Safety: When to "Back the Truck Up"

In the fire service you will find that a little education mixed-in with experience will provide the wisdom it takes to make a safe environment to work in.

We all believe that we belong to an aggressive fire department who works hard for all that they have; we are raised that way from the beginning of our training. So does there come a time when you have to "back the truck up"? I believe there is such a time and I am hoping that by reading this article you will begin to see my view from the jump seat.

Is it on a structure fire when fire is showing from two or more rooms and we have confirmed that there are no people inside? Or when we arrive at a car wreck with a heavy traffic flow around it? Or just maybe when we arrive at an EMS scene with a mother and a teenager yelling and screaming at each other? At what point do we just stop and "back the truck up"? All too many times we end up in situations where we should not be because we let our ego get in the way, we decide even before we arrive on scene that "I can fix the problem" (we're trained, after all, to be the one's to put the fire out!) and we loose sight of our surroundings.

So at what point do we hesitate and "back up?" We have all taken the classes and scene safety is most always what we hear the most about, and we need too, but I say a little common sense goes a long way.

Fireground Observations
It is important to use of all your senses while analyzing the scene, by taking a few moments to look, listen, and size-up the area is a great place to start. A 360-degree walk around is paramount to an accurate scene size-up! How about listening to bystanders to discover if everyone is out of the structure! Once that is done you can "feel;" what I mean by that is the ever most important reference to our instincts or "gut feeling." A complete and total assessment of the scene is crucial in the outcome of the situation. Now you're asking yourself: "How can I use these things in my position, I'm just a firefighter."

There are many tools that I am finding that work well while I am spending my time riding in the jump seat. First, wait a minute and don't put your mask on until you're ready to go into any environment that will give you a more open view of the conditions as you approach the scene. Second, take the time while you are approaching the structure to note possible means of egress. Third, listen to your officer when he or she gives out commands; yes and you must trust and follow them. Finally and what usually is the most important thing on any call, don't get tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is defined as "Vision in which the visual field is severely constricted, as from within a tunnel looking out." This is a real and common problem within today's fire and EMS services alike.

Roadway Safety
Can we as a firefighter look at that auto accident on a four-lane highway, which can be very complex and dangerous, and decide how many lanes we should shut down? How far away from the accident should we park the truck? These decisions are not being made from the seat that I'm riding in, so what can I do to protect myself and crew? First, never turn away from the oncoming traffic until a safety zone has been established. Second, did you put on your "pretty green vest?" If not, it would be a good idea to put it on! They may not look cool but they sure do make us visible to oncoming traffic. Third is size-up. Have you got one? When I refer to a size-up I am referring to the hazards that can be present with the vehicles themselves. Is this a hybrid vehicle, maybe a new car with side curtain airbags that have not been deployed, or maybe the vehicle themselves are not stable or safe. These are all thing's that as basic firefighters we could use to make our job safe for us all. The main key to this process is identification and notification; there can be no assuming in this business. For when we assume, our safety is being gambled on and we just can't continue to take that chance. We all must swallow our pride and listen to our officers, it may change the outcome in a positive light on every scene, which is in turn enables us to all continue our shift.

So is there a solution that we have forgotten to mention? Well, maybe. Pre-planning, we all do it as part of protecting our citizens. We learn about our surroundings and plan how to be prepared. If you dig a little deeper into each shift and are prepared with things as simple as making sure your gear is ready before kicking back in the recliner and talking about the local high school football scores. Is it easily accessible and ready for combat? This one step alone will take away the need for thinking about your personal protective equipment (PPE) as you prepare for the response. Follow that up with talking to your crew members as we approach the scene and call out hazards as we encounter them. Finally, let's prepare for entry into the scene only when all of these things are complete. I believe the hardest thing to do in the fire service is to just slow down and make sure that we are being as safe as possible!

EMS Response Awareness
Now what about that EMS run with a mother and teenage daughter in a verbal argument? How many times to we think to ourselves "It's just a mom and daughter we can go on in" without waiting for our friends in blue that carry the guns. Yep we need them because they can shoot back! Well not really, but they are more trained in the area of scene stabilization in this instance. I believe that once again our egos can get us in trouble. We really have no idea of what's going on with the scene until we get there. This particular mother could be the kind that walks tall and carries a shotgun or the daughter could be a 25th degree black belt in Judi Chopin and she's looking to kick some butt. I would prefer that it is not mine.

So, once again your saying what can I do sitting in the backseat? My answer would be not much. Maybe you could voice your opinion, which depending on your officer could be met with mixed reaction. Possibly as you approach the scene you can keep your tunnel goggles off and keep your eyes open for possible signs of danger. Maybe when you get inside the house you keep an eye on the other people in the room and not just the patient. Can the path between your crew and yourself be kept open in case you need to leave fast?

The best thing you can do is begin to develop your habits for the future. Someday you will be riding in the seat and making these types of decisions. Everyday that we are on the job we are gaining job experience that can affect all of us, but remember that just because this particular call comes out good the next one might not!

So what does all this information do for me? Well first of all let it start a discussion in safety with not only yourself but the officer in your station. Bring up the topic of scene safety to him or her and ask questions. Start simple, be careful not to be aggressive, that will go along way in getting your point across. If we ran a call like this how would you handle it and what would you expect out of me? If he gives you answers that you either don't understand or agree with ask them to explain. Maybe they have a good reason. If you don't necessarily agree, remember that safety is the most important thing so follow. That way you will learn what is expected out of you when you arrive.

In the fire service you will find that a little education mixed-in with experience will provide the wisdom it takes to make a safe environment to work in. Most of all , always work as a team and right now you may be just like me a team member, not the leader, but you can still be an important part of the team and maybe even say "Beep, Beep...Hey guys let's back the truck up"!

RYAN PENNINGTON is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 7 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 15 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. To read Ryan's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at and view his blog at