The Sterile Cockpit Rule for Today’s Fire Service


The Sterile Cockpit Rule is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation requiring pilots to refrain from nonessential activities during critical phases of flight, normally below 10,000 feet. The FAA imposed this rule in 1981 after reviewing a series of accidents that were caused by flight crews distracted from flying duties by engaging in nonessential conversations. The rule is designed to focus crews on maintaining a readiness in the cockpit in case of an emergency. So, just how “sterile “is your cockpit? In this case, the cockpit I refer to is the apparatus in which you are responding.

We all have our little quirks while riding in the apparatus. Some members are on the phone updating social media, some are blaring the radio, and some are just looking at the sights. These would not work for someone getting ready to take off or land. And yet, we still do them. We should practice the concept of maintaining situational awareness in our apparatus on every call. Whether it is for fire, hazmat, an alarm, emergency medical services (EMS), or the wildland urban interface, we should make sure we respond prepared to do the job and do it safely. So, let’s talk about some brief ways each position can maintain focus while en route.

The Firefighter

The district you are in for the day may require more forcible entry tools than usual. Do you know what tools are required for this job? Did you check them this morning at shift change? Are the poles you normally use long enough for that structure fire to which you are now responding? It is critical to know which setbacks are in your response area for determining which line to pull or whether you will be able to use a preconnect.

Also, preplan each building—commercial and residential—while on your next EMS or smoke alarm call in anticipation of returning for an emergency. Also, checking that map book/screen for the closest hydrant, clearing the intersection for your driver, confirming what the company officer ordered on the size-up, and so on are just some of the things you should “check off” your list on the way to an emergency. Just because you are in the “B” seat does not relieve you of preplanning the call.

The Driver/Operator

Again, know your district. Do you know where you are going before you leave the house? There’s nothing more embarrassing than having to ask someone else for directions (I know—I’ve done it!). Do you know which hydrants are out of service? And did you pay attention to that briefing/e-mail regarding them? Also, know what road construction is taking place in your first response area in case you have to take a detour.

Next, brief the crew on the operational worthiness of your rig; make sure they know what tools may be out of service, if you are short some hose, or if you have a faulty valve. Does the rig have a full tank of gas? Send that new member up top to check this out. Also, check those seat belts and intersections. Scan that dashboard for signs of trouble, and make sure you can get a good position for apparatus placement. We’ve only got one shot at this. We depend on YOU to get us there safely and have a rig that can perform.

The Company Officer

Do you have the crew you need today? Your primary responsibility is to have your personnel ready to respond. During roll call, give them the training, the tools, and the ATTITUDE they need each morning to create success on the fireground. When you roll up on that call, have you gone through that size-up in your head before it comes out of your mouth?

Engage your brain before “takeoff.” Give clear and concise instructions to the crew, and don’t leave any “wiggle room.” Many of you already plan prearrival assignments, but remember that you cannot use them for everything. Be flexible those first five minutes. You have a lot of tools in your toolbox (brain), so don’t leave them at the station! Your initial actions and those of your first-arriving crews will determine fireground success or if will have to put some aerial devices up to do a wash-down.

The First-Arriving Chief

Before you roll up to the scene and take over command, have you been listening to radio traffic? Do you need that second alarm because of poor weather, fire, or time considerations? How well are your crews working before you arrived? Are they effective in the tactics you have chosen? Remember, you are the “big picture” on which crews should NOT have to focus. Make sure to update your game plan on the way to the call.

A good fireground commander should not have to direct crews the first few minutes; he should only be receiving status reports and plugging folks into the call. Let company officers be company officers during those first few minutes. Spend your “cockpit time” focusing on what you are going to do if the original incident action plan is not working. With the advent of many “Blue Card” departments, this aspect can be crucial when you are transferring command. Know the who, what, when, and where. If you do not have a chief’s driver or an incident tech on board, your ability to absorb information while driving is going to be a challenge. Safe arrival to the call is your first priority; the second is the need for you to be that incident commander. Arrive alive!

All of this is just a taste of what should be going through your mind en route. You can accomplish most of these mental and physical tasks through a couple of daily activities such as knowing your first-in building construction by call observations and training. A well-oiled crew can accomplish a lot of nonverbal communication on the fireground. You must be able to know what each crew member is thinking and be able to act on that in a safe and timely manner. We are the definition of teamwork; it is why we are able to accomplish what others seem to think impossible.

Preparing for the Future

Recently, I was working on my boat, and I could not find a small part that I misplaced. If I didn’t find the part, there was no way the boat was going to run properly. It was frustrating! After spending 18 cents on a new gasket, I was able to make it run. The engine would not work because of one small piece that was not there when I needed it. So, my message here is this: You are that missing piece! We need you at every shift you can make. We need your experience, your attitude, and your willingness to do what others cannot. The engine that is the fire service cannot run without you.

At your next call, try working on some of these response preparations with your crew. Spot that plug and ask who else saw its location. Ask who in the crew can identify the attic access while on that EMS run. Was the apparatus parked properly, leaving just enough room for the truck to get in? Ask crew members to identify the setback at a structure and if anyone saw any special hazards en route to the response. Work on keeping the rig “sterile” or business only while responding. Discuss all this and more during downtime at the firehouse or on the way back from a call.

STEPHEN GREEN is a 25-plus-year fire/emergency medical services veteran. He is a TCFP master firefighter, an instructor III-master, a former field training officer, and a former training officer. Green is a lieutenant at Station 37 with Parker County (TX) Emergency Services District 1 and the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System coordinator. He is also an adjunct instructor for Tarrant County (TX) College at the Fire Service Training Center. Green was a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors’ Curriculum Development Committee for 2018.

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