From my first days in the fire service, I was taught that “time saves lives”: For every minute a fire progresses, the potential injury and life threat to anyone trapped in the fire building significantly increases and potential damage to the involved or exposed structures or items burning significantly increases. Moreover, for every minute a person is not breathing, the potential for irreversible brain damage significantly increases. These facts show how important it is for us responders to arrive at the emergency scene as promptly as possible. One way we can help ensure this is to become familiar with our district so we can get to where we are needed without delay.

Are map reading and district familiarization becoming lost arts in fire departments? Getting in the rig and starting to roll, because time is of the essence, even when you do not know exactly where you are going is setting yourself (and the public you serve) up for failure.

When I was a firefighter/engineer, I used to pride myself in knowing my first-due areas, even when I was not normally assigned to a station/first-due area. I took pride in knowing the streets and the target hazards in the first-, second-, and third-due areas of my assigned station.

I recall seeing officers working a trade or overtime at my station with fear in their eyes when we received a call because they did not know the area. I used to tell them, “I’ll get you to the street; you get me to the house.” I wanted to instill confidence in them by letting them know that I knew our first-due area. All I wanted from them was to tell me, “second house on the left,” “third house on the right,” or “just beyond the fire hydrant.”

Officers have too much on their minds; they should not have to guide the driver to the scene. As an officer, I do not want to have my head buried in the map book while en route to a call. I want to know where we’re going when we leave the station. Some ways to do this are to keep the map book open to that page or to look at preplans or site plans. The driver of the apparatus needs to know the response area and how to read maps at a moment’s notice.

Before I became a captain, I used to hear officers say they were nervous because they were going to work at another fire station and didn’t know their way around the first-due response area. My first thought was that I never wanted to be that nervous about anything, including getting to a call. My second thought was that two very capable firefighter/engineers had worked at that station for a few years and they had better be able to get the officers to the call. I expect that anyone assigned to a station for six months should know their entire first-due area, hands down.


It is unrealistic to expect department members to memorize every address, street, landmark, or target hazard in their jurisdiction. However, it is reasonable to expect the engineer to know every street and major target hazard within the first-due area. In our department, we expect our probationary firefighters to learn 10 streets per first-due district (16 first-due stations-a total of 160 streets) as part of their sign-off book.

When the probationary firefighters ask if I could sign them off on their streets, I expect them to be able to tell me the following information before I will sign those 10 streets off for them:

  • Where zero begins on a certain street. Every city typically has a landmark, sometimes the center of town, where the street numbers start at zero. Typically, a block usually has an address range of 100 digits-for example, 1-99 for one block, 100-199 for the next block, 200-299 for the block after that, and so forth.
  • The direction in which the street runs: north, south, east, or west?
  • Which side of the street has odd and even addresses-odd numbers (the last digit of the street address) are found on the north side of the street if the street runs east/west and on the west side if the street runs north/south.
  • Where the street begins and ends (not just in our first-due area or department jurisdiction, but within the county). This information is important when responding with a private ambulance crew that does not know how to get to the hospital from our first-due area or if family members want to follow in their private vehicle the ambulance transporting their loved one to the hospital but don’t know how to get there.

In addition to the above information, I encourage firefighters to learn the first-due boundaries of each of the department’s fire stations and the addresses and cross-streets of every fire department facility.

Knowing at least the address and cross-street of every fire department facility can help your sense of direction. As an example, I know that our Station 11 is at 123 Union Avenue at Duncanville Court in Campbell, California. This information helps me to remember two street names and the side of the street on which the even/odd numbers are (in Campbell, streets ending in odd numbers are on the west side).

Once the information on the fire stations has been memorized, they can move on to target hazards. For example, my department covers about 100 square miles with countless streets in multiple cities and county areas. There is no way to learn every street in every city. However, learning the addresses of the 20 or so department facilities allows me to have a starting point for each area the department covers (address breaks, which side of the street an address can be found, which way the numbers increase/decrease, for example).

