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Making the Most of the Three Person Company - Part 2: Engine Companies

In the first article of this series, we talked about the importance of using minimum standards to help us achieve our objectives. NFPA Standards 1710 and 1720 discuss the importance of staffing as it relates to safety. We then presented a serious scenario involving fire on the third floor of an occupied apartment building and the numerous tasks that are required to effectively conduct fire suppression and aid in life safety.

For this scenario we need an allotment of resources, realistically a minimum of four engine companies, two ladder companies, plus additional resources such as a rapid intervention company, a chief officer or two, and a safety officer. "I don't have access to that," you may say. But an interior attack requires people!

The use of mutual aid is of value, maybe starting those mutual aid companies out immediately through "automatic aid" dispatch would solve some of your problems! In fact, first alarm assignments that are "heavy" in their resource allotment avoids playing catch up later. Instead of having alarm assignments that have an even distribution of resources, why not have an initial response that could be viewed as overwhelming? There is no such thing as a "fair fight," whether in combat or in our line of work. We need a sufficient amount of personnel arriving on engine and ladder companies to do the job.

Let's take a look at those tasks required from the engine company standpoint:

  • Primary sustained water supply
  • Secondary sustained water supply
  • 1 3/4-inch handline stretched to the seat of the fire
  • 1 3/4-inch backup line stretched to support the attack and for personnel safety
  • 1 3/4-inch line to the floor above (if applicable) or into the most severely exposed exposure (we should be prepared to put three lines into operation at every building fire we go to.)

The above tasks must be completed for the sake of safety and efficiency. So where do we begin with the three-person engine company? The key to our success is to know our limitations and then compensate for them. In the scenario above, our only chance for effective firefighting is the teaming up of engine companies.

For example, a single three person engine company would be hard pressed to establish a sustained water supply and get a 1 3/4-inch line into operation quickly. Therefore we must team up our engine companies. Through solid department standard operating guidelines and consistent training, these team tactics can work.

Teaming Up Our Engine Companies

The first-due engine company has the opportunity to set the stage. This includes establishing a water supply unless the situation is so dire that water is needed quickly, in which case the first-due engine may go right into action and rely on booster tank water. Even 500 gallons of tank water will last for several minutes using a move-stop-hit approach. Being a first-due engine company requires that some sort of flexibility be allowed based on the situation.

The second-due engine, in coordination with the first-due engine, must therefore assure that a water supply is established. These first two engine companies can take a teamwork approach to this fire and each can rely on the other. Staffing is far too limited for either one to be completely effective. If the response of one or the other is delayed, there is a chance for a delay in water application. We didn't have these problems when an engine company was self-contained and could perform all these tasks on arrival. Times have changed, unfortunately.

These first two engine companies have the opportunity to apply water via one of several ways. Booster tank water is not a sustained supply. While it is a tool in the toolbox, tank water cannot be a strategy for other than the first-due engine at a building fire and only if unusual conditions are being encountered. Between both engine companies, this sustained water supply task is critical to accomplish (see Figure 1.) Effective radio communications, standard operating procedures, consistent multi-unit drilling, and understanding the various ways to effect a water supply (forward, reverse, or split-lay) can set the stage for completing this mission.

Therefore a first alarm assignment must have the ability to establish, as a minimum, a sustained primary water supply. Can you do this with your first alarm assignment? If the answer is yes, then a big problem is eliminated. If the answer is no, then a lot of work needs to be done.

Placing Hoselines Into Operation

Next we turn to getting the first hoseline into operation. In the above scenario, the most important line is the first handline, simply because of the urgency of getting water on the fire. A fire in an occupied building offers limited room for delay. Available engine company staffing has to be teamed up to get the first line in operation quickly.

With a single three-person engine company, getting a line to the third floor is problematic. The first-due engine chauffeur has his or her work cut out for them. They will be attempting to establish a water supply and will make sure that the attack line from the engine to the building front door is completely flaked out and devoid of kinks. The remaining engine company personnel now consist of only the company officer and a lone firefighter. Together they must overcome a number of turns and possibly a stairwell without the ability to conduct a well stretch (that area over the railing that allows you to stretch a line straight up from the first floor to the floor below the fire without having to make multiple turns.) These two engine company members will be in the nozzle position and backup position. The critical position of a firefighter being assigned to assist in the stretch is not available with the three person company. A major benefit of the four person engine company is that we have that critical position filled for assisting in line advancement.

