Response to Fires

Question: Does your department respond all units dispatched to a reported structure fire Code 3 (lights and siren), or do you do something different? Why?

You can’t go a week or so without hearing about a vehicular accident that occurs while a fire department is responding to a fire. Statistically, less than 10 percent of the reported fires to which we respond are working fires. That doesn’t mean that we should not respond or should respond with fewer resources because of the likelihood of becoming involved in an accident or because there is a slim chance that the incident will be a working fire.

If all apparatus drivers (and firefighters driving in their POVs) drive responsibly and follow their state driving laws, many of these accidents could be avoided. However, not all of the accidents are our fault. Citizens driving and acting erratically when they see our lights and hear our sirens (or not) also contribute to the accident rate.

It used to be that if an apparatus was involved in an accident, it was never the fire department driver’s fault. Times have changed, and fire department drivers and their officers have successfully been sued for damages attributed to negligent or unsafe driving practices.

Several departments have initiated tactics to reduce the accident rate: sending fewer apparatus on questionable reports of fire, sending one or two apparatus of the first-alarm complement “lights and siren” and the remainder of the response vehicles Code 2 (no lights and siren).

For the past few years, approximately 25 percent of the annual firefighter line-of-duty fatalities have been related to driving accidents (either responding to or returning from incidents). In addition, several dozen civilians were seriously injured or killed in accidents involving our vehicles. It seems to me that anything we can do to reduce the accident rate in which responders are involved will help reduce our annual fatality rate and also increase our standing in the eyes of the community.

—John “Skip” Coleman has recently retired from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue as assistant chief. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering, a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board, and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires(Fire Engineering, 2000).

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: We use lights and sirens on all of our responses. A typical fire call may involve five responding companies. If the first unit at the scene sees no evidence of a fire, the officer transmits a “10-20” signal to the dispatcher. This signals the other responding units to immediately discontinue the use of warning devices and to proceed at a reduced speed.

The size and congestion of New York City necessitate light and siren use. In my response area, we are constantly challenged by civilian drivers who can’t hear us because of rolled-up windows, blasting air-conditioning units, or blaring audio systems. Life hazards and tactical problems increase exponentially in the early stages of a fire, and the proper use of warning devices allows us to get there more quickly.

On the other hand, misuse or excessive reliance on lights and sirens (or excessive speed) causes increased stress and more erratic driving patterns for responders and civilians. We have found that driving slower with the siren on can sometimes be more effective, since it allows civilian drivers time to reposition their vehicles and open up traffic lanes.

Although we require warning devices, we train our personnel to view them as tools to ensure a rapid and safe response instead of as a means to “push” through traffic. Ultimately, the greatest delay in a fire response is caused by the unit that never got there because it was involved in an accident.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: All responding units to a reported structure fire run Code 3. All of our units are equipped with traffic control devices so that we can control the stop lights at an intersection. However, that in itself does not give us the right to “bust” an intersection without taking the proper precautions to avoid accidents. All they are meant to do is to move traffic in the direction of travel in which we are heading. Our driver operators are still required to stop at stop signs and to slow down when approaching an intersection—traffic controlled or not—and proceed only when they are sure that it is clear to do so. It’s been said for years, and still holds true, that if we don’t get there, we can’t help the people who need us most.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: All units, except water tenders, dispatched to a reported structure fire respond with lights and siren. Water tenders are equipped with lights and siren but respond without using them. The few minutes gained are not worth the risk of driving a large apparatus with 3,000 gallons of water in and out of traffic at accelerating and declining speeds. Staff officers may use lights and siren as the situation warrants. Volunteer responders are required to follow all traffic regulations when responding in their private vehicles; they do not have any special lights or markings on their private vehicles.

A cooperative dispatch center that serves most of the fire departments in the county dispatches our units. Civilian dispatchers who have no authority over our personnel staff that center. Our officers may choose their response mode according to our standard procedures.

