Essentials of a High-Performing Engine Company

By Richard Ray

The engine company is the backbone of the fire service. The challenges an engine company faces today are more dynamic and difficult than ever before. There is more to engine company success than just fire suppression. Engine company firefighters must be willing to prepare, train, and perform on the fireground at a much higher level to ensure life safety and property conservation. They must execute their skills most efficiently to win on the fireground, which necessitates the perseverance of the department and its members. This article covers the essential elements of high-performing engine companies.

The Mission

It is vital that engine company members understand the mission, which guides them in their purpose and job on the fireground. The mission is simple: Work to create a safer environment within the structure and stop the progress of the fire by overwhelming it with water. The civilian is the company’s strategic priority, and stretching the initial hoseline for life safety and property conservation is its tactical priority.

If there is survivable space within the structure, the engine company must protect that space. Creating survivable space means positioning the initial hoseline between the fire and the civilians and their means of egress.

We all know that today’s fire environment changes extremely quickly because of the properties of the fuel packages and building construction. When an aggressive fire attack is initiated, the engine company begins to cool gases and fuel packages and extinguish those that are burning. This stops smoke production. When this takes place, the building becomes more tenable for occupants and firefighters. Stretching the first hoseline is the engine company’s lifesaving mission. Engine company members should be aggressive, knowledgeable, well-trained, and prepared for the fire and encountering victims.

Standard Operating Guidelines

The engine company should have standard operating guidelines (SOGs). They are the playbook for how the engine company should function on the fireground. They provide a systematic approach to fire attack and additional operations on the fireground. SOGs should specify when it is permissible for the engine to begin operations from the booster tank based on the occupancy and conditions, which engine company establishes the water supply, and which engine is responsible for fire department connections. They should also govern the diameter of the hoseline based on the occupancy.

SOGs should be flexible enough to allow the firefighters to adapt and come up with a solution to handle a nontypical situation. There will be times when the SOGs will not govern a certain situation and the engine company will have to establish the operation according to the circumstances.

The SOGs should also reduce freelancing on the fireground so that the incident commander (IC) does not become overwhelmed, and they should be kept relevant and updated as needed. In addition to SOGs, a roll call at the beginning of each shift is an effective way of outlining who will do what on fires, fire alarms, investigations, wrecks, and medical runs.

Have a Plan

Engine company firefighters can put together a plan based on the SOGs. Establishing a plan prior to the incident is essential for success. Planning should include at a minimum riding assignments and preplanning the district.

Riding assignments give the firefighters an idea of what is expected of them. The assignments need not be elaborate; they could indicate who will lay out the hose, have the nozzle, and be responsible for water supply; tool assignments; and responsibilities associated with the arrival order of the engine at an incident – for example, the second-arriving engine would pull a backup hoseline, establish a water supply, or team up with the first engine to get the first hoseline in operation. Once the assignments have been determined, they should be understood, practiced, and implemented automatically unless the company officer directs otherwise. Additionally, if the engine is assigned as the rapid intervention team (RIT) on arrival, each member must understand their role and job if it becomes necessary to use the RIT. Riding assignments will help the engine crew to prepare mentally and ensure that they take to the scene with them the tools they will need to do their job.

A critical aspect of a plan is preplanning the district. Use every opportunity to develop prefire plans. Preplanning allows the engine company to take a proactive posture. Preplanning can be done at fire alarms, investigations, or emergency medical service runs. Learn the buildings in your response area.

Suppose that there is a fire in a building in the district, and discuss how the crew would mitigate that fire. How would you get a hoseline in operation to address a fire in the building, room, floor, apartment, and so on? Have the members of the company identify problems that may arise if there is a fire or other emergency in a building/an area; ask how they would address those problems. Be sure to include issues involving water supply and auxiliary systems.

When prefire planning and you cannot stretch hose, use a rope with knots every 50 feet to determine the proper length and route of the stretch. Gain as much information and knowledge prior to an incident. This will help to reduce the stress for the engine officer and the IC.

Building Construction

Engine company members must understand how fire dynamics and building construction affect fire suppression, how fire will react within the building, and how the building will respond to the fire. Engineering has replaced the mass that was once in buildings with lightweight components. Get out and look at the buildings within your response area. Visit new construction; observe the latest trends and building layout. Understanding layout is necessary for knowing where to position the hoseline. Be able to “read” a building; knowing where to position the line decreases the time it will take to conduct a rescue and extinguish the fire.

