozzle during the fire attack.

  • Firefighter inventory. Require that your firefighters always carry their flash hood, a door wedge, an extra pair of gloves, and six feet of webbing or clothesline for tying a mattress or dragging hoselines or a fire casualty. Check that each engine firefighter knows the importance of covering as much skin as possible when going into the fire building. There’s no second chance when the heat builds up.

The old adage “let my ears feel the heat” is just that-an old adage. If you are fighting a fire deep in a building and your ears start to burn, chances are that you probably won’t be able to get out fast enough without suffering serious burns.

  • Firefighter self-rescue skills. Check that your engine firefighters know how to crawl using low-profile SCBA techniques; how to fit between stud walls, removing their SCBA without removing the face mask while on air; and how to identify interior walls and partitions that can block the radiant and convected heat, just for the moment as your nozzle team prepares to make another push down the hall or into the room.

Keep in mind the locations of nearby uninvolved rooms for use as temporary shelter areas should conditions deteriorate. The officer must always keep in mind that the situation can deteriorate regardless of how aggressive the nozzle team may be.

  • Realize the facts of life of today’s engine companies. Oftentimes, the engine company has the least experienced firefighters in the department because the more senior firefighters are jumping over to the truck companies. Many large city engine companies are being beaten up by the no-merit building alarms, multiple co-response medical calls for the same homeless person down that you picked up several hours ago, fire prevention duties, community relations show-and-tell details-all of which compete with your efforts to keep your crew ready for the fire rescue calls.
  • Be an assertive fire officer-for yourself, your crew, your apparatus and its equipment, and your station. Develop a reputation for not accepting the status-quo, things-as-usual mentality. Establish a relationship with your battalion/district chiefs that shows them they can count on you and your company. Don’t make excuses; make it right the next time.

At battalion drills, ask for the most difficult assignment-the one that requires the most pumping or laying the greatest amount of hose. Let your district chief know that you and your crew want and can handle the difficult assignments. Displaying such an attitude prepares and motivates your crew to perform and take pride in their success and lets your district chief know that he can count on your crew and station. In return, the chief often will go the extra step to support your company’s requests.

Be an advocate for equipment and the maintaining of your apparatus and station. Your firefighters will appreciate it and will support your efforts by taking more responsibility for the apparatus, equipment, and station. Most firefighters consider fire stations as “firehouses,” where they eat, sleep, and spend all of their working life. The fire station becomes an extension of their home life. No other profession can duplicate the social bonding that develops between firefighters at good fire “houses.”

Develop a relationship with the vehicle maintenance people. A friendly word and a gift of a fire station T-shirt will go a long way in getting your engine serviced quickly.

DON’TS

  • Don’t micromanage your crew. Be aware of what’s going on, but let go of the details if the end result is what you want. Realize, nurture, and accept the valuable contribution your firefighters can make to the company and the station. Firefighters bring many valuable skills and abilities to the job; let them contribute those skills.
  • You’re the officer, not the firefighter: train, delegate, and motivate. As a company officer, you are a working supervisor, but don’t deny your firefighters the opportunity and right to learn and perform the firefighting tasks themselves. Show them you trust them. If things don’t go right, critique so everyone knows what went wrong and how to make it right. If necessary, go back to the station and conduct a drill review.
  • Don’t forget to critique. Every event is a learning experience for everyone. Critique your operations thoroughly and accurately, but maintain a positive environment. The objective of a critique is not to find fault or place blame. When your company does a good job, don’t forget to let them know it.
  • Don’t forget your roles as a role model, a leader, an educator, and a motivator. As the officer, your firefighters are watching and evaluating everything you do and say. Your firefighters’ support of your goals reflects their buying into what you are trying to do.
  • Don’t be afraid to set standards and to discipline. Firefighters know who can and cannot do the job. They know the slacker, the one with the bad attitude, the one they can’t count on. They will not respect you if you let these situations continue and do not deal with them. Can you expect your crew to feel safe, secure, and confident in a life-threatening situation with a fellow firefighter they feel they cannot count on because you ducked your responsibility as the fire officer-supervisor?

