Are You Ready for Game Day?

By Lance C. Peeples
Articles by author except where noted

Imagine a football game where the center showed up for the snap without the ball, the right tackle decided his position was not exciting enough so he pushed aside the quarterback, the tailback was knocked unconscious because he forgot his helmet, and the wide receiver was so out of shape that he couldn’t run the length of the football field. Perhaps football’s not your game; maybe baseball is more to your liking. What would happen if the shortstop forgot his glove, the catcher took a ball to the face because he was too tough to wear a face mask, and the right fielder kept moving way in because “there’s not enough action out there.” Of course, the results of either game would be disastrous–our hypothetical teams would surely lose and injuries, no doubt, would be incurred.

Unfortunately, in our job, LOSING IS NOT AN OPTION. And while our analogy illustrates the point that we must cover our positions and bring the tools of our trade to the playing field, it is only an analogy. We are not playing a game; we are locked in deadly combat with a mortal foe. Despite the relative unimportance of a football or a baseball game compared to a fire response, it is amazing how few departments preassign the positions and roles each member will take when they arrive at a house fire. Instead, they wait until game day before appointing a quarterback, making sure the center has the ball and that the tailback didn’t forget his helmet. This article reviews the essential functions and the tool assignments necessary to perform those critical functions on your “game day.”

Ladder vs. Engine:

Historically, fire departments have been divided into engine and ladder companies. This is the most basic division of labor on the fireground, and it is where we will begin our discussion. Engine companies are responsible for applying water to the fire. This is the essence of the fire service mission. Put water on the fire, and most of our problems go away. The engine is akin to the infantry in the army. Infantry members are responsible for the “up close and personal” application of force designed to kill the enemy.

The ladder company, on the other hand, is more akin to the army’s special forces that scout out the enemy’s location and provide logistical support so that the infantry can advance. Each depends on the other to ensure its safety, and each is essential to the successful completion of the mission.

Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions the support functions provided by the ladder company are not deemed essential to the fire suppression effort. Perhaps this has occurred because of the proliferation of small suburban communities caused by post-war urban sprawl. These bedroom communities often consist almost entirely of small one-story frame homes and perhaps a strip mall or two. Rarely are there any buildings greater than three stories tall. Seeing no need for a ladder truck in these low-rise communities, many opted only to staff engine companies. This, coupled with a relative lack of fire calls, resulted in an erosion of the ladder company services provided by the “big city” fire departments. Although it may (or may not) be true that these low-rise jurisdictions did not require an actual physical ladder truck, what is absolutely true is that they required someone to perform the ladder truck’s function–i.e., scout out and soften up the enemy for the infantry. The take-home point is this: A ladder truck may not be essential in a particular community, but a ladder company most definitely is! Having established the need for both engine and truck companies to go to work at a typical house fire, let’s turn the discussion to the specific duties and responsibilities of the members on each of these types of companies.

How Many Members on a Team?

What would happen if a football team had only nine players or a baseball team only three? Most likely, they would lose the game. In our “game,” the fire determines how many firefighters are needed to defeat it; unfortunately, politicians decide how many firefighters will be provided to do so. It is the disparity between these two numbers that often sets the stage for real trouble. We will begin by discussing the minimum number of companies that should respond to a reported house fire. I believe that the minimum number should be one chief officer to take command; one engine to place the first hoseline into service; a second engine company to ensure a backup water supply and stretch a second hoseline; a third engine company should be staged to provide an additional hoseline or provide relief; one ladder company to force entry, search, and vent; and a second additional ladder company to reinforce the first ladder company and provide additional ground or aerial ladders. Finally, a third ladder or rescue company should be assigned as a rapid intervention company should things get out of hand. At this point, many will throw up their hands in despair and profess that they could never assemble that kind of personnel at the fire scene. This may well be true; however, it requires an acknowledgement that all operations, including rescue, may be delayed or not possible. You can’t play football with fewer than 11 players! If you do, you will probably get hurt and lose the game. You’ve got to plan for a different game. Figure out how to get more people to the scene. Call mutual aid; you can always turn them around. Your plan must match your resources; but if you expect to win, your resources must match the fire’s threat! Now that we’ve formed the rudiments of our “game” plan, let’s flesh it out in more detail.

