In major metropolitan areas and larger fire departments, there is delineation between engine companies and truck companies.
In smaller organizations, there may not be the same distinction, and engine companies may be asked to do many more functions on the fireground and even other emergency responses such as emergency medical services (EMS). As these responsibilities expand, the expectation for quality service does not diminish. This is a great challenge for fire departments and firefighters who must embrace this.
The role of the engine company is constantly evolving, and if you were to compare what was expected just a few years ago and what may be part of the job today, you may not realize how much has changed. Engine companies are asked to do more than deliver water. Some departments have licensed these vehicles to deliver paramedic service to supplement their EMS delivery system. Changes such as these have an impact on vehicle design, equipment storage, daily apparatus checks, and training for those assigned to the engine.
Occasionally evaluating the functions expected of the engine company is a good idea. This would start with a review of the various responsibilities and corresponding equipment needs. The amount of equipment needed definitely affects space needs and usage of available compartmentation. For those organizations that license their engines for EMS response, they are very aware of the constraints placed on them as they look to fit everything into a suitable space. But, it is more than looking at the “extra” assignments.
Engine Company Expectations
Will the engine company be asked to do more than deliver water? Will it need forcible entry tools, laddering capabilities, and other more traditional truck functions? There are space considerations and there can be weight issues. Do you know your gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)? Departments can continue to add weight to the point where they overload the apparatus. This can be very dangerous and lead to other problems. If your organization has changed what is being carried on your vehicle, have the vehicle weighed to make sure you are operating within acceptable limits.
The questions don’t stop there. Is your vehicle routinely operating on the roadway? If so, the vehicle must be marked properly and in accordance with applicable standards. It must carry traffic cones and should consider arrow boards or directional lighting. While these may be obvious and not necessarily overtaxing in appearance, they are considerations that should not be approached haphazardly. The firefighters on the vehicle need to receive the proper training and be issued the corresponding safety equipment such as reflective vests. There should be some awareness of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). If all members assigned to a vehicle that responds to roadway incidents are not aware, they are remiss in their preparation and responsibilities.
Often, engine companies are outfitted to begin an initial response to hazmat incidents or special rescue situations such as ice or water rescue, confined space, high-angle, collapse, or trench rescue events. The same questions still apply. Based on the organization’s desires to assign responsibilities to engine companies, the suitable equipment must be acquired. Then space must be found on the vehicle. If this is not all accounted for in an organized planning process, you may have overloaded compartments, equipment in places that are somewhat precarious, and potentially added weight that could push the vehicle to greater than its GVWR.
In response to added job responsibilities, many engine companies need to acquire additional equipment to properly and adequately respond to various emergencies. This is added to an already full vehicle that may or may not have been specified to absorb additional equipment and its associated bulk and weight. The process is often a slow one where the items identified are not added all at once but slowly so that there may not be a total realization as to what the total amount actually is. It is sort of like adding one straw at a time to the camel’s back until it breaks. You know the saying, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” That is why there needs to be an organized approach to adding equipment.
There are more considerations that must be addressed in an organized manner. Equipment must be secured whether inside or outside the vehicle. If it is located in the passenger compartment, this is even more important. The safety and protection of firefighters is paramount, and they should not be subject to flying objects inside the cab. This is a challenge in many vehicles when you consider the amount of equipment that could be included. There are computers, cameras, map books, cell phones, and a host of other potential missiles in the event of a quick stop or vehicular accident. Also consider the additions to protective clothing such as the reflective vests required when operating on the roadway.
All of what has been presented here must be paired with the appropriate training. Those of you who have read other articles by me know that I consider training the most important aspect when preparing to respond to emergencies. In this case, as you add more tools and responsibilities, you must add to the training load. This is not always easy-that is, there is less and less “spare” time at the fire station. Obviously, departments must establish priorities. Organizations should not accept new roles and equipment unless they can adequately prepare. This includes practice with whatever is added and also maintenance in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations and applicable National Fire Protectinon Association (NFPA) standards. Departments exercise prudence by routinely evaluating their training programs and making sure the critical components are completed first. Competence must be established and maintained. This is done through quality training that addresses the needs of the community and organization.
Fire departments exist because people will have emergencies that require a response. Everything else is done to support this mission. Departments need to prepare to respond and make sure that their people and their tools are ready. The first order of business for any engine company should be to make sure that the vehicle and the equipment carried are ready to go. Departments have policies and practices for vehicle checks. As you add equipment, the policies need to be adjusted to accommodate the changes made. One thing to consider is that the more tools on the truck, the longer it will take to complete the check. Again, organizations need to look at the entire impact changes have and make sure they have the resources, including time, to do the job right.
No one needs to be told that the role of engine companies is constantly changing and evolving. Occasionally we need to be reminded to call “time out” and assess what we have and how we are handling things. In this line of work, it is easy to get caught in the routine of responding to calls and looking to add equipment and tools to address the ever-expanding requests that are received. Take time to pause and make sure you and your organization are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible by reviewing your practices. This will make sure you are delivering the quality that your constituents expect.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. 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.