By Richard A. Fritz
In today’s fire service, it seems everyone wants to be a specialist. We have haz-mat specialists, emergency rescue specialists, underwater rescue specialists, technical rescue specialists, and the list goes on. Why is it that no one specializes in our primary mission? Why do we overlook the obvious when it comes to everyday responses and job functions? Why isn’t there an engine company specialist or a ladder company specialist? Why is the general fire service so resistant to even designating riding positions and specific job functions?
When I began my career in the fire service, riding positions and job duties were an integral part of being a member of the engine company. Most positions were set in stone and you had to earn the right to get one of those positions. It has been 26 years since my first day on the job at Muscatine (IA) Fire Department, but I still remember my job and riding position. I remember the whole crew’s positions and jobs. From day one, the importance of teamwork was stressed to me. Everyone had a job, and the effectiveness of the team depended on each of us doing that job.
Joe Fry drove the engine. He was the senior guy and had earned the right to drive the first-due engine out the door. Ralph Birkhoffer rode the seat. He was the assistant chief and was in charge of the engine and the fire scene. Larry “Zeke” Zaehringer was the nozzleman, and he rode in the jump seat directly behind Ralph. His job was to stretch the line to wherever Ralph directed him. Davie Sieh was the utility man. He rode in the jump seat behind Joe. His job was to help Larry get the line stretched, knock all the kinks out, break the line, and connect it to the engine. He also broke the supply line if we laid one and connected it to wherever Joe told him. My job was hydrant man. I rode the tailboard. My job was to watch Ralph. If he held his hand out the window and held up one finger, I was to lay one line. If he held out his hand and held up two fingers, I was to lay dual lines. Once I had laid to the hydrant, I was to watch Joe, if I could see him. If I could see him, he would rotate his hand over his head indicating that I should spin the hydrant open. If I couldn’t see him, I was to count to 30 and open the hydrant anyway. Hopefully, Joe and Davie had clamped the lines. When the hydrant was open, I was to leave the wrench on top of the hydrant and come up to the engine, kicking kinks out of the supply line(s) as I came up. I would then mask up and become the third member on the attack line or stretch a backup if required.
Yes, there was a gang of us on the engine then, but there were only two engines in the city. Engine 2 was on its way with two additional firefighters, and Truck 1 was right behind us with two more firefighters and a captain. When I relate this story to firefighters today, they look puzzled. Riding assignments? Job duties? Tool assignments? Not possible. They say there are too many variables in today’s responses to “limit” the precious few going to the incident with details like that.
(1) A new specialty in the fire service: engine company specialist. (Photos by author.)
Almost every profession today has its own versions of riding positions, job functions, and even specific tool assignments. In the military, a squad of infantry has specific job classifications, assignments, and tools to carry. Generals have battle plans that they follow and adapt as the battle shifts. These battle plans are based on a strategic goal and depend on the individual soldier’s job description and tool assignment to carry out the tactics to achieve the strategic goal. Football players have a playbook; lawyers have briefs and case precedents. Why are we, professional firefighters, playing “wait and see” until we get there?
We are overlooking the obvious when it comes to the most basic of fire service tasks. Having assigned riding positions and job functions makes perfect sense and allows for a more organized “assault” on the fire and a safer fireground. Riding positions that spell out basic tasks and tool assignments will get you into the game. As the tide of the battle goes, those jobs and assignments will, of course, shift. Assignments can be made based on the type of response and the anticipated action on arrival.
Impossible? No! We used to do it all the time. Look around your department for old rules and regulations books or old training manuals. The fire service used to be very specific about who did what, where they rode, what they drove, and what their specific job functions were. We need to return to that level of organization to make our companies more of a team, capable of performing the variety of tasks required on the fireground. We now must do it with fewer people than before, so all the more reason to get organized!
What positions and job functions are required in the engine? Let’s assume that everything is the way it should be and outline the job title and tool assignments of a fully staffed engine company.
Position: company officer. This position could be any rank from chief officer through firefighter—it is whoever is in charge of the company.
Function: command, size-up, initial tactics.
Tool assignment: radio, forcible entry tool(s), maybe the thermal imaging camera if you have one.
Position: chauffeur/engineer/driver. This is the wizard of all things mechanical.
Function: motors the rig down the road, parks it in the right place every time, gets the pump in gear, counts fingers and toes, and comes up with the right pressures to correctly deliver the required fire flow.
Tool assignment: “BRT”—the big red truck. That’s his tool to start with. It may shift to hose and a nozzle later on, but not initially.
Position: nozzleman/pipeman. This is the firefighter assigned to stretching the initial attack handline.
Function: correctly stretching the initial attack hoseline to the entry point designated by the officer or dictated by experience and fire conditions.
Tool assignment: hose and a nozzle and door chocks. That’s it. Stretching a line is difficult enough without adding forcible entry tools, lights, thermal imaging cameras, bailout bags, etc.
Position: backup firefighter. This is the firefighter assigned to assist the pipeman in stretching the initial attack handline.
Function: clears the hosebed of hose; flakes the line out so it won’t kink when charged, get snagged on shrubbery, or get caught under tires. When entering the fire area, he backs up the pipeman by relieving the nozzle reaction pressure and assists the pipeman in moving in on the fire.
Tool assignment: hose and door chocks.
Position: doorman. This is one of the most important positions in the engine.
Function: gets the forcible entry tools and brings them to the entry point if there is no truck company. He may bring additional lengths of hose if the officer realizes during size-up that the initial line may be short. He can assist the chauffeur in making connections. He can be dropped off at the hydrant to make the supply line connection. He positions himself on the initial attack line at the door and feeds line to the backup man. He can be used for relief of the initial nozzle crew.