Our training emphasizes that driving with lights and siren can be exhilarating and that our drivers must resist the urge to drive faster. The use of lights and siren can decrease the time needed to get to the scene by clearing traffic and reducing the time units have to wait at a controlled intersection. For all responses, we emphasize safety and the importance of arriving at the scene safely so we can help the people in need.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: We respond four engines and one truck, plus a minimum of one chief officer, on a first alarm in our town. All responding companies respond urgent to the scene. After the arrival of the first-due engine company, a size-up is conducted and the resource need is assessed. On working incidents, all companies continue in and are put to work or are staged based on the required tasks to be performed. A move-up company responds nonemergency to fill in at our station through the duration of the incident.

On automatic alarms that receive a full first-alarm response—i.e., schools, churches, or commercial businesses—the first-due company officer, after size-up to determine the disposition of the alarm, may advise the incident commander (IC) to continue companies nonemergency or cancel responding companies—at the IC’s discretion.

Our department makes a practice not only of responding all companies emergency but also of holding all companies at a working incident until the duty chief places the incident under control. This practice not only eliminates a shortage of personnel but also further ensures the safety of all firefighters operating at the incident, regardless of the type.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: All runs are Code 3, from a stuck elevator to a person locked in his home. The company officer decides whether to go Code 3 on some of our “minor” emergency runs—a fire hydrant that has been struck, a lockout, or an emergency to property, for example. Interestingly, a report of an outlet’s sparking or a smell of smoke gets a full one-alarm assignment. That assignment consists of two engine companies, two truck companies, one rapid assistance team truck, two district chiefs, one advanced life support (ALS) transport unit, and one heavy rescue—all running “hot.” That is a lot of apparatus for a sparking outlet. Many times, we have discussed on the company level why so many apparatus are running hot for a sparking outlet or a smell of smoke, but that is our response policy at this time.

When it comes to EMS, ALS and basic life support units respond lights and sirens. If the run is a BLS transport, the unit does not respond to the hospital lights and siren unless the patient condition changes en route. If one of our ALS units transports, lights and sirens are used for transport to the hospital most of the time.

I feel that we should review our response policy. We have been fortunate not to have had any accidents with response vehicle vs. response vehicle. But with all that hardware on the road running hot to the same scene, I think it is just a matter of time. In fact, I think all emergency services response policies should be reviewed regularly to ensure the safety of all members and the public. Apparatus operators need to remember to STOP at all lights and signs and where appropriate. Remember, we make up our time getting out of the house, not speeding through traffic in an unsafe manner. Lights and sirens do not give us carte blanche to do whatever we want on the street because it is an “emergency.”

Luis Santiago, acting deputy chief of operations,
Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue

Response: We deploy a “Tactical Alarm” response to a reported structure fire. This complement consists of three engine companies, one truck, one battalion chief, and one safety officer. They all respond Code 3. On confirmation of a working fire, we automatically send more engines Code 3. This is a recent change, and it seems to be working nicely. We used to send four engine companies, one truck, one heavy rescue squad, one battalion chief, and one safety officer to all reported structure fires.

The motivation behind this change was twofold: First, we wanted to use our resources most efficiently—this will translate into less wear and tear on our equipment and a cost savings in fuel consumption—and the second, and most important, issue is safety. We analyzed our data and found that one engine company handles more than 60 percent of our reported structure fires. The change we implemented will substantially reduce the number of Code 3 responses. We are a safer department for doing this.

John K. Johnson, fire engineer,
Cary (NC) Fire and Rescue

Response: We respond with everything: two engines, one ladder, one truck, one rescue, one battalion, and one mutual-aid engine—what we call “Emergency Traffic.” On fire alarms, we respond the first-in engine “Emergency Traffic”; all other equipment is “Routine.” We have seven stations, seven engines, two rescues, two trucks, three ladders, and two battalions.

