The Volunteer Firehouse ‘Two-Door Theory’

VOLUNTEERS CORNERBy JACK HUESTON

When new firefighters arrive in the volunteer fire service, we must instill in them certain expectations for them to be successful. These expectations include responding to fire calls, firefighting tactics, attending training drills, and participating in fundraising activities. One important expectation is what I call the volunteer firehouse “Two-Door Theory.” This theory relates to the fire company’s and its members’ overall operational readiness and “ready-to-respond” status.

Before we can discuss the Two-Door Theory, you must understand the physical layout and design characteristics of most volunteer firehouses, which feature two distinct sides or areas—a firefighting side and a nonfirefighting side. The first side is the apparatus floor, where the apparatus and personal protective equipment (PPE) are stored; this side is accessed by what I will call the “firefighting door.” The other side is the members’ room/lounge, the meeting and/or training room, administrative offices, a fundraising hall, a kitchen, and restrooms; this side is accessed by the nonfirefighting door.

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When I instruct new volunteer firefighters during the Firefighter I course, I tell them that, as firefighting members, it is expected that they stop by the firehouse a couple of times a week to familiarize themselves with the operation of the company, the apparatus, and the tools and equipment and to make sure that they and their company are in a constant state of readiness. This is where the volunteer firehouse Two-Door Theory comes into play.

How the Theory Works

When entering the firehouse (and for anything other than a fire call), members must decide which door to use—the firefighting or nonfirefighting door. The nonfirefighting door leads to the members’ lounge. This is where you find the comfortable furniture, big flat-screen television, video games, kitchen, and snack machines. This is the area in which we hang out and relax between fire calls and after meetings and training drills. It’s where we tell stories of the “big one” and watch football games.

A problem occurs, however, when our new firefighting members get into the habit of entering the firehouse through the nonfirefighting door only. They could easily get distracted by conversation and the available amenities and never make it to the firefighting side of the firehouse; this isn’t good.

Our goal in the volunteer fire service is to keep our members as sharp as they can be and the company ready to respond as a whole. The Two-Door Theory will keep the members in the mindset of checking the equipment first. Another benefit is that it serves as an informal training drill. Every time members check their gear, they get some hands-on time to refamiliarize themselves with it.

Beyond the Firefighting Door

The firefighting members, especially the newest ones, are better served entering through the firefighting door each time they stop by the firehouse. As stated earlier, this door leads to the engine room or apparatus floor. It is here that the member’s PPE is hanging in a locker; this is the first stop. This is where you should inspect your PPE: Check your helmet; make sure the size adjustment is proper and your eye protection is clean and serviceable.

Next, check your turnout coat. Make sure everything you keep in your pockets is there. Things like small tools, wire cutters, door chocks, utility rope, leather work gloves, and structural firefighting gloves all have a tendency of getting dropped and lost after the previous run. Is your personal flashlight charged and ready to go? Is your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face piece in place, clean, and serviceable?

Next, look at your turnout pants and boots. Most firefighters keep their flash hood lying on top of their pants between the boots. Wherever you store yours, make sure it’s there and ready to go. Also check the pocket tools in your pants, just as you did with your coat.

The next stop is the apparatus. Walk around each apparatus and refamiliarize yourself with where the equipment is stored and in which compartments. Do this by opening and closing each compartment door and taking a look inside. It’s your responsibility as a firefighter to know where every piece of equipment is stored on your rigs.

Next, check the hose loads. Be familiar with their size (diameter and length) as well as the types of nozzles attached to the working lengths of your attack lines. Make sure the bail is in the closed position and the correct tips are in place. If you run with adjustable gallonage combination nozzles, make sure they are set to the highest setting. Sometimes, with this type of nozzle, the gallons per minute setting is dialed down during overhaul; then, it is mistakenly not returned to its high flow setting for fire attack. Remember, “right to fight”; always store combination nozzles in the straight stream position by rotating the nozzle barrel all the way to the right. Then ensure that the working length is neatly packed so that it will easily deploy. If it isn’t, fix it.

At the rear of the engine, check the supply hosebed. If your department uses a four-way hydrant valve, is it properly stowed? Check the hydrant connection tools; a common problem found is an adjustable hydrant wrench that is rusted and that will not easily adjust. If this is the case, take it off and clean and lubricate the threads. Make sure it is working properly before putting it back on the rig. Doing so will ensure that the hydrant firefighter can easily turn on the hydrant at the next working fire.

Now, move onto the portable ladders. Familiarize yourself with the types and lengths carried on your rig. It’s also important to know the full extended length of your extension ladders; it’s just as important to know the bedded (retracted) length as well. If you’re not sure, this is the time to find out. Ask a senior member or, better yet, measure it yourself. You just might learn something the senior member didn’t know. Also check the halyard—make sure it’s tight and properly tied.

Know where the four most used ladder company tools are and whether they are serviceable. These include the “irons” (a 30-inch halligan tool and flathead ax), the six-foot hook, and the “can”—a 2½-gallon pressurized water extinguisher. When you check the extinguisher, make sure it’s properly filled and charged; if it’s not, tell someone, preferably a company officer. If you’re trained and checked out on the powered ventilation/forcible entry saw, make sure it’s fueled and serviceable and that the chain saws have sufficient bar oil. Start the saw and let it run for a few minutes. After shutting off the saw, let it cool down a few more minutes and put it back on the apparatus.

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Move to the apparatus interior. Look at the seat belts and ensure they are readily accessible so they can be easily donned for the next response. Inspect the SCBA, making sure the cylinders are filled completely with air. Are the shoulder and waist straps fully extended? Pick one SCBA unit, open the cylinder valve, and check that the alarms and heads-up display are fully functional. Again, if the unit is not working properly, report it immediately. Now, shut it down, bleed out the system, and deactivate the electronics. Next time, pick a different SCBA unit to test.

Readiness Matters

This all might seem like a lot to do, but it isn’t; the fire company’s operational readiness and ready-to-respond status are every firefighter’s responsibility, and your own personal state of readiness is your responsibility. That is, if your gear is not ready to be donned, you’re probably going to get left behind on the ramp. If, after making the hose stretch, you realize that your gloves are not attached to your coat, someone else will take that line in for you. If you don’t have all your required PPE with you when responding, you’re no good to anyone on the fireground.

There is an old fire service saying: “The most important piece of equipment is the one you need right now.” This means that, when you need something, you must know where to find it on the apparatus. The solution to all these problems is to stop at the firehouse a couple times a week and, when you do, enter through the firefighting door.

Now that you entered through the firefighting door; checked your personal gear; and made a loop around the apparatus, checking the important stuff as you go, you can now head toward the nonfirefighting side of the firehouse. Sit down, relax, and watch the game, knowing that you are a better and sharper member for it and that the fire company is now ready to respond to fires and emergencies. If there is a senior member in the room, ask him, “Hey, what’s the bedded length of the 24-foot extension ladder?”


JACK HUESTON is a 33-year veteran of the Middletown Township (NJ) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of its Special Service Unit. He is also a New Jersey state-certified Level 2 Fire Instructor with the Middletown and Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academies. Hueston is a retired police officer and served 26 years with the Middletown Police Department.

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