Truck Company Operations Without the Truck

Firefighters perform roof ventilation at a Chicago fire
Photo courtesy of Tim Olk

It’s 2130 hours on a hot summer night in your response area. The tones drop for a possible structure fire at an address with which you are familiar. It’s a three-story house that has been converted into apartments. The structure was built in 1928 and has had minor updates, if any at all. You’ve made a few “food on the stove” runs and countless emergency medical services runs there, so you may have a general idea of the layout. As you turn onto the street, you tell your driver to be careful while moving toward the address because smoke is overtaking the street. Your engine consists of a three-member crew including yourself.

After moving down the street at what seems like a snail’s pace, you arrive and exit the engine. You move to get a better look at the structure with an obstructed 360° view because of the alley and fences. Heavy smoke is coming from the second floor, the best you can tell.


Truck Company Ops: Search Hazards

Truckless, USA: Essential Fireground Functions

Truck Company Ops: Horizontal Ventilation

Truck Company Ops: Vertical Ventilation

Truck Company Work in the Rural Environment

You advise dispatch: “Engine 2 to dispatch, show us on scene with a three-story occupied multiple dwelling with heavy smoke throughout. Engine 2 has command.”

As you make your way back to the engine, you hear shouts from the second and third floors on the D side. You are at a crossroad; it is time to make a decision. You know that your second-due engine is far away and there is no ladder in your area because no one has ladders. It’s time to go to work. What do you do?

Responses like this one take place all the time across the country and put firefighters to the test. Some departments are more than ready to handle this task, yet some are not. The general public expects that when they call for help, we will show up and take care of business. It’s part of our role and the expectations they have of us. However, we can be our own worst enemy on the smallest responses. There are several things that have to be done to be successful, but there are several factors that influence their outcome. Just because there is no ladder truck on scene does not mean truck work is not performed. Truck work is performed at every structure fire.

The engine makes up the largest amount of firefighting apparatus nationwide, and this is rightly so because you have to put water on the fire to extinguish it. Engine companies today have to stretch fast and get water on the fire as soon as possible to make the problem go away. Getting that first line into operation is paramount. But truck work has to be performed along with engine work to be successful.

A lot of what the truck does falls under “basic firefighter skills.” Those basic skills are forcible entry, search, ventilation, ladders, overhaul, and utilities. If firefighters could refer back to the basics with regard to truck work, they would be successful. If you are in a department that does not have a ladder truck, I would still bet you do truck work at incidents. There are people who do it but don’t realize it is a truck function.

The engine is the primary unit that extinguishes the fire; thus, the engine is “attack.” The truck is doing everything else to support the engine, making the truck “support.” A good friend of mine, Lieutenant James Ellis of Pittsburgh (PA) Bureau of Fire, summed it up best: “The engine fights the fire; the truck fights the conditions.”

The following are key areas of tasks with limited personnel and no truck.

The Incident Commander (IC) and Task Assignments

You should figure out the truck company tasks well before the response. Companies in cities with no ladder truck should find ways to give those tasks to units prior to arrival (in order of arrival) or the IC should assign them. It’s best to have a plan that has everyone know their order of arrival with job assignment and that the IC can change as the incident evolves. The incident may alter the preplanned assignments because another task is becoming priority one, such as rescue. You may need to effect a rescue before you stretch a line. In other situations, you may need the line to protect those needing rescue.

The IC, along with all responding, should know the game plan. As I mentioned earlier, the task order will be based on response order. It is a fluid “battleground” that changes quickly, and the IC as well as the firefighters should recognize that change may be needed to be successful in the protection of life and property.


This is the one task that will change the response objective in certain situations. When responding without a truck, you will have to decide what your priority is, especially if you are the first-arriving company. Conditions, building size, construction factors, and the list goes on will dictate what is to be done. You may choose to attack the fire and search as best you can while advancing the attack line, or you may decide to rescue civilians based on what you see. If you pull up and civilians are hanging from windows and smoke/heat conditions are pushing them out, you should be ready to rescue them. You will have to pull a ladder before you pull a line. Communication is a must in this situation, especially to the IC who is on the way and other companies, because you may need extra help with the rescues. Just remember that you may have to act in rescue mode before you attack the fire.

Forcible Entry

One of the first basic fire skills that any firefighter should learn is forcible entry. Forcible entry can make or break an incident with regard to quick access to the interior of the structure for fire attack or search. The fire attack and search cannot start until you can get into the building. Departments that do not have truck companies should have forcible entry tools on their engines or rescues. The most basic conventional forcible entry tool is the “irons,” which consists of an eight-pound ax and a 30-inch, one-piece, drop forged steel halligan. If a firefighter can train and use this tool, operations can proceed to access the structure for fire attack or rescue.

The rotary saw is a tool that can help gain access to the structure with forcible entry blades for cutting steel or the like. From bolts in doors to hinges, the saw can make for quick access into the structure. Rotary saws are made for the construction and demolition industry. Fire departments have adapted these saws to our daily operations because of how quickly we can gain access to the structure. Train with the saw well before a response. It is a tool that should be on your apparatus.


