By Lt. Kevin McFarland
Is your worst nightmare being the engine company on YouTube who can't get water on the fire?
Imagine pulling up on a residential house with fire showing and not being able to keep the fire to the room of origin. Imagine your crew being on video not being able to stretch into the house or force a door. This could happen to any of us in today's video-enabled cell phone society — and be uploaded before you are back at the firehouse.
Not practicing basic first-due skills have led to multiple NIOSH reports on firefighter LODDs. The SERF (single engine residential fire) program polishes basic first-due engine company skills for residential fires. It is not reinventing the wheel, but putting excellence into our basic skills we sometimes forget.
Whether you run with a volunteer or paid department, you still have to be proficient at first-due engine operations. Throw out politics and staffing guidelines, the truth is we need to be able to do our job professionally as an engine company. An engine company should be able to sustain safe operations for the first 5 to 10 minutes by themselves and then use the help that is on the way.
We make decisions to mitigate the situation safely with the manpower that arrives on the first engine. The officer conducts a 360-degree size-up of the house to determine the plan of attack. He then relays orders to his crew and advises dispatch and incoming units of his initial action plan.
The pump operator places the rig at the scene and prepares to pump the line. He may have to assist with the initial stretch if manpower dictates. All actions are based off water tank size and available water supply.
The firefighter selects the attack line and stretches to the point of entry. The line is charged, entry gained into the structure, line advanced by the firefighter(s) and officer, fire extinguished, and primary search completed. The pump operator can place a fan if necessary and throw ladders if it is a second-floor fire.
This should take no longer than 10 minutes and be accomplished by a single engine company.
The fire goes as the first line goes. We have all heard this one and it is 100 percent true. The first engine sets the tone for the entire operation either for good or for bad.
No one wants to be the bad engine, so we need to practice our skills. I liken it a Major League Baseball player who takes thousands of routine ground balls or fly balls each day. By practicing the basics over and over, he will someday make the miraculous play look easy. If we practice our basic hose deployments and engine ops routinely, we will have muscle memory and be ready for the 2 a.m. fire.
Firefighters have been dying in residential structures for more than 100 years. We have focused on saving our own in commercial structures, large open area search techniques, high-rise and multiple unit apartment operations, RIT operations, etc., but we continue to die in single-family houses.
We neglect to practice the basic house fire because it is boring and insulting to most "seasoned firefighters." We also tend to overlook the type of construction we are dealing with and how long we have to operate in these structures.
In older residential structures we have limited time to extinguish the fire before we begin to chase it. A single engine company needs to get a quick knockdown on the fire while it is still contained to one or two rooms. If we are unable to get a quick knockdown, we then have a very labor-intensive operation.
Balloon-frame construction and knee walls provide problems for the companies and make for long hours of opening walls and ceilings to chase the fire down. We get complacent in these structures because they are built to last and will withstand long firefighting operations without much chance of collapse.
Newer lightweight-truss constructed houses can only withstand 5 to 10 minutes of fire before major structural damage occurs. This is not 5 to 10 minutes of our operating time, but from the start of the fire in the structure.
We must be efficient with our initial engine operations to be able to make the most of our limited time operating in these residences. Major weight falls on the company officer to make sound decisions during the size-up.
That officer must be able to read the fire conditions and what impact they may have on the structural stability of the house. He or she will determine if it is a go or no-go situation and what tactics the crew will use.
“Son, you just don't get the fire experience I did in my day." Every firehouse in the country has heard this phase uttered by the old man at some point in time. Be careful, because you will be the old man before you know it and may not possess the fireground knowledge you think you have.
It is true that our fire volume is down, but we can still get experience. We must become an open-minded student of fire.
Fires today are not like they were 20 years ago; truthfully, they are not like they were even 10 years ago. These fires now burn hotter and faster than ever before.
We no longer have houses filled with natural materials such as wood, cotton and wool, but a mix of every chemical known to man. We have also become a possession-rich society that packs anything and everything we can afford, or not afford, into these houses. All of this fire load creates more dangerous fires for us and increases the chance of collapse once fire starts to affect the structural members.
These houses are sealed up tighter than they ever have been to be more energy efficient. This has created a new fire behavior curve. We now have to be extremely careful where and when we ventilate.
Recent NIST studies have shown that we are catching the fire in an oxygen-starved state and then rapidly accelerating the fire with ventilation or even just forcing the front door. We need to check our egos and become a student of these new findings so we do not continue to needlessly kill firefighters.
We must use all of our senses and brain to read the conditions before making entry. Use your ears to listen to dispatch information en route and take a second to listen to the homeowners if they present themselves upon your arrival. Your eyes will tell you what the building looks like and what kind of fire you have.
Remember to not get sidetracked by the glow of the fire but to look at everything going on with the structure. If you have made entry and are feeling extreme heat through your PPE, you need to re-evaluate your tactics quickly. Our gear is better than ever and if you are feeling extreme heat it may be too late to retreat before a significant fire event occurs.
By using these senses, you will make good decisions and get your crew in the right position to put the fire out.
Lt. Joe Daniels contributed to this article.