Small Departments: Growing Beyond the Single-Line Mentality

By Jon E. Trent

All new fire departments undergo an operational growth and a maturation process that transform them into seasoned, well-trained, high-performing departments. If we were to put a label on these operational development stages, we could call them Competent, Developing, and Peak Performance. In the early years, we may strive to get all of our personnel trained to a standard level of training such as Firefighter II and EMT-B. In this early operational stage, we are striving to reach organizational competence. When we achieve this goal, we have a standard on which we can hang our hat should we need to defend our organization: We will be able to say that we have achieved a level of competence in our field.

Most small to medium-sized departments reach the competent operational level and settle into day-to-day operations. But, is that where they should stay? The answer is emphatically NO! Organizational competence is a great achievement, but don’t we owe it to our communities and our firefighters to be more than competent?

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Fighting Small and Medium-Sized Box Store Fires with Limited Personnel

Overcoming an Insufficient Water Supply

As a small volunteer and combination department, our department [the Nixa (MO) Fire Protection District], had settled in on competence. It wasn’t until one training session when I asked our crews what the first-due engine and the second-due engine did that I discovered we were stuck in a small organizational paradigm. Everyone could tell me what the first-due engine did; it pulled the 1¾-inch preconnect, forced entry, and searched for victims and the seat of the fire. They were right. That is what we had done as a small department with limited personnel that had to make do with its limited resources.

However, almost no one could tell me that the second-due grabs water supply and pulls the secondary line, and no one could tell me what a third company’s tactics would be. Their answer was, “whatever command tells us to do.” We were stuck in a single-line mentality. Sure, they could tell me that we might pull a 2½-inch line on a fire beyond a single-room-and-contents fire, but anything beyond that was questionable territory.

Mission Change Needed

We had largely been successful in the tactics we knew, and that was our greatest weakness. Past success is your greatest adversary! We were a competent department, but we were far from peak performers. The first step toward becoming peak performers is to recognize you have to break the organizational paradigm you are stuck in, no matter what that might be. A new perspective on what you should be doing is nothing without a change in the operational way you do business. In other words, finding out that you have a “single-line mentality” doesn’t do a thing unless you take steps to address it.

In our case, we had to redefine our operational brand. Organizationally, we had to have buy-in on the fact that we needed to change to meet our mission. We also had to recognize that our having been successful in the past was attributable more to luck than to performance.

The second thing we had to do was to define what practices were contributing to the situation and what could we do to change them. In our case, we had worked with limited personnel so long that it had become the normal way of doing business. That was more of a mentality to overcome than a training issue to address.

Developing Stage: from Competent to Peak Performance

So, we began to discuss operational guidelines, such as task-assigned seating and standard orders for arriving companies. As we developed these formal organizational documents, we entered the developing stage of our growth. Company drills and multicompany drills began to take on the form of the operational brand we were pursuing.

We had also observed during training and on-scene operations that the firefighters were continually shutting down lines and observing instead of having a continuous flow of water. We tracked that problem to our training. We had been conducting the overwhelming majority of our live fire training in a Class A burn trailer. In that environment, we had our firefighters limit the water flow to keep steam production at a minimum. We were teaching our firefighters to flow water, stop and observe, and then flow a little more water. We changed our training.

Rural Connections: Water Supply

Throw Back to Basics: Rural Water Supply

Water Supply: Preplanning Alternatives

Throw Back to Basics: Preconnect Hose Loads

We emphasized large and continuous water flow in training and on the fireground. In fact, when I would arrive on scene, everyone would pass the word, “Flow water, flow water, flow water.” And, it worked! Our on-scene performance was at a much higher level of performance than at any other time previously.

As we began to develop peak performance on engine company operations, we identified another “single-line mentality” tactic: We were not throwing ground ladders on a consistent basis on our routine structure fires. We had run mostly single-story residential structure fires in our district; and in the past, we didn’t have a situation where we needed to rescue a civilian or one of our own from a second- or third-story window. Remember, past success is your greatest adversary!

The majority of the residential and multifamily structures in our area are less than 10 years old, so we did not have a lot of experience with fires in those structures. We now realized that this was our number-one deficiency in our operational brand. We were competent at throwing ground ladders, but, once again, we were far from peak performance. We identified the need for a new ladder truck that carried a full complement of ground ladders since we have the only ladder truck in our automatic-aid area.

However, our crews realized they didn’t need that new ladder truck to move toward our goals. They began training regularly on single firefighter ladder throws, and we began to ladder structures every chance we had–if there was a potential for a working fire in the building, it got laddered. We adopted this concept from “Truck Company Operations: Boston’s Ladder Culture,” (Fire Engineering, March 2015), a great article by Shawn Donovan of the Boston Fire Department. It was the perfect explanation of what we were striving for in our operational brand. We wanted peak performing, aggressive engine companies; and to support those operations, we needed peak performing, aggressive truck company work!

Now, keep in mind that we are still a small to medium-sized department and we still can’t send a full first-alarm assignment with our staffing. However, since we work with our automatic-aid companies, it really doesn’t matter whether our second- or third-due engine is from our department or from one our area departments. The concepts are the same. We achieved our growth with the help of many outside people, who assisted us with selecting our ladder truck who instructed us in engine and truck company operations. You see, no matter how small you are, there are always great people with experience in our field looking to help you in any way they can.

You don’t have to settle for a competent department. As a matter of fact you shouldn’t settle for a competent department. We should all strive to be at peak performance in our operational brand. The keys to getting there are to identify your “single line mentality”; strategically plan how to address that deficiency with quality, intense training sessions; and strive for peak performance.

By the way, you don’t have to be a small department to have a “single line mentality.”  Every department has operational tactics they could improve. The question is, do you want to be just a competent department or do you want to achieve operational peak performance?

BIO

Jon E. Trent is the fire chief for the Nixa (MO) Fire Protection District; this area has been recognized as the fastest growing city and county in Missouri and is among the top 25 fastest growing areas in the nation. He is a 24-plus-year veteran of the fire service and has worked in volunteer and career as a Training Program manager and chief officer. He has an associate degree in fire service administration from Columbia College (Missouri) and is completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on management. He has been a long-time adjunct instructor with the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Institute, an adjunct instructor in the Fire Science Technologies program for the Ozarks Technical Community College,  an original “lucky 13” member of the Ozark Mountain FOOLS, and a senior contributor to Hooks and Hooligans.

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