Driver or Operator: Semantics or Significant?

Being the operator of fire apparatus entails much more than turning a wheel and pulling levers, writes Tim O'Connor.
Driver or operator—what is the difference? Does it matter? A driver is defined as “someone who drives a vehicle.” On the other hand, an operator is defined as “a person who acts in a specified, especially manipulative way.”

What does it mean to act in a specified, especially manipulative way? I think it means to operate with an offensive, aggressive mindset, knowing the capabilities and restrictions of the apparatus and having the ability to operate independently as part of the team. Back to the initial question: Does it matter if you are a driver or an operator? The simple answer is YES. Let’s discuss why.

Let’s imagine for a minute that you are assigned the role of operator for the shift. You are assigned to an engine with a crew of three. What’s your mindset? How do you prepare for the shift? An operator checks the engine front to back, top to bottom, starting every tool and piece of equipment that can be started. A driver checks fuel and water levels and heads back for more coffee. The difference doesn’t stop here; this is just the beginning.

The engine on the hydrant positioned in a manner to accomplish the task while other apparatus can still get past.

 The engine on the hydrant positioned in a manner to accomplish the task while other apparatus can still get past. (Photo by Dom Mills.)

The initial engine positioned short to allow the truck company to have the entire address side of the residence.

 The initial engine positioned short to allow the truck company to have the entire address side of the residence. (Photo by J. David Majewski, Jr.)


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An operator drives with bunker pants on. Doing so allows you to be an active player on the team and assist in any function necessary. The remainder of your gear should be staged together in a location that is easy to get to, including your self-contained breathing apparatus. If you are a later arriving engine on the box alarm, a water supply is established, and adequate lines are stretched and operating, you will be more beneficial joining your crew performing tasks than sitting in the driver’s seat scrolling through the Internet.

Do you know your district inside and out? A good operator studies the first-due area constantly, looking for shortcuts and unique aspects that may lead to trouble. He knows the common running routes to get to various box areas as well as the quickest routes to assist neighboring companies when requested. He knows based on prior runs where the apparatus will be most beneficial or have the best access. A driver relies on GPS maps and turn-by turn directions.

Besides knowing how to get to incidents, the operator knows the apparatus intimately—what the engine sounds like when it’s operating correctly, how much the truck will sway or lean going around corners, and the stopping distance needed when a civilian stops in the travel lane instead of pulling to the right. Taking it a step further, the operator knows what the pump sounds like when water is flowing. He knows how to “time the tank” to know how much time it should take to empty when the line is flowing, which tells him how quickly he needs to establish a positive water supply. He knows the difference in reaction speed of the main aerial in high range vs. low range. He knows how many feet of reach are lost when doing a cab over deployment of the stick.


On arrival at the scene, the driver’s job is almost over while the operator’s job is just beginning. As you approach a scene, you have two options on where to bring the truck to a stop: parking and positioning. Parking is finding the first readily available spot out front and pulling the parking brake. Positioning is taking in the scene in its totality and picking the most tactically advantageous position for both your apparatus and later arriving apparatus so everyone is operationally successful. A driver simply parks, as his job is only to get from point A to point B. An operator understands that hoses stretch and ladders don’t. He understands that the attack lines on the engine only come off the rear, so stopping short isn’t the best option. He knows that the first-due truck is a 75-foot rear-mount that needs to be on the curb to overcome the 50-foot setback in the front yard so the engine needs to take the far side of the street.

When discussing parking vs. positioning, there are a few considerations based on apparatus type that are vitally important. First, engines are designed to receive or send water. If they aren’t doing either of those two tasks, they need to be totally out of the way of incoming apparatus (photo 1). Nothing is worse than slowing down incoming apparatus by having them squeeze past the engine that is blocking half the street. Get creative with the positioning. Being up on the curb is not taboo when it’s needed. Use empty parking spots to get out of the travel lane. Pull into a driveway or the cross street if you can.

Occupied parking spots in apartment complexes create positioning issues for truck company apparatus.