Department members should know how to get from one fire station or facility to another. Chances are that every member will work at or at least go to every fire department facility at least once in their career. There is nothing worse than not knowing how to go from station 5 to station 9 when you are assigned to do a code-3 response on the balance of a first- or second-alarm assignment. Also, many departments do station move-ups to cover stations that are vacant for a specific time frame.


Following are suggestions for increasing your knowledge of your district’s geographical layout.

• Get your own personal map of each station’s first-due area. It should be a quality map that covers your jurisdiction’s response area (or the county also). I recommend a book-style map; fold-out maps get beat up pretty quickly and are hard to use in contrast with the 8-inch by 11-inch pages.

• On the map, do the following:

– Mark the location and address of each fire station (and department facility). Indicate the apparatus assigned to each station (this helps you to memorize which apparatus are at which locations).
– Draw lines around each first-due area so you know who is responsible for what.
– Highlight the major streets in one color.
– Highlight the secondary streets in another color.
– Mark specific target hazards, such as shopping centers, hotels, government buildings, schools, stadiums, industrial facilities, and nursing homes. Put their addresses on the map.
– Highlight the hospitals. You may have to pick up your paramedic or personnel who rode to the hospital with the ambulance, or you may have to direct the ambulance crew or family members to the hospital. Knowing this information in advance makes you look like you have your act together.

Try to study your map every day. When I used to go to a new station, I would find a map specific to the city (typically free of charge at the local Chamber of Commerce office) and tape it to a piece of cardboard with the street index on the back). I would then highlight the major streets with one color and the secondary streets with another color. I would also highlight the fire stations in that city as well as the target hazards. When I was the driver for the day, I had a map I could use to locate a street at a moment’s notice; it was easier than trying to flip through map pages. It was also a great study tool. I kept it on the top of the engine, to the right of the driver’s seat when I was driving so I could quickly glance at it before the officer jumped in the rig.

• Try to learn at least three different ways to get from one station to another. You never know when you will need a plan B or plan C because of traffic, road conditions, or other circumstances.

• If you are a visual learner, try to picture the address in your head. Whenever I hear an address, I immediately try to picture it in my head. It is especially easy when I hear addresses to which we respond on a regular basis. Driving around the streets will enable you to picture addresses or streets and commit them to memory.

• Use software programs such as Google Earth® (free download from the website) or similar programs that provide satellite views on which you can zoom in and out to view the streets and area from above, by satellite photos. I am a visual learner. When I see streets and cities from above, with buildings, landmarks, geography, and topography in full color, it really helps to reinforce what I have learned.

• Learn every street in your assigned first-due area. Once you have those down, start learning the streets in your second-due area.

• Know the addresses of the target hazards (shopping centers, schools, stadiums, industrial facilities, nursing homes, and so on) within your first-due area. Once you have those down, start learning the target hazards in your second-due and third-due (and so on) areas. Even if you don’t respond to the other areas while at your assigned station, you might work overtime or a shift trade or be assigned on a move-up at those other stations.

While learning the addresses of your target hazards, start learning their key components: the location of the fire department key box (for rapid entry off-duty), if there is one; the locations of the nearest hydrants; the location of the fire department connection (FDC) for the sprinkler or standpipe system; the location of the fire alarm panel (to reset the system); and the basic layout of the facility.

Company officers should use all of the above items to test and evaluate newly assigned personnel to their station, even those off probation.

Learn as much as possible about your first-due response zone, and branch out from there. If you work for a large department, such as the Los Angeles Fire Department, which has more than 100 fire stations, it is probably unrealistic to ask a new firefighter to learn every street in the city. If you work for a small department such as the Beverly Hills Fire Department, with only three fire stations, you can learn every street and target hazard within a certain time frame.

In the late 1990s, the department I work for contracted with the Los Altos Fire Department for fire service. Los Altos Fire had three fire stations in two communities (Los Altos and Los Altos Hills). One of the requirements for a probationary firefighter to successfully pass the probationary period was to memorize every street. The final exam consisted of the firefighter‘s having to drive the battalion chief to an address provided by the battalion chief. This was done at night; it was not easy. It required every probationary firefighter to drive streets on their days off, before work and after work, to memorize streets and to do what it took to pass their final exam. Although it was not easy, the firefighters did what they had to do to pass the test and probation.

