Expect Fire

By David DeStefano

The modern fire company tends to spend most of its active time mitigating many high-frequency/low-impact incidents and routine duties. EMS and public service calls as well as the daily response to numerous alarm activations increase run totals, but how do they affect firefighter readiness?

With many engine and ladder companies responding out the door more times each year but encountering fire conditions only a fraction of the time, are we really expecting fire? Every firefighter knows when a dispatch is “hot:” additional companies may be automatically added on the initial alarm the dispatcher pushes out the run at a faster pace, or indicates numerous calls reporting a fire. But when a dispatch goes out for a frequent address or a seemingly routine alarm activation, will you be ready?

Each officer and firefighter must expect fire every day and every time out the door. This mindset will not only foster the highest state of readiness in quarters, it will help ensure carefully calculated fireground operations. Expecting fire begins with mental and physical preparation before “the bell.” It includes the little tasks in the firehouse that are not so little at 0300 in front of the fire building. What hydrants are out of service? Is my flashlight charged? Are my mask straps tangled and worn out?

But expecting fire involves more than just preplans and checking gear; it is the mindset that never allows you to be surprised when you enter the block or make the stairs and see smoke or flames. Firefighters who expect fire are ready to engage in their job until a thorough investigation allows them to think otherwise.

There are many aspects of our response that the philosophy of expecting fire may change for some of us. They are tactical issues that vary in complexity but will always be resolved more efficiently by a company that expects to find a fire on every run.

How do we locate, confine, and extinguish? We know that the preceding three goals are key to an effective operation at virtually all fires. Firefighters who expect fire always approach the building with their heads up, sizing up conditions as well as access and egress points. Identify building features that will aid efforts to confine the fire as they approach and make entry. Notice fire walls that penetrate the roof, the construction type of the building, and the type of occupancy. Always expecting a fire includes interviewing occupants evacuating as you enter, as well as reading the fire alarm control panel. Although civilians can’t be relied upon for an accurate report of conditions, they may shed some light on the origin of the alarm as well as the most expedient route through the building.

As a member of the first-in engine company, you will be tasked with stretching the initial attack line on the fire. When you expect fire on every alarm, your company will always plan for the most efficient route of travel for a hoseline to the reported fire. This may include noting the location of standpipes or whether hose can be stretched “up the well” in the stairs. Understanding distances in terms of hose lengths rather than feet on a ruler will help keep your company from coming up short on a long stretch. Expecting to find a fire when your company is operating beyond the reach of its preconnects is particularly important. These longer stretches may involve coordination with the driver/operator for an outside stretch using utility rope off a balcony, fire escape, or out a window. The main goal for the first-in engine always expecting fire involves knowing how firefighters will stretch in and attack with the initial hoseline. Too often, an engine company making an investigation will commit well beyond the reach of a preconnect without a plan to stretch a line to their location.

Does the hydrant work, and will it supply the required flow? The engine company responsible for water supply may be even more inclined to relax their stance if the first-in company has nothing showing and is investigating. However, if they are expecting that the investigating units will report a working fire at any time, the water supply company must ensure that the hydrant they have chosen is usable and flows water. They will not be able to gather this information from inside the apparatus. The members should dismount, check the condition of the hydrant, and open it to be sure it actually works. The officer must be confident that the hose layout is within the limits of his supply hose. Later-arriving companies should consider a secondary water supply. Large buildings or incidents where the primary pumper must relocate to operate may require a different hydrant be used. No later-arriving engine staged while an incident is investigated should pass their last available water supply in their direction of travel. Companies expecting fire will not line up in front of the building like a parade.

