First-Due Tactics for the Urban Engine Boss

By Sean Eagen

Whether in an urban, suburban, or a rural setting, the first-due engine company plays a massive role in the success or failure of an operation.  The company officer or “boss” of this engine has several decisions to make within seconds of arriving on scene.  The success or failure of the engine company is determined well before the emergency scene.  The paragraphs that follow give some tips on how to be effective in your role as the engine boss. The decisions you make in the firehouse, on the training ground, or on the fireground can and will protect life and property. This is a tremendous responsibility for any fire officer. As the saying goes, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”

How do you prepare for success as an engine company officer?  Constant training and professional development seem obvious choices.  We also must spend time preplanning our district–what type of structures do you have in your district? What challenges can you expect to encounter in your district?  Should you expect long stretches or water supply challenges?

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You need to ensure that your apparatus operator knows the district and what is happening in the area. Do you have construction or road closures for any reason? Is there a road race or a block party that someone forgot to notify the dispatch center about, either accidentally or on purpose? You need to be aware of these things before the emergency happens so you can take the safest, most effective route to the scene. Too many times in my career, I have been surprised by road closures, construction, railroad crossings that are down, and so on. This is unacceptable. We get to play with fire trucks every day. Get out and play!  Plus, it is good for the community to see us out in the neighborhoods.

Decision Making

Another consideration for the engine boss is the decision-making tree.  Once you are on the scene, you must make quick decisions that will help mitigate the incident and ensure the safety of civilians and personnel.  What are some size-up factors that play into your decision-making tree?  Our ultimate go-to, initial practice, for structure fires is to go inside and put out the fire. This is not always the most prudent option; an effective size-up and knowledge gained through experience and preplanning will help us decide which option will provide the best outcome for the citizens and our crews.  In departments where staffing is short, we must prioritize our personnel. An aggressive engine company wants to get that line in place and knock down the fire.  What do we do when we have a scenario that causes us to have to deviate from the norm?  For example, what if you had confirmed fire victims and your backup crews are delayed?  With the available resources, do we handle the fire or the victims first? By putting out the fire, we can immediately improve chances for victim survival, but it’s not always that simple.

Radio Manner

We need to be clear and CONCISE on the radio, annunciate properly, and be disciplined. Sometimes it seems that firefighters just talk on the radio for the sake of talking; all this unnecessary radio traffic can hamper an operation. Far too often, we hear our dispatchers ask companies to repeat their last message because they were walked over. At one incident, I was trying to give an urgent transmission regarding a victim being removed. My message went unheard because of other nonessential traffic. The radio can be a wonderful tool, but it is not perfectly reliable. When the first-due nozzle team is operating off booster tank water, the driver may not be able to reach them by radio if there is a problem. An engine crew should have some other nonverbal method the driver can use to notify the crew on the line that he is having a water issue. Officers and firefighters should be on the same page and practice this nonverbal communication method. There are easy ways to accomplish this. One method that works is to transmit a signal through the hoseline. A good signal may be to gate down and then gate up three times in succession. This action should be followed with a radio transmission, but a crew that trains with this method will understand what is happening if the radio transmission is missed.

Some Dilemmas

What tactics are an aggressive engine going to employ when short staffed or backup is delayed? Do you ever use the deck gun on your engines? That is something rarely, if ever, used in our department. If everyone is on the same page and it works for your crew or department, that is all that matters–be it smooth bore or combination or 1¾ inch or 2½ inch. All of these issues vary according to your demographics, staffing, and standard operating procedures.

Do we devote our whole crew to victims, or do we split our team? Do we have sufficient personnel on scene to accomplish either or both tasks? We know that human life takes precedence over all other objectives. If you are the boss of a three-person engine crew, you do not have the luxury of accomplishing many tasks at once and will have to make tough decisions. Do you put your apparatus operator to work once lines are in place and pumps are set up, or does the operator have to stay with the rig?  Our apparatus operators generally stay with the rigs; they may help other engine operators with hookups or line management but typically do not engage in suppression duties. When we start thinking about resource management, we must do a risk assessment based on the incident: How much risk are we going to take?  Do we have viable victims; do we have savable property? Once you complete your risk analysis and make your initial decision, your personnel must put them into play.

