Going Back to Basics: Reconsider The Function of a Fire Company

Going Back to Basics: Reconsider The Function of a Fire Company

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Confusion still exists on many firegrounds. Heavy radio traffic between first-alarm units and frequent requests for instructions are factors that indicate such confusion. This problem is partially caused by a lack of understanding of the role of the fire company.

A fire company is the basic unit of personnel and apparatus necessary to begin fireground operations. Engine, truck and squad companies are each generally referred to as a fire company.

Some of you may be thinking that departmental SOPs would solve the problem of confused fireground operations. SOPs would help if they were written properly. But some are too broad and contain vague statements such as “work to advantage.” The SOP process relies heavily on the company commander’s knowledge of his unit’s functions on the fireground. This basic information on the role of the company is not getting through to all fire officers.

The purpose of the engine company is to attack and extinguish fire. While we all know that fact, many people forget the real function of the engine. It is an independent, self-sustaining attack unit. It should be able to execute this function no matter what else occurs. An engine company is designed to secure its own water supply and then attack the fire. Specialized equipment is available to the engine officer to accomplish this, including hose from 3/4 to 3 or 5 inches, nozzles for hand lines and master streams up 1000 gpm, breathing apparatus, ladders and hand tools to provide the means to accomplish tactical goals. Foremost, an engine company is designed to secure its own water supply and attack the fire.

The engine … is an independent, self-sustaining attack unit

Differences of opinion are apparent on this point. Some begin talking about SOPs that let the first-due engine proceed to the fire for size-up, etc.; others talk about using booster tank water; some want to talk about hose lays. Each one has missed the point. If you are the first-due engine and you pass up a water supply on the way in, you are now dependent on someone else to establish your uninterrupted source of water. Suppose their radio or yours goes out. Suppose they don’t make it to the fireground. Confusion begins and the operation starts to fall apart. Booster tank water doesn’t last forever. Unfortunately, some engine officers get complacent about being prepared to deliver the maximum flow available.

A department can decide if it wants to lay from water to fire, or fire to water. It can decide if it wants to use a four-way hydrant valve, large-diameter hose or dual lines to move water to the fireground. While SOPs may dictate a certain procedure, most engine apparatus are set up to lay a number of ways to meet different fireground conditions.

Engine officers must prepare for rural water supply in a similar manner. They should lay in on long driveways or lanes and be able to handle numerous units pumping to them. Large tankers become portable lakes or hydrants to the attack pumpers, but must be able to again receive water from numerous units. A clappered Siamese and portable tanks are some ways of accomplishing an uninterrupted source of water. Large-diameter hose and pumping relays are another way.

All these developments in procedures and equipment (large-diameter hose, dual lines, 4-way hydrant valves, reverse lays, two-piece engine company operations, large tankers and portable tanks) were all designed to speed up and ensure an uninterrupted source of water to the fire scene.

The engine company may have to perform a number of different tactical tasks on the fireground. In many towns there are no other kinds of companies. But even if the engine crew must additionally perform rescue, exposure protection, ventilation and fire attack, the engine must still secure its uninterrupted source of supply. This is your strategic reserve. It gives you the ability to meet unexpected fireground events readily and efficiently.

Booster tank water doesn’t last forever

This discussion of the engine company was not intended to create tunnel vision on the part of the company commander for water supply at the expense of other tasks. It is to demonstrate how critical this basic function of the engine company is to all other tasks it may undertake on the fireground. To reduce the confusion that could result, each company must execute its primary functions with second nature while applying size-up and decision-making skills to the specifics at hand.

The need for additional apparatus besides engines and hose wagons was recognized by early fire service leaders. There were certain fireground functions that hose wagons and pumping engines could not perform effectively. Evolution of ladder apparatus had little to do with the physical dimensions of colonial buildings, because even then structures exceeded ground ladder reach. Two hundred years later, confusion still exists within the fire service over the role and function of the truck company. These functions still have no direct correlation to building dimensions. Some of this misunderstanding stems from the nature of truck functions: these activities occur at most structure fires whether a ladder truck is present or not. The point is that these truck functions rarely ever occur effectively or timely without companies manned, equipped, trained and led to perform them as their primary fireground role.

The purpose of the truck company is to search for and rescue endangered occupants and facilitate engine company operations. These two fireground role statements have developed into several functional areas: ventilation, laddering, forcible entry, salvage, overhaul, checking for extension, ladder pipe operations, utility control and nonfire-related rescue activities.

Purpose of the truck company is to search for and rescue endangered occupants and facilitate engine company operations

The truck company officer has a tremendous amount of equipment available to him to accomplish truck functions on the fireground: mechanical and ground ladders of various lengths; breathing apparatus; numerous hand and power tools for cutting, prying, pulling, lifting and opening; generators for light, power and smoke removal; air cascade; ladder pipe and special nozzles; salvage covers and dewatering equipment; mechanical tools; various ropes, lifelines and rigging equipment; utility shut-off keys and much more. All this capability is provided to enable the truck company to search and rescue victims and assist the engine company in extinguishing the fire efficiently.

The most important factor in the development of ladder or truck companies was the realization by early fire officers that both engine and truck operations had to begin simultaneously at an incident. It was clearly evident that while the attack and supply lines were being prepared, other functions could be initiated such as forcible entry, search and rescue, and vent ilation. The nature of each type of apparatus was designed to give each kind of company the required flexibility to meet different fireground conditions but not change their respective strategic purpose.

