The Art of the Third Due: Being Prepared to Turn the Tide

By David “Dave” Gallagher

Many in the fire service have a choke hold on beating all to the scene and being “first due” despite odds that they will not. We have witnessed the tragedies and close calls of wrecked or overturned apparatus and ejected firefighters. Some in the line fire service would loudly bellow or frankly have a major fit if told they would be “third due” at a working fire. The thought of not being that aggressive interior firefighter as seen on the decal plastered on a helmet conjures nightmares. As so many T-shirt vendors want their clients to believe, “If you can read this, you’re second due!”

In many cases, there is the opposite opinion, and there are fire department employees who may enjoy the thought of responding third due and perhaps being cancelled en route. This permits a quick return to their leisure activity. In other active and motivated fire stations, crew members will be “keeping an ear” to the radio transmissions and turning down the TV to see what the chatter is on that working fire.

This, of course, is not to imply that first due does not make or break the fire scene; it certainly does. The late Lieutenant Andy Fredericks [Squad 18, Fire Department of New York (FDNY)] put it best by saying in effect that the proper placement of the first properly supplied and applied line does more to affect the outcome of the fire than anything else, and you won’t have to jump out the windows. However, there will be those times when the first line cannot completely resolve the incident.

Repeating Trends

In the mid-’90s, I had the opportunity to publish some of the first articles and instruct classes that dealt with the short-staffed company. The dismal trend of low staff was becoming the norm. Using lessons learned from other departments, my own department, world-class firefighters, and some hard field testing, I provided techniques and ideas for increasing fireground effectiveness with fewer hands. Since then, many others in the fire service have written articles on the subject to share that most of us are in the same boat with fewer rowers. Even today, many in the public and the media believe that more than three firefighters on an apparatus is a luxury because we have been doing the job with three or, in many cases, two for so long that it has become “normal.”

(1) Arriving at a working fire in progress may lead to different considerations for size-up and actions. (Photo by Scott LaPrade, Smoke Showing Photography.)

Unfortunately, small crews still handle the day-to-day responses and, in more cases, larger incidents. The trend is to strike second alarms more frequently and more quickly to get more than a handful of firefighters on the scene. Those of us who have a few years under our helmets would have scoffed at a second alarm being sounded for a 30- × 40-foot, 1½-story, single-family dwelling with a good amount of fire showing on the C side.

Our World, Our Problems

We continue to be affected by a drastic loss of resources: closed stations, rolling brownouts, low volunteer participation, layoffs, and companies unavailable because they are on other calls. Now it becomes more important to assemble increased resources to address the incident, hence extra apparatus or mutual aid and your opportunity to be called in as third due.

Many articles have been written on “Back to Basics,” “First-Due Company Officer, “Stretching the First Line,” and the like. Take all of that information, and keep it handy. If you will take the time to read the works written on this subject, you will feel the undertone of how the authors hammer the concept that the fireground is indeed a battleground. Our fire scenes are complete with logistics, light infantry, special operations, support, and heavy artillery. In grinding out responses to the day-to-day structural fire, usually the critical tasks of forcible entry, a line or two, street-smart laddering, a bit of accurate venting, and the obligatory search take care of the problem.

But when we get to that one call, the one where the first line through the front door and the business-as-usual plan don’t work, you will see the faces change, the speed, and the amplitude and hear the number of voices on the radio increase. Now, we see how “going to work” changes.

(2) If you arrive later at this incident, your crew must be prepared to fill whatever assignment Command needs accomplished. (Photo by author.)
(3-4) The “usual” front door entry could be a problem in both of these situations. (Photo 3 by Scott LaPrade; photo 4 by Jeff Gallagher.)

While responding and realizing your crew will be arriving third due in an escalating incident, you may find yourself in a most significant tactical firefighting position. If we may agree that the fireground is a battleground, we may also agree that tactical superiority and overwhelming force will defeat the fire.

Companies arriving in the third-due capacity may be assigned to the following:

  1. Rapid intervention team (RIT).
  2. Securing or expanding the water supply.
  3. Backing up initial attack crews or deploying larger handlines or blitz attacks.
  4. Handling extension into the exposures.
  5. Additional laddering and searches.
  6. Tactical ventilation to prevent fire spread.