What about the truck? Truck companies arriving any time during the investigation phase of an incident should operate as though they will encounter fire. This involves positioning the rig either to a point of best advantage on a small building, where the roof and two sides are within the scrub area of the aerial device, or staging the rig in a neutral position at a very large building. In this way, the driver/operator may position based on radio reports from the interior. If two aerial devices will arrive within a reasonable period of time, the first may stage at side A and the second arriving on side C or as directed. The critical points to remember include spotting the rig for use even if there is no fire visible. Not only is this excellent practice at a variety of buildings, it ensures the aerial device will be usable if needed. The truck company must then begin investigating the incident alongside the engine company.

Expecting fire, truck members must always equip themselves for their function in the company and the likely scenarios in the structure. The usual assignment of halligan tools, flatheads, mauls, hooks, thermal imager, and at least one can (water extinguisher) may be beefed up to include a rabbit tool or hydra-ram or through-the-lock kit. Longer hooks for commercial or industrial occupancies, a mainline search rope, or a rotary saw for forcible entry may also be advisable for some occupancies. Members must be prepared to search, force entry, and vent as necessary when the fire is discovered. Returning to the rig for basic equipment may endanger the entire operation.

 Allowing a fire to take your company by surprise in not acceptable on the modern fireground. Although our mission has evolved to include a great variety of emergency and public service needs, the high-impact nature of firefighting allows little margin for error and complacency. Expect fire each time your rig rolls out the door!

David DeStefano is a 23-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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Expect Fire


By Lance C. Peeples

“Engine 7, Snorkel 13 respond 750 Adams Street for an automatic alarm. Time out 02:05.”

Messages such as this are transmitted thousands of times a day to fire stations throughout the country. Ninety-nine percent of the time, firefighters respond, perform a quick walkthrough, find some minor cause, reset the alarm and head back to the house just in time for the evening meal. This article is not about those runs, but about the one where we encounter a fire; the fire where there are kids trapped in the back bedroom, there are burglar bars on the house, and an unfriendly guard dog waiting. It’s two o’clock in the morning, 1° above zero and there are six inches of snow on the ground. You know, a FIRE — the reason the alarm went off!

Unfortunately, the previous, pedestrian alarms have dulled our senses. They have lulled us into a deadly trap. We’re not expecting a fire: our gloves aren’t on; our collars aren’t up; we forgot the thermal imaging camera (TIC); our radio is on the wrong channel; we stretch short; the ground ladder isn’t long enough; the saw won’t start; etc. After all is said and done, the kids are dead, two of our guys are on their way to the hospital, and the grieving parents are left to deal with their tragedy. We shake our heads and wonder what the hell went wrong. The answer is we failed. We didn’t expect a fire! We weren’t ready. How can we prevent this from happening to us?

The late Andy Fredericks of the Fire Department of New York was fond of saying, “When the garbage man turns the corner and finds garbage he doesn’t get excited. He expects to find garbage — he’s the garbage man!” That should be our motto, too. We’re the fire department, when we turn the corner, we should expect to find fire. Until we viscerally accept this truth, we can easily be lulled into the trap of complacency.

Firefighters and Preparedness: Expect Fire

(1) We should stretch a line at every reported fire, even if nothing is showing. If there is a fire, we can move that much quicker. If there is not a fire, well we just had a drill opportunity that can’t be duplicated at a training tower.

Now that we have identified the problem, what’s the solution? The solution is to develop a razor-sharp focus, a certain knowledge that the next time you roll out the door you’re going to a fire. Having said that, the time to prepare is now, not next tour, not next week, not five minutes from now — now! Focus, train, workout, read, study, and ask the guys — train some more. The next fire is moments away; you have only minutes to prepare. There could be kids trapped. Are you ready?

Firefighters and Preparedness: Expect Fire

(2) In buildings equipped with standpipe systems, stretch to the reported fire area. If there is a fire, we’re gaining valuable time. If not, well we don’t get a chance to drill on standpipes very often anyway. Obviously, don’t charge the line if there is no fire to avoid the possibility of unnecessary water damage.