James Cleveland, assistant chief,
Prichard/Murray (ID) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: As a small, rural, all-volunteer agency, we find it important to respond all units Code 3 to any reported fire. Several key factors play into this decision, including the size of our response area, a small number of volunteers responding from various locations, and a need for water-supply apparatus. Our response area for fires covers roughly 100 square miles. Size alone makes response times longer; although interference with traffic is minimal, anything we can safely do to reduce our response time is important. As an all-volunteer agency, firefighters are coming from several locations; this means they arrive at the scene over a period of time. Narrowing this band of time and trying to bring sufficient resources to play quickly also are key factors for Code 3 response. Even our water-supply apparatus respond Code 3. It would be nice to limit this practice, but we try to get resources to the fire as quickly as possible.

Brent Hullender, lieutenant,
Atlanta (GA) Fire Department

Response: All units respond to reported structure fires emergency (lights and sirens). The way to make the job safer is to increase the staffing levels on the apparatus responding to structure fires. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, requires the first engine to arrive on-scene in four minutes or less and the entire first-alarm assignment to arrive in eight minutes or less. This is hard to accomplish when apparatus are responding nonemergency and sitting at a traffic light. Furthermore, the idea of a tiered response, wherein only the first-due engine responds emergency until a working fire is declared, is absurd. This approach has a single engine working by itself, unable to comply with NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 29 CFR 1910.134 (compliance NFPA 101-2000, Life Safety Code -1910.35). How safe did the tiered response really make us?

In this day and age of continually changing the way we operate in an attempt to make our job “safer,” we have lost sight of the mission, to save lives and property. Fire Engineering Editor in Chief Bobby Halton said it best in his June 2007 Editor’s Opinion, “Stand Down with Pride”: “Eliminating all the risks in firefighting is impossible. Doing brave and heroic things involves risks. We will always be putting others’ welfare ahead of our own. It is who we are, and bad things will happen—very bad things. But because we are firefighters, we accept the risks because the rewards of our work are so great ….”

Matt Weil, captain,
North Oakland County (MI) Fire Authority

Response: We respond with the big red truck lights and siren all the way. We have a large district, 69 square miles—not that it makes that much of a difference. But like most departments, we have always done it that way. I have met the trucks on-scene running no code with the same travel distance. It kind of makes you go “hmmm.”

Policies are changing in a lot of places. We have implemented a response guideline that limits the speed in essence to 70 mph on highways, 60 mph on two-lane blacktop roads, or 10 mph over the posted speed limit, whichever is slower. We did this more to help keep the ambulances under control; however, it applies to all department apparatus. The policy contains language such as “Stop at all green lights” and “Make eye contact with other drivers.” We modeled our response guideline after the one the VFIS has on its Web site. We also have Emergency Medical Dispatch and Emergency Fire Dispatch in place for a “guideline” of the response type.

I think most firefighters feel that it won’t happen to them. It is time to change how we respond to alarms, structure fires, medicals calls, and so on. Let’s face it. The roads are more crowded, there are more people, more of them are ready to sue us than ever before, and recent convictions have put us at greater risk for personal and criminal liability.

Derek Williams, captain,
Mesa (AZ) Fire Department

Response: Our policy has been that after the initial arriving unit gives the on-scene report, it is at the company officer’s discretion to “have remaining units respond Code 2.” The battalion chief can override this decision and ask to keep the remaining units coming Code 3, but this rarely happens. During multiple alarms, when units are responding to relieve crews already on-scene, units are dispatched Code 2 as well. By dispatching relief crews early and establishing formal staging sectors, we can avoid Code 3 responses in these cases.

Through extensive training on building construction, reading smoke, fire behavior, and fireground predictability, our company officers have the ability to properly size up the structure and conditions and rarely ask the units to again respond Code 3. The risks we take driving Code 3 may be justified in cases where loss of life or extensive loss of property could be avoided; but our view has always been, why risk our members and our vehicles to respond Code 3 when we don’t have to, especially after a unit arrived on-scene and found “nothing showing”?

