Volunteer Departments: Winning on the Fireground


Volunteer firefighters respond to a wide array of emergencies across the country every day including fires, emergency medical incidents, natural disasters, hazardous materials incidents, and other general public service calls. To meet these challenges, volunteer firefighters must adequately prepare and execute their firefighting skills to achieve fireground success, which relies on a number of factors. Combining the available resources with the initial actions performed will determine the outcome of the incident. That said, it can be difficult and challenging for volunteer firefighters to complete fireground tasks.

Volunteer fire departments must understand that their mission, first and foremost, is to protect the community by saving lives and property. It may sound simple, but in some instances, it is not easy to achieve. Although responding personnel are sometimes faced with the challenges of a lack of funding, training, and equipment, success can be difficult, but it is still possible. It is important for departments and their members to realize the level of commitment to accomplish this mission.

The Vision Statement

Success begins with a department having a vision and sharing it through a published “vision statement.” Form this vision through many conversations, write it down as a focal point for the department, and then publish it for the community. This provides guidance and gives department members a mindset of the direction in which the organization is moving. Make methods, plans, and timelines an integral part of your vision and ongoing conversations. Not only is a vision statement important for members, but it is equally important for the community you serve, allowing your citizens to gain insight into the department that serves them. The vision clarifies the department’s purpose and direction and should inspire its members to be ambitious and set the standard for excellence. Most importantly, the vision must be future oriented.

Department members should be committed to the mission; it is not enough for them to want to save lives and property. They must also commit to training, actively participating in drills, and then respond and perform at the incident. Last, members should commit to each other; the organization; and, most importantly, the citizens.

The department must put in place standard operating procedures (SOPs)—living documents that are continually updated as changes occur within the district and organization; this will become the “playbook” from which members will operate. Much like a playbook for a basketball or football team, SOPs also provide a framework for mitigating an incident based on call type, response, or equipment. It is key to put a plan in place.

The most critical element of success lies in the training and educating of members. Training programs are crucial and must be included in the vision statement. In too many cases, fireground failure can be linked to training programs that do not prepare department members, so the training then becomes reactive.

Is your department’s training program proactive or reactive? SOPs provide a great starting point for proactive—not reactive—training. When training is built from SOPs, it allows the incident commander (IC) to “call the play” and have the members execute it. SOPs set the stage for a fireground that reduces freelancing and overwhelming the IC—two key aspects that lead to fireground failure for volunteer fire departments. Train each member to have the skill set to understand the department’s SOPs as well as the ability to perform the job. Thus, when a firefighter arrives at an incident, the IC can call the play and the firefighters perform it. Design training to be repetitious so you can create muscle memory in your firefighters.

Training also must be a mix of classroom and hands-on. It must be realistic, fundamentally sound, and habit forming; this is truly where the department must be willing to put in the time and effort. SOPs, mutual-aid agreements, and preplans are all great, but if the firefighters cannot perform the skills necessary to mitigate the incident, everyone loses.

The Aggressive Fire Attack

The foundation of a winning volunteer fire department can be found in its ability to conduct an aggressive fire attack, which creates a safer fireground for citizens and firefighters alike. However, resources and available personnel will have a direct effect on a department’s ability to be aggressive and successful. Numerous volunteer fire departments have plentiful personnel and resources for creating a successful and aggressive fireground operation; however, there are just as many that do not. We can find the components of a successful fire attack in understanding the mission, hoseline positioning, fireground flow, and a positive water supply.

Understanding the mission. The mission of the fire attack is simple: Work to create a safer environment within the structure and stop the forward progress of the fire by overwhelming it with water. If there is survivable space within the structure, it is our job to protect that space. Every firefighter knows that today’s fire environment changes extremely fast because of the properties of the fuel packages and building construction. When we initiate an aggressive fire attack, the firefighter begins to cool gases and fuel packages and extinguish those that are burning; this also stops smoke production! When this takes place, the building becomes more tenable for the occupants and the firefighters. The firefighter should employ a mindset that is aggressive and educated and that considers the building as occupied. Last, water makes everything better!

Hoseline positioning. The first hoseline is the most important lifesaving tool on the fireground. For a volunteer fire department with minimal staffing, commit staffing to the first hoseline. The most fundamental place for the first hoseline is an aggressive position at the interior of the structure, if possible. Next, locate the position of the first hoseline between any occupants and the fire. Last, ask yourself, What is the fastest route to the fire? How can we get water on the fire quickly? Firefighters should remember that the first hoseline protects occupants, interior exposures, and survivable spaces.

