Preparation is very important to the success of our emergency operations. The aim of these guidelines is to improve the training and preparation levels in your fire department.


Check tour equipment faithfully and regularly, as if your life depends on it–because it does. When coming from home, this is a real problem. If you are unable to check your equipment before responding, check it on the fireground before using it. This is easier said than done. There is a lot of pressure to hurry and be the first one “on the knob” to put the fire out and save the day. Nobody wants to be known as the guy who is always outside fiddling with his mask. Training is the immediate answer to this problem, but it goes deeper than that–into people`s attitudes. Macho should never get in the way of safety, but too often it does. Checking equipment is not glamorous but quite necessary. Finding out that your mask doesn`t work when you are advancing into a dark and smoke-filled building increases the already high danger factor. There is no excuse for it.


We must keep alert, because all calls have the potential for injury or death for the responding firefighters. Most incidents that fire departments respond to are minor. Firefighters learn to expect certain types of problems in certain situations. The result is that we can become lax and develop a “smells and bells” mentality, thinking “It`s going to be another false automatic fire alarm,” or “The report of smoke is probably just an odor.” It is easy to fall into the rut of routine, that this call will be like similar calls. We must keep alert, because all calls have the potential for injury or death for the responding firefighters. In the words of one firefighter following a harrowing experience, “The firegound went from almost placid–nothing–to total terror within seconds.”

Several years ago a firefighter died after falling through a hole that had been covered by a piece of sheet metal. It was a room-and-contents fire in a store and had been knocked down. It appeared to be a routine fire. Even after he fell partially into the hole, it was not apparent that he was in serious trouble. It appeared to be a routine fall at a routine fire. “This was almost a routine fire. Just a room and contents. Almost routine,” said Captain Gregory, District of Columbia Fire Department, following the death of Firefighter John Williams of Rescue Squad 1.

Moral: Think the worst.


There was no way any snake could exist there. The crew of Engine 16 was joking and laughing after they were dispatched for a report of a snakebite in McPherson Park, which is very small and surrounded by high-rise buildings. There was no way any snake could exist there, and a poisonous snake was out of the question. It was late at night, and it would be unusual to find a person in that commercial area, even if there were a snake.

The joviality ended on arrival. There was indeed a snakebite victim who was in desperate need of assistance. The victim had broken into the reptile house at the zoo and stolen an exotic poisonous snake. He put the snake in a black plastic garbage bag and boarded a bus to take it home. Getting off the bus, he carried the bag with the snake over his shoulder. The snake struck through the bag and very nearly killed him. The hospital wound up flying in an antidote from Africa to counteract the poison.


On a dark and stormy night, I was dispatched to investigate a report of water leaking from a roof. These are usually routine service calls for a battalion chief. On arrival, there was about six inches of water on the roof of the apartment house. The truck company reported that water was in many apartments and that the police on the scene were starting to evacuate the top floor. It was then that I suddenly realized that I wasn`t working on a water leak but on a potential collapse hazard and mass-casualty incident. I called for some help. We muddled through, and no one was hurt.

Moral: Take all calls seriously–nobody ever calls the fire department because everything is all right. Get out of the “this is minor” mentality and figure out what could happen.


In the firefighting business, we pride ourselves on getting out of the station quickly and getting to the scene as soon as possible. However, when we get to the scene, unless a fire is obvious, we generally investigate. In the army, you often have to hurry up and then wait. Too often in the fire service, we play “Hurry up, then investigate.”

This often means giving little or no thought to a water supply, an attack line, SCBA, or full personal protective equipment (PPE). Usually, a few firefighters will go in, prepared to find nothing, and the rest will wait outside expecting to go home. Looking for a fire when you are not prepared is like leaving your bear gun in the truck and going out to look for the bear. If you find the bear, you have to go back to the truck for the gun. When looking for a bear, always take your gun.


The only thing that unprepared firefighters are ready for is finding little or nothing and returning to the station. When the ho-hum investigation uncovers a real fire, panic often follows, and there is a lot of yelling, screaming, and trying to play catchup. Remember that the fire was supposed to be there; that`s why we were called.

The problem is that in some fire departments, there are two modes: the “This is another nothing incident,” and “Oh, God, this is a fire!” The Oh, God operation isn`t pretty or predictable. The operation goes downhill pretty fast, and often important things are overlooked. Operations that start badly seldom end well. The philosophy of every member responding should be, “This is serious business–we are going to a fire.” Be prepared. Unfortunately, lazy firefighters often get away with it because most fires aren`t serious, so bad habits can be reinforced. Complacency kills.