WHILE RESPONDING TO THE ALARM

  • When out of the station and on the air, be prepared with street maps and routine response patterns. Consider how your location might affect the second- or third-due engine. This is even more important when the greater alarm is struck. You’re going into areas that often are new to you, your driver, and your crew. It’s time for heightened alertness to your surroundings.
  • Be prepared for different operations. Responding to a downtown high-rise fire instead of an outlying district residential call will affect pump operations and fire attack procedures. You might get away with a 13/4-inch line for most residential fires; however, use the 21/2-inch line for commercial and industrial building fires. Remember, the bigger the building, the bigger the attack line.
  • Leave the driver alone, except for the three “Rs”-Route change, Relay of pertinent information that impacts the driver, and Regulating speed.
  • While responding, let your crew know as much as you know about where the engine is going and the nature of the call. If the morning roll call assignment did not cover the tasks for this particular type of call, make the assignments while responding, but keep it simple and brief.
  • Relate the dispatch information as you know it to your prearrival plan of what the first, second, or third engine (whichever you are) is going to do. Realize that adjustments often will have to be made on arrival.

If a chief officer is responding and might be delayed, will you be the initial incident commander? How will this affect your plan and your crew resources? Have you designated someone to be the lead fire attack person in your absence?

  • When you enter the unit block of the incident, does your driver know that he should slow down, anticipate other units’ entering the area, and give you the few critical seconds you need to size up what you see (what’s showing-smoke, people, building type, and the important issue of water supply)? Set your priorities; communicate your action plan to your crew. They should already know their assignments, so this plan will be brief and quick.

Communicate verbally to dispatch your immediate actions. Other responding units will hear this, which will help them to support your immediate action plan.

Don’t rely on an onboard mobile computer CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system.

  • You and your driver should always keep the rules of engine placement in mind. Keep the front of the building clear for truck company operations and so that Command will have as clear a view of the building as possible and attack hosebeds are easily accessible to the building’s front entryway.

The first engine should always keep the front of the building in view. The pump operator should stretch the needed supply line leads from hydrants or into standpipe connections with the goal of keeping the front doorway where hose leads have been stretched in view. The reason for this is that the driver/operator is the outside eyes and ears for the interior fire attack team.

The driver/operator needs to be prepared to communicate to the inside team ongoing events that could affect the fire attack-for example, the fire just vented through the roof or out a window.

Your driver/operator needs to know, just as you do, which supply hose lead choices are available: (a) off tank-going directly in and pumping off tank; (b) straight lead-leading in with your own water supply; and (c) reverse lead-leading fire to hydrant, a quick lead that engines should not be afraid to use if the situation calls for it.

Your driver/operator must always keep in mind the placement of the responding truck. Always consider the type of building and its potential effect on the apparatus placement. Examples include the high-rise building with the potential for falling glass and debris, the industrial-type building emitting radiant heat and the possibility of quick collapse, and the dangers of positioning near unreinforced masonry buildings.

  • If you’re the second-in engine, allow the truck to enter the block before you do. Always check that the first-in engine has a water supply. Bring in an additional supply. Don’t leave this engine hanging with just one supply line.

Be prepared to assist the first-in engine in completing its first fire attack lead; then, bring in a backup line. Remember, the first line most often controls the fire and must be placed quickly and effectively. A backup line is exactly what it’s called-it’s put in place to protect the rear and overhead space of the initial fire attack team.

The second engine crew must support the first attack team. Be prepared to relieve this team when members’ air runs low, body heat builds up, or fatigue sets in. Engine crews on the fire should think of themselves as one unit of the total team, not as competing forces.

  • If you’re the third-in engine, be prepared to take an assignment from Command, but keep in mind the floor above the fire, the rear of the building, the ceiling area above the fire, and the hazard of a common attic area.

The third engine crew must do things that the first and second engines can’t do because of their commitment to the main fire attack. Keep the hall and stairs clear so that the first attack and backup lines can be maneuvered and the crew can make a retreat if necessary.

If the third engine is going to make an additional interior fire attack lead, the third hoseline should be made in a manner other than over the top of the first and second line into the building-for example, through a window, over a ladder, or up rear stairs.

ON THE SCENE, WORKING FIRE
If you are the first officer on the scene, guess what? You’re the incident commander. You need to start the fire attack plan not only for your own unit but for other responding units as well.

As an engine officer, you have to devise likely scenarios before being called to emergencies involving the different types of buildings in your area. Even if you join the interior fire attack, you need to be prepared to communicate support assignments to the outside units.

