The Battle-Ready Pump Operator: Tricks and Tools of the Trade

Today’s fire scenes are ever-changing. Fire progression, tactics, and oil-based materials are a few of the culprits. An often-overlooked portion of the tactical fireground is the pump operator.

The pump operator/driver position is one of if not the most important positions on any fireground or vehicle accident. A good operator will take care of anything and everything an engine company officer could need done on the exterior. Or, he can stand at the pump panel and verify the correct pressure until the scene is under control. I suggest the latter.

A well-trained and “battle-ready” pump operator is someone to look up to and appreciate. At no other time does one person hold so many lives at his fingertips. Between response to and from calls, vehicle accidents, medical calls, and even a trip to the grocery store, the driver-operator is in complete control of getting to and from your destination. It’s a more important job than we give it credit for. Some things that can assist in current or up-and-coming driver-operators to become better operators follow.

  1. Experience. I’m not talking about driving. I’m talking about riding seat three or four and learning your job as a firefighter first. This will assist you with driving by understanding the way certain calls will roll—i.e., what is the firefighter position’s job responsibility on a vehicle accident? It could be anything from patient care to setting up tools. Learn the job as a firefighter first so there is no confusion with what should take place. The same goes for a structure fire. Learn your seat assignment and become a master. You shouldn’t need to be told step by step what to do on every incident. A brief description of the task should be all that is required to accomplish the job at hand. Being a good firefighter will assist in roles down the road as you promote through your career. Most firefighters have a good understanding of what the first, second, third, and even fourth engine companies are accomplishing and can roll right into their role in sequence.
  2. Take time and care in educating yourself. Once you get the nod from a superior to start driving and operating the rig, make sure you take the time to learn as much about it as you can. There are usually some basic courses that have to be taken prior to this happening. In Florida, most departments require a minimum of an emergency vehicle operators’ course (EVOC) and possibly fire service hydraulics before you can even start training on the truck. Take these courses and truly learn from them. The training does not end when you are finished with whatever prerequisites are required. There is plenty of hands-on training that your company can get in on. Someone has to pull and hold the lines while you learn what and how to pump appropriately. Hydrant connections, secondary supply, fire department connections (FDCs), dual pump vs. relay pump—the options are unlimited with the amount of training opportunities available. Also, pull from senior firefighters/engineers for nuggets of wisdom and training. Believe that most of those folks have seen it and done it in their careers. Let them show you what they do and what they did when they had their own issues on scenes. The experience that the senior personnel can give you in training is worth the price of admission for sure and usually only costs a little respect to be given.
  3. Learn your streets! By learning your run area and the specifics of that area, you can greatly improve your use as a driver-operator. Knowing things off the top of your head like hydrant locations, FDCs, or even preplans is a huge benefit for you personally but also for your officer and crew. The officer has a lot to deal with while responding, and having trust and faith in his driver is a huge relief. The only way to get to this point with your officer is to show proficiency. Ask to go for a drive around your main run area. Explore your first due and learn the little nuances of the zone. Is there a bridge maybe that the truck is tight going over? Is there a long driveway the rig won’t fit down that would require long hoselays to reach? You never find this out unless you go out and find it. Don’t be afraid to pull a line and see what you get out of it. If you pull a 200-foot preconnected line and barely reach the door, you’ll know you need to deploy an extension line simultaneously. Knowing these issues and areas ahead of an actual emergency can greatly assist in a positive outcome for all involved.
  4. Know the rig! This is probably the most important step for operators. Knowing some small insignificant things about your personal apparatus may assist you in recognizing a problem early on that may allow you to correct it before it becomes an issue. Take pride in the fact that your district or municipality trusts you with its investment. It is not hard to spend $500,000 on a fire apparatus these days. Costs increase every year, and replacing something like that doesn’t happen overnight. Learn the subtle nuances of your rig. What revolutions per minute are required to read 150 pounds per square inch (psi)? What does the pump sound like when running at 150 psi? The reason I say this is, what happens if a gauge quits working and you can’t accurately read discharge pressures? Believe me; it happens. Small things like these on a fire scene can key you into what is happening with your pump and are invaluable to the operator. Also, before each shift, I like to go around the rig and open all of my discharges. This includes loosening the caps and tightening them—hand tight for me personally. Each driver should take the time daily to prepare his rig for the potentials of the day. Sure, we don’t always have “the big one,” but don’t we train every time as if we will? Why not treat your morning truck check as an extension of that training? It saves you valuable time on the actual scene.
  5. Be progressive with your scene. While you were a backseat firefighter, you learned the pace and sequence to different types of calls. Vehicle accidents go certain ways depending on the severity of the accident. You may be responsible to pop a door on one and possibly only do tool setup on another. Know your tools regardless, so you can be as effective as possible. On a structure fire, one of the first tools the first-arriving engine company will look for once the fire is knocked down never fails to be a pike pole or New York hook. Crews will be looking to open a hole in the ceiling to check for extension. Tool placement outside the point of entry is something that will greatly assist the interior crews. I like to hang pike poles from gutters, if available, or stand them directly next to the entry door. This way, they are out of the way and do not cause trip hazards but are also within sight when exiting a structure. Somewhere close to the point of entry but out of the way is a great place for tools. When in doubt, the driveway is also a great spot. Also, keep tabs on your equipment using a grease pen or mental note. This way, you know what came off the rig and have an idea of where it went so it can be returned later.
  6. Understand and use technology to your advantage. Most departments don’t have the staffing to spare an operator who does nothing but stand at the pump panel. The operator has the ability, with modern advances in technology, to creep farther and farther away from a pump panel and still be in tune with it. A major advancement is the pump pressure governor. This is like a Ron Popeil Showtime grill of the fire service: “Set it and forget it.” It’s not that simple, of course, but it’s a good reference to it. The pressure governor allows you to pump and maintain the highest pressure that is being pumped out of a discharge. This simple but awesome piece of technology greatly reduces the number of pressure spikes felt on the lines by the firefighters and keeps the pressure regulated based on what’s coming in and going out. It’s a huge advancement for the fire service, and its usefulness cannot be understated. If a supply is established to your rig and one second everything is fine and the next the pump is screaming at you, you know you are putting out more pressure and gallons per minute than you are receiving. You can quickly identify this and figure out the problem so as not to disrupt water flow to interior teams. What could be the cause? Anything from a supplying engine having an issue to an onlooker driving over your supply can cause this. Again, believe me, it happens. When I hear a firefighter say that he doesn’t use a pressure governor because it makes pumping “too easy,” I cringe. It’s there for a reason—use it! By no means am I advocating not to teach classic pump operations. But if it is on your apparatus, you owe it to yourself and your crew to know how to use it to the best of your ability.
  7. If you mess up, own it! We all make mistakes, but the important thing is the ability to learn from them and use them to make you better at your job. Something as simple as passing an address by a house or two can be a learning experience. My fire district has many areas where addresses can be slammed up to one another or spaced apart to the point where they don’t make sense. But, knowing these areas is a huge benefit to you to not delay response looking for a numerical or blowing an address completely. Don’t be afraid to admit a mistake, especially if it’s something small and insignificant. Your crew will appreciate the fact that you are willing to own up and will respect you more for it. Nobody is perfect no matter what they might say.

To reiterate, the driver-operator position is one of the most important positions on any call. Do you want to be OK at it, or do you want to be the go-to operator? You make the call, but ask yourself, who would you want on the panel the next time you go inside?

MIKE MURPHY is a 17-year fire service veteran of Southern Manatee (FL) Fire Rescue and Canaveral (FL) Fire Rescue and is a 14-year apparatus driver-operator.

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