Engine Company Operations

The History of firefighting goes way back, back to a time when firefighters used horses to pull their apparatus and steam engines to power their pumps. Tower ladders, portable power saws, handie-talkies, SCBA were not yet invented. Firefighters had little options to choose from, either stretch a 2 " hose line and extinguish the fire, or set up for an exterior attack. Ladder Company firefighters also had little options to choose from when it came to choosing tools. Their tools might have consisted of an axe, hook (pike pole), or a haligan if they were lucky and wooden ladders.

Much has changed since than, we now have different size hose lines to choose from. Every ladder apparatus is equipped with all sorts of power tools. Communications on the fire ground has improved greatly, no longer do we hear the words " Start Water" relayed down the stairs to the street and finally to the Engine Operator. All of these new tools, apparatus, and firefighting procedures have made our profession safer.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), 112 on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred in 1999. This marks the highest annual U.S. firefighter death toll since 1989 (118) and excluds the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The second leading cause of fatal injuries on the fire ground was ENTRAPMENT, which resulted in 24 deaths. What could have caused these fatalities?

  • Could it be the age, deteriorating condition, or lack of maintenance of the building?
  • Could it be the new forms of construction techniques, such as lightweight parallel wood trusses, lightweight wooden I-Beams, metal C-Joists etc?
  • Could it be our over aggression, our failure to foresee changing conditions, or the inability to effectively account for all our personnel when ordered to back out?

What can we do to help prevent these fatalities? What questions should we be asking ourselves, before, during, and after the fire or emergency?

  • How far should firefighters search in a smoke filled apartment or store?
  • When should firefighters be ordered to "BACK OUT" and set up an exterior attack?
  • When should firefighters get off a fire-weakened roof?
  • How much should we risk accomplishing the objective " Risk a little to save a little," "Risk a lot to save a lot?"

I have always stressed the importance of a good size-up, and that it was the responsibility of every firefighter, officer, and Incident Commander operating at an emergency or fire to carry out a proper Size-Up. My number one priority is "What could kill my firefighters," my second concern is "WATER!"

During my 32 years of doing battle with the "Red Devil," I have acquired a certain degree of respect for the enemy we fight. Many of the techniques and procedures that I have learn have been past down to me from one firefighter to another. My mission in writing these articles is to past, onto you my brothers and sisters, what I have been taught and what I practice everyday.

Although ventilation is as important as a good reliable water source, I believe without water the fire doesn't go out. Engine Company Operations are not just "Put the Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff:" it entails far more insight and training. Engine Operations can be broken down into four (4) broad areas and I will address these areas in upcoming articles.

  • Apparatus positioning
  • Supply line options
  • Hose line stretches and operations
  • Specialized Engine Operations

Responding to a working fire the Engine Officer and chauffeur must be asking themselves certain questions.

  • Does the area you are responding to have hydrants or a limited water supply options?
  • Are you first due or first to arrive?
  • If you enter the block will you block out the ladder apparatus?
  • Should you lay into the hydrant before the fire building or respond into the front of the building, stretch a hose line and then proceeded to the water source?

These are some of the questions that should be addressed before and upon arrival at the scene of an emergency or fire operation.

Upon arrival, the officer of the first- arriving engine company will have to make many decisions that will help determine the outcome of the fire. The officer must decide where to position the apparatus taking into consideration not to block out other responding units. It is imperative that the first-arriving engine officer to know the identification and the number of units that are responding in on the initial alarm.

Communications must be established with the first arriving companies. This will help coordinate engine and ladder tactics, such as preventing premature ventilation or advancing a hose line before ventilation has begun. Engine Companies must be positioned at a reliable water supply.

  • Hydrant
  • In-Line pumping operation
  • Re-lay pumping operation
  • Drafting operation
  • Portable water source

Once the engine is connected to a water source, the next decision that has to be made would be what would it take to extinguish this fire safely and effectively?

  • 1 3 / 4" line
  • 2 1 / 2" line
  • Large caliber appliance
  • 2 hose lines stretched simultaneous.
  • Quick knock down by fixed mounted deck pipe followed simultaneous by hose line stretch.
  • Possibility of supplying other pumpers, tower ladders, Quints, standpipes saimese and possibly sprinkler siamese.