Boxes vs. Goals

In many jurisdictions today, the first-arriving companies do not have the staffing or resources to sustain a substantial aggressive fire attack. Coupled with a stigma of an incident commander (IC) who desires to establish all of the duties on the tactical worksheet, the initial company may find it is working alone for quite some time. Only on the arrival of subsequent crews will the hard-fought gains of the first company be supported and exploited. In another consideration, how do the “late arrivers” affect the goings on?

The focus of fireground priorities has changed. Back in the day, we were never instructed in RIT and never discussed how/what/when/where to call a Mayday. We discussed and thought of working fires as challenges and how we were going to operate and attack the fire. We felt that if we followed Fredericks’ adage and put out the fire, we wouldn’t have to jump out the windows.

Perhaps the impetus for our own self-preservation techniques came from incidents where progress would not be followed up because of a lack of additional staffing. Certainly, there are other reasons too numerous to mention here, but what about the fires where survival techniques had to be put into play? Did delaying fire attack to fill in the tactical sheet cause the conditions to worsen to where we were faced with a larger problem than when we arrived?

Think about it. If you are arriving third due (regardless of the apparatus on which you are arriving), a push by your crew with the proper equipment in the proper place may indeed turn the tide. If you encounter the following-the first line is stalled for whatever reason (insufficient gallons per minute/not the appropriate handline); unable to advance by not pulling the appropriate length line or blockage; not having enough hands to advance the line (stuck at the door); hoarders/Collier’s Mansion conditions; stalled because of low air; stalled in the initial forcible entry because of heavy fire; or not securing the all-important water supply-and your fresh crew brings the larger backup line with enough hose to make the stretch or throws a ladder to the floor above to get the critical search completed, you will have a great impact. Realize when arriving third due that any activity you are assigned may have a greater reflex time or time to get working-for example, you may have to park farther down the block and will have to take the equipment farther than if you were parked in front of the building.

Harvesting Resources

It is no surprise that most reading the trade journals perk up when an article or a class is presented by a veteran member of the FDNY. Borrowing from FDNY regarding the squad company concept, we see apparatus and crews capable of going to work on arrival in a variety of functions for engine or truck. Their IC may assign these crews to any critical task. This could be your mental model when preparing.

Many of us do not enjoy the same on-scene firefighter and equipment resources as the “Metro,” nor have we responded to a similar number of “jobs.” The lessons they pass on should line our personal notebook with thoughts and ideas. In a similar sense, while metros have the luxury of delivering numerous apparatus to a scene, most “small town America” departments have minimal rigs doing double or even triple duty. This sets the stage for crews to be prepared to perform multiple tasks.

In my tenure as a suburban “aggressive first-due interior firefighter,” I quickly learned our crew was not going to have the first attack line on every incident or be first every time. This is tough in the suburbs, particularly when you do not get a lot of fire work. You want to be first through the door.

But we trained and drilled as if we were the tip of the spear. We stayed motivated and went to the sound of the tones as Olympian Swimmer Michael Phelps took off from his starting block. Sure, we trained on second-due tasks: securing the all-important water supply, another ladder to the rear, and drilled on setting the RIT. But little did we know each of those skills we worked hard to develop would be put into play in “Third-Due Land.”

Third-Due Size-Up

When you arrive third, the first consideration is to communicate with Command to ensure your assignment fits the strategy and your capabilities. Pick your favorite acronym for size-up and action, and plug current information into it. When entering an ongoing situation, the simple acronym of CAN may help:

  • Conditions
  • Actions
  • Needs

You are no longer sizing up the building as if you were the first-arriving unit. Glean active information, and insert it into tactical points:

  • Building construction and its reaction to conditions.
  • Present (and in the very short future) fire conditions.
  • Needs for which crews are calling.
  • The needs of Command.

I recently attended a conference in the Northeast where the speaker talked about the OODA Loop; Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, created by U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd to handle tactical confrontation. The speaker strongly believed, and I agree, that, when you roll out the door, you will need to handle tactical confrontation no matter when you arrive on the response.

