THE RELUCTANT COMPANY OFFICER

BY JOEL A. HEWITT AND PAUL G. LANDREVILLE

Driving into A station parking lot and seeing it full of cars tells you the engine company will be leaving with a full crew. The next vehicle out will be the rescue. This apparatus traditionally transports members living farther away or firefighters who did not get on the fully staffed engine.

With the crew safely onboard, an experienced officer up front, and a veteran driver behind the wheel, the rescue is en route. The rear speaker allows the crew to hear the distinct terminology used during a working fire. Information on attack lines, backup lines, supply lines, and search and rescue is being relayed to dispatch. The ladder company should be arriving momentarily, since the incident commander (IC) has just given that officer fireground assignments.

Not hearing a paramedic unit checking in on the scene, rescue’s first task should be only one of a few initial assignments remaining. Rescue could set up the EMS sector and start treating potential victims or establish the rapid intervention team (RIT), reporting directly to the command post. Both assignments are essential and must be established and staffed during a working fire.

While en route, from experience and curiosity, you mentally evaluate the crew. The members are young and inexperienced. Formulating an action plan they might use at this fire and listening for key phrases on the radio do not occur to them. They are nonetheless eager to work, physically fit, and ready to follow orders. The rescue company officer (CO) has the personnel accountability report (PAR) board and knows what type of crew sits behind him. As an experienced firefighter, it’s always comforting to have an experienced CO riding up front, making the decisions and shouldering the responsibility.

Rescue’s arrival on-scene is noted by a brief radio transmission between the officer and dispatch. For the experienced firefighter who, thank goodness, was not forced to be the IC or the CO, this is the easy part. It’s sitting, listening, and waiting time. For the new members, adrenaline is slowly being pumped into their systems; they are getting restless and starting to fidget with their gear.

With extreme clarity and decisiveness, things change abruptly, and not for the better. The command post just called the rescue CO and ordered him to the operations sector. Consequently, rescue company command goes to the next senior officer on-board. Because of your earlier crew assessment, this situation places you next in line for the CO position. There are no officers aboard the rescue.

The rescue officer exits the truck, hands you the PAR board and radio, saying, “Be careful!” and leaves the empty front seat for you. As you climb into the rescue CO’s position, you feel adrenaline seeping into your system. Now you’re getting restless and starting to fidget. You have just assumed the role of “The Reluctant CO.”

COMPANY FUNCTIONS

The training division understands some experienced members don’t want to become officers or move up the chain of command. Training also knows it is required to teach the fundamentals of incident command to each member.

However, your department’s training division went one step further and offered a class on company functions, so each firefighter could assume the CO position. Training officers stressed that the command post may assign each arriving company a specific task. It is the CO’s responsibility to know how the task should be accomplished. These tasks or company assignments may have crews working independently of each other and yet be within arm’s length of other firefighters. Responding on the rescue requires the officer-in-charge to be familiar with engine, ladder, and rescue functions.

Training split the company functions class into two sections; the first is a brief refresher on priorities. Each company involved at the scene has two important tactical priorities: rescue and fire control. Although each company may operate independently of each other and have specific assigned jobs assigned, locating and removing a trapped occupant should not be overlooked just because the company was not assigned search and rescue.

The second training segment covers company functions. The class begins simply enough with the explanation, “Engines do hose work, ladders do ladder functions, and the rescue helps anybody who needs help-they must know everything.” Some class members are relieved that the rescue truck was not out of their station. Getting assigned as the acting CO of the Catch-All Company did not thrill most of the attending firefighters.

First-arriving engine company. Depending on department protocol, the initial-arriving engine company may be responsible for selecting and pulling the first hoseline. Hose size at residential type structures can range from a 1 1/2 – to 1 3/4 -inch line. Either size can be maneuvered by fast-moving crews and is capable of producing good water flow with the correct nozzle and pressure.

The 2 1/2 -inch hose can be pulled for commercial structure fires, although this line is far more difficult for crews to maneuver. However, when faced with a large volume of fire, this line, with the proper nozzle, is capable of moving large quantities of water. Two drawbacks of a 2 1/2 -inch line are the number of firefighters needed to maneuver a charged line and a limited water supply with tank water.