We have all been to fires such as the one where nothing seems to go right. The first engine went on the scene of a fire in a garden apartment. The crew was screaming that fire was showing and that they needed an immediate backup line. Why all the screaming? There was supposed to be a fire. That`s the reason they were dispatched there, and backup lines should be SOP.

All efforts went into extinguishing the fire, located on the second floor of a three-story garden apartment. There was very little ventilation and no exposure coverage. What else is new?

Calling for help was slow and piecemeal. The original dispatch got three engines, a truck, and a chief. It was obvious that they were going to need a lot of help quickly. What they got was a little help slowly. Calling for help went like this: 10 minutes into the incident, give me two more engines; later, another engine; then another truck, followed by another request for an engine and truck, followed by another engine. Help was called for by bits and pieces over the next hour.

There was no staging, and no companies were assigned to sectors. As a result, the incident commander was overwhelmed with radio traffic. When the visible flames were knocked down, the firefighters thought that the fire was over, and there was a lull in communications. Then all hell broke loose. There were cries of fire in the attic, one floor above the fire. Then they were screaming for hoselines to the roof. You don`t want to know what they did with the lines.

Finally, a company was assigned to cover the exposure in the attached building next door, which had not been checked. Soon they were screaming that they found heavy smoke in the exposure and that they needed lines and hooks.

There never were any organized searches, nor was there a critique or postincident analysis. Doctors bury their mistakes; too often we just don`t talk about ours. The incident commander said that he thought that the fire went pretty well.

We have all been to fires like this one and can relate to some of the mistakes made. They are all common errors that haunt us regularly. In this age of the incident command system, command, and communications (the radios used were state-of-the-art, 800-frequency radios), you would think that fires would not go this badly, but they sometimes do. The main reason these bungled fires continue to happen is that we often skate along doing the bare minimum on our routine calls and when we have serious fires, our bad habits come back to haunt us.


Twenty years ago, I was a newly assigned lieutenant with Engine 18, a busy company in the Capitol Hill area. In those days we often free-wheeled, which was normal in many fire departments during that era. This meant that an engine company on the fireground could often do pretty much what it wanted, unless a chief told it otherwise. It often wasn`t a very efficient system, but it was a hell of a lot of fun and fostered competitiveness between the engine companies. It was an “If you snooze, you lose” system that rewarded efficiency.


Engine 18 was my first engine command, and I wanted to do my best to avoid some of the mistakes I had seen other officers make. My game plan was simple: Whenever we responded to a reported structure fire, we operated as if we were the only engine company responding and that it was a working fire. This meant that we laid supply lines and attack lines to the reported fire area and used full PPE, including SCBA. We were going to arrive at every incident fully prepared to do battle with the red devil.

The hard part was explaining this plan to my incredulous troops. I quickly became the Captain Queeg of the Seventh Battalion. I considered the new rank a promotion. The pumper man stopped talking to me. After a few weeks, just about the time my relations with the troops were at the breaking point, we caught a fire that changed everything.


The fire was reported in the basement of a high-rise apartment. We were the third-due engine company. On arrival, nothing was showing, the first engine and truck were investigating, and the other companies were hanging around outside. They watched with great amusement as Captain Queeg and Engine 18 advanced an attack line into the building and down the stairs. When we got to the first landing, we found smoke, and the first companies passed us as they bailed out of the basement in a near-panic on their way out to get ready for the fire. We simply continued down the stairs and calmly extinguished the fire, which was the reason we were all sent there in the first place.


That was a turning point in my relations with the crew of Engine 18, and we continued our aggressive tactics. Over the next few years, we caught many fires, a number of which were stolen from less-prepared companies. We rapidly developed a reputation for being supermen. We started to hear stories that some of the other companies were so gun-shy of us that they were worried about our stealing their fires, even when we weren`t there.

The truth is that we were not any better firefighters than the others; the secret was that we were simply more prepared than they were. A successful major league baseball pitcher said once he doesn`t “out-ability” everybody else; he just outsmarts them because he is prepared. There is a saying in sports: “The will to win is not enough–you need to have the will to be prepared to win.” Fire operations are similar. The key to effective operations: Be prepared!

A major positive spinoff of the “always prepared” approach was that the basics of engine company operations became second nature to us. We avoided most of the common errors that cause problems (e.g., pulling the wrong attack line, tangling or snagging lines, charging the wrong line, having problems masking or getting water at the right time and pressure). We became a well-oiled team and put out a lot of fires with few errors. We avoided a common fireground disease–being rusty. We were the opposite–we were prepared and treated every run the same: lay out, mask up, and stretch in.