The trust the battalion chiefs have in their company officers has been the key to this policy. Battalion chiefs must believe that their company officers are using good judgment and will always assume a worst-case scenario when arriving on-scene. They also must trust that company officers will operate safely when investigating conditions and not place themselves or their crews in harm’s way without a rapid intervention crew in place. This trust has served us well for many years; to my recollection, we have never had a loss of life, a significant loss of property, or a “close call” based on a Code 2 response. I feel that over the years (statistically) we have avoided injuries, damage to vehicles, and possibly even loss of life because we have engaged in a policy that has its foundations in trust, training, common sense, and good judgment.

Roman Brandau,
lieutenant, Wellston (OH) Fire Department

Response: All the units on our first-alarm response are alerted to respond with lights and sirens activated. It is the responsibility of the first-arriving company officer to downgrade the response, if applicable. All units are to remain responding with lights and sirens activated until told to downgrade. If nothing is evident from the initial size-up/walk-around, our units are almost always downgraded or cancelled. We may also have units stage—on a hydrant, for instance—instead of carrying out the tasks assigned to them by our standard operating guidelines.

Steve Kraft, deputy chief, Operations Division,Richmond Hill Fire Department,
Ontario, Canada

Response: We respond all vehicles (one division chief and four other apparatus each staffed with four firefighters) lights and siren. At FDIC last year, I remember hearing about a fire department that doesn’t permit its battalion chief to respond emergency. The rationale is that the battalion chief isn’t going to make or break the incident. Supposedly, the department did studies and was able to prove that a four-minute lights and siren run was equal to a 5½-minute nonemergency run. The risk vs. reward value doesn’t justify an emergency response.

On my return home, I started asking about this issue and was somewhat surprised by the answers. Some firefighters were suggesting that only the first-due truck should respond emergency. On arrival, they could always upgrade the other vehicles if smoke or fire was visible. Other firefighters suggested this approach was a lawsuit waiting to happen. Isn’t it better to cancel apparatus if they aren’t required? Both arguments are compelling. I think most departments will respond all apparatus emergency to reported structure fires. However, what I’d be interested to know is, “Does your department respond all units dispatched to alarm bells ringing?” We do.

Bill Brooks, captain,
East Wallingford (CT) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: A few years ago, our department (a combination department) adopted a reduced response mode for automatic alarms for safety reasons. Prior to that time, all responding units went with lights and sirens (typically two engines, a tower ladder, and the shift commander). The reduced response mode has the first (or closest) engine respond with lights and siren and the balance of the assignment respond normally (Code 2). If the first engine reports smoke or fire, the assignment automatically steps up to lights and siren. When dispatched to a reported structure fire, the entire assignment—typically three engines, a tower ladder, a heavy rescue (RIT), a squad (supplemental personnel), the shift commander, and a medical unit—will respond with lights and sirens. Other additional units may also be part of the assignment based on occupancy and hazards. Based on the report of the first-arriving unit, the assignment may be reduced to a Code 2 response (proceed normally). All responding units are expected to drive with “due regard” in either response mode. This means stopping at red lights and stop signs and following the applicable state laws dealing with emergency response.

Arthur Ashley, lieutenant,
Lexington (KY) Fire Department

Response: Our department responds Code 3 to all reported structure fires. Our 23 firehouses are stretched out across the city, meaning units responding will be coming from different districts (battalions). Depending on our call volume at the time of the reported fire, the closest companies may not be the first due on a regular basis. On a structure fire box, we respond three engine companies, two ladder companies, one RIT engine, one heavy rescue, one emergency care unit (fire department ambulance), and a district officer. All will be responding Code 3. In the case where a caller advises that there is “no fire,” units will continue on (Code 3) until a fire department company has investigated and confirms the no-fire condition.

It’s drilled into our crews from training on up that we respond Code 3 to everything except for “service calls.” Even if the caller requests a “silent approach,” the department still responds Code 3. There is no standard operating procedure stating a breakdown of Code 3 calls or discretion.

