By Ray McCormack
Engine company performance can be rated several ways, but only one evaluation ultimately counts: fire extinguishment. Engine companies must put out the fire; that is their primary function and mission on the fireground. Everything else is a good try. That may sound harsh, but so is the environment in which the engine works. No one is closer to the fire than the nozzle team. If your focus and will are not up to the task, then failure will be your report card. Not all battles are won on the first attempt, however, many are lost during that time.
There are many variables for members of an engine company to contend with: staffing, length of stretch, amount of fire, interior conditions, and water flow are always a bit different from incident to incident. Engine company operations are not like using a hydraulic cutting tool that works by the numbers every time; conditions are a lot more varied in the engine. These variables must be taken into account and dealt with, but they are not ready-made excuses for poor performance.
Engine company staffing can be minimal or robust on a given day. The impact of staffing on an interior stretch with three turns down a tiled hallway may be minimal. Stretching to the fourth floor of an old downtown transient hotel will be better expedited by improved staffing and better skill development. The rub comes because both stretches can fall to the same company. Many engine companies have less experience with longer stretches, especially when the stretch becomes vertical. The vertical stretch is the most labor-intensive. This is where preplanning and firefighter training come into effect. An engine company that has taken the time to cover all the bases will shine. You cannot expect people to know how to do something just because you think they should. You must provide the knowledge and test the skill.
Engine company training cannot always consist of dry lines. Effective training requires that water be pumped through the hose, and simulated stretches and advancements be attempted. Don’t be the firefighter or engine company that does not know how to perform a particular type of stretch just because you have never done it before. Get curious and learn it all. Gather additional spare hose and use it, so that when a call comes in it can be left behind.
Staffing often gets the blame for poor operations; however, apparatus hosebed design can also be totally wrong for a response area. What are your hosebeds based on? When was the last time they were reviewed in relation to community growth? Attempting to change hosebed layouts will get some people very excited, but the problem often is the people who are getting excited. You may not have noticed them before, hiding in the shadows, until someone tries to bring in a new idea–then they become very visible and vocal. Many departments that could save lives and reduce injuries if they modified their hosebed designs. Before making any permanent changes, however, each firefighter must be trained on how the new procedure will work. Only then should the change be instituted.
Remember, any time a hoseline is charged, its flow will fluctuate. Even if everything seems identical–length of stretch, same nozzle–interior elements can change everything. The same rings true for your firefighters. How they handle the interior fireground can make or break the operation. Interior conditions such as carpet vs. wooden flooring have an impact on the advance, as do cluttered halls or heavy fire conditions.
An engine company that is determined to succeed will adjust to conditions and press forward to make the advance. It may not always succeed, but the members will be proud because they know their stuff and they are confident that no one could have done a better job. If you are an officer and you have the pleasure to work with such firefighters, consider yourself lucky. If you think you do not currently work with such firefighters, you must work to change them into such a team. Your input will equal their output.
Ray McCormack, a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, is a lieutenant with Ladder 28 in Harlem. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering, hosts the engine company video segments of Fire Engineering Training Minutes, and is a contributor to WNYF. McCormack has presented at FDIC and is a H.O.T. instructor in the Live Fire program. He is the founder of liveburntraining.com, which provides firefighter training and benefit seminars. He lectures frequently on the role of the company officer and engine and ladder company tactical operations.