Training is an important part of being prepared. The following observations are offered as ideas that you may be able to use to improve training in your fire department.

Too often, training has a bad reputation in the fire service. Mention training, and some will roll their eyes, recalling boredom, uncomfortable sessions, and being read to. We have a new generation of firefighters to train. The MTV generation doesn`t want Lawrence Welk instruction. Teaching needs to catch up with the times.


The key to fire service training is choosing important subjects taught by good instructors and actively involving everyone in the learning process. Training must be practical and relate to the real world. Nobody is going to fall asleep during a drill on finding lost firefighters. They fall asleep during classes when the instructor reads them the department`s bylaws or from Improved Management Techniques Through Advanced Programming.

The fire service has become so complex that trying to keep up with all the different aspects can be overwhelming. We should focus on firefighting basics such as using SCBA, ensuring that everyone can get water in the attack line, and learning the layout of our jurisdiction. You can`t do anything if you can`t get there. Train on the problem areas in your department, and don`t take anything for granted. Following a serious failure to get water at a fire, a major fire department sent several pump operators to a retraining session because of their shortcomings. Assume nothing.

Visuals are important. Watching videos of your own or other departments` fires can be very interesting and productive. Use an experienced moderator who can stop the tape periodically to discuss what went right or wrong. Replay important scenes following the discussion to reinforce the lessons.

When possible, choose instructors who love the subject that they are teaching. When instructors are mandated to drill in areas in which they are not comfortable, training often suffers. Instructors should be chosen by their expertise, not their rank. Reach out to people in other departments or from other shifts. Using different instructors keeps training fresh.

Instructors should use less lecture and more class participation. They should ask probing questions reflecting real-life situations to stir the students` minds. If the instructor is the only one talking, the training session is dead. If you show the students how to do something, they will pay attention; but the real learning takes place when they actually do it. Firefighters learn by doing. This dynamic learning avoids the “I have to sit through this to get my ticket punched” mentality.

Industry has found it cheaper to send people on retreats, to learn in a completely different environment. Most fire departments lack the resources for this, but variety and interest can be added by getting out of the fire stations. Get out and look over the railyard. Arrange for a mutual-aid disaster drill with your neighboring fire departments. Go to the junkyard to cut up cars; hold a high-rise drill simulating a fire during hours when the building is closed. You get the idea–a good instructor is limited only by his imagination. Don`t just talk about how to do things–do them.

Every run is a training session. Minor incidents are training grounds for major incidents. Try to do the basics properly on each run; don`t get careless or sloppy. After incidents, discuss what happened and how things could be improved.


The National Fire Academy (NFA) is our West Point and Harvard. It represents the best that the fire service has to offer. The library resources are the biggest and the best available. Those who have not been there (and there are too many) think the value of the academy will come from what they will learn from the courses. Those who have attended the NFA know that the course content is only a part of the learning process. The real value is in sharing experiences with firefighters from all over the nation, in a first-class learning environment. This experience is stimulating and will broaden your view of the fire service. You will never be the same again. When you return to your own fire department, you will no longer have a parochial view of the fire service. You will return with a national view, increased knowledge, and a network of friends you have made in the process.

Most of those who attend the academy for the upper-level chief officer courses are midlevel management: the lieutenants, captains, and junior chiefs. Very few chiefs who are the heads of their departments attend. This is unfortunate, because the fire chiefs are the ones who can return home and make changes. Some reasons for this problem may be that those with the responsibility of running fire departments think they are too busy or that they already know everything there is to know. The fear of embarrassment may be another reason some fire chiefs do not attend. In any case, there is a strong need for the nation`s fire chiefs to attend the academy. Make every effort to attend the NFA.


Take all calls seriously and be prepared, because they all have the potential for injury or death. There no such thing as a routine call. You never know what you will find when you arrive at the emergency scene. When fire companies take responses seriously and are prepared, fireground operations will be smoother. Remember, we play the game the way we practice, and we set the stage for the big incidents at the little ones. Training is vital, and the key to fire service training is choosing important subjects and actively involving everyone in the learning process. n

ROBERT C. BINGHAM, a 31-year veteran of the fire service, is a fire training specialist and conducts fire operations classes and seminars for volunteer and career fire departments on a national level. He formerly was deputy fire chief in the District of Columbia Fire Department, where he served as a command officer for 12 years and was often responsible for all fire and medical services for Washington, D.C. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and was an instructor and course developer for the University of the District of Columbia Fire Science program. He has a B.S. in fire science with a minor in management from the University of Maryland at University College in College Park.

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