The best laid plans to extinguish a fire will not pan out if water is not delivered to where it is needed in the time period in which it is needed. Firefighters can be in place, hose laid, truck functions coordinated, and a water supply established, but if there is no competent pump operator on the engine, nothing will happen.
Swift water application leads to good outcomes, and delays increase risks and damages. Therefore, it is extremely important to have an engine operator who understands his role and studies all the nuances of the job. And, even though many of the electronics designed into fire apparatus make its operation somewhat easier, there is much more that needs to be mastered for an operator to be considered a true professional.
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GETTING TO THE SCENE
The number one job of the driver is to get to the scene safely. It is hard to believe that we still need to remind people to buckle up and that there are some who resist this simple safety act. The driver must make sure everyone is ready before departing. This could be challenging if the officer in the right seat is not supportive or doesn’t accept his responsibility. This does not excuse the driver from doing the right thing. Next, safe travel is critical. This means knowing the best way to get to the emergency, the road conditions, traffic, and anything else that could create unnecessary risk. Finally, apparatus placement is critical. It not only impacts the fire tactics and strategy but also helps create a safe work environment, especially on the highway. There are best practices that must be committed to memory and used on every call.
OPERATING AT THE SCENE
There are operational issues and safety issues. Knowing the basics of the pump operation is essential. While electronics have made the job somewhat easier and reliable, they challenge the engineer to know more should there be a failure. Would you know what to do if water was not coming out of the nozzle? One simple thing is to check for kinks in the hose. Fire departments should have a policy that no one passes a kink without straightening the hose. There should be regular practice of hose deployment so that there is a successful stretch of the hose. If the hose is not the issue, the pump operator must have a progression of troubleshooting so that the issue can be identified and corrected as quickly as possible. As departments put new apparatus into service, the engineer must accept the responsibility to learn as much as possible prior to putting the vehicle into service. In addition, those detailed to other stations or working overtime shifts have the same responsibility.
Speed and efficiency lead to response effectiveness. This can only be obtained through initial training and ongoing practice to maintain competence. Depending on run volume and actual opportunities to use skills, a regular and routine schedule that creates the appropriate “sets and reps” may be necessary. Those at the end of the hose don’t want to wait too long for water, and any delays not only allow for more fire damage but also create additional risks for firefighters attacking the fire. It is also helpful to know about hydraulics, pump pressures, friction loss, nozzles, and hose deployment. Too often, pump operations rely on the simple rule of thumb of looking for someone to give a thumbs up or down to adjust pressure. True professionals know what to do and don’t rely on just the signaling. This is not to discount the occasional need but to emphasize that nothing should be taken for granted.
KNOWING THE VEHICLE
The engineer needs to know what is on the vehicle, where it is located (which compartment), its use, and maintenance. This probably was a little easier a few years ago, but as more responsibilities get added to engine companies, more equipment is added. This requires knowledge of operation, even though the pump operator may not be the primary user or the first choice. But, knowing everything on the vehicle to which you are assigned comes with the territory. The driver must also take ownership so the equipment is easy to access, and he must also offer suggestions as to location and possibly removal of unused equipment to make more room for the latest additions.
Vehicle placement is very important for not only the operation but the safety of the pump operator and the preservation of the vehicle. Parking too close can subject the vehicle to heat from the fire and possibly being within the collapse zone should that threat exist. Of course, you don’t want to be too far away either. Find the sweet spot. Also, from an operator’s safety perspective, studies are showing that, even though not in the hazard zone directly, engineers may be subject to the products of combustion. In some cases, a pump operator’s turnout gear has elevated levels of toxins. Some departments are now having engineers wear self-contained breathing apparatus while doing their job so as to not be exposed to products of combustion that have shown to be known carcinogens.
Water remains the extinguishing agent of choice. It not only works best at putting out fires but is beneficial in minimizing many risks that firefighters face. Of course, this only works if the engine operator is extremely competent. As with many other aspects of the fire service, water delivery is getting more complex. This is true even though technology is used to simplify pump operation and improve reliability. But, those who are trusted to make sure water gets to where it needs to be must know what to do when Murphy’s Law presents itself. Hopefully, everything runs smoothly. But if it doesn’t, pump operators need to adjust and get the water through the hose to the nozzle. True professionals need to stay current and competent. They can’t get complacent when the run volume doesn’t provide regular and routine operation. Engineers are critical in delivering water and must work hard to make sure they are the best they can possibly be. They need to pursue perfection.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.