 Occupied parking spots in apartment complexes create positioning issues for truck company apparatus. (Photo by author.)

The cab of tiller-type aerials is commonly kicked out and away from the objective to create more room for the aerial to operate.

 The cab of tiller-type aerials is commonly kicked out and away from the objective to create more room for the aerial to operate. (Photo by Christopher Riale.)

Water supply and delivery are the main responsibilities of engine companies. When laying out, hug the curb as much as possible on the way up the street. Having a zigzag of supply line in the street can cause just as many problems as a truck blocking the street. Excess hose causes problems—especially large-diameter hose (LDH). To combat this, if the LDH coupling drops just shy of the rear bumper, use a short pony section rather than pull the remaining 90 feet off to complete the connection.

A final consideration regarding engine positioning. Plan your position based off your attack line setup. If all the lines come off the rear of the apparatus, then pulling past should be plan A in almost all cases. Stopping short will “waste” line coming around the apparatus before heading to the objective. Alternatively, if you have a front bumper line that is adequate to cover the fire building, stop short for the same reason. An easy way to help with this is to draw an imaginary line from the A/B corner out to and across the street and do the same from the A/D corner out to and across the street. This now becomes a no-parking zone. Whatever you do, do not position the engine directly in front of the building between these lines (photo 2)!

Once you are on scene and have positioned the apparatus correctly, your job as the engine operator is not over. You need to be active on the fireground to help ensure success. Help stretch the line, taking extra care to make sure the whole line is out of the bed. When ready, charge the line to the correct pressure. Correct pressure does not mean simply hitting the preset button and blindly trusting that it is right. Calculate correct pressure by taking into account hose diameter and construction, nozzle type and pressure, friction loss, and any appropriate elevation loss. This is the only TRUE correct pressure. A good operator must be able to adjust on the fly if a line needs to be extended, as that pressure will be different from the original settings. This becomes paramount in a reverse lay operation where one hoseline is comprised of two different diameters of hose with a reducer or second nozzle in the middle. The ability to deliver adequate water at the correct pressure when needed is a critical skill of the engine operator and the single most attribute that sets operators apart from drivers.


Truck positioning and operations have many more variables and considerations. This mandates an operator mindset over that of a driver. The main and most important variables when positioning are the length and orientation of the aerial. A 75-foot rear-mount is positioned differently than a 100-foot tiller. Obstructions may create challenges to getting into the best position. Hopefully, the engine operator left the front of the building open for the truck. Trees, power lines, and parked cars are all common obstructions that the truck operator must position around (photo 3).

Rear-mount ladders are fairly easy to position, considering they can operate off all sides. With rear-mount ladders, you can back the turntable under the power lines and then operate unobstructed while using the most stable operational setup—off the rear. With mid-mount and tiller-type apparatus, angle the cab away from the objective to give more scrub area and increase effectiveness. This requires more space in which to position (photo 4).

Once the truck is in position, the operator must do what the position name implies—operate. The truck company operator is an integral part of the crew and must be prepared and capable of working on scenes. For this reason, the operator must drive wearing bunker pants, at a minimum, preferably the coat as well. The operator is a part of the outside team responsible for the operation of the main aerial and roof work and works alone. Exceptions to this can always be made, depending on staffing or incident specifics. The most common variable is to make the operator the outside vent man when short staffed (fewer than four people). This prioritizes life safety by putting the operator in a search positon. It does, however, create a delay in starting ventilation. Evaluate the necessary operations on arrival on scene.

Being the operator of fire apparatus entails much more than turning a wheel and pulling levers. Gone are the days of driving to a scene with no gear on and staying in the cab. We must make every effort and take every opportunity to increase our effectiveness operating within our current restrictions. The easiest way to combat a shortage of staffing is to use every member to their full potential. That is why every driver needs to strive to become a true operator.

Tim O’Connor is a firefighter in a combination company in Delaware. He has been in the fire service for 16 years and has held various positions during that time up to and including deputy chief. He is a lead instructor with Back to Basics Firefighter Training and an instructor at the state fire school. He has an associate’s degree in fire science.

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