The next decision in a progression of fire ground decisions would be:

  • What size hose line should be stretched that would be compatible with fire conditions?
  • What type of nozzle should be used straight bore tip verse fog tip?
  • Would the use of the booster line be appropriate?
  • Do we need to use foam to extinguish this fire?
  • Most importantly is this operation going to be an offensive or defensive operation?

Once the line is in position to start the attack, the nozzle man must:

  • Flake out and bleed the hose line before entering the fire area.
  • Entering the fire and encountering high heat the nozzle man will first direct his stream high in order to cool the superheated gases that have gathered at ceiling level.
  • Nozzle will be operated in a counterclockwise manner or side to side.
  • Whether crawling on his knees or "duck walking" the nozzle man must sweep the floor as they advance.
  • Before entering a room that is engulfed in fire, the nozzle man should position himself against the wall between the fire room and the hallway. With 2-3 feet of hose extending in front of him, the nozzle man will extend the nozzle into the room only exposing his wrist to the fire and extinguish as much fire as he can before entering the room using the wall as a barrier against the initial release of heat and flame. Once entering the fire room he will immediately move away from the door entrance, as this will be in the path of heat release. He will move to a position against a wall, giving him physical support to operate the line this especially important when manpower is limited. Once he is in position the stream should be operated "out front and overhead." The water should be deflected off the ceiling and upper walls followed by the stream being lowered to waist high. The nozzle man should sweep the room waist high. This will not only help vent any windows that might still remain in place but will also give the nozzle man a picture of how deep the room is and where the next opening will be to further his advance.

As the advance is being made, the officer in charge of the hose line must keep track of what is going on around him:

  • How long have the firefighters been operating?
  • What is the handie-talkie traffic like? Usually when there is no radio communication going on there is a problem and this tends to indicate that conditions are deteriorating to a point that firefighters are reluctant to use the radio due to self-survival. When things are going good everybody is using the radio when things are starting to go bad there is silence.
  • What's the condition of the units around you?
  • Has there been a change in the volume of fire? Unchanging fire conditions might signal a switching from an interior attack to an exterior attack.

In order to switch from an interior attack to an exterior attack there has to be complete accountability of all firefighters operating. This can be accomplished by employing any of the following:

  • The use of the apparatus horn or siren.
  • Handie-takie communication
  • Conducting a roll call of all units

Remember 90 % of our fires are extinguished within 15 minutes of our arrival and are usually extinguished with the use of one 1 ? " hand line with a second hand line stretched as a backup line for additional protection.

I have presented a basic engine operation that we can all relate to. In order to become proficient and confident in our chosen profession we must train and be trained over and over. I had the good fortune or the misfortune to have worked during the WAR YEARS. The training experiences I acquired are priceless. It has made my transition from a nozzle man to chief that much easier. But now we live in a different time, a time when there is little fire duty but plenty of EMS duty. We have to allocate our time effectively.

Do a survey of your district; see where you are doing most of your fire duty and train in that area. If most of your fires are occurring in Private Dwelling, then set up your apparatus and your firefighting procedures to fit that type of fire. If your department doesn't have a set of procedures then write one or contact a department that has one and then rewrite it to fit your area.

Your area might not have the good fortune of having fire hydrants and must rely solely on tanker water or drafting. If this is the case then procedures should be in place to deal with it. Once you have a written procedure, train on it until it becomes second nature. Get the word out, solicit ideas from your membership; you might be surprised to find out how many experts you have been working with.

Think about contacting your local politicians or community board leaders. Ask them for help in acquiring a specific piece of equipment that could benefit your department. Remember it is so easy to sit at that kitchen table and procrastinate what's wrong with the department, it takes a certain type of individual who will get off his butt and make a change, an individual who will go that extra mile and make a difference.

Remember it is our "Mission Statement" as training officers, to train and prepare our firefighters to the best of their ability "Nothing Less Will Be Accepted."

We must all live with the motto:
"WE ALL GO HOME AFTER OUR TOUR".


John Keenan is a 33 year veteran of the FDNY and currently holds the position of Battalion Chief 15 in the Bronx. Chief Keenan is a frequent lecture and instructor on fire service topics with a specific interest in Engine Company Operations. You may contact Chief Keenan at FDPD@AOL.com

Loading