Stretching the line dry is very helpful because it is so easy, but you still need members to help negotiate corners, obstructions, and turns. (See my article "Stretching Dry: Increasing Engine Company Effectiveness.") This covers getting a line into operation relatively quickly and with safety in mind.

The immediate answer to the problem of the three person engine company is the second-due engine company. If by chance, the engine chaueffeur of the first-due engine is in the process of getting on hydrant water and is not experiencing any difficulty, then the second-due engine has a couple of options. The officer, firefighter, and the firefighter who was the chaueffeur of the second due engine can assist in getting the first line in operation, with their engine being parked out of the way. This use of personnel is valuable and now allows for five members to assist in rapidly advancing this line. The initial attack line now consists of the officer and firefighter from the first-due engine and the officer and two firefighters of the second-due engine to assist in the advance.

If the nozzle team starts running low on air and the personnel of the second due company were not "on air" because they were not exposed to any fire or smoke, then they can easily maintain the momentum of the attack by moving up the line and replace the initial nozzle team. Again, with this requires the critical importance of radio communications.

Water Supply

Depending on what is happening out on the street, a primary water supply must be acquired. If the first engine can get on hydrant water without difficulty, then the second due-engine chaueffeur also has the opportunity to start that secondary sustained water supply. This is another option for this crewmember in lieu of not participating in the attack. Anyway you view it, the first- and second-due engine companies must concentrate on getting a charged line into operation between the occupants and the fire as well as establishing that water supply as quickly as possible.

With this scenario we have discussed so far, our resources look like this: We have two engine companies and two chauffeurs to help each other out in making sure our attack team doesn't run out of water. We have a single 1 3/4-inch handline capable of flowing 180 gallons per minute, and we have four firefighters and fire officers to assist in maneuvering this line quickly! This is a valuable use of two three person engine companies.

Ideally, a fire officer's role should be to take a "hands off" approach and look for hazards and pitfalls that the members might encounter. To participate in individual tasks can lead to tunnel vision and this can compromise safety. Nevertheless, due to the abysmal staffing level, we have no choice. We have to get that line in operation and place it between the occupants and the fire. With two officers inside the building, one solution could be for the first due officer to take a "hands off" approach once the additional personnel arrive. Again, this requires training and forethought prior to the actual fire.

Given the fire scenario above, we still have other requirements that must be fulfilled. The establishment of the secondary sustained water supply and a back up line is a mandatory requirement. To achieve these goals requires that two additional engine companies be assigned to this fire. These two companies work in a manner similar to the first two engines.

Basically, the picture we are starting to portray is that to get a single line into operation requires two engine companies and four or more firefighters tasked with line placement. The backup line has to be of equal to or greater diameter than the first line. In this case, given the type of occupancy, a back up line also of 1 3/4-inch supporting the attack line will allow for this fire to be contained quickly.

The handlines needed for the protection of exposures or for any floors above will require additional staffing. For many departments, this translates into the calling of additional alarms. Also, other considerations include rotation of personnel and SCBA logistics. A longer duration firefight will require that personnel be replaced on hoselines and rotated to a rehab site and where SCBA bottles can be replaced.

In these situations, it is important that the IC also have a tactical reserve ready to plug any gap that all of a sudden appears. The IC must be able to expect the unexpected; it is the hallmark of good fire service leadership. This reserve of resources in staging allows for additional strategies and offers enormous flexibility to the incident commander.


Staffing levels are critical to our safety and standards exist that we can use to support our case and justify our needs. In the mean time, we are responding with engine companies that are understaffed. Until these limitations are met, the public still expects us to help them. To do this requires a bit of imagination. Basic principles such as establishing a sustained primary and secondary water supply and stretching charged hoselines that flow sufficient amounts of water quickly, safely, and effectively are mandated. Our safety depends on it, as does the public we protect.

ARMAND F. GUZZI, Jr. has been a member of the fire service since 1987. He is a career firefighter with the City of Long Branch, NJ, and is an instructor for the Monmouth County, NJ, Fire Academy, where he has taught since 1990. He has a Masters Degree in Management and undergraduate degrees in Fire Science, Education, and Business Administration. You can reach Armand by e-mail at: