Fire engineers: 12 rookie mistakes

Viewed as opportunity or setback, the jump to the driver's seat brings a new set of responsibilities for firefighters


Call it chauffeur, engineer, technician or driver, if you come from a small to mid-size department the guaranteed next career step for a firefighter is to pump, raise ladders, swing buckets and drive every rig in the department.

For many firefighters, shortening their firefighting time to drive and operate vehicles is an unwelcome career step. For others the change is met with curiosity and enthusiasm. Either way, becoming an engineer is a tough and often underappreciated job, but one you must take seriously.

Tagged by many officers as the most responsible job on the crew, an engineer must provide safe passage for the crew and guarantee that all equipment will be operating properly upon arrival. And this is in addition to getting water to the fire or hydraulics to the crash.

They are the problem solvers. Their experience puts the right tools in the right place and anticipates both.

During critical times between alarm and overhaul, all decisions run through the apparatus and its operator, regardless of which on-scene officer is making them. As one engineer puts it, "When the truck is sitting still — it's the officers, but when it's idling or rolling down the road — it's mine."

Yet engineers are born with this level of competence, nor do they get sprinkled with some magic dust when they hop in the driver's seat.

They have to learn through training and, unfortunately, through their own mistakes. Here are the top 12 mistakes that are better learned here than on the fireground.

1. You did not make a detailed diagram of your vehicle while training.
During training sessions you failed to catalogue every compartment — each piece of brass, couplings, tools and equipment — each list with drawings, pictures and labels. Knowing exactly where that spare heat gun is located could be critical to the second entry team.

You will be amazed at what is hiding in your cabinets. And better to be amazed during training than to not know where something is when it counts.

2. You ignored the stain and missed the drain.
Busy with hose lays, hydraulic calculations and equipment deployment, you don't register the water flowing from under the carriage. It may be a discharge drain, an overflow valve, broken seals or even the main drain.

Regardless, failure to account for the water streaming under your vehicle may eventually affect tip pressure or even gpm, especially when operating multiple lines. Oil residue in that spilled water may be an indication there is more going on than an open drain.

3. You did not check the pump priming oil.
There is debate in apparatus bays as to whether or not fluids should be checked daily. Many engineers will tell you they check pump priming oil and washer fluid daily regardless of truck check policy.

Fireground operations or a long training session are straightforward reasons for checking fluids, but especially priming oil. The rest depends on your relationship with oncoming engineers. Some are sticklers for fluids, while others will check every SCBA bottle and regulator on the rig regardless of firefighter or engineer responsibilities.

4. You fail to understand selective vision while driving.
Talk to any veteran engineer and they will explain how they gauge their field of vision depending on location, movement and situation. In town, they see every backup light from a parked vehicle, every pedestrian and pet walking.

While seeing down the road, they are looking for any movement right in front of the vehicle. On the highway, they are thinking about exits and emergency turnarounds while keeping a close eye on traffic.

5. You fail to drive to conditions.
A rookie jumping into driver's seat wants to get there fast, but this increases the risk and amps up the crew. Hanging on to rails and straps in addition to tightening seatbelts is no way to respond.

The rain, snow, fog and sleet you are navigating with reckless abandon is the probable cause for why you are being called out. Feeling safe during drive time allows firefighters and officers to prepare and set their minds to the anticipated tasks.

6. You express your frustrations while driving.
Experienced engineers never let emotions enter into decision-making, regardless of civilian antics. They know that yelling at the driver ignoring lights and siren as he talks on his cell phone only affects those in the cab and not for the better.

When an engineer gets visibly angry while responding on an alarm, an officer knows it's time for the talk, especially after having witnessed the brunt of the outburst from the right seat.

7. You assume all small-engines equipment will start.
Firefighters and officers notice when it takes more than two pulls to start a chain saw. It indicates a neglected tool and delays the tactical progression of the fireground.

While a rookie will question the need for everyday operation of each small engine on the apparatus, experienced engineers become obsessive and somewhat short tempered if mornings get too busy to finish truck checks.

8. You lost tools or worse.
Offering a shovel or broom that is not on the truck is frustrating to firefighters and magnifies an already tenuous rookie outing. Having to go to another apparatus for a pike pole or extra pry bar delays tactics and will eventually catch the eye of the officer.

It is critical to track the tools that come off the truck and make sure they are put back.

9. You assume the nozzles are ready.
Watching a full fog pattern out of a 1¾-inch pre-connect nozzle soak every firefighter at the front door prior to entry is frustrating for them and embarrassing for you.

A stuck bale on a master stream that hasn't been used since the last conflagration can be life threatening. The apparatus are your responsibility for the duration of the tour and a physical inspection is the only way to be certain nozzles and bales operate properly.

10. You're unfamiliar with the manual override.
You have worked so hard to understand the complexities of PTOs, electronic engagement, digital discharge readouts and computerized feathering that you underestimate the critical importance of being able to manually get water flowing and at the right psi.

Practicing this sequence of cranks, valves and discharges is a labor intensive, but one you must have it in your arsenal of solutions.

11. You believe you won't mess up the first call.
While you have been cool and collected during all drills, one panicked civilian or exasperated firefighter can disrupt even the most astute rookie engineer during their first fire. Experienced engineers will admit they missed their mark on their first quick-attack incident.

Creative and determined, veteran engineers will quickly explain how they overcame such a mishap and the learning curve that was immediately generated in the afterglow of hidden failure.

12. You did not check the screws on your diamond plate.
As your rig rattles down the road, missing diamond-plate screws are the first indication of a neglected apparatus. Tightening or replacing these missing screws keeps vibration and noise down and morale up. Checking them daily is a reflection of the pride in your rigs and your department.

Some firefighters go kicking and screaming into the world of truck checks, fluid replacement, compartment nomenclature, hydraulics and the stress of driving and operating apparatus. For others, engineering seems to be the perfect fit as they maintain, repair and improve the rigs.

Regardless of where you fit into this spectrum no lives can be saved and no property loss diminished without getting the crew safely to the scene and ready to work. And while half your assignment is done upon arrival, you have just begun your work. Make no mistake about it. 

About the author

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colo.) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Jim advises business on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. Jim’s writing has won six IAFF media awards. He has an associate's degree in fire science and a bachelor's degree in communications. He can be reached at Jim.Spell@FireRescue1.com.

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