Andy Krajewski, battalion chief,
Golden Gate Fire Control & Rescue District, Naples, Florida

Response: As a shift battalion chief, I have the latitude of changing the response depending on the call criteria. Should the call come in as a reported structure fire and the caller is the home-owner and does not see flames but can smell something “electrical” burning, I can drop units to an en route status and have only a single engine run lights and sirens—much different than for a reported structure fire with smoke and flames rolling out the front window of the structure (maybe at 0300 hours). We do this because we understand the responsibility for promoting the safety of our crews and the public we serve. As the first engine arrives on-scene and gives me a size-up, I can decide how the other incoming units should respond.

Scott Miller, assistant chief/training officer,
Douglas County Fire District #2,
East Wenatchee, WA

Response: We send all units Code 3 to reported structure fires. A structure fire contains the potential for all three fire service priorities: life safety, property conservation, and environment. As soon as the first unit arrives, part of its initial key size-up is resource management. If it reports “nothing showing, investigating,” units should slow up; they sometimes advise they are continuing noncode. Statistically, we have seen that the time saved running Code 3 is often so minimal that you have to constantly weigh the liability. A few weeks ago, I followed one of our engines running Code 3 up a busy two-lane highway for three miles. I was responding noncode and pulled over to let them pass. At the end of the response, they arrived. I looked at my watch. I arrived 15 seconds later. However, in heavy traffic with many traffic lights, it’s most imperative that you run Code 3 so you don’t get hung up in traffic.

Joseph A. Varella, battalion chief of special operations,
North Charleston (SC) Fire Department

Response: Several years ago, my department implemented a policy that had our ladder trucks (we have three) respond without lights and sirens. During that time, only one of the truck companies was staffed with three personnel; the other two companies were staffed with two firefighters. In the past three years, we have replaced two of our ladder trucks and have increased our staffing to three personnel for all companies. A core group of firefighters has been working diligently to operate the truck companies in the manner for which they were created: search and rescue, forcible entry, ventilation, salvage and overhaul, laddering, and so on. At times, we have faced a few roadblocks arising out of a lack of understanding of the benefits these companies can provide on the fireground. For the past several years, our policy has been to respond all first-alarm units with lights and sirens. If on arrival of the first unit the officer advises nothing showing, all remaining responding units reduce to no lights and sirens. Although it is important to reduce the chance of an accident by responding without lights and siren, it is more important for the apparatus and personnel to arrive on-scene with the personnel to carry out the necessary assignments. Because of reduced staffing levels, more and more apparatus are required to respond to accomplish these tasks.

Kenneth E. Morgan, battalion chief,
Clark County (NV) Fire Department

Response: We respond to all fire calls with lights and sirens. Despite having highly trained dispatchers and call takers, inaccurate or poor information still finds its way into the system. This may be caused by a variety of factors such as language/cultural barriers or the perception of untrained civilians. Regardless of the cause of this inaccurate information, there is uncertainty about whether it is an emergency or not. Once the first-arriving engine or truck arrives and sizes up the situation, that officer has the option of reducing the response to a Code 1 (normal driving practice) if the situation so dictates.

The risk/benefit analysis regarding the potential for loss of life outweighs the potential for liability during response. We have additional safeguards to reduce the potential for liability during response. We have strict vehicle operation procedures that are intended to increase safety for personnel and civilians. Vehicle operators are required to attend advanced driver training every three years. Also included are limits on speed, a requirement that apparatus come to a complete stop at red traffic lights/stop signs before proceeding, and being accountable for all lanes of traffic during response, among other conditions. This policy is reviewed regularly and updated as needed.

Devon J. Wells, assistant chief,
Hood River (OR) Fire Department

Response: It is our responsibility to provide efficient and effective emergency response while maintaining safety. To provide that service, a Code 3 response to reported structure fires is needed. Primary response units need to get to the scene and complete a safe, well-organized operation without delays by traffic lights and congestions. These primary response units have many potential life-saving responsibilities that need to be implemented as soon as possible. These primary units include enough companies to fill fire attack, rescue, RIT, and EMS responsibilities. However, later-arriving companies not involved in the immediate suppression or rescue efforts do not need to risk their lives and the lives of the public by responding Code 3. Once our primary response units have arrived and filled these roles and the emergency is being mitigated, additional units are reduced to Code 1.