Ladders serve many purposes in the fire service, but the main purpose is to ascend to upper floors. Before using a ladder at a fire scene, master the basics of throwing ladders. Know how long they are in the bedded position, how much working length you are getting, how many inches for each click, how heavy, and the list goes on. Knowing this information will help you create what I call “fast ladders.” If you have to carry and raise a ladder by yourself, learn how to do it in training. Know the distance between windowsills as well as how to reach them efficiently. If you are using a two-person carry, carry the butt toward the building in a suitcase carry and have the other firefighter carry the tip on his shoulder. When you have determined how far to be from the building based on the height needed, drop the butt as the tip firefighter keeps coming up with it, spin and raise it to the desired height, then lower it into the building. Speed up your ladders for the sake of the civilians.

Yes, Your Engine Carries Ground Ladders!

Get those ladders up around the building for firefighters too. Your tallest ladder may be a 28-foot ladder but will most likely be a 24-foot. Throw those ladders and surround the building to give firefighters an egress if needed. Throw them until the engines are empty of ladders.

Horizontal Ventilation

Venting for fire and venting for life are two aggressive tasks of horizontal ventilation. Before taking any windows or doors, understand that with every action there is a reaction. Fire burns based on low pressure being drawn in near the floor, bringing oxygen to it. High pressure comes off the top and spreads out laterally across ceilings, down halls, and into other rooms. If you know how fire burns, you also know that the action of opening a window or a door has a reaction of drawing the fire to your location.

Venting for fire involves an outside vent firefighter (OV). This is coordinated with the attack line personnel and the OV. The OV will make his way to the window of the fire room or one closest to attack and will wait patiently for the engine to “make the push” and listen for one of two things: The engine will tell the OV to take the window when they are ready or the OV listens for the hose stream pushing into that area of the building and will communicate with the engine. The reason the OV is listening is that if there is no communication from the engine, he will take the window. He is taking the window to give the heat, smoke, and steam an exit path from the building instead of their rolling back on the hose team.

Venting for life is done through vent-enter-search (VES). This is an aggressive but the safest form of search. You are in complete control of the room you are entering, and the room you most likely will be entering is a bedroom. Knowing that it is a bedroom, the size as well as where the interior bedroom door is are somewhat predictable. This search is done on the first floor up to as high as you can go by ground ladder, building construction, fire escapes, or aerial ladder. First, make sure that you don your self-contained breathing apparatus mask and personal protective equipment. Then, take the upper part of the window, clear the glass, then take the lower glass and clear it. The sash will be next.

The tool of choice for VES of a window is a halligan. Hooks tend to bounce on some windows; halligans take them out with downward force of the strike to the sash. Do not strike the sash in the middle; strike it on the side where it is attached. It breaks away easier. Clear the entire window and monitor smoke and fire conditions. Sweep the floor with a tool and prepare to enter the window. You can place a hook at the sill as a reference point to the window from the room.

How do you enter the window? Let the conditions of the room tell you how to enter the window. If the smoke is hot and turbulent, enter low into the window. Some firefighters prefer headfirst, and some like to back in low. If the smoke is cool and tolerable, hug the window on the side and step in with complete control. Then immediately move to the bedroom door. If it is closed, check for heat. If possible, open the door and check the hallway for victims. If the door is open, check the hallway for victims and shut the door. Once you shut the door, quickly search the room for victims. Communication is key before entering and after completing your search. Exit the window and look to VES other windows, if needed.

Vertical Ventilation

If there is no truck company responding to your structure fire and vertical ventilation is needed, by all means do it. You will need sufficient personnel to complete the task of opening the roof along with the engine making the attack. This has to be coordinated based on the engine getting water to the nozzle, setting the pressure after flowing water, and advancing the line for attack. Do not open the roof prematurely because of the intensity of the fire growing.

Open the roof with the right saw. Use a chain saw with a carbide chain for residential roofs of all pitches, even light-gauge metal roofs. A good cut for the low pitch roof of 5⁄12 or less is a “dice cut.” The chain saw and chain should be for fire ventilation. An aggressive chain can make the difference. A rotary saw with a ventilation blade can work the flat roof and steep pitch roof.

I like the “Milwaukee cut” for steep pitch roofs of 6⁄12 or greater. With this cut, you and your partner never leave the ladder or step out onto the roof, making it better than just stepping onto a halligan that you have driven into the roof. You may get a 16-square-foot hole, if you are lucky, with the one-ladder method on steep pitch roofs, but you can get much bigger with the Milwaukee cut, upward of 50-plus square feet. The weight of the saw works with gravity; let the saw cut as you guide it down. Before committing crews to the roof, make sure there are enough personnel to carry out vertical ventilation and attack.

These are some basic skills that you should use when there is no truck company and tasks are assigned. Do not forget utilities, salvage, and overhaul. With no truck, limited staffing, limited experience, and other factors, stick to the basics. Make a plan of operation well before the alarm that you can change as conditions change. Departments without a dedicated truck company must still be able to carry out the tasks of the truck. Some of these tasks may not be under the best conditions. Refer to basic fire skills, have a plan, communicate, and understand that the fireground is ever changing. You will be ahead of the game even without the truck.

ARTHUR ASHLEY has been a firefighter since 1986. He has been with the Lexington (KY) Fire Department for more than 26 years, assigned to engine and ladder companies. He is a captain assigned to Ladder Company 1 in downtown Lexington. He is a Kentucky level II instructor, a Kentucky State Fire School instructor, and an instructor with the Lexington Fire Training Academy.

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