Knowing building construction also helps you to understand how the materials can potentially hide fire by creating void spaces, for example. In addition, the energy efficiency of the buildings has made buildings more dependent on ventilation than fuel for growth. Failing to coordinate ventilation with the fire attack will cause the fire to grow.

Understanding how fuel packages burn is equally as important. The fuel packages emit gases that are toxic and flammable and give off a tremendous amount of British thermal units. As these gases are heated, they expand; and when coupled with larger open spaces in homes, they create a hostile fire event. Therefore, time is critical for the engine company firefighter. Fires reach flashover and the fully developed stage much more quickly than in previous years. An accurate size-up and the correct hoseline position and flow coordinated with ventilation are needed for a successful fire attack and a safer environment for civilians who may be trapped.

Engine Setup

The engine must be set up to facilitate the firefighters in meeting the demands of the district. The layout should make all equipment accessible in a functional manner. The apparatus should be designed based on the response area, climatic conditions, terrain, building construction, water supply, and fireground flow requirements. Some of the problems with today’s apparatus include high hosebeds or hosebeds that will not accommodate the department’s hose load. Hosebeds should be accessible to make stretching safer and more efficient. Load the hose on the engine in a manner that is versatile so that it matches staffing and district needs.

Group all the tools on the apparatus, and make them accessible. Firefighters should not have to go from compartment to compartment looking for equipment. Ladders should be marked with the balance point, and the tip should have reflective tape at the end.

Members of high-performing engine companies are careful and pay critical attention to detail – including apparatus and tools and when stretching and advancing hoselines.

Hose and Nozzle Packages

Efficient engine crews know the department’s desired fireground flow and preferred reach of the stream, and they are familiar with the mobility of the hose and nozzle package. Fireground flow is simple: Overwhelm the fire with water. Many volunteer and career firefighters seem to overlook the performance of their hose and nozzle package.

What is the target flow for your department? Is that flow being achieved on the fireground? Can the staffing level adequately manage the hose with the desired flow? It is imperative that the engine company flow test its hose and nozzle packages to ensure the desired flow is being reached on the fireground. Generally speaking, fire departments should achieve at a minimum 150 gallons per minute (gpm) for 1¾-inch hose, 230 gpm for two-inch hose, and 250 gpm for 2½-inch hose. Whether your department uses smooth bore or fog nozzles, make sure that the nozzle and hose package will achieve the target flow with a manageable nozzle reaction. Hose construction has a direct effect on flow and the firefighter’s ability to manage the line.

Hose and nozzle packages are simply a recipe. The engine company should choose a hose and nozzle combination that will achieve the desired target flow, reach, and mobility that can be managed with the department’s staffing level. For a 1¾-inch hoseline, the department should work to achieve a minimum flow of 150 gpm, a nozzle reaction less than 71 pounds, and a pump discharge pressure in the 100 to 140 pounds-per-square-inch range.

Fire Attack

Fire extinguishment is the most fundamental element of the engine company. Choosing the fire attack method that is appropriate and the most beneficial for civilians and firefighters is critical to winning on the fireground. The fire attack is based on an accurate size-up of the building and fire. The company officer must identify the location of the fire and the route to the fire. The occupancy and fire volume will drive the length and diameter of the hose. Additionally, at this point, the officer must determine if there are sufficient personnel to stretch and advance on the fire and if there are potential problems that will slow the advance of the hose.

The engine company must decide between an offensive and a defensive mode of fire attack and consider the following factors: victims, fire volume, staffing, water supply, two-in/two-out, and support functions from a ladder company. The engine company prefers an aggressive fire attack in which firefighters operate on the interior of the building, commonly referred to as an offensive attack. Choosing the defensive mode of fire attack does not mean the company is not operating aggressively. Circumstances such as insufficient personnel to advance an interior hoseline and fire volume will determine the offensive or defensive fire attack decision. Knowledgeable and aggressive firefighters know when and how to employ the correct mode of attack.

The engine company must know where to position the initial hoseline and how members will advance on the fire. The initial line saves lives by controlling the fire and stopping the smoke production. Quick water on the fire equates to a better chance of survival for occupants. Each situation is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution; however, you can increase the chances for victims by positioning the hoseline in paths of egress.

Ideally, position the line between the victims and the fire area. There are four basic locations for placing the line: through the front door, unburned to burned, transitional/blitz, and attack from the burned side. Fire volume, location, and departmental resources are key factors when positioning the hoseline.

Additionally, the engine company should know which size line to use. Keep in mind that big fire requires big water. Pressure equals gpm, which equals extinguishment. We all know that water on the fire makes everything on the fireground better.