Determine whether it is an offensive or defensive fire. Do you know the difference? Hose selection options will affect your decision on how you’re going to fight the fire. A 11/2– or 13/4-inch line can handle most single-family residential fires of one or two rooms. However, should you pull up and find a significant fire involving most of the single-family building or a fire in a commercial-industrial building, take the 21/2-inch line in for your fire attack. It will make the difference between success and failure. The difference between a 13/4– and a 21/2-inch fire flow could be as much as 110 gpm. If you have the 21/2-inch hose, have you prepared your engine company to complete an interior 21/2-inch fire attack lead?1

Take the time to make an accurate size-up of the incident: Collect the facts, develop an action plan, and change it as needed. Your primary strategic responsibilities as the first engine in should be the safety of your crew, determining the location of the fire, containing the fire to its point of origin, preventing horizontal and vertical extension of the fire, and extinguishment. All engine tactics are developed to support these five points.

Are there sufficient resources to initiate an aggressive interior fire attack?

Is your engine adequately staffed? What can you do with what you have? Can you support the truck company? If not, what options do you have? Do you need a sustained water supply? Can you hit it hard off the tank? How does your department handle the two-in/two-out requirement?

Problems during the fire attack are often related to personnel-short staffing, short on training, or short on experience. How you deal with this reality is directly related to the training program you conducted prior to the fire and how you defined your tactics around the staffing/experience issue.

The first engine on the fire saves lives by locating the fire, containing it to its current location, and preventing the fire from spreading down halls or up stairways while other units perform search and rescue. Don’t ever abandon this for some other task. Should you abandon this number one engine attack team task, you will be endangering everyone in the building-civilian occupants and other firefighters performing their assignments.

As an officer, position yourself on or near the hoseline, not on the nozzle, so you can evaluate progress, monitor heat buildup, ensure that the line is always moving forward, and assess the effectiveness of your hose team. I always put the firefighter with the least seniority on the nozzle because this firefighter needs the most guidance and has the least experience to act independently.

I place myself second on the hoseline, just one arm’s length away from the nozzle firefighter. That way, I can direct the operation, keep the nozzle firefighter moving forward, and keep the rookie in place. In this way, I am confident that everything is alright.

The third firefighter is the doorway firefighter. This firefighter moves in with the interior line as it is stretched to the fire, moving the line away from interior doors and corners.

This firefighter has many additional duties. This doorway firefighter keeps the hose moving as the nozzle team advances, performs horizontal ventilation as the nozzle team moves, performs a quick primary visual/sound search for building casualties, passes such casualties back to other units for removal from the building, and monitors and advises the nozzle team of fire that has developed over or behind the nozzle team. This firefighter also keeps other units from standing on the attack hose lead; preventing the hose from being pulled forward; and, just as importantly, blocking the nozzle team’s exit should its members have to quickly back out of the fire compartment area.

Should you need to bail out when deep in a building, don’t just drop the line and try to follow it out. Train your crew to back out the line as you exit, keeping the nozzle stream directed to the overhead spaces to control overhead heat and flame. The officer sets the pace; the doorway firefighter quickly, without pulling the line out of the hands of the nozzle attack team, pulls the hoseline back to the front door or to a point of safety. This is a controlled, very disciplined maneuver that is done to save your life.

If you’re deep (200 feet or more) into a building, you won’t be able to get out fast enough by just following the line. You have entered into an area where you might encounter a preflashover condition, an extreme opposing hose stream situation, or a collapsing ceiling that mushrooms the heat back toward you. In these situations, you must control that overhead heat as you exit. (I once experienced an interior fire attack lead that went sour when a ladder pipe was put through the fifth-floor window of the fire apartment, blowing the attack team out of the apartment and off the floor with extremely hot convected heat and steam.)

As a company officer, you should not be outside the building unless you are the incident commander or are with your crew awaiting assignment or rehab. When another officer arrives, get in the building with your attack team. The interior fire attack team members need direction, control, and your experience and training to guide them. Train others to be the pump operator; it should not be the officer. It is inexcusable to send the least experienced and least trained into the most dangerous area of the fireground by themselves.

When using preconnects, use the diameter, the length, and the nozzle that will do the job. Don’t use your room-and-contents residential 11/2– or 13/4-inch for a commercial-industrial building. Use the 21/2-inch hoseline with a 11/8– or 11/4-inch solid stream pipe.

