Who’s in Control? The Apparatus or You?

Who’s in Control? The Apparatus or You?


Volunteers Corner

A few months ago, we discussed the importance of the chauffeur and a need to arrive at the fire scene safely, without an unplanned incident. We hinted that the officer or the member assuming the officer’s responsibilities should control the response.

Hinting isn’t enough. Let’s say it. You must control the response. And, of course, this control starts as soon as you enter the firehouse. Your attitude and self-control will immediately set the stage not only for the chauffeur, but for all members riding the apparatus.

A department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) can greatly reduce the number of basic yet important decisions that the company officer would normally have to make. Such SOPs could include:

  • A preplanned response route;
  • A minimum and/or maximum number of personnel permitted on the apparatus;
  • And, of course, the order of response for the trucks.

These department SOPs should be used as much as possible because they not only reduce confusion, they increase efficiency and safety.

Preplanned response routes take the surprise out of responding for both the involved unit and others responding from different locations. Prior to leaving the firehouse, quickly review the route you’ll take to the incident to ensure that the chauffeur in fact knows the correct location and is not confused by two similar sounding names on opposite sides of town.

Limiting the number of personnel allowed to respond on each piece of apparatus lets us manage our manpower better and insures that more than just the first truck will leave the station. Members should also be restricted from riding in unsafe locations, such as hose beds or other areas with no seat belts or padded bars that help prevent response injuries. During mutual aid responses, this maximum personnel rule will keep additional members in town for a local response.

As strange as it might sound, some fire departments have not yet adopted a logical response pattern for their apparatus. This means that the first driver to arrive at the station decides which truck will roll first; and this decision is often based on which truck the driver prefers. This is crazy. I have seen aerial ladders responding first to a car fire. Or, worse, four pumpers respond to a structural alarm before the aerial leaves quarters.

Train all or most of your drivers to operate all your equipment, and then assign which and in what order the apparatus will respond to different types of fires.

Relieving the company officer of these fundamental decisions allows him to focus his attention on other important factors that can and usually do change with each response. The one thing that almost always changes is the responding personnel.

We are governed by and sometimes at the mercy of those who show up and the jobs they take on. Not long ago, a local fire department had two structural fires in one day (something that is not too common for my area). After the second fire, the chief remarked that he couldn’t believe how the first operation went “as smooth as silk,” but the second went “almost as if someone was trying to sabotage the operation.” The thing that puzzled the chief most was that, almost to a man, the same people responded to both fires.

After we spoke for awhile, we discovered that although the same people responded, they performed different tasks at the second incident. The person who had vented the windows during the first fire was the nozzleman at the second fire; the hydrant man became the vent man; and so on. This problem could have easily been solved by the company officer assigning as many critical jobs as possible before leaving the station. Although not a foolproof method, you will know by these assignments which positions will require closer supervision.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to put all your eggs in one basket or all your best firefighters on the first hose line. But, by teaming up a senior, well disciplined firefighter with a newer member, you can be relieved of very close supervision. This delegation of your authority should be explained to newer members when they enter the department so that it is clear who will be the boss of a particular team.

Responding in our home town definitely has advantages. Often, we will know the building we are responding to and its adjacent structures. Large buildings and target hazards may (and should) have been preplanned. Regular structures (private dwellings, stores, barns, etc.) can easily be covered with good working SOPs. We may have even fought a similar fire in the past, and this experience is naturally invaluable to you as a fire officer.

As a company officer sitting in the front seat, many things should be going through your mind; a lot of information was filed before the alarm, and with each new piece of information, your sizeup will be expanded.

Once on the fireground, we have to place our apparatus for maximum efficiency and, at the same time, in a way to afford other arriving units enough room to perform their operations. How many times have we witnessed the first pumper to arrive at a working fire swing in at a 90° angle to the hydrant so that the front suction can be used? These John Wayne tactics make for great photos, but they also often block the entire road. Access for other emergency units could be totally negated because of one misplaced unit. Misplaced because the officer lost control, or because the driver didn’t understand what the officer wanted him to do, or, worse, because the driver and/or officer was so emotionally excited that all communication failed.

The first two problems can be easily solved through formal and informal training. The emotional problem, however, is the most difficult to address, yet probably accounts for more basic fireground mistakes than does a lack of knowledge. Several times I have responded to the home of a person I’m well acquainted with. It’s not easy to ignore the emotions that inevitably and understandably spring up, but we must realize that the calmer we stay, the more help we will be.

Someone in the front seat has to have the presence of mind to say “Slow down,” “Calm down.” Someone has to be able to make logical assignments based upon SOPs, manpower, and individual talents. Someone has to take control. And if you’re the *one riding on the right-hand side of the cab, that someone is you.

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