Why Do We Do That?


Q.Why do we contact the incident commander (IC) or our officer when we are unable to accomplish our assigned tasks and also when we accomplish the tasks?

If a firefighter is assigned the task of venting a roof or a window, removing a victim from a window, or shutting down a sprinkler system, he needs to report his success or failure to his company officer. If an officer is told to stretch a line to attack the fire on the second floor or to search the basement, the IC needs to know when and if that task has been completed. The officer needs to know if the firefighter’s assigned tasks are completed so he can report the success or failure of his assignment to the IC, so the IC can assign him a new task. The IC is making decisions and assigning other tasks based on the fact that he has already assigned a task to your company. Your completion of the task or your actively pursuing that task can affect the safety of all on the fireground, civilians and firefighters alike.

If an engine officer is assigned to attack the fire on the second floor, the IC may assign another unit to search the third floor based on the fact that he has a unit controlling or extinguishing the fire on the second floor. If the engine officer cannot extinguish the second-floor fire or has been unavoidably diverted or delayed, he must notify the IC. The firefighters on the third floor could be in danger without a line operating below them.

If the officer is assigned to search the basement using an exterior entrance and cannot make entry at that point, the IC needs to know. He might redirect the officer to another entrance or assign another unit to attempt entry by way of the interior. Conversely, if the officer achieves his goal and completes his assigned duties, the IC needs to know. Knowing whether your task is completed successfully or cannot be completed supplies the IC with information he needs to know to determine if his strategy is working or if it must be altered. It also lets him know if the officer and his unit are free for another assignment.

I once assigned an engine company to the top floor of a three-story private dwelling to extinguish fire showing at the bedroom window. There was fire on each floor, but it was manageable with the resources on hand. I had a line in the cellar, by way of an exterior entrance, and another on the first and second floors. They were heavily engaged but were making good progress. If we could extinguish the top-floor fire, we would be in good shape.

The officer took his line into the building, but a truck officer diverted him to the interior cellar stairs. Fire was coming up the stairs and lapping into the kitchen. Extension at this point would have jeopardized all on the upper floors, as it could have gone up the stairs to the second floor. Stopping this fire from spreading onto the first floor was a good thing. Not telling me about the change in my plan was not.

As I watched, I saw the fire on the third floor spreading. I did not see the white smoke I was expecting from the engine company’s extinguishment efforts. The officer did not answer my repeated attempts to contact him. The third-floor fire was quickly spreading, and I thought the engine company there might be in trouble. The company in the cellar was reporting heavy heat, the result of the engine on the first floor directing its line down the cellar stairs and pushing smoke and fire back on the unit in the cellar. I was considering pulling the plug on the fire and ordering everyone out. It was not going as expected. Instead, I directed another engine company to stretch what I thought would be a second line to the third floor. When the firefighters arrived at the third floor, they reported that the engine in question was not on the third floor. They then, by themselves, made quick work of the fire there.

After the fire was knocked down, a discussion with the diverted engine officer revealed that he had not heard my calls. Luckily, the fire went out, and no one was hurt. Protecting the stairs was not a bad move, but not notifying me was. Directing the line down the stairs put the unit in the basement in jeopardy and almost resulted in my backing out all the units. Had there been a collapse or some other mishap, I would have looked for the diverted engine company on the top floor, not at the basement stairs. It could have cost the rescue effort precious minutes. In the case of a Mayday or the need for a roll call, not keeping your officer posted as to your location and progress could have the same result. If you are assigned to vent the rear windows but come across a victim on a side fire escape, you may have to remove him to a safe location. Should a backdraft, flashover, or collapse occur, your officer will look for you at your assigned location, but you won’t be there.

Keep your officer or the IC, whichever is appropriate, informed of your location and the status of your assigned task. If you are diverted from your task, are unable to accomplish it, or do complete it, notify the appropriate person. Keeping the appropriate officers informed makes for a safe and efficient fireground.

Q. Why is it necessary to use your combustible gas indicator (CGI) whenever you are investigating a reported odor of gas?

You are, after all, an expert. Years of experience have trained your nose to recognize natural gas. Anyway, natural gas is easy to detect. It has that distinctive rotten egg smell, and you can certainly tell when it is present, so why bother with the CGI? Well, there are several reasons that make it not just a good idea but mandatory that you use a CGI to investigate a gas odor.

First, to set the record straight, natural gas has no odor. That rotten egg smell we are all so familiar with is not the odor of natural gas. It is the odor of mercaptan, a chemical odorant, added to natural gas, giving it the familiar rotten-egg smell.

