Have you ever heard the following? I have several times:
Any monkey can stretch a hose line.
It takes no brains to ride an engine.
Engine work is not rocket science.
Well from what I occasionally see, I would say that is not the case whatsoever.This continued type of thinking will marginalize the work of the engine. In my experience it’s the ones who utter these hollow statements about engine work fumbling the most on the fireground with the most basic engine company skills.
So how do we fix this mindset? How do we revive the love of the engine and a proud engine culture? I think we start by reinforcing the importance of all that comes with being a good engine company firefighter. While I would agree that a monkey can stretch a hoseline (I mean one went to space) I struggle to think they could do it well and know how to operate it efficiently once it’s stretched. I would not describe engine work as sophisticated, but it does take some finesse. I once had a 20-year firefighter who spent most of their career on the rescue come up to me and say “There is a lot more to this engine stuff than people tend to think. A lot of stuff gets overlooked.” Yes, yes there is. It takes constant repetition and dedication to get it right. There’s simply more to be a good engine company firefighter than just grabbing 200 feet of hose and mindlessly running to the front door. Sadly, there are some robots out there and it is up to us to educate and take it a bit further. We must fight the close-minded approach to how we deploy hose. Good engine firefighter’s think about where the fire is now, where it’s going and what line to pull. They are familiar and proficient with all the hose packages on their engine. We must get away from grabbing a crosslay simply because it’s a quick grab and done out of habit. Are there times we need it? Absolutely, many times; however, we cannot neglect the other weapons in our arsenal and should train on them consistently.
Hydraulics is another area that tends to get neglected in my opinion. I think some of this comes from new engine design, the amount of electronics taking over for us, as well and pressure charts that may handcuff critical thinking. Pressure charts on the side of the engineer’s compartment are a great reference and I am a fan of them. What I am not a fan of is becoming reliant on them. Be advocates of a thinking operator standing next to that panel. How many times have you seen a pump operator quickly slam 200psi or whatever that line may call for and set that pressure against a closed nozzle? I have seen it several times. This rush to check the box of a pressure chart could occasionally get in the way of good old fireground hydraulics. Pop the cab and understand the design and plumbing of your pumps and how the design of your engine may differ from the design of the one in your second due. Will your pump charts work across the board or do you have to flow test every single engine to ensure accuracy? We don’t want to end up with inconsistent flow based off consistent discharge pressures. Now that I mention flow testing, this is a great training idea to do one morning. Get your hands on a flow meter and some pressure gauges and see what you are actually flowing out of your lines, you may be surprised. Just because it says 200gpm/50psi at the end of your nozzle doesn’t mean that’s what you are getting. The marriage of a hose and nozzle is a big deal. There must be a good understanding of the construction of the hose and how the design of the hose you spec’d out works with the nozzle on the end of it. Reach out to your vendors, distributors and more to ask questions about hose and nozzle design and performance. Often, they are happy to educate you if needed. Good truck company firefighters know the blades on their saws, the limitations of their ground ladders and more. A good rescue company firefighter understands the weight limitations of their rope systems, the intimate details of all the pulleys and ascent devices. A true engine company firefighter knows their pump, the hose packages, the guts of the nozzle, hydraulics and ultimately how to properly deploy and move those attack lines. A good engine company firefighter understands how to maximize the performance of that engine company and firmly believes that nothing is more important than the deployment and operation of that first handline. As we have heard time and time again, so goes the first line goes the fire. So goes the actions of that first arriving engine goes the incident. Yes, everyone has a role to play and this is a team effort; however, the engine can set the tone of the incident starting with their stretch and their actions within the first couple of minutes.
I tend to be the type of guy that really dissects things and gets down to the root cause of incidents. When I hear things like, more hose, more water, and more pressure consistently called for on the radio it is no surprise to me that the fire continues to grow, and things don’t go so well. It is no surprise to me when I see an engine lead off with a bad stretch, poor pump operations, and inefficient movement of the line that I see a shift to defensive operations. Now, are there times the fire is well ahead of an even highly trained and competent engine crew? Of course, there is, but numerous cases still exist where poor engine work led to poor fireground outcomes.
As company officers and chiefs, we must identify these shortfalls and help crews get to where they need to be. There must be a sense of accountability in our fireground operations. Across the board absolutely, but especially the actions of that engine company. I sometimes wish we took the same approach to other infractions as we did poor engine work on the fireground.
Both examples need to be addressed and dealt with, but why lack of accountability on some firegrounds out there. Stretch goes like hell at a fire, engine has poor advancement, problems at the pump panel, and things go poorly. Then we find out company X never practices stretching lines and flowing water, and are absent when it comes to any sort of company training...oh well, see ya at the next one. We cannot allow that. What happens to that officer? Many times, from what I see, nothing. Back to the firehouse they go waiting to do it all over again. I have heard too many horror stories where leadership refuses to address poor operations because it just isn’t a priority in that department. We must do better than that, because at the end of the day we are still a FIRE department and need to act as such.
As leaders out there in your departments you must drive the importance and need for quality engine work and competent engine firefighters. After all, if it is not important to you, it won’t be important to them. Is public education important, of course. EMS care essential? Absolutely. Hazmat and RIT training needed? You know it. But we always have and always will be in the business of fire suppression and the Engine Company is leading the way. Let’s not lose our focus on that. As Andy Fredericks once said (and I’m paraphrasing) don’t let these other non-firefighting activities get in the way of you being a good engine company firefighter and sticking to the core of our fire department roots.
Ignite, or reignite your passion for the engine and its mission. Be disciples of good engine work throughout your organizations. The backbone of this fire service shall never be marginalized. Reinforce the importance of that first line. Stretch often, flow water, understand hydraulics, and be the ones out there making the difference within the first few minutes on your firegrounds.