Modern Day Pump Operators: Doing More with Less


It seems that every time we step into the firehouse we are being asked to “do more with less.” Rarely does someone take the time to define exactly what “doing more with less” means for us operating on the street. For the engine company driver-pump operator, this can significantly change the way we operate when arriving at the scene of a structure fire. Career and volunteer organizations across the country are experiencing staffing shortages and cutbacks. Unfortunately, this makes an engine company staffed with only three or four firefighters, including the driver and officer, a common sight. Staffing shortages affect volunteer and paid firefighters alike.

A pump operator who is a paid firefighter will know the engine company will be understaffed at the beginning of the shift and can begin to prepare for operating under that condition. A pump operator serving in a volunteer department does not always have this advantage, since volunteer departments many times have to wait for firefighters to arrive after the alarm sounds. Thus, the volunteer pump operator must be equally prepared to operate with an understaffed engine company as with one that is regularly staffed.

It is essential that paid and volunteer pump operators understand how staffing shortages will affect the company’s operation at a fire. Operating with an understaffed engine company greatly changes how the pump operator needs to think and act at a structure fire. The difference in the pump operator’s minor actions and decisions will affect the fire’s outcome and the company’s overall performance at the fire.


The first consideration for the pump operator of an understaffed engine company is how a water supply will be obtained. Many departments have standard operating procedures (SOPs)/standard operating guidelines (SOGs) that address water supply and whether the first-due engine will establish its own or if it will be established by a later-arriving engine company. Pump operators on an engine staffed with only three or four firefighters need to think beyond what is listed on paper and conduct a size-up of the scene from their perspective to decide what actions can be taken that will benefit the company the most. There are several options.

Option 1

First, consider an engine company responding to a reported residential structure fire with a crew of three–the officer, a firefighter, and the pump operator. As they make the turn onto the block of the address, they see flames through at least four of the second-floor windows of a two-story, wood-frame house. They cannot determine the threat to the exposures from down the street. There is a hydrant approximately 600 feet from the structure that they must pass to reach the fire. At this point, the pump operator and the officer have to make a decision. One choice is to stop at the hydrant and have the only firefighter get off the engine to secure the hydrant and establish a water supply as the engine continues down the street to the fire while laying a supply line. Remember, this decision will leave the firefighter at the hydrant, 600 feet away from the fire. After the firefighter establishes the water supply, they then need to make their way up the street to pull the attack line.

This decision may be reasonable given the heavy fire visible from down the street, since the booster tank water most likely will not be enough to control the fire. This decision is reasonable in cases of heavy fire showing, as in the above scenario and when it is known that the second-due company has a delayed response time. If the initial reports indicate that there are no trapped occupants and the officer is calling for a defensive attack, then taking the time to secure a water supply may not be a terrible idea. Do not forget that performing all of these tasks is asking a lot of the only firefighter on the engine. After checking the hydrant, making the hydrant connection, waiting for the order to charge the supply line, and making his way to the scene, the firefighter will then need to stretch the attack line and advance it to control the fire. All of this takes time and will significantly delay getting water on the fire, whether it is used for a direct attack or exposure protection. The longer it takes to get the attack line in place, the more time the fire has to grow and spread.

Option 2

Now, let’s look at a more effective option. Again, an engine company is responding to a reported structure fire in a wood-frame, residential structure. The status of the occupants is unknown. As the company turns onto the street, smoke and fire are visible from a window on the first floor of a one-story, ranch-style house. The engine will pass a hydrant 600 feet from the structure on its way to the fire. In this scenario, the pump operator chooses to “do more with less,” since only a single firefighter is on the engine. The engine stops at the hydrant, but instead of leaving the firefighter at the hydrant as in the previous scenario, the firefighter simply wraps the hydrant with the supply line and gets back in the engine. The company then proceeds to the scene laying a dry supply line. When they pull up to the fire, the firefighter stretches the attack line, which the pump operator charges using the booster tank water. The pump operator then breaks the supply line from the hosebed and connects it to a pump intake. Doing this prevents an overeager pump operator on the second-due company from charging the supply line while it is still connected in the hosebed. The officer will need to notify the second-due engine company that they have laid a dry supply line from the hydrant and that the second-due company needs to connect it to the hydrant when they arrive to establish the water supply.

These actions allow the firefighter to stretch the initial attack line and make a push to control the fire much more quickly than in the last scenario. It is very possible that the amount of water carried in the booster tank will be enough to control the fire. In the case of a trapped occupant, the line can be put in place to provide protection to the occupant much sooner by laying only a dry supply line and initially using booster tank water instead of waiting for a water supply before deploying the attack line. This will allow the occupant some extra time until he can be removed from the structure.

