The Successful Short-Staffed Engine

In today’s fire service that is ruled by the almighty dollar, staffing reductions and lack of membership response have created a unique set of challenges. Regardless of whether the department is career, volunteer, or combination, we are being asked to do more with less—less funding, less equipment, and fewer people. My department’s mission statement states, in part, “Meeting the needs of our community in Fire Prevention, Fire Suppression, Rescue Operations, and Emergency Medical Services.” Nowhere in that mission statement does it say we could merely approach the needs of the community because that is all we could do with the staffing and equipment we have.

The fire department is still expected to solve every problem thrown its way. To do that, we must adapt and overcome—change our tactics and operations—to incorporate the increase in responsibility and decrease in staffing. The most common “change” many departments have made is to operate with a crew of three personnel on engine companies. Although this change is less than optimal and noncompliant with national standards such as National Fire Protection Association 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, it provides for a basic level of fire protection through effective training and practice.

My department has adapted to this change by creating riding positions that are followed on each alarm. A three-person engine crew has a driver/operator (D/O), an officer, and a nozzleman. Let’s look at some specifics of each position and how they interconnect to accomplish our mission.


The D/O of the engine is one of the most important and complex positions to fill on the fireground. Numerous activities need to be done in rapid succession; without them, the crew’s efforts will fail. The D/O’s responsibility starts before leaving the station: He should don bunker pants before entering the apparatus, and he should already know the location of the alarm, the best route to take there, and the hydrant location. Trying to understand directions being shouted over a blaring siren while attempting to anticipate the reactions of the other drivers leads to confusion, missed information, and inattentive driving.

Once on the emergency site, if possible, the D/O should approach the scene in a manner that provides the officer with a view of three sides of the structure before the truck comes to a stop. This will help to expedite the 360° size-up since three sides of the structure have already been viewed.

The D/O needs to position the engine past the address or stop short—leaving adequate room for the ladder/truck—and always consider the orientation of the attack lines and their lengths, know how to judge distances, and park close enough so that the attack lines are effective. You get only one chance to correctly position the engine. Once the engine is in pump gear and lines have been stretched, you can’t move the truck to gain better access.

The D/O needs to be able to quickly disconnect the supply line and attach it to the pump panel. While this is being done, the officer will be completing the size-up and the nozzleman will be stretching the line. The D/O should then help the nozzleman stretch the line past obstacles and chase kinks. Remember, there is no backup firefighter with a three-person crew. Once the officer and nozzleman have made entry, the D/O should charge the line when asked to do so.

Once the initial line has been stretched and is in operation, the D/O should stretch the backup line. The backup line should be staged at the entrance through which the initial line entered the building. With short staffing, the goal is to minimize effort across the fireground. By using the time prior to the second-due’s arrival to stage necessary equipment, you will cut down on the preparation time for getting the line in service. When the second-due arrives, the crew can advance the backup line into the structure easily and with minimal wasted effort.

Every engine in the fire service carries at least two ladders. Those ladders do no one any good if they are left on the apparatus. The D/O should throw ladders to the upper floors on each side of the building and to the roof in the position of greatest benefit.

If the engine crew has found the seat of the fire and the truck is still not on scene, the D/O should perform coordinated horizontal ventilation to make the conditions inside more tenable. Remember, if the engines are short-staffed, most likely the truck is short-staffed as well. Use your time and energy wisely to create the best possible advantage at every opportunity.

Recheck the Charlie side. Make sure conditions haven’t changed or something wasn’t missed in the initial size-up. The D/O must be the outside eyes and ears for the officer on the inside and determine if progress is being achieved by the outside conditions. The D/O must understand building construction and be able to read smoke to ensure the interior reports match the exterior conditions.

Above all else, it is the D/O’s job to get the nozzleman water and to ensure a continuous water supply. The D/O needs to know the apparatus inside and out: which valves open which lines without looking; how to operate the pump blindfolded; and which sounds the pump makes when it is approaching low water, when the line is flowing fully open, and when the crew is having difficulty regulating nozzle pressure. Recognizing these actions by sound will enable the D/O to perform other critical functions away from the pump panel and still correct problems quickly.


The officer of the first-in engine sets the tone for the entire incident and is looked to for guidance and leadership. As soon as an alarm is received, the officer’s work begins. The officer needs to know the address of the emergency site and tell the D/O what route to take and the location of the closest hydrant. This needs to be done before leaving the station.

Once on scene, the officer gives a detailed and appropriate size-up that paints a picture of the scene so that later-arriving units can envision the conditions encountered by the first-arriving units. This mental picture will enable the units to quickly assess the progress the first engine is making on the fire. No size-up is complete without a 360° survey of the scene. Training the D/O to pull past the address, when appropriate, enables the officer to view three sides of the building before getting off the truck. The size-up can be easily completed by running down the Bravo or Delta side and looking across the Charlie side. If the officer can see the opposite corner of the building, it is not necessary to walk completely around the building. If the rear of the building has an addition or a wing projecting from the Charlie side, then the officer must see every side of the building.