I do not know of too many jurisdictions where a majority of the firefighters live in their departments’ response area. It seems that more and more personnel are moving an hour or more out of their response area, making it more difficult to gain and maintain a working knowledge of their first-due area. However, living far from your jurisdiction does not preclude your having to learn the streets and target hazards.


Here are some additional suggestions for increasing your map-reading skills and knowledge of your first-due area and the entire department response area.


• Try doing as much as you can in your off hours within your department’s response area. Besides keeping the tax dollars in town, it allows you to learn your area at a quicker rate and maintain your knowledge. Repetition helps you to retain the information. The key here is to pay attention when you’re driving around and try to remember things.

• When driving to and from work, try taking different routes; learn different areas and ways into and out of certain areas.

• Even if you don’t live in your jurisdiction, you can still arrive at the jurisdiction early and drive the area.


• Challenge yourself. Have others test you on your knowledge, and vice versa. Try to learn one new street every shift-better yet, five new streets every shift.

• Make a blank map of your first-due area; remove the names of the streets; fill in the names as a test. Copy the test; make it a quiz for all members.

• Become familiar with all of the maps carried on your apparatus-how to look up streets, learning what the symbols on each page stand for, and so on.

• Get an index of all the streets in your first-due area; cut out each name so that a small piece of paper has only one street name on it. Put all the slips in a coffee can; have a member pull out a slip and tell you the following about the name of the street on that slip: where the street is located, in which direction it runs, the number scheme, target hazards/types of occupancies on that street, and any other relevant facts. This is a great way to challenge members in an informal environment (rather than a test). Have the losers buy sodas.

• When studying, try to multitask. Place a map book next to you, and listen to the department radio. When a call is dispatched (for another unit) and the name of the street is unfamiliar to you, look up that street to see where it is and the route you would take there. Such a drill increases your multitasking ability, helps you to learn about new streets, and familiarizes you with patterns (“frequent fliers”). Every first-due area has a target hazard or residence that generates at least one call a week. Recognizing these locations will be helpful when you might have to work at that station and respond to these calls.

• I like to listen to the radio during the day. I disagree with those who say, “Turn it off; they’ll call us if they need us.” That may be true. However, by looking at the bigger picture, tracking where other apparatus are will alert you to the fact that you may be called into their first-due area or that if you are relying on the next-due engine for a water supply, it may not be able to get to your emergency as soon as you would like. Also, you may think you are the second-due engine when in fact you really are the first-due engine because the usual first-due engine is on another call. This information will change your tactics and alter your game plan. I would rather know this information en route instead of to have to change gears when at the scene.

• Drive the streets of your area as much as possible while on-duty. Annual hydrant maintenance and company inspections get us out into the first-due area and bring us in contact with areas we might not necessarily respond to on a regular basis.

• Once you start retaining this information, don’t forget to reinforce what you have learned through practice and repetition. If you don’t use it, you will lose it!

• • •

In his book Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief (Ret.) Alan V. Brunacini stresses that our customers expect us to respond quickly, to be nice to them, and to solve their problems. He believes that some of the major behaviors of an effective service delivery system include “being Quick, being Effective, being Skillful, being Safe, being Caring, and being Managed.”

The more familiar we are with our response area, the more quickly we will get to the emergency scene, the more skillful we will be, the safer we will be, and the less stressed we will be-enabling us to provide the best possible service. The more time we waste trying to locate the emergency scene, the more the potential for irreversible damage.

Make becoming familiar with your response area fun and interesting, and involve your entire crew. Before you know it, you will have to use your map book less and less.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and is an acting battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College (Hayward, CA) Fire Technology Program, where has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes for 13 years and has served as the fire technology coordinator for four and a half years. He is an executive board member of the Northern California Training Officers Association; he now serves as first vice president and is scheduled to be president in 2007. He is a state-certified chief officer, fire officer, master instructor, and hazardous materials technician, as well as a state-licensed paramedic. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration.

No posts to display