It is very important to remember that when the booster tank water is initially used to supply the attack line, the pump operator will need to begin refilling the booster tank as soon as possible after a water supply has been established. If the water supply is lost while the engine crew is operating inside, the pump operator will have only the amount of water left in the booster tank to supply the crew’s attack line. This hoseline is the interior crew’s only protection while they make their way out of the structure. As pump operators, we do not want to jeopardize the interior crew’s safety by not refilling the booster tank. Forgetting to refill the tank will shorten the time the crew has to exit the structure with the protection of the hoseline. There is no reason for not having a full booster tank of water as a backup in case the water supply is suddenly lost.

Option 3

The pump operator can bypass the hydrant altogether and inform the next-arriving company of the hydrant’s location and ask that company to stop at the hydrant, wrap it, and lay a supply line to the scene. This will, again, leave the firefighter on the engine to pull the attack line. However, the attack line will be limited to the amount of water carried in the booster tank. In this case, the next-arriving company will take a much longer time to establish a water supply than it did in the previous scenario because instead of having in place a dry supply line that needs only to be connected and charged at the hydrant, the second-due engine company must now pull the supply line from the hosebed, wrap the hydrant, lay into the scene, disconnect the line from the hosebed, and connect the line to the first-due engine’s intake before they can charge the line at the hydrant. A decision to bypass the hydrant may be reasonable only if light to moderate smoke is showing and a fast knockdown is expected because of the aggressive, interior attack. The fire should require only a minimal amount of water to control, there should be no exposures that need protection, and all of the occupants must be accounted for, since protection from the hoseline will be limited because of the time it would take to establish a water supply if it is needed.

As with all of our skills, company training is essential to these operations to ensure that all company members are proficient at securing a hydrant for a water supply and advancing the attack line to prevent a delay in getting water on the fire. It is the pump operator’s responsibility to remain proficient at disconnecting the supply line from the hosebed and to connect it to a pump intake. The pump operator must be able to accomplish this by himself, since he will be operating alone when the engine is the first to arrive at a structure fire. If the choice is to leave the firefighter at the hydrant and lay a supply line, a delay in the pump operator’s breaking and connecting the supply line will cause the firefighter to remain at the hydrant waiting on the pump operator. This creates an unnecessary delay in getting the first attack line in service. Remember, the mission of the engine company is to get water on the fire as quickly as possible, whether it is used for direct fire attack, occupant protection, or exposure protection.

Four-Member Company

These considerations also apply to engine companies lucky enough to have a four-member crew. Do not automatically commit one of the two firefighters to establishing a water supply simply because of the extra person on the engine. By choosing to leave one firefighter at the hydrant, the pump operator is limiting how much can be accomplished at the scene. By laying a dry supply line into the scene, both firefighters are left on the engine. One firefighter can assist with flaking out the hoseline and moving it during the fire attack while the other firefighter serves in the nozzle position. By doing this, the officer is free to conduct a more thorough size-up of the scene. The officer’s assistance is not needed to help speed the stretching of the line because the second firefighter is there to help.

Anyone who has ever tried advancing a hoseline alone inside of a structure knows it can be quite challenging. The benefit of having just one extra person helping to advance the line is incredible. This is especially true when the hoseline must make several turns or be advanced up or down stairs to reach the fire.

Also, keep in mind that the ladder company will not always be immediately available to perform the duties of forcible entry or search and rescue. Although these tasks are not usually a primary function of the engine company, life safety is the first priority of the fire service. When an engine company arrives first on the scene of a structure fire and occupants are in need of rescue, having the extra firefighter allows the officer to use one firefighter to assist in the search and rescue of the occupants while the other firefighter provides protection with the attack line. If forcible entry is needed, having the extra firefighter with the engine allows one firefighter to perform forcible entry while the other stretches the attack line. This allows for rapid hoseline advancement into the structure once forcible entry is complete because one firefighter will not have to force entry and pull the attack line alone while his partner is down the street securing the hydrant.

Usually, the pump operator does not assist with stretching the attack line; however, when operating with a short-staffed crew, it may be beneficial for the pump operator to assist with stretching and flaking out the line. After setting the engine into pump gear, the operator can assist the firefighter, especially if there is only one, with clearing the line from the hosebed and flaking it out. The pump operator then returns to the pump panel and charges the attack line. Helping to flake out the line can reduce the time it takes to deploy the attack line, especially if this is routinely practiced at company training.