With short staffing, traditional incident command is not possible. The officer cannot stand outside and send the nozzleman inside by himself. The officer must pass command or at least radio instructions to the next-in companies before heading inside with the nozzleman. The next-due officer can assume command or can relieve the first officer. The first-in officer will do more good for the incident operating inside than standing outside giving assignments.

The officer of the short-staffed crew becomes the team’s “utility player.”

The officer of the short-staffed crew becomes the team’s “utility player,” not only performing the officer’s normal functions but also picking up the responsibilities of the forcible entry firefighter. To be effective, the officer needs to be proficient at forcible entry. The nozzleman is relying on the officer to create access so the line can be stretched to the fire.

Firefighter Safety

The most important responsibility of a fire officer is to ensure the safety of his people. This is paramount. The safety of firefighters relies on many factors, including a solid risk vs. reward benefit and a thorough understanding of building construction. Both components are interdependent. The type of construction will determine how long you have to work inside the building before it becomes unstable.

Modern construction is made of lightweight wood and gusset connections. This type of construction has very little resistance to fire. It will fail quickly and all at once when exposed to direct flame impingement. With today’s home furnishings made up of polycarbonates that burn hot and fast, it takes a relatively short time for direct flame impingement to reach the structural components. Couple that with the often delayed notification to the fire department and the time it takes for members to respond, and it is likely that many fire departments are arriving within minutes of flashover and collapse.

The officer needs to perform a solid and thought-out risk vs. reward assessment before putting firefighters inside these buildings. This assessment must take into account the time of day, occupant status, and advancement of the fire. If nothing can be gained by placing firefighters in an immediately dangerous situation, firefighters should not be assigned to enter. The first-in officer determines if firefighters should enter a structure on fire or remain outside and go defensive.


The nozzleman does the main work inside the fire building. For this reason, the nozzleman must be highly trained and competent. Since the nozzleman will be operating without a dedicated backup person, he needs to know the job and do it well. It takes tremendous discipline to complete the tasks assigned regardless of the surrounding circumstances. All problems on the fireground go away once the fire is out. Therefore, it is imperative that a line gets stretched to the seat of the fire quickly and efficiently. For this to happen, the nozzleman must be proficient in stretching lines alone. No one will be available to help stretch the line, so the nozzleman must manage the entire preconnected length without assistance. This takes a lot of practice.

The nozzleman must be able to judge distances; know the capabilities of the lines, the district, and the equipment; and practice constantly. The nozzleman should always err on the side of caution and pull a line that is longer than needed, keeping in mind that each floor between the entrance door and the fire will take up 50 feet of hose and that 50 feet are needed to make the room of origin—that adds up to 150 feet for a two-floor house, not accounting for any setback such as a front yard. The length of the line should be long enough to cover the distance firefighters must go and leave room for overcoming unforeseen obstacles.

Since the nozzleman must also operate the line alone, he must be able to overcome the nozzle reaction and make it work with him. A 1¾-inch hoseline with an automatic fog nozzle designed for 150 gallons per minute at 100 pounds per square inch creates approximately 80 pounds of back pressure. Stretching a line single-handedly taxes the body, and anything more than 50 pounds of back pressure is difficult to overcome and still be effective.

To overcome this reaction, the nozzleman must be comfortable using the walls, doors, and furniture as the backup by placing the line between his leg and the wall; a portion of the nozzle reaction will be passed onto the wall and decrease the pressure. If the layout of the building permits, creating an “S” configuration with the hose in the hallway will place more surface area of the hose on the ground and will decrease the reaction on the nozzleman.

The nozzleman should be searching the areas around him while stretching the line through the building to the seat of the fire. In fact, all members of the crew need to be constantly multitasking. It takes no extra energy to search the area immediately around you while you are stretching the line down the hallway and through the rooms. Obviously, you wouldn’t put the hoseline down to search if the hallway is engulfed in fire. If possible, the nozzleman should take a moment before opening the line to use the light of the fire to look around the room. He may notice things he wouldn’t otherwise. Above all, remember that all problems go away when the fire goes out.

Members of a short-staffed engine crew need to be proficient in all aspects of the job, collectively and individually. We are expected to handle every emergency thrown our way. We have been entrusted to protect the lives and property of the citizens we protect. Our work conditions will not be getting better any time soon, nor will staffing increase. We need to overcome the challenges. By using the positions and operating as a cohesive group, a short-staffed engine can still be successful and effective.

Tim O’Connor is a firefighter/EMT in a combination company in New Castle County, Delaware. He has been in the fire service for 14 years and has held various positions.

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