First-Due Engine

The first-due engine is responsible for placing the first attack line between any potential victims and the fire. This point bears repeating: The first due engine is responsible for placing the first attack line between any potential victims and the fire. Only after this critical goal is attained, can the members focus on their second objective of confining the fire to its area of origin and its third goal of extinguishing the fire. To perform its essential mission of placing the first line between any potential victims and the fire, the first-due engine must be staffed to perform the following essential functions:
  1. Engine Officer – supervises the operation of his company, determines where the first line should be placed, monitors fire and building conditions, and ensures the safety of his members. Tool assignment: Portable radio, thermal imaging camera (TIC), or hand lantern, Rex tool (Officer’s Tool).
  2. Nozzle firefighter – responsible for stretching line to location specified by officer and ensuring that at least one length of working line is available at the immediate entrance to the fire area. Operate the nozzle as directed by the officer. Tool  assignment: Portable radio, hose, nozzle, door chocks.
  3. Backup Firefighter – responsible for stretching the hoseline to fire area as directed by the officer and provides relief from back pressure for the nozzle firefighter. Tool assignment: Portable radio, hose, hand lantern.
  4. Hydrant/Control Firefighter – responsible for flushing and making hydrant connection if department uses forward lays or estimating the lengths of hose required for a reverse lay before the apparatus lays out. Tool assignment: Portable radio, hose, hydrant wrench, mallet.
  5. Door Firefighter – responsible for the essential function of “humping” hose to ensure that the hoseline can advance rapidly and smoothly into the fire area. Tool assignment: Portable radio, hose.
  6. Engineer – operates the fire pump. Tool assignment: Portable radio.
Second-Due Engine
The second-due engine company must ensure that the first-due engine has established its own supply line. It is essential that only the first-due engine and truck enter the fire block initially. The second-due engine must hold up at the intersection to determine if it should catch a hydrant and forward lay into the fire. Far too many fire departments commit all of their initial assignment into the fire block without securing a water supply.  Its second critical function is to ensure that the first attack line is advancing on the fire. If the first line is a particularly difficult hand stretch, then the second engine must assist the first engine in stretching the first attack line. Only after ensuring a continuous water supply and that the first line is operating on the fire should the second-due engine begin stretching a second attack line to support the first line. Staffing and tool assignments mirror those of the first-due engine.

(1) The second-due engine must ensure that the first-due engine has a continuous water supply. Engine companies should make every effort to leave the front of the building available for ladder companies.
Third-Due Engine

The third-due engine should stage at the nearest intersection and wait to be assigned by the incident commander (IC). The officer, nozzle, backup, and door firefighters should report to the command post by foot and be prepared to relieve the first-due engine on the line. Staffing and tool assignments mirror those of the first-due engine. 

First-Due Ladder

The first-due ladder is responsible for forcible entry, primary search for the seat of the fire, and any potential victims, as well as the vent/enter/search (VES) function. Many departments fail to designate specific individuals to conduct a primary search, hoping instead that the engine company will stumble over the victims as they advance the attack line. They rely that their accumulated experience will not make forcible entry a significant problem in their suburban jurisdictions. These are serious mistakes. Increasingly, the crime problem is moving from inner cities to suburban and rural communities. In response, citizens are taking steps to ensure that their homes are secured from invasion. Increasingly, private homes are protected with burglar bars, vacant property protection systems (VPS), HUD windows, and other high-security devices.

To delay the advance of the hoseline while searching for victims will ensure that both functions are performed poorly. Finally, it is essential that horizontal ventilation be undertaken early at a house fire to allow for the rapid advance of the initial hoseline. Failure to support the engine company by early and aggressive ventilation will ensure failure as the engine firefighters and any potential victims are toasted. The first-due ladder should make every attempt to position its apparatus so that the aerial device can reach at least two sides of the fire building. The first-due ladder company must be adequately staffed to perform the following functions:

1. Inside Team: forces entry and conducts primary search.

A. Officer – supervises company, assists with primary search. Monitors fire and building conditions, ensures safety. Tool assignment: Portable radio, TIC/ hand lantern, officer’s tool, rabbit tool. 

B. Irons Firefighter – forces entry and remains at entry point to orient the officer and the can firefighter to the exit point. Tool Assignment: Portable radio, hand lantern, irons (flathead ax and halligan).

C. Can Firefighter – assists irons firefighter with forcible entry by striking the halligan with an ax as directed; uses extinguisher to contain the fire or extinguish incipient fires; assists the officer with the primary search. Tool Assignment: Portable radio, water extinguisher, six-foot hook.

2. Outside Team – uses portable ladders as required to conduct VES of bedrooms.

A. Outside Vent Firefighter – selects portable ladder, vent windows; enters and conducts primary search. Tool Assignment: Portable radio, ladder, TIC/hand lantern, halligan, six-foot hook.

B. Roof Firefighter – assists outside vent firefighter with VES. Tool Assignment: Portable radio, ladder, flathead ax, hand lantern.

C. Engineer – raise aerial to windows for VES. Tool Assignment: Portable radio, saw for removing window bars.



(2) What if there is a baby in that room? Shouldn’t the firefighter be masked up and prepared to search the room after venting the glass? Is this the plan? Photo by Dave Dubowski.

(3) A ladder TRUCK might not be needed at every fire, but a ladder COMPANY is? The ladder company members may arrive by ladder truck, engine, bus, or cab, but who is going to force entry, search, ladder, and vent at your next fire? What’s the plan for “game day”?