In a discussion with a friend in Wichita, Kansas, my friend noted that a later-arriving company may have to encounter a “reengineered” structure. He is spot on with this. As the fire progresses and as we alter the structure by forcible entry and horizontal and vertical ventilation, changes must occur. “Thirdies” may indeed be working in a structure that has been significantly changed regarding access; travel; tactics; and, mostly, structural integrity.

Ventilation may have cleared the interior atmosphere but also may have permitted the fire to burn faster, thus hotter, and can be superheating adjacent structural members. Ineffective or inadequate venting will certainly cause the structure to deal with unchecked fire and the spread of combustion products. With windows removed, autoexposure to upper floors is a concern.

The “Observe” part of the OODA Loop means you will need to walk around the structure. Others who arrived previously may have done that, but unless they specifically transmit all the pertinent information, you have no way of knowing the specifics of the structure unless you check it out yourself. You have to do the walk-around to be proficient. Forcible entry may have removed doors that before could have been used to control or hold fire; now without them, the area is subject to open spread. Windows that were effective for horizontal ventilation may now have extending fire autoexposing other areas.

If your crew is assigned to an exposure, this area could be subject to previous actions, or it may be secure and you are starting from scratch. However, your water supply for handlines may be tied up with the first-arriving companies; hence, learn which pump has something left to give you and how much it actually has. This is not the place for a button-pusher; you need a quality pump operator (either on his rig or with you) to know your options. Likewise, taking your own hose with you is a smart move. You will not have to figure out how the other pumper’s hose is packed, and you have your own nozzle with you. You don’t want to be armed with a pipe that has foreign ways of operating.

Believe it or not, when arriving as a truck company, you should take a couple of portable ladders with you. If you are limited on staffing, gather tools and equipment and put to use the “ladder drag” on which you have been instructed for years. Take ladders and tools appropriate for the structure and for what you have been assigned. Otherwise, you may enter the situation and find the appropriate ladders are already in use from other rigs and that none are available for your use.

Take the opportunity to listen to the incident develop during your response. You know what is sounding good and what is not. Ensure you are reporting the information to your crew. You know the building construction; you know what apparatus is on the scene and what else is coming. You have heard the reports of the effectiveness (or not) of the ventilation, water supply, interior attack, and search efforts. Have your crew start thinking about options and to what duty they may be assigned. And don’t kid yourself: The IC may know who is on your rig and may change your assignment based on the confidence he has in your crew.

Years ago, I responded as a member of an experienced crew as part of a second-alarm assignment. The fire was running across an undivided attic in a two-story apartment complex, and we arrived as the first engine on the second alarm but were actually fourth on the scene. The next commands transmitted were invigorating: We were assigned truck company duties to an immediate, severely threatened exposure. This was the result of improper ventilation by the original crew assigned this task. Although technically proficient, they had cut their vertical vent hole on the wrong side of the fire wall in the attic. The fire was running unchecked. The officer in charge knew the most critical need was to cut off horizontal fire spread. He decided that with our collective experience and ability, we were the crew to do just that. Note: A ladder company arriving simultaneously with a staff of two was assigned other duties.

Third Due as RIT

A crew arriving after the first couple of rigs may certainly find itself replacing the initial rapid intervention crew, being the back-filling crew if the RIT has been deployed or being given an urgent non-RIT fireground task.

As a third-due crew being assigned RIT, you may have to consciously remember that you could be coming from a district or another jurisdiction in which the structures are not similar to what you are used to seeing. It is extremely imperative that your RIT examine all sides of the structure. Your routine RIT tool cache may have to be modified to reflect the present building’s construction and risks. Again, if on arrival you have to park down the block, your reflex time will increase. If your world is suburban with one- and two-family dwellings, townhouses, or the occasional strip mall and you are responding to an urban assignment, the reality may be structures with far different features than those with which you are accustomed. Stronger doors and security, taller ceilings, industrial basements, vintage casement windows, and window bars could pose major challenges. The tools and expertise to deal with these conditions could be slim in your department. Ten- or 12-pound sledgehammers may need to replace six-pound (hopefully eight-pound) axes, that rarely used hydraulic door opener may be very critical, and 35-foot ladders could be vital for a RIT evolution.