Second-arriving engine company. The second company advancing into the structure should make every effort to pull a backup line at least the same size or larger than the attack line. With some engines now carrying only 1 3/4 – and 2 1/2 -inch hose for fire attack, the selection is limited.

Charging the large-diameter hose (LDH) to the first-in engine is a vital water supply activity. Depending on a department’s standard operating guidelines, the first or second engine may be responsible for laying the LDH. Be familiar with the guidelines and whether your company is responsible for this task.

Amid all of this activity, don’t forget to be flexible. If the initial-arriving company could not, or did not, follow established guidelines, your company may have to change things a bit. Be prepared to modify your company’s action plan on arrival. Fill the void created by the first-in company; then carry on with your duties. Don’t allow a few tactical modifications to become permanent distractions.

As an experienced firefighter, you know that exercising nozzle discipline is crucial. Spraying smoke consumes valuable booster tank water, upsets the thermal balance, reduces visibility at floor level to zero, and causes unnecessary property damage. Careless nozzle operation produces unnecessary noise when members are listening for victims and stops the forward progress of an attack while the crew sprays nothing. A disciplined crew leader and nozzle person use every gallon of water as if it were the last. On the other hand, after finding the fire, don’t hold back on extinguishment. You found the fire; now put it out! This is the main reason water was conserved earlier.

Ladder companies. Ladder companies have a vast assortment of tasks to accomplish, depending on the type of structure, conditions, and time of day. A crew may be forced to operate within a small window of opportunity and get little protection from the attack crew’s hoseline.

Bars or wire mesh covering windows and reinforced doors and frames with multiple locks can make a rapid entry all but impossible. The days of “Let me kick in the door” are over in many neighborhoods. Portable hydraulic forcible entry tools may be necessary to gain entry if conventional hand tools can’t do the job. Putting a boot or shoulder to the door can injure a crew member before the rescue or fire attack gets started. Save your energy; use the tools designed for the job.

Ventilation of the structure must be coordinated through the IC. Releasing heat, toxic gases, and smoke will assist the interior team’s visibility and introduce fresh air to any trapped occupants. Ventilation is an important component of a fire attack, but it must be well-coordinated. Ill-timed positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) may cause the fire to flare up before the fire attack team is prepared for a knockdown.

Laddering the structure, checking for extension, and controlling the utilities can be meaningful tasks for successful fire control and extinguishment. As the attack crews knock down the fire, walls and ceilings must be opened up to check for extension. Laddering the structure may be necessary to support extinguishment or check for extension after the initial knockdown.

Controlling utilities, such as shutting off the electricity and turning off the gas supply, makes the scene safer and may assist in fire control. After each utility has been addressed, the IC must be notified. Training should instruct each member in the correct procedure for shutting off utilities. Many utility companies have training/safety representatives who can instruct fire departments in proper shutdown procedures.

After a fire is knocked down, the real work begins. At the conclusion of the fire marshal’s investigation, and with command’s authorization, property conservation and overhaul begin. It’s a ho-hum job, but it must be thorough and complete. Only then may Command declare complete and total extinguishment of the fire. This phase can take from minutes to hours. It can eat up large numbers of firefighters and be a dangerous time for fatigued crews. Many overhaul-related injuries occur each year.

Senior firefighters arriving on a fireground are vital assets. They bring years of firefighting experience to the scene and don’t allow situations to control their emotions. The presence of senior members may have a calming effect on rookie firefighters and junior officers. When the senior firefighter is assigned to the CO position, he can demonstrate his years of experience, and a crew can follow with confidence.

• • •

Command has endless options on the fireground using experienced firefighters. A chief can comfortably remove a CO and reassign him to a sector position and still have a capable, acting CO supervising a crew.

JOEL A. HEWITT is chief of the Moorhead (MN) Fire Department. His 31-year fire service career includes experience in volunteer and career fire departments.

PAUL G. LANDREVILLE, a 17-year veteran of the fire service, is an NREMT-B with the American Red Cross in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, he served as a company officer and training captain.

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