Second-Due Ladder

The second-due ladder is responsible for reinforcing the first ladder’s search and ventilation efforts. It should attempt to position its apparatus so that the aerial device can reach an area of the building not covered by the first-due ladder. This may necessitate anticipating from which direction the first ladder will arrive so as to approach from the opposite direction. The outside team of the second-due ladder may perform vertical ventilation if indicated and if VES operations do not require additional support. Staffing and tool assignments mirror those of the first-due ladder.

(4) Many suburban and rural fire departments underestimate the forcible entry challenges present in their response areas. Consequently, they often fail to assign personnel specifically to that function. What’s your plan for forcing a steel third-floor apartment door set in a steel jamb? On “game day,” who’s bringing the irons? Who’s got the rabbit tool? Don’t waste valuable time at the scene figuring this out. PLAN AHEAD!

Third-Due Ladder (or Rescue):

The third-due ladder (or rescue) should be assigned to stage as the rapid intervention company. If this company is put to work, another company must immediately replace it. This company should ensure that at a minimum it has a staged stokes basket, an automatic external defibrillator, a resuscitator, irons, saws, and a TIC near the command post.

First-Due Chief

The first-due chief is responsible for ensuring that the arriving companies adhere to the plan or modify the plan as required by unusual or changing circumstances. He must constantly monitor the situation and the resources available to handle it and ensure that sufficient resources are available to meet any potential threat.


Take-away Points

  1. Football and baseball teams don’t show up on game day without a plan. You shouldn’t either.
  2. We can’t lose at our “game”!
  3. Get water on the fire. Everything else will get better after that.
  4. Maybe you don’t need a ladder company with a ladder, but you need a ladder company.
  5. Somebody needs to search for the people trapped in the building. Decide who that is going to be BEFORE the fire.
  6. Somebody needs to let all that nasty smoke out of the building. Decide who that is going to be BEFORE the fire.
  7. Somebody needs to bring the tools so that we can break into grandma’s super-duper reinforced double dead-bolted front door. Decide who that is going to be BEFORE the fire.
  8. Don’t make a plan you can’t execute!  
  9. Don’t show up on “game day” without practicing the plan first!
  10. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

(5) Even the best plan is doomed to failure if it is not practiced. Successful teams train BEFORE game day! Here a member practices VES. When was the last time your company practiced VES, stretching a line, or forcible entry?

Fire departments must prepare their “game” plan ahead of time. This plan should at a minimum identify who is responsible for stretching the first and second lines, securing a water supply, forcible entry with primary search, laddering the building, and venting and searching bedrooms (VES). The plan should also identify a rapid incident company and an incident commander. At least one engine company should be held in reserve in case of unanticipated developments. These are basic functions that should be performed at every house fire. They cannot be left to chance or micromanaged by an incident commander at the time of the fire. The fireground simply moves too fast for the IC to tell Joe to get an ax and Bob to fetch a ladder. The plan must be tailored to local resources and circumstances, with an acknowledgement that resources must meet the threat or failure may result. Finally, formulating a plan and then failing to practice that plan is next to useless. Firefighters MUST prepare for “game day.” FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!
Table 1: Alternative Plan – Four-Member Companies
Engine 1: First attack line
A.    Officer – assume backup firefighter duties in addition to officer duties.
B.     Nozzle- operate nozzle.
C.     Hydrant/Control – estimate stretch/make hydrant connection, assume duties of door firefighter ASAP.
D.    Engineer – operate pump (may have to assist with initial stretch).
Engine 2: Ensure that there is a sustained water supply; ensure that the first line is advancing; then stretch the second line. Individual assignments and tools remain the same as Engine 1.
Engine 3: Stage at the nearest intersection. Locate additional water sources. Operate as
Ladder 1: Force entry, primary search, VES.
A.    Officer – assume irons firefighter’s tools and duties in addition to his own, substitute irons for officer’s tool, and carry “Lil Rex” to replace the lock puller. 

B.     Can Firefighter – carries water extinguisher and six-foot hook, assists officer with forcible entry and primary search. 

C.     Outside Vent Firefighter – Carries a six-foot hook, a halligan, and a portable ladder to vent/enter/search the bedrooms.

D.    Driver – flathead ax, saw for burglar bars. Works with outside vent firefighter to VES

Ladder 2: Reinforce Ladder 1. Outside team performs vertical ventilation if required.
         Tool assignments and duties same as Ladder 1.
Ladder 3/Rescue: Rapid Intervention Company.
Chief 1: Assumes IC role.

Lance C. Peeples is a firefighter in St. Louis County, Missouri. He is a certified fire instructor II and fire officer II. He holds an associate degree in paramedic and fire technology and a B.S. degree in public administration, and an M.S. degree in fire and emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University. He is a certified flight paramedic. Peeples is a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and the National Fire Protection Association.

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