Tool assignment: Depends on the situation.
I can hear the moans and cries now: “We don’t have five-person engines; we run with three!” “This isn’t realistic; it can’t be done!”
Stop and think. True, we don’t have five-person engine companies. These jobs still have to be done. We got into this situation because as our staffing was cut, we just eliminated these riding positions and job tasks and then wondered why our efficiency went into the dumper. These jobs still have to be performed. To get them accomplished, they must be assigned to the remaining crew and dealt with as best as possible.
(2) Riding positions and specific job functions are not new to the fire service; they just haven’t been stressed in the past few years.
Have you ever considered combining engine companies as they arrive? If the first-due engine is staffed with three, and those three have riding assignments and tools, what about filling out the other positions with the crew from the second-due engine? If the first-due engine is not capable of stretching the initial attack handline quickly and efficiently because of staffing problems, what is the function of the second-due engine company? To watch the first engine struggle and try and stretch the line with the same result?
Riding positions and job functions are easily laid out before you respond. The job functions can be shifted or redirected on the fireground as needed, as long as each member of the crew is well trained and competent in the performance of every task. A poorly trained engine company will not perform well on the fireground even if has a dozen members staffing it.
Let’s look at a typical three-member engine company. What would be the riding positions and job assignments for this crew if they were responding to a reported fire in a single-family dwelling? The three riding positions would be the officer in the right front seat, the chauffeur behind the wheel, and the pipeman or nozzleman in the jump seat behind the chauffeur. The pipeman sits behind the chauffeur so that in typical fire apparatus cab layouts, he can turn to his left and look at the officer face-to-face. There is no room for even the slightest possibility of miscommunication. Even when using in-cab communications systems, the two members need to see each other’s faces to ensure that communication has been sent and received and is clearly understood by both.
The engine pulls into the address block, and the officer reports that he has fire showing. He decides to make a quick attack and informs the crew. The chauffer positions the apparatus just past the fire building. The officer orders the second-due engine to lay a supply line into the engine and then he dismounts the apparatus. He heads toward the fire building to conduct a size-up.
The pipeman dismounts the apparatus and grabs the attack hose load on the fire building side of the apparatus. He begins to deploy the hose toward the front door. He moves quickly but deliberately, flaking the hose out as straight as possible as he moves.
The chauffeur sets the pump for booster tank operation, moves to the attack hoseline side of the apparatus, and makes sure the load is clear of the bed. He then goes to the pump panel and waits for the order from the officer to start water. He is at the pump panel as the second-due engine arrives, and the chauffeur of the second-due engine walks up with the end of the supply line they have just laid. The two chauffeurs connect and secure the water supply.
The officer of the first-due engine has completed his walk-around and meets the pipeman at the front door. The pipeman has the line flaked out and positioned to enter the fire building. The officer of the second-due engine arrives and does a face-to-face transfer of command from the first-due officer. The pipeman from the second-due engine arrives after opening the hydrant and charging the supply line and assumes the position of backup man. The first-due officer, the first-due pipeman, and the second-due pipeman (now functioning as the backup man) enter the fire building and initiate the fire attack.
The second-due officer commands the fire. The second-due chauffeur, once he is finished securing the water supply with the first-due chauffeur, assumes the job function of doorman. Two companies in and working, assigned riding positions and job functions, and detailed and defined training combine to make the operation smooth and effective. There are no two-in/two-out issues, no ten thousand contradictory commands screamed into the radio. The operation goes on. The truck company gets there and does its job, and the fire goes out, effective strategy bolstered by efficient and effective tactics.
(3) The basic attack team: nozzleman and backup. The backup may have to be the officer. That should be decided BEFORE you enter the fire area!
Is it so hard? Is it such a far stretch to try and handle many of the issues that occur on the fireground in the fire station before the alarm strikes? If you ask any football player what his job and function are before the game, he can tell you in great detail. Perhaps the opposing team will throw a few things at him that may cause him to perform differently or out of the ordinary, but his basic job and function remain the same.
Riding positions and job functions can be assigned to specific seats in the apparatus rather than specific people. The seat behind the driver, for example, could be the position of pipeman. Whoever is in that seat performs that job function. The seat behind the officer is the backup man, the left forward facing seat is the doorman, and so on. This is a great method for volunteer companies whose members arrive in their private vehicles. They can check at the engine with the chauffeur or look in the cab and check which SCBAs are left in which seat and what job function is not yet filled. Then they just leave their accountability tags on the ring, get the SCBA, report to that company officer, and tell the officer what riding position they are assuming.
Riding positions and job functions are extremely department-specific. But they will work with your department if you take the time to plan them. Not having riding positions and job functions on the fireground is like watching an opera that has no script. The whole scene is nothing more than a bunch of funny-dressed people running around in circles screaming at each other.
RICHARD A. FRITZ, a 31-year veteran of the fire service, is battalion chief of training for the High Point (NC) Fire Department. He has served as program chairman for the Hazardous Materials Technical Program at Scott Community College in Bettendorf, Iowa; firefighting program director for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute; and fire science program coordinator for Harrisburg (PA) Area Community College. Fritz is the author of the book Tools of the Trade: Firefighting Hand Tools and their Use and the videos Tools of the Trade, #1: Cutting and Striking Tools, #2: Push/Pull Tools, #3: Prying Tools, and #4: Power Saws, published by Fire Engineering. He is an FDIC HOT program coordinator.