To effectively achieve the strategic purpose of the truck company, it must arrive early at a fire incident and be sufficiently manned to carry out its functions. Those departments that do not operate any kind of truck company service must provide for truck functions by other means. Some of these options include assigning an additional engine company to operate as a truck, assigning additional men to truck functions, and using squad companies for truck functions. The squad company is the best option where truck companies are not available. The other options have negative factors that include personnel not normally trained to perform truck functions, and personnel who may be assigned tasks without proper supervision.

Many fire officers are lulled into a false sense of security concerning the need for ladder or truck functions at fire incidents. Characteristically, these people come from departments that either do not operate truck companies or do so only for certain fires and with only one or two personnel assigned to the piece, which is only used for ladder pipe operations at “big” fires.

The big fires are probably, in part, due to a lack of proper truck company operations, especially prompt vertical ventilation. Only through aggressive training and education can these incorrect attitudes be changed.

Information gathering

The nature of truck/ladder company operations has led to one critical function many chief officers overlook: information gathering or fireground reconnaissance. Truck company members many times function alone in different parts of the fire building simultaneously. This enables them to gather and communicate various bits of information back to the incident commander.

The provision of portable radios for truck members increases this information flow. Chief officers who rely upon only exterior, visual, or less than foursided information for making decisions at fire incidents are bound to be unpleasantly surprised more often than those who have effective truck companies reporting critical facts. The truck company’s additional role of information gathering or fireground reconnaissance is an important factor in effective fireground command and control. The confused fireground is in part caused by a lack of good information (provided by truck companies) flowing to the incident commander.

In rural areas, the squad company may perform both truck and squad roles on the fireground

Effective truck/ladder operations just don’t happen with the purchase of an aerial ladder. They must be constantly worked at to achieve and maintain the varied skills required of an effective truck company.

The squad company is a specialized fire and emergency service unit. These companies are called various names by local tradition, including fire fighting squads, heavy squads, fire-rescue squads, rescue companies and rescue squads.

The role of the squad or rescue company is to provide special services and/or a strategic reserve force on the fireground. Local conditions play a major part in how an incident commander uses the squad company. In some areas a squad or rescue company is substituted for a truck or ladder company and assumes its fireground role and functions. In some areas a squad or rescue company is assigned to box alarms in addition to the normal truck company requirements. In rural areas the squad company may perform both truck and squad roles on the fireground. This dual role capability can only be accomplished when sufficient manning is provided.

The fireground functions of the squad company are to support operations wherever conditions make progress difficult, or where a maximum effort must be made for rescue or fire confinement. Typical tasks include forcible entry, search and rescue, large-scale ventilation assignments, operations to gain access to fire in hidden or difficult areas, and unusual fireground lighting requirements. Other non-fire emergency tasks might include vehicle rescue, water-related emergencies, operations at building collapse incidents, hazardous materials response team activities, elevator and other assorted emergency activities.

The squad company,, like the engine and truck company, must be properly manned, equipped, trained and led to perform effectively at an incident. Six persons represent an effective squad complement. Increased manning in volunteer departments permits greater flexibility in the functions the incident commander may assign.

The critical point is a squad’s ability to aggressively pursue one or two key activities to obtain fireground objectives promptly. It is important to underline the significance of the word ability when referring to squad operations. Generally there are two kinds of squad companies: one type is where the squad is just another vehicle and anyone piles on when the bell rings; type two is where the squad requires a higher level of professional development in both its members and officers.

The nature of squad functions requires individuals who are willing to devote extra time to further their knowledge and ability to operate at the highest levels of efficiency. This means a willingness to study, drill and train above what would be considered normal for other companies. This heavy commitment to training leads to superior fire and emergency performance.

The highest level of capability lets the squad function in difficult situations or enables a chief officer to hold the squad in reserve as any strategic necessity on the fireground. It is the broad capability of the good squad/rescue company that has enabled many fire departments to meet unique fire and emergency incidents successfully.

It is important to clearly distinguish the differences in roles between truck and squad companies. The truck company is engaged in primary search and rescue and supporting attack operations through its various functions. The truck does this at all fire incidents. The squad company is directed by the incident commander to assist the truck with difficult search and rescue problems at a specific location or to reinforce any critical position as reported back by company officers. In this manner the squad is used in the critical areas of need, not in covering basic operating positions.

Since the primary fireground role of the squad is difficult rescue, company members must be thoroughly trained and experienced in truck operations if at all possible. This background enables squad members to anticipate conditions and evolutions to support the operating companies and to reach trapped victims. When rescue is not a factor, the incident commander can apply this strategic resource when and where needed. Or, at some incidents the squad might be returned to quarters.

The description of the squad company and its role has not been intended to lessen the importance of other companies at an emergency incident. Rather it is to clearly identify the proper logical functioning of each at emergencies. The squad’s underlying purpose is to support operating companies- engines and trucks-with its special skills and equipment when unusual building or fire conditions make operations difficult. When the squad/rescue company is assigned a task it is not due to a lack of ability by an already operating company but to the severity of conditions that the other company was faced with.

When company commanders and incident commanders have the same clear objectives in mind, and when each clearly knows what is expected of him on the fireground, then confusion at the scene of emergency incidents will begin to disappear. When each individual knows exactly what is expected from him and his company, effective fireground command and control will result.

It is possible-it begins with an honest recognition of the problem and training to overcome the gaps. It is well worth the effort.

The material in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not represent official policy of any government organization.

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