On the Line: The Dependable Driver/Operator

By David DeStefano

The driver/operator of an engine or ladder company has many responsibilities in quarters, en route to, and while operating at an incident. Maintaining the rig in a state of readiness and ensuring the safety of the members are top priorities. Driving defensively during routine trips as well as emergency responses cannot be overemphasized. Expertise with the aerial device, pump, and other equipment assigned to the company is critical. However, there are numerous other skills or practices that a good driver/operator should employ to increase the effectiveness and safety of the entire company. This is by no means a complete list; it is simply a starting point for reflection and discussion among driver/operators and their officers. Some of these simple practices follow.

  • Know the District. A dependable driver knows not just the major streets but the neighborhoods as well. It is beneficial to keep track of street closures because of construction or out-of-service hydrants as a failsafe for the company officer. In addition, a dependable driver/operator should know several points from which his apparatus may be operated at target hazards, depending on whether he is in an engine or ladder company. The first option may not be available or may be a poor tactical choice based on incident particulars. The driver/operator must also be familiar with bridge load limits and low clearance areas throughout the district. The height and weight of the apparatus should be clearly posted in the cab for both the driver and officer to reference.   
  • Roadway Incident Safety. When members are operating on a roadway the driver/operator must always consider their safety along with placement priorities. Blocking as much of the travel area as necessary for safe working conditions. When incident priorities preclude this placement additional apparatus should be used to create a safe work area.

There are a number of driver/operator tips that apply more specifically to engine or truck company operations. They are represented in no particular order here; their application is based on a variety of conditions.

  • Think like a truckie. Even the engine company driver/operator must think about placement of the aerial device. Narrow streets, overhead obstructions, and parked cars all play havoc with ladder company placement. The driver/operator of the engine must leave room for the aerial device. This often means pulling past the building, but it may require falling short or keeping the engine off to the side of the road depending on the width of the street or the direction of approach. Thinking like a truckie goes beyond the first-in engine to the water supply company. When laying a large diameter supply line before the arrival of the first-in truck, take care to keep the hose lay as close to the side of the road as possible if the line is to be charged before the ladder arrives.
  • Wear your personal protective equipment (PPE) properly. Many engine company driver/operators develop a habit of wearing less than full PPE while operating the pump. With many departments running understaffed companies, the driver/operator may be called on in an emergency to assist with something other than his primary duty.
  • Raise a 24-foot ladder. Once water is established in and out of the pump, the engine company driver/operator may be in a position to raise a 24-foot ladder to the second floor on the side opposite the fire if the incident warrants it. After completing this task and transmitting it over the radio, members will have a secondary means of egress on the second floor. With ground ladder placement often an afterthought on the modern fireground because of personnel issues, this action may be the key to operational safety.
  • Chase the kinks. The driver/operator of the primary pumper should be responsible for chasing kinks from the pump to the front door. This assists the nozzle team and helps ensure an efficient stretch.
  • Melt the ice on the front steps. During the winter months in cold weather climates, the front steps of the fire building often become treacherous to traverse because of  the buildup of ice. This is usually a much used path of travel throughout the incident, especially in the latter stages of overhaul and investigation. A quick coating of ice melt by the first in engine’s driver/operator may prevent a serious (even career-ending) injury.
  • Continual size-up. All members are responsible for size-up based on their training, experience, function, and vantage point on the fireground. With a “front row” view of the fire, the driver/operator of the primary pumper should keep an eye out for changing conditions and safety concerns, informing the incident commander if these are not addressed.
  • Ladder company approach. The driver/operator of an aerial device should slow down to a crawl after entering the fire block. This will allow the driver and officer to size up conditions, construction, priorities, and seek a point of best advantage from which the device may operate. For difficult objectives, the officer and other firefighters may dismount the rig and assist the driver/operator with positioning. The view from the street usually beats the view from the cab. In positioning the rig, a driver/operator must position based on the turntable—not the driver’s seat—drawing a straight line from the turntable to the objective. In rear-mount apparatus, the turntable may be 30 feet away from the driver’s seat, offering a very different perspective on positioning.
  • Make the most of the aerial. After completing vertical ventilation at common fire incidents, the roof team leaves the roof and does not return. Often, the aerial is left in place on the roof and not bedded until the fire is under control. If there are no members operating on the roof and no further objectives to be gained there, the driver/operator may move the aerial as dictated by the incident. The device may be placed to a window on the fire floor or floor above it on the side opposite the fire, if possible. Once communicated, this action may provide an efficient secondary egress for members operating in the area.

The preceding tips are by no means an all encompassing list for a dependable driver/operator, but they serve as a springboard for discussion on what is most applicable to the needs of your department. The most important tip is to continue to learn about your responsibilities each day and to make an effort to improve your skills to be an asset to your company.


David DeStefano is a 23-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.



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