*This is part 1 of a three part series discussing managing the fire ground with a limited sized crew from the company officer perspective. I hope you enjoy it, learn from it, and share it. This is something I deal with on a daily basis, and have throughout my fire service career in volunteer, combination, and all career departments. Thanks for reading, spread the word, stay safe, and be on the look out for part 2 and 3!
Today the fire service is inundated with facts, figures, and studies on the modern fire environment. While this information is valuable and assists us in making sound fire ground decisions the staffing of the modern day fire department still remains a critical cog in the success of every fire department. In the urban environment staffing is usually not an issue, while there are exceptions to everything most urban or larger cities have minimum 4-person engine companies which allow the Engine Officer to take more of a supervisor role at emergency incidents. This however is not the norm in suburban and rural fire departments were staffing can go from three person (Driver, officer, and firefighter) to as low as driver only. This can prove difficult for the Engine officer as they must supervise but also participate in critical fire ground tasks such as back up firefighter, nozzle firefighter, or even apparatus operator! In this series of articles, we will discuss how to overcome those difficulties through various methods that will maximize fire ground effectiveness and efficiency.
Training: While a healthy training regimen is vital to the success of any fire department, the limited staffed department must not only train but train for the way it intends to do business on the fire ground. In simpler terms “Practice how you play” is critical yet harder to do then say. Even in recruit training I see squads of 4-5 firefighters advancing hose lines, throwing ladders etc. only to see those same well trained recruits struggle when placed in a fire company and asked to perform those same skills with either two people or alone. While the training is important it provided no real world value. Training with limited staffing can be just as difficult as an actual emergency especially for an engine company in which hose lines and flowing water are the skill sets we often train on. Training on deploying attack lines with a lot of people is extremely time consuming as you must constantly re-pack the line over and over to gain the real world reps needed to create muscle memory. Now try doing this with only three people or less! While training with limited staffing is difficult and time consuming it must take place. In order to maximize time, try to focus on individual skill work (stretching pre-connects, throwing ladders, getting a water supply) while in service, and save complex evolutions (full fire ground simulations, or pumping evolutions) for out of service training. This allows the company to focus on one skill at a time to achieve mastery, then utilizes complex evolutions to put all of the skills together. No matter what method you choose, training with your “real world” staffing is a must. Failure to do so will only provide you with false information and security on scene.
Pre Arrival: The most common thing effecting the Engine Company officer when dealing with limited staffing is having to be a dual role supervisor. As stated before depending on the amount of staffing the Engine Company officer will have to supervise the company and fill critical fire ground functions at the same time. This proves difficult as multi-tasking under non-emergency conditions is minimally successful, adding the stress of the fire ground can only make multi-tasking more difficult. Even if your department has the resources to allow the Engine Company officer to pass command, the Engine Company officer will still be faced with a dual role for a short period of time. During this initial phase of the incident is primarily when things go wrong, making this time period even more treacherous. Radio traffic from incoming companies asking for assignments, updates etc. While training to work and talk on the radio can be done taking care of some of this on the front end can minimize radio traffic needs during the phases of the incident where the Engine Company officer must dual purpose. One solution is to create pre-determined response assignments.
Example: Basic Structure Fire Response
1 Engine: Water Supply Plan
360 scene survey
Initial Attack Line
2nd Engine: RIT
3rd Engine: Back Up Line
1st truck Company: Search and Rescue
This would allow the responding companies to act based on pre-determined roles and minimize or eliminate radio traffic in the initial phases of the incident.
Another method is to utilize the travel time to the incident to deliver these pre arrival assignments.
Example: “Engine 1 to Engine 2 we have a hydrant at Main and First street we will be laying from there, pick up our line and pump to us, and then take RIT”
This allows the Engine Company officer to provide instructions prior to arrival, and again minimize traffic so when having to dual role the Engine Company officer can be more focused on the incident scene and working to mitigate the emergency, instead of providing direction to incoming units.
This is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to managing limited staffed Engine Companies. Like with anything else preparation is the key to success for your Engine Company.