Second, the mercaptan can be removed from natural gas, leaving it odorless once again. We know that natural gas is lighter than air and will rise when released. When natural gas leaks from a pipe underground, it naturally attempts to rise, but concrete pavement, asphalt roadway, and even a layer of frost on the ground may prevent it from doing so. Constrained from rising into the air, the leaking gas may migrate long distances through the soil before finding a way up and out of the ground. This migration may follow the path of gas service lines, water lines, or underground electrical ducts, resulting in the leaking gas migrating into buildings. It can enter buildings through cracks in the wall or holes through which gas, water, telephone, or electric service enters the building. It can also get into the sewer system and travel a long distance before entering a structure via the building’s sewer line.

Gas traveling through soil, on its way into a building, can have its mercaptan filtered or scrubbed out as it passes through the soil. The gas may now be odorless or have a greatly reduced odor. Even with all of your years of experience, your educated nose may not be able to detect the presence of the natural gas seeping into the building, or it may detect only a slight odor when there actually is a dangerous amount of gas present.

Additionally, your nose can become desensitized to a natural gas odor. Your educated nose might pick up a slight odor of gas initially but can become desensitized to the odor and no longer detect it. As a result, you could incorrectly think that the gas odor has dissipated and that all is well, even though the gas is still present.

So you see, without a CGI, you are playing Russian roulette. You may or may not smell the leak, and the gas may or may not be present. Any determination you make without a CGI is suspect and is not reliable.

Those of you who respond into areas free of natural gas service also need to use your CGI. Propane also has an odorant added, giving it the distinctive smell you so easily recognize. It, too, can be leached out if it leaks through the soil on its way into the building. In fact, the odorant in propane, when stored in steel storage tanks, can also fade over time. This could result in a tank full of propane with little or no odor. This occurs most frequently in new tanks or in tanks that are not used often.

A CGI is the only sure way to detect the presence of natural gas or propane. You should use your CGI whenever you investigate odors—any odors—even if you do not suspect that the odor is the result of natural gas or propane. Do this to rule out or detect the presence of these potentially explosive gases.

Q. Some departments assign tools and fireground tasks based on the riding location of responding firefighters. Why do that?

This practice can actually be quite beneficial. It lets the firefighter know, when he boards the apparatus, what tools he will use at fires and emergencies and what position he will cover. With this knowledge, he can target his size-up to the specific tasks he is expected to accomplish; since he knows what he is going to do, this size-up can start on receipt of the alarm. It works best when the officer assigns the riding position.

By assigning firefighters to specific riding positions, the officer is assigning jobs. He can assign the positions based on experience and skill, ensuring a safer, more efficient operation, or assign positions based on a need to develop the talents of specific firefighters. The more experienced firefighters can be assigned to operate in the more complex or dangerous position or to operate remotely from the officer while the less experienced ones are assigned to work under the officer’s direct supervision.

By virtue of assigning a task and tool to the riding position, firefighters, in many cases, can go to work at the scene without the need for orders or discussion. If you are assigned to the inside team, you know you are going with the officer and are bringing the forcible entry tools. If your riding position is assigned the task of venting the roof, you know you must find a safe way to the roof of the fire building and that you may need to bring the roof saw with you.

When everyone knows his tool and his job on arrival at the fire, the operation on the fire scene starts smoothly and quickly. If a firefighter is missing and does not answer his radio, having an assigned position gives the IC an idea of where he should be and a place to start looking for him.

This system necessitates that your firefighters be trained to perform the tasks you assign them and that you know your firefighters’ capabilities. Of course, assigned positions do not entirely negate fire scene orders or directions. The commanding officer still must relay safety concerns and variations in standard tactics to firefighters as needed, but prior training and assigned riding positions can go a long way in making the firefighters more efficient and the fire operation safer.

FRANK MONTAGNA, a 39-year Fire Department of New York veteran and a battalion chief for 22 years, is assigned to FDNY’s Training Academy and is responsible for curriculum development. He has created numerous courses for his department, and his fire simulations are used in FDNY’s promotion courses. He has a B.S. in fire science and lectures on various fire-related topics, including those covered in his book Responding to Routine Emergencies and the Workbook (Fire Engineering 1999, 2005 respectively).

Why Do We Do That?



WHEN WE RESPOND TO THE SCENE OF AN accident or a roadway vehicle fire, we set up flares or cones to warn oncoming motorists away from the accident scene. We are told to walk back toward oncoming traffic and to place the first warning device behind the accident scene near the curb and each subsequent device a little farther out into the road, until the last flare is placed far enough back from the accident scene and out into the roadway to warn oncoming motorists away from the working emergency responders. Why do we do that?