So if we truly believe that the next run is going to be a fire, how come when we get there we don’t stretch a line or throw our ladders or take our tools? The reason is we’re lazy and we don’t really expect a fire. After all, we’ve been to ten automatic alarms this week already. This isn’t really a fire — it’s just another automatic alarm.

The fire service must change this mindset: When we turn the corner, we should expect the house to be on fire and we should do those things that we would do if the house was on fire. That means we should stretch a line, throw ladders, and catch a hydrant. I can hear the grumbles now:

  1. “You expect us to catch a hydrant on every run?”
  2. “That’s too much work!”
  3. “Dinner’s ready!”
  4. “We’re too busy to stretch a line on every automatic alarm.”

(3) Lay a supply line every time. If there’s no fire, repack the hose. We rarely get the opportunity to drill under real-life conditions. Automatic fire alarms provide us the ideal opportunity to practice our skills.

I’ll try to answer each of these objections in turn:

  1. Yep! Let’s do a little math: Suppose you work on a suburban company that does 1,500 runs a year. Seventy percent of those are EMS, which leaves 450 fire runs. Now, you work a three-shift schedule, so you’re only going to 150 potential fires a year. Take out the wires down, wash downs, and other such calls, and you’re down to a 100 potential fires a year. If you never take any vacation, you only work 121.6 shifts a year. You see where I’m going with this? If you don’t want to be a firefighter and continuously hone your craft, well, maybe this ain’t the job for you!
  2. See response to number one above!
  3. You ain’t getting paid to eat!
  4. If you are truly too busy to stretch a line on every run, you must also be catching a fair amount of real work. If that is the case, you should be critiquing every job before taking up to improve your operation.

There are, however, some caveats to stretching in or raising an aerial at every automatic alarm:

  1. You must assess for any potential hazards that might dictate that, if there are no obvious indications of fire, the stretch should be deferred. These hazards include heavy traffic, guard dogs, lightning, etc.
  2. You might want to defer stretching unless obviously indicated during periods of unusually heavy run volumes (i.e., storms) if delays in response times might result.
  3. Do not begin a stretch into large buildings when you are not reasonably sure where the location of the fire might be. Examples might include shopping malls, hospitals, large schools, etc. In these instances, a ladder company must locate the location of the reported fire before the stretch is ordered. Failure to adhere to this caveat may result in stretching to the wrong location and a delay in the application of water in the event there is a real fire.

Obviously, officers must use considerable judgment when ordering a stretch, but the default mode should be to assume that there is a fire and begin a stretch. Special circumstances may dictate that the stretch not be initiated and these should be communicated to the members as soon as possible.

 Firefighters and Preparedness: Expect Fire

(4) If we practice spotting and raising the aerial at each automatic alarm, we respond too we’ll be much quicker when we find the real deal. Remember, constant practice develops essential muscle memory. There is no more realistic opportunity to practice than at a real call. Photo by Cory Irelan.

 In closing, I’d like to return to the opening dispatch sequence I quoted at the beginning of this article. These are likely the last words Lt. Michael L. Mathis and Firefighter William Bridges of the Memphis (TN) Fire Department heard as they rolled toward the Regis Towers Apartments on yet another of the dozens of fire alarms they had received at that address. Unfortunately, they took the elevator directly to the alarm floor to investigate. On April 11,1994 at 02:05 a.m., there was indeed a fire. Honor the memory of Lt. Michael Mathis and Firefighter Bridges by expecting fire every time you roll out the door.

Firefighters and Preparedness: Expect Fire

(5) Lt. Michael Mathis and Firefighter William Bridges lost their lives in this building when they took an elevator directly to the floor indicated on the alarm panel. They had responded to dozens of alarms at this building over the years. Expect fire!

Lance C. Peeples is a veteran firefighter in St. Louis County, Missouri. He has A.A.S .degrees in fire and paramedic technology, a B.S. in public administration, and an M.S. degree in fire and emergency management from Oklahoma State University. He is a Fire Officer II and a Fire Service Instructor II.