When setting up your hoseline, ensure that you have sufficient hose for the interior compartment attack, and get it laid out and in place so that you can make entry quickly without the hose snagging.

Use a stair window to lay excess hose that can be pulled in as needed or stretched down the uninvolved end of the hallway or up the stairs above the fire compartment so that a quick pull toward the fire compartment is possible. Always have six to 12 feet of hose with you to make the fire room.

At the entry point into the fire room, calm the troops, advise command of your position, remind the nozzle firefighter to bleed off trapped air, set the fog nozzle to straight stream, and be sure that you have pump pressure and not a false hose pressure that’s going to go flat as soon as you open the nozzle.

Keep firefighters off the floor to prevent leg and knee scalding; teach them to crouch as you advance. “On your belly” is another old adage that makes no sense unless you want to be poached by the scalding water on the floor. Hitting the floor with your stream might help, but many firefighters can show their burns as evidence that this tactic did not work.

Keep advancing into the room to contain and extinguish. The most dangerous area of the interior hose stretch is just as you enter the fire compartment entranceway. Think of this area as the narrows of the horizontal chimney. This is where the heat builds up as it is trying to push itself out of the fire room.

Get past this point and into the room and out of this narrow point. Your nozzle firefighter should be aggressively rotating the nozzle against the wall/ceiling/wall, creating large water droplets that fill the entire room. The goal is to break the radiated feedback of heat from the walls and ceiling back onto the fire. When the fire banks down, tighten the circles onto the fire itself.

If you can’t advance, ask yourself why not. A 11/2– or 13/4-inch line flowing 150 gpm should be able to easily handle a single room or two rooms of fire in a single-family residence. If you cannot advance, check your fire flow. Is the fog nozzle bad? Are there kinks (every kink costs you 20 percent of your fire flow)? Is overhead fire in the attic pushing down onto you, or is your nozzle team advancing against a wind-fed fire from an open window?

Communicate these concerns to Command, and determine if you can push through it or if you need to pull back. Remember, this is not a Monday night football game. The fire doesn’t think win and lose; it’s just a fire. Yes, we have to go interior, and the best way to fight all fires is to be aggressive. Having said that, don’t forget that unless a rescue is involved, don’t stupidly risk your firefighters for the sake of a building. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 13 firefighters died in 2000 while advancing hoselines during a fire attack.

DON’TS

  • Don’t give up your fire attack line to another unit. It’s your line. You stretched it. The other unit should get its own line. Your nozzle team should be committed to its own task and should not be handing off its line to a truck company or another engine that did not make its own proper lead. Ask a truck firefighter for his ax at a fire, and I’m sure you won’t get it.
  • Don’t make the fireground the training ground for what you should have drilled on back at the station. However, take advantage of the fireground after knockdown to review nozzle application (flow water on the extinguished fire to teach the probationary firefighter how to cover a room with water droplets). It’s a great time to teach overhaul and forcible entry skills. These drills can be justified under the category of overhaul.
  • Don’t overuse the radio. Say what you must say, and get off.
  • Don’t be an engine company that bypasses the first engine’s hose stretch and does its own thing.
  • Don’t just lay out a single 21/2- or three-inch supply line at a working fire. Lay out double leads of the above or large-diameter hose when it’s available.

Get the water the fire attack needs. The old adage that more water is always better still works.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Andrew A. Fredericks, Fire Department of New York, a gifted instructor and author whose wit, intelligence, and humility were examples for all who knew him.

Endnote

  1. For a definitive explanation of the flow capabilities of attack handlines, see “Stretching and Advancing Handlines,” Parts 1 and 2, Andrew A. Fredericks, Fire Engineering, March 1997 and April 1997, and “The 21/2-Inch Handline,” Fire Engineering, December 1996.

TOM MURRAY recently retired after 31 years with the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department, where he served as captain of Engine 39. He currently teaches high-rise life safety with Stationary Engineers Local 39 of Northern California and is an adjunct faculty member in the fire technology program at Santa Rosa Jr. College. He is an instructor with the Department of Emergency Services, Sonoma County, and the Industrial Emergency Council of San Carlos, California. He is an FDIC H.O.T. instructor for engine hose leads.

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