Firefighters and fire officers should know the extreme importance of being very competent in their jobs. They should also know the dangers of becoming complacent and treating every incident the same, going into an “automatic” response regardless of the situation.
Arguably the biggest factor affecting many truck company operations at structure fires is building construction. Looking at the various methodologies and materials used to construct buildings, you can begin to understand the complexities of the job. The structure is the “office” of the firefighters, and frequently little is known about the “office” until you are called to go to work. With the exception of cases where previous visits have been made (tours, other emergencies, and the like), your first day in the “office” will be under emergency conditions. You are asked to make quick decisions with limited information. You also may or may not have previous experiences with the type of construction, as there are so many variations. You need to think, consider the options, resist the temptation to go on “autopilot,” and make the best choice based on what you are presented with in this situation.
Based on my very unscientific questioning of firefighters, I have found anecdotally that many have not had very much training and education in building construction and the changes that have occurred in the past 20 to 30 years. They recall having received training during recruit school, possibly while preparing for promotion, or when considering entering fire prevention activities. Some have taken it on themselves to seek out information, and they are to be commended. What they will find is that there are many variations to what once could have been considered standard construction methods and materials. The purpose of this article is not to present a course on building construction but to encourage continual learning in this discipline so that you can make good decisions, and “routine” now needs to include individual evaluations of circumstances.
Another challenge to truck company operations is the changing dynamics of fire and the by-products of fire. The materials being burned are creating hotter fires that develop faster. Without getting into the science, knowing that things are different should trigger changes that will improve operations and efficiencies. Simply put, coordination between engine and truck operations has never been more important. Premature forcible entry or ventilation will accelerate fire development and create more dangerous situations. The need for practice and teamwork is essential. This is about putting the fire out and minimizing risk to firefighters. If you take care of the emergency properly, you also take care of your responders.
Combining the two topics discussed above, building construction and fire behavior, you will now see how important knowledge is when deciding to take action. There are now hotter fires that develop more quickly in buildings with less mass and flimsier connections. This works fine until the building is under assault from fire. The structure is likely to fall apart much more quickly. A better understanding of these elements and their interrelationship will lead to better decisions. As an example, truck companies will need to avoid the automatic dispatch to the roof for ventilation. If the circumstances predict an early failure, there will not be adequate time to perform roof operations. Even previously accepted practices of sounding a roof will not provide the time and protection needed. Truck company officers and firefighters will have to look at all the clues before making the decision to get to the roof. If it is not the best option, the next best thing will have to be done.
Another consideration for truck company operations is the development of more tools to do the job. Some are clearly better. They are lighter and more efficient. They can allow for more options to complete the task. Departments need to continue to evaluate tools as they become available to see if they will improve the operation and efficiencies. This will involve the need to do a cost/benefit analysis and an evaluation of the training needs both initially and ongoing. Departments should also look at “tools” that can be part of the structure—for example, firefighting air replenishing systems that will deliver air where needed without the same requirement for staffing. This is not to encourage a reduction in staffing but a freeing up of resources for the other jobs that need to be done in a timely fashion because of the potential for rapidly changing conditions.
Any discussion of truck company operations must include the need for proper staffing to do the job. Many of the essential truck company functions are labor intensive. Add this to the fact that the coordination of operations is becoming more critical. Without a proper initial alarm assignment, it is virtually impossible to coordinate a fire attack. We know the best thing to do with fire is to put water on it as quickly as possible. It is also important to do the various truck company jobs that support water application. With the available information that demonstrates a tremendous increase in the speed of fire development, along with the rise in temperatures, it is absolutely critical to work as a team. This can only happen when there is a team dispatched to the fire.
This article only scratches the surface of truck company operations. The main point is that the work environment is changing rapidly and generally not in firefighters’ favor. Performing truck work involves virtually all aspects of the job except water application. Today’s environment is very complex and requires many tactics to accomplish the objectives. Training is extremely important and must be added to a sound educational foundation so decision making and problem solving can adapt to whatever situation arises. Add in staffing issues and new tools to use, and you can appreciate the challenges presented. There is no longer a “one size fits all” approach that will work. There are fewer and fewer black and white decisions, so the proper preparation will lead to good decision making.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the White Lake 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.