Putting the First Alarm to Work

By David DeStefano

Scenario: The bay door began to rise slowly with a squeal of protest from the aging rollers and tracks. On the apparatus floor, firefighters could be seen donning gear and climbing aboard the engine and ladder truck waiting to be brought to life by their driver/operators. The muffled vocals parroted the information populating the apparatus data terminals. As the firefighters and officers buckled their seat belts and the rigs rolled out the doors, each member began a size-up and list of initial responsibilities based on their arrival order, standard deployment policies, and position on the apparatus.

A similar scene was unfolding in the other firehouses emptying out for this response. Each company had an initial responsibility based on the type of unit and its order of arrival on the fireground. The incident commander (IC) was able to adjust deployment based on incident specifics. However, life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation goals would always need to be satisfied. As sirens and air horns sliced through the night, each firefighter used the available information to begin his most likely tactics to accomplish his assigned role on the fireground.

With the reported address in a neighborhood of newer single-family houses, lightweight truss construction was a major concern. The time of night increased the possibility of a family sleeping in the residence, while potential exposures would be less likely in this suburban subdivision. In addition, the dispatcher advised that several calls for smoke coming from the dwelling had been received in the communications office.

The first-arriving engine entered the block of the reported address. In the absence of instructions to the contrary, they knew that the second-arriving engine would automatically establish water supply while they stretched the initial attack line. The engine officer began an exterior size-up and transmitted the notification of a working fire with the specifics of the size-up report.

As the engine crew began to make a stretch, the ladder company eased to the curb in front of the house. With a light-duty forcible entry task, the truck crew began to prepare for ventilation and search operations on the fire floor. The ladder company officer knew the second-arriving aerial would place the primary egress ladders and begin to search the floor above the fire; vertical ventilation was not likely to be necessary based on building construction and the conditions presented on arrival.

The third-arriving engine officer listened intently for the transmission that water supply had been established by the second-due engine company. This notification allowed him to place his rig at the next closest hydrant from the fire, keeping the apparatus uncommitted yet in a position to lay another supply line if necessary. On taking up this staged posture, the captain led his firefighters to the primary pumper.

All the members operating at the fire knew that, based on their arrival sequence, these firefighters would stretch and operate the backup line as required. As the backup line was stretched from the attack pumper, the members of the second engine—who had completed their water supply task—began to size up the best location to make access for a handline to the floor above the fire. The officer surveyed a 24-foot ladder placed to a window on side “B” and ordered the hose stretched through that route.

The first-arriving engine and truck made a rapid search and pushed to the seat of the fire located in a first-floor living room. In short order, an “all clear” on the primary searches was transmitted, and the officer on the first attack line recommended that the IC place the fire under control. With minimal radio traffic, every company responding on the first alarm went to work based on the size-up report of the first-arriving unit. The officers and firefighters were given some latitude in how their assignments were completed, but all the necessary elements of initial attack were preassigned based on order of arrival. If the second-due engine encountered heavy traffic and became the third to arrive, their duties would have been passed to the engine that arrived second at the scene. If the need for deviation occurred, new assignments would be transmitted to units while en route to the scene.

In this scenario, the responding fire department policy stipulated that the first engine stretch an attack line while the second-arriving engine secure water supply and the third-arriving engine stretch a backup line. After water supply, the members of the second engine stretched to the floor above or most endangered lateral exposure. The first- and second-arriving truck companies also had preassigned areas of responsibility that included forcible entry, search, ventilation, and laddering the building. It is important to note that the tactics used to achieve these objectives may differ based on the location and extent of the fire as well as the construction and occupancy of the structure. However, the objectives are largely the same.

Although the tactics will differ based on incident particulars, the company assignments must match realistic jurisdictional capabilities. There is no point in developing deployment policies that place an unrealistic burden on initial resources. However, when the capabilities of resources are realistically considered, first-alarm deployment policies help ensure that resources are used to their best advantage and that companies are working toward achieving necessary benchmarks from the moment they arrive at the scene. Allowing companies to go to work based on the resource type and arrival sequence also allows firefighters and officers to size-up the incident with consideration for their primary role and relieves the IC’s burden of assigning each arriving unit at every incident. Each department should assess its resource capabilities and match them with initial response needs to develop a policy that will allow for standard deployment of first alarm units for most incidents. As with any model or policy, incident specifics will ultimately drive our tactical options. However, life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation goals remain constant.

First-arriving units (or entire first-alarm compliments) that are very lightly staffed may only achieve the most important fireground priorities or benchmarks. Adopting a deployment policy that puts these units to work stretching an initial line and conducting a rapid primary search may be the most efficient use of resources. Assigning multiple tasks when resources are thin only results in operational failure. The assigned objectives will not be completed in a timely or safe manner, if at all. You may need to carry out work that is not immediately lifesaving with the arrival of more personnel. In jurisdictions that have more ample resources or those where additional units will arrive very quickly, you may need a more ambitious deployment policy.

Your ultimate goal should be safe and efficient operation of all units at every incident. To this end, using a policy that preassigns initial resources will ensure critical objectives are not overlooked, tasks are prioritized, and all resources are used to best advantage.

(Above photo by John Peninne.)


David DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.


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