YOU ARE IN AT 7 A.M. TO START your tour with Ladder Company 11, and it is cold and windy outside the firehouse. You look at the daybook on your desk in the office and you see that Firefighters Shields, Hansen, and Washington are your crew for the day. You sit for a moment and reflect on the time that each of these members has served in the department and in your ladder company, as well as their tactical and tool-handling skills. After a few minutes, you decide which of these three firefighters will be assigned to each of the three riding positions on your apparatus.
So what is this riding/tool assignment, and how does it help your company operate at fires and emergencies? Who makes these assignments, and what criteria are used? How can a crew of three firefighters cover every assignment that may arise at a working fire or serious emergency?
A riding/tool assignment is a designation given to an on-duty firefighter in a career department or to a firefighter climbing on the apparatus for a response in a volunteer company. The assignment is usually one of several that will be filled by the firefighters riding in each of the seats on the rig. Whether you have five firefighters and an officer or three firefighters and an officer, the process is similar. Each of the basic functions of the company (in this case, a ladder company) is grouped together and assigned to a member on the apparatus.
For example, a ladder company generally performs several functions such as forcible entry, search and rescue, and horizontal/vertical ventilation. Since search and rescue immediately follow forcible entry, those two jobs are given to a firefighter who is designated the entry or irons firefighter. On every alarm response, this member sits in the same seat, carries the same tools, and usually performs several of the same functions. Of course, there will be calls and situations in which a unique job has to be performed. Although this firefighter is available for those as well, for the majority of alarms, his regular assignment will fit the bill.
The other firefighters working this tour, the vent firefighter and the engineer or apparatus driver/operator, receive the other two riding assignments. The vent firefighter will be responsible for most of the ventilation tasks at a fire that are accomplished with a specific set of tools such as a six-foot hook or a pike pole and an ax or a halligan. Different neighborhoods and areas have different types of windows and roofs; the tool assignment should include the two that best fit the challenge.
If a company has more than three firefighters, some of the duties can be separated and assigned to the additional firefighters. For example, the vent firefighter in a three-person company is responsible for both horizontal and vertical venting at a structural fire. That firefighter will have to determine which of those tasks needs to be accomplished first and get that done before moving on to the next part of the assignment. When additional firefighters are on the apparatus, one can be assigned the outside or horizontal vent position, and the other will be assigned the roof or vertical vent position. Combining and separating duties make the riding/tool assignment practice versatile and effective.
In volunteer companies, the officer doesn’t have five to 10 minutes to decide who takes what assignment for each run, so the apparatus crew cab should be labeled so that any firefighter who sits in a specific seat knows what the tool assignment is for that seat and operates accordingly. The tools for that assignment should also be mounted in the cab at that location or just outside, so the firefighter riding there does not have to look for them or decide what tools to take. Also, remember that for the odd job or duty, this firefighter must also be familiar with the location of the many other tools on the rig.
These riding assignments with their accompanying tools make for a very efficient and professional fire company operation. Each firefighter on the apparatus knows what his basic set of duties will be when he arrives at a fire as well as the tools to take, which should be within arm’s reach. The result is that firefighters dismounting the apparatus are immediately ready to go to work and begin operations. It also takes the burden off the officer, who is already quite busy doing a size-up, transmitting the preliminary report, and selecting a strategy for the fireground situation. The company officer can now expect that each team member will begin operations on arrival instead of asking the officer, “What do you want me to do?”
Predetermined and well-thought-through personnel riding and tool assignments can prove to be very positive additions to your company’s current operational procedures. They lighten the officer’s load, provide the firefighters with a specific set of duties for which they can prepare before arrival, and provide the best tools for each position. Take a look at your unit’s operations and see if this concept would benefit your company.
JOHN J. SALKA JR., a 27-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, is the commander of Battalion 18 in the Bronx, where he previously served as a captain on 48 Engine. Salka frequently lectures nationwide on a variety of topics including firefighter survival and leadership and is the author of First In, Last Out: Leadership Lessons of the New York Fire Department (Penguin Books, 2004). He has previously served as the co-lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Safety and Survival program at FDIC and is a member of the FDIC advisory board.