Operating on roadways at the scene of vehicular accidents and fires is among the most dangerous things we do. Injuries to firefighters, EMS workers, and police officers at these scenes occur with disturbing frequency. These accidents are so prevalent that a number of states have passed laws mandating that drivers nearing stopped emergency vehicles that have lights activated slow down or change lanes. Even with such laws geared to protect us, accidents still happen all too frequently. It almost seems as if some drivers are attracted to our flashing lights as a moth is attracted to flame. Unfortunately, some of us respond so often to these types of incidents that we act as if they are no big deal. Believe me, they are a big deal. Cars and trucks traveling at 60 miles per hour are always a big deal. The stopping distance of a car traveling at this rate of speed can be more than 300 feet when you consider the perception time, the reaction time, and the braking time. Not only can these vehicles hit and kill firefighters, but they can hit the responders’ vehicles as well as vehicles involved in the incident; the force of the impact may, in turn, drive these vehicles into the working firefighters.

When pulling up to an accident, size up the scene and arrange your vehicles and warning devices so they deliver optimum safety to responders and victims. This means placing a big red truck, with lights flashing, between you and oncoming traffic. The bigger the red truck is, the better the barrier-a ladder truck makes a better barrier than a chief’s car. Set the front wheels of the blocking apparatus so they are pointing away from working firefighters. At one accident scene, a chief’s car being used to block traffic was struck by an oncoming vehicle and pushed into the working firefighters. Pointing your wheels away from the work area provides an added margin of safety for rescue workers.

Your fire truck should block enough of the road to provide a safe space for victims as well as for responders. You might need to block more than one lane with the truck to make the accident or fire scene safe.

While we are on the topic of accident scene safety, does your department allow an EMS bus to operate alone on a roadway, or is a fire truck dispatched to block traffic for it? How about your engine company? Is it protected as the members replace hose on the apparatus, or do the firefighters stand like unprotected targets behind the pumper?

Once the blocking truck is in place, send two firefighters with flares or traffic cones back toward oncoming traffic to place the warning devices. Two firefighters are needed for this task-while one places the devices, the other watches for oncoming vehicles that could pose a threat to them. The watching firefighter should have a hand light to warn off approaching motorists and a radio to warn operating responders if an oncoming car poses a threat. It is crucial that these firefighters-and all other firefighters on the scene-be highly visible. They should be clad in bunker gear with reflective stripes. This will make them more visible to drivers.

Place the first warning device at the curb, a short distance behind the barrier truck. Position each subsequent device farther from the curb and several feet back from the previous device. Place the last one beyond the outside edge of the barrier truck. The entire row of warning devices should extend far enough back so they alert oncoming drivers of the hazard in time for them to slow down and safely pull around the truck. Consider the speed of oncoming vehicles and required stopping distances when deciding how far back to place the warning devices.

If the roadway is curved or hilly, you will have to extend the warning devices beyond the curve in the roadway and over the top of the hill. The driver of a fast-moving vehicle encountering an accident scene while rounding the curve or coming up over the hill may not have time to react to your warning devices. Position them so that the driver will have enough time to react before rounding the curve or reaching the top of the hill.

Always keep an alert eye on the traffic, and be ready to move out of the way of oncoming cars. Roadway incident scenes, especially those on high-speed highways, are hazardous enough to warrant that an officer or a firefighter be assigned to watch out for traffic-related dangers and to warn of any threatening vehicles. This person should not become involved in extrication or extinguishment; he must dedicate all of his attention to the hazards posed by traffic.

We are told to check our apparatus, firefighting tools, and personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of each tour in the firehouse. Why do we do that?

Even though the previous crew checked its gear at the start of its tour and found no problems with it, you still need to check it again at the start of your shift. The previous crew might have had a fire or an emergency on its shift. Can you be sure that members cleaned and refueled or recharged the tools and equipment they used and put everything back in the right place? Did your SCBA tank develop a leak at the last fire? Was it reported and fixed? Is it fully charged as you start your tour? Do you want to enter the fire with less than a full tank of air? Has dirt or debris fallen into your face piece so that when you put it on, the debris will be blown into your eyes? If you don’t test the fit of your face piece, you might end up with air leakage at your next fire or emergency. Are the backpack straps set up for the smallest firefighter in your department (are you the largest)? How much of a delay will that cause when you discover the straps need to be adjusted at the fire scene? Does your PASS alarm work? Are the air hoses abraded or cracked and ready to fail when you need them most? It just makes good sense to check your assigned SCBA at the start of the tour before you are required to use it.

