Core Values of Commonsense Leadership: Know Your Response District

By Jim Mason

I serve as a relieving lieutenant in the Chicago (IL) Fire Department. A relieving lieutenant is a floater that fills in on days when the regular company officer has a day off. A reliever is always on a detail to one of about 30 companies assigned to a geographical district and, because of not being assigned, there are many challenges to a relieving officer’s position in a big city. One of the biggest challenges is not knowing the response areas as well as a regular officer.

On one recent detail, I was working on a truck that was housed with an engine company along the south end of the city limits. This area ran up to Lake Michigan on the east, which was the vacant site of the old steel mills from decades earlier. This was my first time working at this firehouse.

About midnight, the bells rang for a fire. All the personnel moved quickly to the rigs, and off we drove into the night. The driver on my company was working in from another firehouse, and the officer of the engine also happened to be a reliever. This left us to the experience of the pump operator driving the engine, who had only been assigned to this company for about a week. As it turned out, we were relying on luck as much as skill to find the destination.

When we arrived at what appeared to be the address, we found an eight-foot fence around a dark and empty field. We quickly confirmed the address on the radio as the battalion chief arrived. He told us that this was one of the old steel mill’s address and sometimes passers-by would mistakenly call in a fire alarm because of the little red light that sat on top of one of the few remaining structures at the back of the large prairie.

Just then, a car marked with an old steel company logo showed up and waved for us to follow him. He obviously knew the drill. The chief followed first and, because none of us fire company members working that night understood the situation, we all turned into the cave-like darkness behind the fence gate behind him. The only way we could see were the lights from our rigs and the dim taillights of the man we were following in the company car.

The street pavement quickly turned into gravel, then silt, which was left over from the decades of steel production. The silt was also soaked from some recent heavy rains. As the two cars we were following started to pull away from us into the night, the mud-filled road took a significant, left-side tilt toward Lake Michigan. It was then that the engine drove into a bathtub of mud up to the axles.

We stopped the truck and tried to help the others direct the pump operator to back up and out of the sticky, wet silt. The engine moved back and forth, trying to break free, each time moving laterally closer and closer toward falling into the lake from the twisted road. Each move the engine made churned more mud up between the rear dual wheels, like some giant sausage grinder. On the one final try we had left before the apparatus splashed into the lake, the engine’s wheels finally grabbed enough dry land and the driver was able to back out of this nightmare.

Since we were barely able to see the two sets of taillights, which by now seemed miles away, we turned to congratulate the engine members on not getting fired for dropping the engine into the lake. The remainder of the shift was spent talking about the hypothetical phone call that would explain the incident to the company captain. “Hello Cap, we have good news and bad news. First, the bad news. We dumped your engine into Lake Michigan last night at the firehouse. But the good news is the water rescue of your pump operator went off without a hitch.”


(1) This building was preplanned by the regular company members during company preplanning and EMS runs. Because of this activity, the operation went well. Photo by Steve Redick. Click to enlarge

A core value of commonsense leadership is to know your response district. This will prepare you and your members for the times ahead. Unlike the officers from the story above, who were at a disadvantage because they believed they were responding to a typical fire alarm, members working in a regular firehouse should know the neighborhood in which they respond.

What does this do for a commonsense leader on the fireground? Decision-making on arrival at a stress-filled fire scene is difficult. There is heavy pressure from everyone on-scene to act quickly and correctly. The building owner’s life and property are in danger, and the firefighters arriving on the apparatus with you need leadership. If you are familiar with the response district, the tough decisions during an emergency will be easier to make.

Why is this? Because the size-up of a fire situation is as much about recognizing what is happening as it is about predicting what must be done to stop the problem. If we know what types of buildings we have in our response area and how a fire will travel through them, we can more easily predict what actions will allow us to conduct an effective fire attack. Knowing the neighborhood will help us to recognize the problem much faster when we arrive on-scene.

We can accomplish this neighborhood reconnaissance in two ways. The first is for the company members to go out into residential and commercial areas of the response district and look at what is there. When you get to the preplanning area, park your apparatus, get out, and take a walk down the block. This will allow you to look closely, as if you had just arrived at a fire incident.

The officer should explain what can be expected from a fire in this or that building and what the company members should do to stop the problem. . Identify the construction types and the typical performance of the building in a fire. What are the problems? How will the fire spread internally? Where would the hoseline need to be placed if the fire were located in different areas inside? How could ventilation be performed? Where would the team gain access for the primary search? Where are the secondary means of egress? Use imagination during these drills.

The second way the company can get to know the response area is during EMS calls. After the patient is in the ambulance, the officer should ask company members how far the hose stretch would be from the spot of the engine to where the victim was found. How many hose turns were there to areas such as the kitchen or a back bedroom inside the residence? How far apart were the bedrooms from each other (for a primary search)? Behind which windows are bedrooms, the dining room, the living room, the kitchen, and so forth? This will keep the company members thinking while mitigating the boredom that sometimes occurs during these incidents.

One part of the core values of commonsense leadership includes learning the response district that surrounds the firehouse. It will help you make better decisions faster when you arrive at a fire. An old fire instructor once told me: “On the fireground, always think about what should happen next, and you will always look good.”


Jim Mason is 21-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department.

Subjects: Leadership, preplanning, building construction

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