Always consider exposure protection at a structure fire. While the initial line is being pulled and the officer is conducting a size-up, the pump operator can take a second to look for any possible threats to the exposures. The pump operator may need to charge the attack line and then set up the deck gun to protect an exposure. This is simple to do and can greatly impact the outcome of the fire by limiting fire spread and protecting property from damage. During this type of operation, a water supply will be needed rather quickly. Pump operators need to stay proficient at pulling their own supply line and securing a hydrant. Although a pump operator does not want to wander too far away from the pump panel, he may need to quickly pull a supply line and connect it to a hydrant on his own. Short sections of rolled supply line kept in a compartment near the pump panel or a supply line stored on the front bumper can make it much easier to accomplish this task when the engine is close to a hydrant. Since a hydrant is not always within a few feet of the engine, the pump operator must be prepared to stretch a supply line from the hosebed to the hydrant by hand. This may require pulling several lengths of supply line alone and can be physically demanding. Again, the company needs to go outside and practice these operations to find out what techniques work for them.

Pump operators should practice determining the distance objects are from the engine so they can accurately predict the amount of line that will be needed at a fire. Pump operators can also practice timing how long it takes to establish a water supply with one and with multiple lines flowing water before running out of water in the booster tank. Our company captain requires that all new pump operators do this during company training so they know exactly how much time they have to establish a water supply before running out of water. Pump operators want to limit the amount of time they are away from the pump panel and should perform tasks like these only after they have practiced them and discussed them with their company officers and when the fire conditions dictate these tasks are in the best interest of the crew and do not expose the crew to unnecessary risk.


Once the initial attack line has been deployed, the pump discharge pressure (PDP) has been set, and a water supply has been established, the pump operator should take a moment to reevaluate and size up the fireground conditions. Based on this size-up, there are other actions the pump operator can take to assist with overall operations.

When the conditions and radio reports indicate a second hoseline will be needed at the fire, the pump operator can consider pulling the second line and leaving it uncharged by the door. Once another company arrives to advance the line, it can be charged for their use. This saves time and speeds up getting the second line into service. Since a single firefighter can carry only so much equipment and tools, especially while advancing an attack line, consider what tools may be needed and set them out near the structure for the crews. This allows easier access to the equipment and tools when they are needed. For example, we know that overhaul is performed at every fire. Pike poles, halligans, gypsum board pullers, and tarps are examples of some equipment commonly used at fires. By collecting them and staging the tools near the point of entry, they can be easily picked up by a crew for use, saving them the hassle of having to walk to the apparatus to retrieve them.

Some fires will produce a lot of smoke but will be extinguished rather quickly. In these cases, the ladder operator can be busier than the pump operator. Do not be afraid to assist the ladder company operator with his duties, since the ladder company is also likely to be short staffed. The roles of the ladder company operator are also greatly expanded when operating with an understaffed company.

Portable lights and a ventilation fan can be staged near the door for use during overhaul. The pump operator can also assist with setting out and placing power cords to be used during overhaul. Depending on the fire conditions and the type of structure involved, the pump operator may choose to quickly assist the ladder driver with setting up the ladder truck for defensive operations such as assisting with setting up the stabilizers/outriggers or directing the placement of the ladder to the building. This may be safe to do if a water supply is established, a defensive operation has been called for, and the crew from the engine is not operating inside the structure.


It is everyone’s responsibility to make the fire go out. This can be more difficult than it seems when faced with limited staffing on the engine company. Pump operators need to be aware of what tasks they can safely perform to assist their crews with accomplishing the engine company’s mission of getting water on the fire.

There are many small tasks that the pump operator can do that will help keep operations flowing smoothly. Performing simple tasks like having spare self-contained breathing apparatus bottles already set out for the crew when they exit the structure, remembering to fill the water cooler at the beginning of the shift, and setting it out during the fire are simple things that will make everyone’s job a little easier on the fireground.

As stated throughout the article, training is needed to develop proficiency when operating as an engine company staffed with only three or four members. New ideas on ways to improve operations should be brought to the company officer and then discussed as an entire company. Company training is mandatory to ensure everyone understands their function on the engine and can operate proficiently at a structure fire.

Pump operators need to be aware of what tasks they can safely perform to assist their crews with accomplishing the engine company’s mission of getting water on the fire.

DAVE TOPCZYNSKI is a firefighter in Newport News, Virginia, and has been a member of the fire service since 2004. He has served in career and volunteer departments on Long Island, New York, and Virginia.

No posts to display