Command Post: Riding the Right-Front Seat – Part 10: Be Ready

So, you thought it would be easy riding the right-front seat? It is never easy, because you have to worry about taking care of other people. Once you decide that you actually know what you have in terms of an emergency, you face another critical decision: What do you do?

As your apparatus turns into the block where a fire has been reported and you meet heavy smoke, you need to be up to making the right decisions. As you roll in on a reported hazardous materials incident, let the facts of the situation and the conditions you see govern your actions. For many years, I have been teaching an important rule: If you don’t know, you don’t go. It’s that simple and it lets you err on the side of safety.

As the person riding that right-front seat, you are the first person being offered an opportunity to screw up. While this month’s column focuses on firefighting, it is up to you to understand the full range of non-fire emergencies to which your company may be dispatched; more about those in future columns.

The purpose of this month’s column is to point out a few ways to help you find your enemy, the fire, and how to limit its travel. It has been my experience that a fire’s location and its potential for traveling away from where it started are tied closely together. Once you have determined what you have and where the fire is, you can then ask, where is it headed?

The fact that you have established “what” is the basis for “where.” In every situation, you must determine where the incident is located. Where something is located is basic to reacting, attacking and controlling the situation. Your basic concerns should be the following:

1. In what part of your community or response area is the incident located?

2. Where in the structure, complex of structures, vehicle or container is the fire?

First, find the fire

Before you can decide on an appropriate course of action, you must be sure of the fire’s location. How can you decide where it may go if you do not have a clue as to exactly where it is now? Therefore, you must devote a great deal of time and effort to identifying the fire’s location. In some cases, it is easy, because the fire is rolling from the rafters into the sky. However, in other cases, it takes all of your experience, knowledge and wisdom to find a hidden fire.

Let me share a story about an episode in which I played a part while riding the right-front seat on Engine 26 in Newark, NJ. Our station housed two engines and an aerial ladder.

One evening, we were dispatched to a call for a smell of smoke in a small neighborhood store. Upon arrival, I reported “nothing showing” and proceeded to investigate. The chief arrived, took a look around and based on his review of the situation decided to leave it in our hands. It was a terribly frustrating situation. We could smell wood smoke, but there was nothing showing. However, I had the good fortune of operating with old-time veterans. We kept looking and we kept asking questions. At one point, the store’s proprietor mentioned there had been some renovations up front near the front window.

One of my guys who held a side job as a carpenter took a crowbar and carefully pried away the newly installed wooden molding. Bingo! Someone had driven a nail through an electrical wire and that was the cause of a smoldering fire behind the molding. Had my guys not been so insistent at following up on this hidden fire we might have returned later to a tragic situation, since the owner and his family lived upstairs.

Where is the fire going?

It is not always easy to discover where a fire is located, but unless you do, you will never have a shot at extinguishing it or limiting its spread. You will need to be thorough and diligent if you are to perform your job correctly. This holds true regardless of the type of incident to which you are responding.

After determining the fire’s location, you can then move on to the next question: “Where is it going?” This breaks down as follows:

1. Where is it going in the building?

2. Is it going to the next building?

3. Might it travel from a vehicle to a building?

4. Could it be moving from a contained position to an uncontained position?

It has often been stated that anticipation is the key to firefighting success, and I subscribe to that statement. During my career, I have seen numerous instances where the fireground commander lost the battle by being three steps behind the fire. I want you to outthink the fire, so learn to ask yourself where the fire is headed.

If you do not protect exposures, fires will spread. Location and extent of the fire on your arrival can tell you a great deal. Where is it and how big is it? You must answer these questions as soon as possible after you arrive on the scene of an emergency.

The classic comparison could be stated as follows: Which fire is worse?

• A large fire in a junkyard

• A small fire at the base of the rear exit from a two-story, two-family dwelling

My estimation is that the small fire is a greater danger because of its potential for the injury or death of occupants. The large fire would require a great deal of labor, but it should not be a life-safety problem as long as you operate in a safe manner.

However, when you encounter a large fire in the center building in a row of similar attached structures, you are challenged to control a serious problem. In cases like this, you must begin by concentrating on exposures so that you will have a chance to limit the fire’s spread. Once outward spread has been halted, you can then concentrate on confining and extinguishing the fire.

It is important for you to remember that fire responds to the basic principles of any oxidation-reduction reaction. If heat, fuel and oxygen are available in the path of the fire, it will spread. Remember the basic chemistry of fire and understand that heat can spread by conduction, convection and radiant heat. Some simple facts relating to this are:

• Fire generally burns upward

• Heat rises (as it always has)

• Heat will rise until it meets an obstruction and then roll across it until it reaches a wall and moves downward

• Heat can pass through metal ducts and pipes to spread fire

• Old balloon-frame walls will let a fire spread upward quickly

• Modern construction will fail a lot sooner than any of us is willing to admit

• Fire can squeeze through very small passages

Go with your gut

Let me suggest a new rule for you to enter into your firefighting mental database: If your gut tells you that it looks like a stupid move to enter a burning structure, go with your gut. I have been teaching this one for a lot of years. No one says you have to be injured or die just to save a building.

As the person riding the right-front seat of a first-due unit, you have a great role in determining the success or failure of the overall operation. It is your call when you arrive. You should be well aware of the follow-on force responding in after you. If you think a defensive operation is in order, make that call.

Should the need exist to stretch in a hoseline to make a rescue, then make that call and get on with the job at hand. It is your knowledge of building construction and your experience at fighting fires that will equip you with an understanding of just where a fire may be headed.

Riding the right-front seat is not simply a matter of jumping on the rig and buckling your seatbelt. Prepare to make the necessary decisions during the crucial first few moments of any emergency. Be ready. n