Cantankerous Wisdom: Half an Engine Company

By Bill Adams

Traditionalists in the fire department are unadventurous people preferring the status quo. They’re apolitical conservatives. The young guys in the firehouse call them old-school, narrow-minded, and ready for retirement. Years ago, firefighters could jawbone for hours about firematics without causing dissension in the ranks and agitating the white coats. Today, if their opinions differ from the new breed of politically correct powers that be, the old-timers are called dissidents. The ultra-progressive younger generation may go one step further, calling them insurgents. Traditionalists might be criticized, ostracized, or run out of town on the spinning blade of a K12.

The Three M’s
The fire service is undergoing restructuring because of changes in the three M’s: money, manpower, and medical (manpower means staffing regardless of gender.). Radical changes are usually unexpected. Others subtly creep up on a fire department. Municipalities don’t have enough money, fire departments don’t have enough manpower, and demands for emergency medical services (EMS) are skyrocketing. Nonbelievers include those who will not admit times are changing and those who are intolerant of change. Nonbelievers should not be involved in any decision making process—especially buying a fire truck. Vocal malcontents exasperate the problem. Firefighters defiantly resisting change should hang up their helmets. Their attitudes and actions are detrimental to the fire service. Get rid of them.

Forward-thinking fire service leaders who open mindedly address the three M’s are to be commended. However, white coats must be cognizant of possible negative consequences. Blindly accepting restructuring may inadvertently cause deterioration of existing resources. Just look at what’s happened to the traditional engine company. It is slowly fading into the sunset. I believe an engine company is an engine company—period. Call it a pumper, a pump, a combination, a triple, a wagon, or whatever. If it carries hose, water, and a fire pump and its basic function is putting out fire, then it’s an engine company.

I grudgingly accept that pumpers may no longer have a single mission of putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. Some progressives think an engine company can multitask without compromising the fundamental mission of the apparatus. I doubt it—especially if a similar sized rig is used. If a pumper is made longer or higher, more equipment can be carried albeit not efficiently. If there’s extra room on a pumper for “additional stuff,” go ahead and load it up. But, don’t compromise its firefighting functions or jeopardize the crew that’s staffing it. Doing so is irresponsible.

Some purchasers never consider or don’t want to believe that one definition of multitasking is the concurrent undertaking of more than one task. If a quint is coming down the street with four or five people, they can’t hump a line up a winding stairway to the second floor, throw a 35-foot extension ladder, raise the aerial, ventilate, and run the pump at the same time. Four people riding a rescue-pumper to a car crash with several people trapped will be hard pressed to efficiently and safely stretch a handline, operate hydraulic rescue tools, and perform medical care at the same time.

Critical Mass
New purchases favor multifunction apparatus. I’m not a proponent of them but do show empathy for those buying one whether by choice or necessity. Every fire truck has a point of critical mass. What’s that? It’s best defined by making an analogy with the phrase “critical velocity,” a term familiar to pump operators. Simply put, critical velocity is the point at which it isn’t worth pumping at a higher pressure because you can’t get any more water, and so much turbulence is being created in the pump, plumbing, and hose that something might break.

Reaching critical mass in a pumper is when so much equipment is added to or deleted from the rig in an attempt to fulfill multiple missions that it ceases to be effectual as a pumper. Engine company tasks may not be accomplished in a timely and proficient manner; efficiency may be lost; and most importantly, firefighters may get hurt. That’s just not right.

Some departments combine the missions of multiple apparatus with quads, quints, rescue-pumpers, pumper-tankers, foam pumpers, pumper-squads, paramedic-pumpers, and titles not yet conceived. Well-established fire departments with unchanging response districts have probably designed their pumpers to operate at peak efficiency. When adding equipment to a well laid out pumper so it can multitask, it may become firematically less efficient as an engine company. When a rig is already “full,” something will have to be deleted or stored so high that it’s dangerous to remove it. Being politically correct, one could say the rig is no longer user-friendly.

Despite manufacturers’ inferences, dealers’ promises, and fire chiefs’ demands, only five pounds of stuff will fit into a five pound bag. That’s not negativism; it’s physics. An engine company’s crew can only perform so many tasks in a certain time frame. That’s not a criticism; it’s the physical limitations of human endurance.

Ancillary Equipment Locations
I would like to believe a traditional engine company’s equipment is laid out so fireground evolutions run efficiently. Everything should be easily accessible, with heavy equipment ergonomically located. Firefighters ought to walk up to the rig and reach the important stuff from ground level.

Imagine receiving orders from headquarters saying your pumper will now respond citywide on all EMS jobs as a paramedic engine company. Besides the standard EMS equipment carried, the rig may need to store a full-sized Stokes basket, several backboards, a couple of spare 02 cylinders, and three additional EMS bags. Granted, in some departments EMS runs can account for upward of 80 percent of responses, and EMS equipment on those rigs must be accessible. However, will engine-company equipment have to be relocated to inaccessible and hard-to-reach areas?

If a pumper’s body is 13 feet long and eight feet wide, there are about 34 linear feet of area a firefighter can walk up to and access equipment. About a third of the lowest compartmentation is lost in the rear wheel wells. Discounting door jambs and clearances, there are 20 to 24 feet available for what should be the heaviest equipment. What goes there? Next, what will be carried at or just above waist level? Anything heavy stored above shoulder height can be dangerous to retrieve and is an invitation for injury. Vertically challenged firefighters may not appreciate lifting a 45 pound smoke ejector off a shelf that’s six feet off the ground. They’d be irate if a knee level 500-pound-rated slide-out tray only held the band aids and the oxygen unit.

Exercise care when designing a new multitasking apparatus. Equipment locations usually look better on a blue print than they actually are in real life. There are tradeoffs to consider. The average Stokes basket is 86 inches long by 24 inches wide by eight inches deep. That equates to about 9½ cubic feet—more than the space required for two preconnected handlines. It can also take up the space required for 70 gallons of water.

Is it smart to reduce the amount of supply line found practical and useful from 1,500 feet to 1,000 feet to accommodate something else? Should the capacity of a booster tank be reduced by 25 to 50 percent to carry other stuff? In a fictitious example, experience shows a pumper with six or seven easily deployed preconnected handlines of various sizes and lengths proves beneficial in addressing fireground operations. How much of that preconnected firefighting capability will be eliminated in order to carry nonfirematic equipment?

A fire chief may call the rig an engine company but order the equipment layout to prioritize its other missions. If the engine company meets the minimum requirements of the applicable regulatory standards, a fire department may be forced to live with it—regardless of how well it firematically functions. Good luck. Don’t get hurt.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment advisory board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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