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The Forgotten Value of Fireground Competency

As a recap from last months blog, I continued to encourage readers to be more critical in thought, when identifying the real issues associated with low performing fire grounds, firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths. I alluded to the fact, that it has become much easier for leaders to take the easy way out and blindly use scientific research to make far-reaching assumptions in how to improve their performance, finally finding a hope of getting their people under control. By failing to take an honest assessment of their organizational problems and mustering up the courage needed to address the “real problems”, these efforts will fail at every level, never succeeding at truly changing culture.


The first suggestion, was to have the audacity to be brutally honest, regardless how difficult that might be, in assessing the current state of your department, by identifying and addressing the true root causes of poor performance on the fire ground and refusing to obfuscate the tough issues. It was then recommended that we develop competency-based benchmarks for operational performance, training our members to achieve excellence in performance of our core basic skills and doing so in a timely manner. To be clear, this is a long and taxing journey, requiring strong leadership and requires relentless follow-through and follow-up (I call this the Riley Factor not to be confused with the O’Reilly Factor)


Today, we will take a look at developing a set of core basic skill benchmarks, that every engine company crew must be able to master in an errorless and timely manner in order to be part of a high performance fire ground. Remember this critical fact, real fire ground safety comes, when and only when, we achieve high performance on the fire ground.


The performance of the first arriving engine will set the tone for the operations on the fire ground. The primary role of the Engine Company is to extinguish the fire. When this occurs as quickly and effectively as possible, our risks begin to decrease. In order to perform the engine company responsibilities with excellence, every person must know what is expected of them and must be able to perform them with minimal error and in a timely manner. As Firefighter Andy Fredericks (FDNY) would say “ good engine companies are aggressive but also disciplined. They take an extra 30 seconds to properly position the rig and estimate the stretch. They chock doors. They chase kinks. They see the big picture. Disciplined engine companies are deliberate patient and professional.” At the end of the day folks, there is no escaping the fact that it all boils down to competency and timeliness.  


As I said, if you have the will, desire and courage to really improve your firegrounds, you must know up front that it doesn’t come easy. You must move past the excuses of money and time, as neither of those issues is insurmountable.  In the D.C.F.D., one of the largest departments in the country, we managed to have a robust “back to basics” program, doing so with very little extra funding. The key then, as it is today, is to select the right people, provide them with a set of core competencies to be measured and turn them loose to do their job. As for cost, take a minute to look at the Facebook Page of the Manassas (VA) Volunteer Fire Company web site. Once there, you can scroll down to see pictures of the variety of training prop’s that they built as a department. These props focus on achieving excellence of core basic skills.  Visiting this site will give you an idea, of what can be accomplished with few resources, hard work, some great people and a real desire to be high performers.


Step 1

Below is a basic list of core competency benchmarks for the Engine Company. It assumes a minimum crew of four, which based on your department, may be excessive or understaffed.  Remember, these are basic competencies, which we do not have the luxury of changing based on staffing. The time it takes to complete them may very well change, but the need to achieve the benchmark will not.  


Step 2

Add any critical benchmarks, specific to your building stock and community risk that may not be included in the list of position specific benchmarks


Step 3

Based on your staffing levels, using a group of high performers, create an acceptable performance based time standard on achieving each individual competency. Remember, todays fire behavior is so time sensitive, that we have very little discretionary (time to screw up) time in order to recover from mistakes, before conditions rapidly deteriorate. Have your crews establish a “baseline” set of times to achieve each task PROPERLY.  Know this, it doesn’t matter how fast you can complete each task; it's how well you achieve them. The goal is to constantly work towards achieving greatness.


Step 4

Focus a minimum of one day a week, every week for a period of 90 days and simply focus on these skills. The goal is not to achieve greatness in 90 days; the goal is to begin to build muscle memory. I know there are several competing training topics that must also be completed. After the 90 day’s are up, begin to sow in some other training as needed, but continue to evaluate your ability to maintain excellence in meeting or exceeding these benchmarks.


Engine Driver

  • Knows most direct running route to incident with at least one alternative
  • Secures a continuous water supply source (if available) through the use of straight lay, split lay, reverse lay, securing their own hydrant (Engine attached to the hydrant by no more then 50 ft. of supply line) or by Tanker.
  • Position Engine (different then parking) pulling past or stopping short of the address, leaving room for the Truck (hose bends, ladders don't)
  • Assist with stretching the initial hoseline, chasing kinks from the Engine to the threshold of the structure
  • Once continuous water supply is established and all hoselines are charged and stretched free of kinks, look for opportunities to provide support such as: laddering a window, bringing a “rack” to the front door in the event the stretch is short or a burst section of hose, place a couple of hooks at the front door for quick access etc. Do not let these duties distract you from making sure all water supply systems are functioning properly.


Engine Officer

  • Provides water supply location via radio
  • Identifies all critical factors on arrival
    • Building factors – size, height, construction type, occupancy, interior arrangement, access and exposure
    • Fire behavior factors – size of fire, extent of fire, location of fire, direction of travel and time of involvement
    • Life hazard factors – location of occupants, survivability, fire control required for searches
    • Resource critical factors – Water supply, staffing, responding resources, response times and tactical reserve available
    • Provides complete on-scene report (succinct compilation of critical factors)
      • Water supply location
      • Height of building
      • Type occupancy
      • Type construction
      • Conditions evident
      • Strategy (investigating, offensive, defensive)
      • Establishing/Passing command (optional)
      • Implements appropriate tactics based on risk assessment
        • Defensive
          • Establish collapse/isolation zone
          • Selects appropriate water delivery system (handlines vs master streams)
  • Offensive
    • Conducts 360 (if there is no SOG in place for other companies to do this)
    • Provides a Situation Update (result of 360) report – fire conditions evident from other sides of the building, height of rear side of building, presence or absence of basement and presence or absence of basement access.
    • Select appropriate line
    • Assist with the stretch by either chasing kinks or assisting with shoulder loads of long-lines (unless you have an abundance of resources, the officer should not be advancing ahead of the stretch)
    • Validates that all members, as well as themselves, have full PPE (including hoods, earflaps and chinstraps) on and all portable radios are on correct channel
    • Provides Command with CAN (conditions actions needs) Report upon making entry in to structure, upon reaching fire area and at regular intervals
    • Maintains full accountability (sight, touch voice) of his/her crew


  • Complete PPE (including hood, earflaps and chinstrap)
  • Radio on appropriate tactical channel
  • Monitors all radio reports while enroute to scene
  • While dismounting the apparatus views as many sides of the building as possible
  • Correctly pulls and advances attack line (chocking while making the push)
  • Maintains enough of the shoulder load to reach the seat of the fire
  • Extends line using “racks” when appropriate and without delay in zero visibility environment.
  • Selects appropriate nozzle pattern and uses stream effectively.
  • Uses hydraulic ventilation to support Truck Company



  • Complete PPE (including hood, earflaps and chinstrap)
  • Radio on correct tactical channel
  • Monitors all radio reports while enroute to scene
  • While dismounting apparatus views as many sides of the building as possible
  • Responsible for chasing all kinks from structure threshold to the fire area
  • Chocks any unchocked doors
  • Always maintains a position of one obstacle (turns, stairs, doors) back from nozzleman
  • Always maintains at least 10 ft. of excess hose


Last word, regardless of how determined you are, to force operational changes down the throat of your organization in the name of safety, or how progressive you desire to be; there is no way of arriving at real fireground safety without also taking the time to address the issue of skills competency in your members.


Be Safe and Be Competent

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