Know What You Know

Your comfort level with and working knowledge of your organization’s standard operating guidelines (SOGs)and those of other departments to which you may respond will be of major value. My department’s SOGs dictate that the third-due engine go to the rear of the scene to operate. OK, that’s fine, but what do we do when we get there? Start a different attack in a different place? What must be accomplished? Make certain you know the IC’s expectations, and ensure the orders are clear to you both.

Another irony for consideration between the Metros and the ‘Burbs is that, in many cases, the Metro companies tend to be one-dimensional because of their assigned vehicle. An engine is an engine, and rarely would an urban IC assign such a company to truck or rescue duties because of the availability of other engine companies. In the ‘Burbs, we may get assigned to anything, at any time; we do not have the luxury of being “topic specific.”

The following scenarios are examples of what might happen if you respond third due.

Scenario 1

A crew arrives on the scene of your bread-and-butter fire. Things are progressing with Engine (E)-1. The crew has worked to the limit of its “safe” self-contained breathing apparatus time. One more push down the hall and around a corner, and the fire would be extinguished. Following the rules, however, the team leader pulls the crew out.

E-2’s crew is finally reaching command after its one or two firefighters have accomplished the water supply and have been assigned RIT. They must gather their RIT cache and may have to go back to the rig for something. If the IC now needs a second crew, he may assign E-2; however, with all they have had to accomplish, it may be a bit more than a thought. What the IC thought would be a 30-second transition for E-2’s preparation-donning masks, wiping out the fog, dropping and grabbing gloves, turning on the thermal imaging camera (TIC), grabbing a tool-turned out to be a few minutes plus.

The fire is developing quickly in the hidden spaces, and the temperature is rising. The fire has escaped the room of origin and is extending into other compartments. Ladder (L)-1 is performing a primary search on the floor above the fire. The 1¾-inch handline of choice is no longer appropriate, and it takes a couple of minutes of E-2’s crew taking a beating to realize that this is not going well.

(5) A crew working the big line. (Photo by Scott LaPrade.)

If the crew realizes a switch from a 1¾-inch line to a larger line is needed, how many minutes will it take for that transition? They must stay in place and wait for the search team to egress, increasing this transition time. If they reenter with these free-burning, evolving heat conditions, what is the possibility that conditions will worsen and a RIT event will occur? In short, if you do not absolutely kill the fire, if you dance with it, the odds of a RIT event will increase exponentially because of the following factors:

  • high and increasing heat.
  • low and decreasing visibility.
  • a lack of ventilation.
  • spread to exposure areas.
  • firefighters’ physical limitations.

You now learn that you, E-3, are going in. You mentally note the following:

  • E-2 responded from the other station across town. Although members secured the water supply, they still have to get back to their apparatus, so they will be a bit delayed in getting that backup line in operation.
  • E-1’s crew will be reaching their air limit shortly. “You know who” is on that crew, and the bottle won’t last.
  • The column of smoke indicates that the fire is advancing; it is much larger than when you began your response. You have fought fires in these structures, and you know they are not prone to early collapse. They just need the right line and the right flow in the right place.

You announce your arrival. You are in an excellent position to carry on the fight. Command assigns you to pull a backup line. You know the rules: a line as big as or bigger than the first line. Bigger makes all the logical sense here. You have a fight on your hands, and something needs to happen NOW! You heard the radio and know E-1 has stretched only one 1¾-inch preconnect. You tell your crew to stretch the 2½-inch line. If E-1’s 2½-inch line setup is the same as yours, so much the better; take theirs. If not, take the correct lengths of 2½-inch with a 1¼-inch smooth bore that has 1½-inch outside threads and connect to E-1’s discharge. (This nozzle permits the extension of 1¾-inch hose for going farther or into more limited spaces.)

Your people make short work of getting the line to the door because they have trained, and trained some more. Your crew was ready to go to work. You advance your large line, cover the exit of E-1’s crew, and now you are supported by E-2’s crew. Your folks have done some good hose work, and E-2 does some aggressive truck work. You now may inform Command that it appears the bulk of the fire has been knocked down.

(6) If the gray building is involved, this C-side alley is a great approach. (Photo by author.)