How about the saw? Is it fueled? Will it start on the first try? How about your hydraulic spreader? Will it start, and is it fueled? Are the hoses and attachments where they belong? How about your generator: Are the cables where they belong? Did the pump operator check to see if his hose fittings and nozzles are where they are supposed to be? Are they even on the apparatus, or did another company inadvertently pick them up at the scene of last night’s fire? Is the apparatus fuel tank full? Are all of the warning devices working? Are your gloves in your turnout pocket where they belong, or did someone borrow them and forget to put them back? It would be a shame to suffer the pain of burned hands because you did not take the time to check that you had your gloves. What else do you keep in your pocket? Is it still there, or did it magically disappear? Are the forcible entry tools where they should be, or will you have to go looking for them when you arrive at the scene of a fire? How about the water extinguisher? Is it full of water and charged with air?

I could go on and on with what should be checked at the start of each tour, but I think you get the idea. This constant checking is tedious but necessary. If you make it a habit, you will not be unpleasantly surprised when a tool doesn’t work or is missing. Even though we must work as a team and do rely on each other, there are some things we should do for ourselves.

When an aerial platform is used to place a firefighter on the roof of a flat-roofed brick building with a parapet, the operator should raise the aerial platform bucket from the parapet before retracting it. Why?

The platform should not be positioned so that it contacts the parapet. Instead, place the floor of the bucket even with or above the top of the wall. From this position, the exiting firefighter can step off the bucket and onto the parapet. If the boom or platform comes in contact with or is positioned above the top of the parapet, the stage is set for disaster. Although the platform or boom should not contact the parapet when properly placed, mistakes occur. The platform or boom might in fact contact the free-standing parapet. It is also possible that the weight of firefighters entering the bucket from the roof and tools placed in the bucket can cause the platform to contact the parapet even if previously properly positioned.

If the bottom of the platform is over the wall or touches the parapet, it is crucial that the boom be raised before it is retracted. If not, the aerial platform’s boom will contact and pull on the parapet as it retracts, causing bricks to become loose and fall. It is possible that a whole section of the wall might fall on unsuspecting firefighters below. Such a tragedy can be avoided if the operator raises the boom before retracting it, thus moving the platform away from the parapet.

In a room that has been gutted by fire, the officer tells you to drive the solid stream into the point where the roof or floor boards meet the ceiling or roof joists. Why does he do that?

When the ceiling boards and joists have been exposed to heavy fire and have been burning for a long time, the exposed surfaces will be charred. Any visibly smoldering embers can easily be extinguished by hosing them down. However, fire can burrow into the protected space above the joist and below the floor or roof joists. A casual application of water at this point likely will not extinguish this sheltered fire. Driving the water into this junction and slowly playing the stream along the entire length of both sides of the joist may force water into this tight space, extinguishing the fire nested between the joist and roof or floorboards above. A solid stream works best for this task.

To check for the successful extinguishment of this hidden fire, drive your pike pole straight up into the boards above you near the joist. The sudden hit may move the boards enough to cause a cascade of sparks to drop down. If you see sparks, you have more work to do. You can try driving more water directly into the trouble spot. If this does not work, try banging the boards above you some more. You may create a slight opening between the joists and boards, allowing water to enter the area and conceal the smoldering fire. If this does not work, consider going above the area that is smoldering and cut the floorboards or roof boards and remove them. By banging on the boards below, you can direct the firefighters above to the area where they must make their cut. Cutting and removing the boards will expose the smoldering fire and allow easy extinguishment. When you think that you have extinguished the last bit of fire, look carefully at the area for any signs of smoke pushing out from between the cracks. Look for glowing embers or falling sparks, and listen for crackling, which would indicate fire burning somewhere. If you have a thermal imaging camera, this would be a good time to use it. Failure to put out hidden glowing embers could result in a rekindle a few hours later and may necessitate a return response to fight the fire again.

FRANK C. MONTAGNA is a battalion chief and a 37-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). For the past 20 years, he has served as a chief officer and is currently assigned to curriculum development at the FDNY Bureau of Training, creating training programs for chiefs, company officers, and firefighters. He has a degree in fire science from John Jay College, where he has taught fire science and management courses and is teaching a course based on his book Responding to “Routine” Emergencies (Pennwell, 1999). He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering, lectures on various fire-related topics, and is a contributor to Fire Engineering and WNYF.