Most engine crews operate as one team, but sometimes we may split the crews into teams of two or more if the department is fortunate enough to be staffed to allow that. My department runs four-person engines, officer and three firefighters. One firefighter is a driver, the firefighter behind driver we refer to as the “hook-up,” the firefighter behind the officer is referred to as “attack.” Normal operation for us is for the driver and hook-up firefighter to be  a “team” until lines are stretched or water supply is established, depending on our assignment (first due, second due, and so on). As the first due, the hook-up person would stay with the officer and attack person and help with line stretching. We refer to our teams as “Alpha,” “Bravo,” and so on etc.  My team would be “Engine 21”; my second team would be “Engine 21 Alpha.”

Team communication is critically important as is the use of locator phrases to allow us to track each other’s movements if we are split up. I would contact my Alpha team by radio using the following example:  “Engine 21 Alpha, this is Engine 21 second floor!” My Alpha team response should be “Engine 21 alpha first floor go!” When working in teams, I assign the most senior firefighter on my Alpha team as the team leader and expect him or her to monitor the radio and stay in constant contact with me.

Another issue we have to deal with is how to handle “swing” people, or details, as we call them in my department, or members who may be working an overtime shift. These members aren’t normally assigned to your crew. Our department has had a huge turnover the past few years; 60 to 80 members retired since the first of this year. This results in newer inexperienced members working on crews to which they aren’t normally assigned. This can create a big problem on some crews depending on who created the vacancy. How would you handle this situation?

Maybe your department has specific SOPs for dealing with this type of thing. Our recruits spend a few months in the academy, and they are hit the streets. When I have a person not normally assigned, depending on the individual’s level of experience, I may or may not have that firefighter ride in the jump seat behind me and be part of my team for the shift. I clearly review my expectations with the person and ensure that we are all on the same page for the shift. I can’t expect the rest of the crew to pick up the slack because we have someone not normally assigned. On the fireground, we all have roles and responsibilities that we must carry out without fail.

When it comes to first water on the fire or positioning and operating the first line, I expect all my firefighters to do their own size-up of the building. They should count windows because the window positions help define the locations of the kitchen, the bedrooms, bathrooms, staircases, and so on. Are there toys in the yard, is the walkway shoveled in the wintertime–anything to help us determine what we are dealing with at this operation. While my firefighters are sizing up, I, as the company officer, do my own thorough size-up before we stretch a line. Sometimes, it may seem like a long time before we start laying in the first line, but a few extra seconds are well worth it when our alternatives may be stretching to the wrong door or wrong apartment in a multiple-family dwelling. We can easily make up this time by improving turn-out time at the station and choosing the best route based on our district preplan. We can also save precious seconds when donning our face piece. I get off the rig with my gloves on and have practiced mastering donning my face piece and hood while gloved up.  It’s an easy skill to accomplish with some practice. I leave one strap loose on my mask, and I can quickly get mask, hood, and chin strap fastened with a proper seal and be ready to go.

The basic unit of the fire service isn’t the firefighter; it’s the fire company. The members of the engine company depend on one another, and other companies depend on them to perform tasks as a team.  The engine boss’ s job is to ensure that SOPs are adhered to and that the members are effective and professional.

Some key take-aways from this article are the following: You as the engine company officer can’t wait for the emergency scene to lay out your expectations to the crew. Company training and district preplanning need to happen on a regular basis. We must be aware of activities or events in our districts and neighboring districts and modify our response as necessary. When new people are working with us, we must do our best to get them up to speed and familiar with our operations.

If you are a company officer and have yet to lay out your expectations to your crew, get it done!  Next shift!  A crew with clearly defined expectations will function much better than one without them.



SEAN EAGEN, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with the Buffalo (NY) Fire Department. He is a part-time instructor for the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control Special Operations Branch. He is also a New York State ambassador for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.



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