Several factors affect hoseline position. Hoseline positions come from an accurate size-up that addresses victims, fire location, and fire volume. Typically, we position the hoseline for fire attack in one of four places: (1) through the front door, (2) from the unburned to the burned portion of the structure, (3) from the exterior before moving inside (to create a knockdown), or (4) to the burned side of the structure when the fire is on the exterior. When you are positioning the hoseline, the front door is usually the easiest entrance to reach; less hose is usually required, it places the hoseline near the stairs, and it gives the firefighters access to the entire structure. Many victims have been found near the front door, increasing the firefighter’s chances of placing the hoseline between victims and the fire. We use the unburned-to-burned portion approach when firefighters are trying to cut off the fire. The idea here is to cut off the fire with less involvement of the structure. Hitting the fire from the exterior (the transitional fire attack) is a method we may use when our crews face an advancing fire with minimal personnel. As more personnel and resources arrive, combined with fire extinguishment, personnel can then move to the interior. Last, when firefighters encounter fire on the exterior of the structure, they should commit the line to that location. From there, they should position the line to the attic to cut off any advancing fire. Remember, line position is about protecting human life and confining and extinguishing fire. In the volunteer fire service, the availability of on-scene personnel is a strong factor in hoseline positioning. Many times, there may not be enough personnel to commit to the interior, or the personnel on scene do not have the appropriate training to conduct an interior fire attack.

Fireground flow. Fireground flow is simple: overwhelm the fire with water. Many firefighters—volunteer and career—seem to overlook their departments’ capabilities when it comes to what their hose and nozzle package will flow on the fireground. What is the target flow for your department? Is that flow being achieved on the fireground? Can the staffing level adequately manage the hose with the desired flow? It is imperative that all fire departments flow test their hose and nozzle packages to ensure the desired flow is being reached on the fireground. Generally speaking, volunteer fire departments should achieve 150 gallons per minute (gpm) for 1¾-inch hose, 210 gpm for two-inch hose, and 250 gpm for 2½-inch hose.

Nozzle selection is also critical. Whether your department uses smooth bore or fog, make sure that the hose construction matches the nozzle type. Hose construction can directly affect flow and the ability of the firefighter to manage the line. There has been a trend to move to low-pressure nozzles [50 and 75 pounds per square inch (psi)]. However, many departments are using hose with low-pressure nozzles that were constructed for nozzles with higher operating pressures (100 psi). This mismatch causes the line to kink specifically near the nozzle, creates “nozzle whip” while flowing, and can make the hose difficult to manage. Hose and nozzle packages are simply a recipe. Volunteers departments achieve a hose and nozzle combination that will flow a minimum of 150 gpm, a nozzle reaction of less than 71 pounds, and a pump discharge pressure in the range of 100 to 140 psi.

The hose and nozzle are the firefighter’s weapons when going to battle. As a police officer understands the ballistics of his ammunition for his gun, firefighters should know the performance of their hose and nozzle. This arms the firefighter with knowledge so he can confidently choose which hose and nozzle package to use at a given fire, which in turn allows for an aggressive fire attack.

Positive water supply. To sustain the desired fireground flow, establish a positive water supply, which is just as important to the volunteer fire department as is the initial hoseline positioning and just as challenging as staffing the incident. Many in the volunteer fire service operate in rural areas, which can make establishing a positive water supply difficult. The key to this is preplanning. The department must get out and address those areas where it expects difficulties and explore ways to deal with them.

The water supply must be established quickly and meet (and preferably exceed) the fireground demand. If the water supply fails to meet the fireground demand, everyone loses! Firefighters must know all the options from where the water is coming. Hydrants are usually quick and reliable and require minimal personnel to establish. Firefighters must make sure to flush the hydrant to remove debris and ensure that the hydrant has water.

In addition, a drop tank operation can be time consuming if firefighters are not trained in setting one up. When conducting a drop tank operation, success is based on the ability of a quick dump and a quick fill. Remember, avoid routes or tank placement that require apparatus to back up. Last, when laying supply lines, firefighters should work to avoid kinks. It is ingrained in firefighters to chase kinks on the attack line because kinks will affect flow out of the nozzle. The same applies to the supply line; if it has a kink, it will directly affect the fireground operation by reducing the available flow on the intake side.

Fire attack at a residential fire requires a strong foundation—understanding the mission of the fire attack, positioning the hoseline, executing desired fireground flow, and establishing a positive water supply. When your department has these core elements mastered, coupled with adequate staffing, its fire attack will be a success. It is through training and understanding that the volunteer fire department can apply each component at little to no cost.

The challenges faced by volunteer firefighters become more dynamic every day. However, they can be overcome! Be determined and be prepared. The obstacles that volunteer firefighters overcome and the level of professionalism displayed are what make the volunteer fire service what it is today. The citizens we serve expect the department to handle its problems with knowledge, ability, and speed. The desire to prepare, train, and execute fireground operations is the backbone of success for the volunteer fire service. This training is designed to teach and share with the participants ways to effectively prepare, perform, and win on the volunteer fireground.


RICHARD RAY is a 27-year fire service veteran who has worked in volunteer and career departments. He is a captain with the Creedmoor (NC) Volunteer Fire Department and a battalion chief and an adjunct instructor for the training division with the Durham (NC) Fire Department. Ray is also a member of the UL Fire Safety Research Institute’s Residential Home Size-Up and Search and Rescue Operations Technical Panel. He has presented at FDIC International and other conferences.

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