Nozzle mechanics can make or break the fire attack. If you are the nozzle firefighter, locate the nozzle at a “comfortable arm’s length” in front of you. This will vary from firefighter to firefighter. Fully open the bail for maximum flow, manipulating the stream against the ceiling, walls, floor, gases, and fuel packages. It is important to know which type of stream to use and where to locate it when conducting the fire attack. This is how the engine company creates a safer environment.

Stretching and Advancing

The setup for a solid fire attack comes in the hose stretch and advance. If the engine company gets the stretch wrong, it will not be able to advance on the fire. If the advance is slowed, the engine company begins to lose. It begins with the stretch.

The fundamental elements of stretching are knowing fire location from the entry point and entry point to the apparatus. This can be applied for residential and commercial buildings. For the private dwelling, most engine companies use preconnected hoselines, which makes estimating the stretch easier because the entire preconnect is typically stretched and used. But, what happens when the private dwelling has a long setback or it is a large private dwelling? The engine company has to work past the preconnect. This goes back to apparatus setup and knowing the district.

Estimating the stretch for commercial buildings can be more complex, but an accurate size-up is key. Knowing hosebed lengths and loading the hose in a manner that lets the firefighter know hose lengths can aid with estimating the stretch.

When stretching hose, always make sure that you have the working length of hose at the entry point, which is typically the first 50 to 100 feet of hose. The working length helps prevent a short hose stretch. Resist the temptation to stretch the easiest line.

Once the hose is stretched, the company can advance on the fire. Are there sufficient personnel to make the advance? The company should know its limitations. If the advance necessitates six personnel but your engine has only three, you are setting up for failure. Just prior to advancing, look down under the smoke for victims and to help identify the layout before entering. High-performing engine companies know when to hit and move and when to advance and flow. When advancing, enter rooms from the hinged side of the door when possible, and sweep wide when navigating corners through a structure. Choosing the correct mode of attack, offensive or defensive; line selection; line placement; and advancing are all important when it comes to winning on the fireground.

Water Supply

The engine company must master establishing a positive water supply that sustains the desired fireground flow and achieves a successful fire attack. A water supply is just as important as the initial hoseline.

Engine companies operating in rural areas may find it difficult to establish a positive water supply. Preplanning is necessary. The company must be proactive and address those areas where they can expect difficulties and devise ways to deal with them. The water supply must meet or preferably exceed the fireground demand and must be established quickly.

Firefighters must know all the options for water sources. Hydrants are usually quick and reliable and need minimal personnel to establish. Be sure to flush the hydrant to remove debris and ensure that the hydrant has water.

Great engine companies also know how to set up and get the most out of a hydrant. How good is the water system within your response area? Can your engine company overcome the challenges of a weak hydrant? Is redundancy built into your fireground operation to ensure a continuous water supply?

Establishing drop tank operations is personnel driven and can be time consuming if firefighters are not trained in this area. To be successful, a drop tank operation must be quick dump and quick fill. Try to avoid routes or tank placement that necessitates apparatus backup. This where apparatus positioning is the most critical. Poor positioning leads to a jammed-up fireground and failure to sustain a positive water supply – for example, the first-arriving engine drops its supply line at the street entrance to a long or narrow driveway to keep the shuttle operation on the street.

When laying supply lines, avoid kinks. It is ingrained in firefighters to chase kinks on the attack line because they will affect the nozzle flow. The same can be said for the supply line: If the supply line has a kink, it will reduce the available flow on the intake side.


Engine company training must be frequent, continuous, and habit forming and must have a strong focus on the fundamentals. The company should drill daily, and the drills should work to build skills at stretching, advancing, and fire attack. Training can be simple; it does not have to be elaborate to be effective. Use your district as your training ground.

Critiques are also a vital part of training and the fireground. Engine company firefighters must continually assess their performance and ability on the fireground and training ground. Critiques are critical. They identify the company’s strengths and weaknesses when operating on the fireground. The best place to conduct a critique is at the tailboard of the engine before clearing from the incident or training. Discuss what went right and what went wrong.

High-performing engine companies take time and effort, and they sweat! The high-performing engine company gives civilians the best chance for survival and improves safety for all firefighters operating on the fireground.

RICHARD RAY is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and has had volunteer and career experience. He is a captain with the Creedmoor (NC) Volunteer Fire Department and a career firefighter with the Durham (NC) Fire Department, where he is a captain assigned to an engine company and an adjunct instructor for the training division. He instructs in live fire, strategy and tactics, and engine company operations.

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