William A. Boehm, MD, captain/safety officer,
Dungan (NM) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: State law takes the choice away from the chief. The New Mexico Motor Vehicle Code [New Mexico Criminal and Traffic Law Manual 966-7-6)] gives only four privileges to emergency vehicle drivers, and it gives conditions for the use of these privileges:

  1. Park or stand irrespective of the provisions of the Motor Vehicle Code.
  2. Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as necessary for safe operation.
  3. Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as life or property is not endangered.
  4. Disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions.

The exemptions granted to an authorized emergency vehicle apply only when the driver of the vehicle, while in motion, sounds an audible signal by bell, siren, or exhaust whistle as is reasonably necessary, and when the vehicle is equipped with at least one lighted lamp displaying a red light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance 500 feet to the front of the vehicle. All other laws apply.

This section does not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor does it protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.

The challenge of teaching this policy is answering the question for any firefighter younger than 60, “What is an exhaust whistle?”

Rick Mosher, lieutenant,
Merriam (KS) Fire Department

Response: Johnson County (KS) Fire Alarm uses Code 1 to identify emergency response. Merriam is dispatched by our countywide Fire Alarm Exchange. A regular alarm in Merriam is three engine companies, one truck company, and one support company (air/light wagon). We staff one engine company and one truck company and use automatic aid to provide two additional engine companies for fires. The automatic-aid engine companies also respond emergency (Code 1). Our policy dictates all responses are Code 1 response except investigations, assist calls, and minor medical calls. We have emergency apparatus response policies. These policies cover many aspects of emergency response. The driver and company officer are held accountable for ensuring a safe response. Merriam is a fully developed landlocked suburb of Kansas City, Missouri.

Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Our fire department has recently reduced the number of apparatus responding Code Red (lights and sirens), thus reducing the risk associated with this type of response.

Some of our EMS calls were changed from both the engine company and medic unit responding Code Red to only the closest unit responding Code Red and the second-due unit responding Code Yellow (no lights or sirens). The intent was to reduce the number of units responding Code Red.

This change, however, presents a few problems. Responding from the same location with mixed responses (one Code Red and one Code Yellow) caused confusion and created a traffic hazard. Some people pulled over thinking the second-due apparatus was also Code Red even though it did not have lights or sirens on. This also made us look as if we didn’t know what we were doing and perhaps forgot to turn on our lights and sirens. The department recently published a memo stating that both responding units, depending on the circumstances, can choose the same type of response to minimize the confusion created by the mixed response.

We’ve also recently changed our commercial and residential fire alarm response protocol. We now send the first-due engine Code Red; the second–due engine and first-due truck respond Code Yellow, again to reduce the number of units responding Code Red.

Elby Bushong III, battalion chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: Our Regional Dispatch Center is responsible for dispatching 25 consortium agencies. The agencies work together to have the same policies for consistency within the consortium. Reported structure fires are sent Code 3. There are situations where the response can be adjusted if further information becomes available.

During the response, the incident taker or the tactical radio operator could get additional information that the fire is out or controlled. The tactical radio operator can then relay this information to the first-responding battalion chief (BC), who can then make the determination to shut down all or a portion of the responding companies to Code 2. The BC can also cancel all but the first-due engine company based on the information and have it respond to the scene Code 2 or Code 3.

Once the first-arriving company officer is on-scene and has given a report, the on-scene situation can be evaluated to determine if the remaining units should come to the scene Code 2 or Code 3. The company officer can also cancel a portion or all of the responding units if the situation is stabilized. This allows the system to have the flexibility to send the units to handle a working fire without delay. The ability to make some adjustments to the response increases the safety for responding companies.

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