If all of the boxes on the command sheet are to be checked off, various units arriving at various times may be placed not according to order of arrival but “order of availability.”

Scenario 2

My crew was responding to a known working fire. We were essentially third due on the card but only by a small degree. I knew we would be meeting the second-due engine near a large intersection. I instructed the driver to slow down, for a couple of reasons. He, of course, wanted none of it, but there was more to it. First, we didn’t need rigs on top of each other at a large intersection. Second, while listening to the radio traffic, it was clear that although the first engine and truck were going to work (it was obvious from blocks away that there was a lot of fire), the primary water supply had not been secured. My reasoning was that the second engine would be rapidly responding and would have to commit to securing the hydrant on arrival. We then arrived third and were put to work immediately pulling a 2½-inch handline, which my crew did handily and knocked down the fire. It seemed we weighed knowledge and wisdom.

Scenario 3

What are your thoughts concerning this scenario?

You are arriving third due on an engine to a working structure fire in a large townhouse apartment at 3:00 a.m. Your dispatcher tells you multiple calls are being received. You heard E-2 is having problems securing a water supply because of a defective hydrant and is heading to the next hydrant, which takes them a bit farther away. E-2 is reporting problems with parked cars. You know E-1 has been working hard on the first floor, but Command is reporting that the first-floor fire is autoexposing to the second floor and fire is impinging on the roof’s eaves. L-1 is working a primary search on the second floor; the heavy conditions are making it a tedious effort. You know that if the fire is left unchecked, it will penetrate the eave vents and begin working into the attic. What are the tactics for which you need to be prepared even when arriving on an engine?

Following are some options to consider:

  • Portable laddering

-Folding (pencil) ladder for attic access.

  • Backup (larger) handline.
  • Handline extension; gated wyes and adapters.
  • Pulling interior tools

-Offensively pulling walls/ceilings

-Interior forcible entry.

The Street Behind

A good time to check out alternative access routes is when approaching a dynamic scene. You have a pretty good idea that many fire vehicles will be in the block, which may force you to park some distance away. This is also a great time to have the following information in your possession:

  • Alternative routes to the scene.
  • Alternative entry to the block.
  • Knowledge of alternative water sources, fixed or portable.

When arriving with apparatus already on scene, it is critical to know alternative routes to the scene and alternative routes to the structure. Backyards, alleys, gates, fences, and the like may prove vital in launching your attack. As we know, rigs that arrive ahead may not leave space in the proximity of the structure and if you are arriving as a truck company, you may have to be more deductive in placing your apparatus. Stability issues for outriggers will be paramount in determining your best placement. Knowing alternate routes will facilitate your arrival and placement in service. If you are responding as mutual aid, you may not be familiar with the neighborhood. Is it preferable to park farther down the block or be in a position to provide an attack effort by coming in from the street behind, a back alley, over a fence, or through the backyard? If you operate from the next street, chances are that in a hydranted area, you will have a water supply all to yourself. If the fire is extending, you will also have a C-side attack, and you may have better laddering access to windows because of a lack of obstacles such as porches, overhangs, or landscaping. Be aware that if the structure has been “reengineered,” what you consider practical and accessible before arrival may change by the time you arrive.

Use the information presented here to plan your crew’s actions. Arriving third due may be compared to being put in the game as the backup quarterback when the starter goes down in the third quarter. The 13-point size-up WALLACE WAS HOT or other acronyms of BELOW or RECEO are tremendous for a first-arriving company and for tactical concerns before the fire. You may have to modify them to give yourself a better understanding of how you are going to fit in as a third due.

The game is already underway; the strategy may have changed. Your trained crew may be arriving at a critical moment in an escalating incident and could turn the tide. Be ready to adapt, improvise, and overcome-and to show why you have earned the title “FIREFIGHTER.”

DAVID “DAVE” GALLAGHER retired as a lieutenant from the Huber Heights (OH) Fire Division, where he served for 26 years. He is a ProBoard instructor and an instructor for the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. He is a published author and columnist and a national trainer for various organizations. He has contributed to Fire Engineering and is a former FDIC Advisory Board member, lecturer, and H.O.T. instructor.




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