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‘Crew, this is a fire engine’: A back-to-basics approach to the driver/operator job

Vince Lombardi took his team back to the fundamentals; sometimes fire officers must do the same


Driving a fire apparatus is both an art and a science – and both are equally important, as the art helps us remember the science.

Photo/Getty Images

Following a rather dismal performance by his Green Bay Packers football team, legendary coach Vince Lombardi was said to have stood before his team the following Tuesday and delivered these remarks: “Yesterday’s game was a horrible exhibition of football. Starting with today’s practice, we’re going to get back to the fundamentals of this game.”

Then, holding up a football, he stated, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

In this article, we’ll look at some of the fundamentals that firefighters must master as they embark upon becoming a proficient driver/operator for pumping fire apparatus.

Getting to the scene – safely

Let’s start with the most obvious – and most important – part of the job: getting to the scene.

When dispatched to a structure fire, the driver/operator’s first role is to get firefighters to the scene. If the driver/operator cannot safely, effectively and efficiently drive the fire apparatus to the scene, then the entire crew on board and all the equipment on the apparatus is of little value in resolving the emergency.

Driving a piece of fire apparatus safely, effectively and efficiently is one of the most awesome responsibilities that a firefighter can undertake. Training new drivers has become more of a challenge for fire departments in recent years, as fewer firefighters coming to the job have had prior experience driving a heavy truck. Couple this lack of experience with fire apparatus that has gotten progressively larger over the years, and includes more technology, and we can see why fire departments face a challenge that has gotten more complex for both the student and the teacher.

Fire departments should have a driver-training program. If yours does not, a good place to start your research is the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation as part of its Everyone Goes Home campaign.

Other good references include NFPA 1451: Standard for a Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operations Training Program and NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus.

Driving a fire apparatus is both an art and a science – and both are equally important, as the art helps us remember the science. So, let’s now look at this concept in more depth.

The science of driving fire apparatus

The science part includes becoming as informed and educated as possible about your pumping fire apparatus. A good place to start is by going through the owner’s manual and all other information provided by the apparatus manufacturer. Don’t have the owner’s manual in your fire station? Find out who does!

Another good source for information is the manufacturer’s website. Fire apparatus manufacturers have really upped their game regarding the amount of information that they have available on their websites. Most of them also have social media platforms where they routinely post new information about their apparatus. And if you can’t find the answer you’re looking for, you can message them directly, whether from their website or social media sites.

The art of driving fire apparatus

Once you’ve learned all you can about your apparatus, the next step is learning how to use your tool. It’s imperative that you know your response district. Know it like you own it. It’s quite easy for drivers and officers alike to become complacent about navigating to the scene of the emergency because of on-board computers with access to GIS digital mapping. These systems are not infallible, and they’re sometimes inaccurate.

It is important to learn the streets in your district along with the characteristic traffic patterns for the days of the week and times of day, so that you will always know where you’re going and how long it’s going to take to get there. Check with the local department of transportation or traffic engineer to see what data they already have on hand.

Obtain the street addresses for calls in your district for at least the previous six months (make it a year if you’re station’s run activity is not very high), and plot them on a district map or put them into a spreadsheet for analysis. It is likely that there are many streets to which the station frequently responds – those are the ones to learn first. This data, already sorted, may be available from the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system in your locality’s emergency communications center or dispatch center.

On a similar note, the same technology (e.g., notebook computers, tablets, smartphones) is also giving fire officers access to copious amounts of information while en route to the call (e.g., pre-fire plans, site maps, hazmat information).

But nothing takes the place of a good driver/operator who not only knows where they are going but also how to access the C side (rear) of the structure as well as the A side (front).

Mental mapping

Humans can improve upon any task by repeatedly practicing the task. Driving your fire apparatus to the right place and positioning it for maximum effectiveness is no different. As you drive from Point A to Point B, your brain is subconsciously collecting and storing what you’re seeing along the route (e.g., buildings, intersections, railroad track, bridges).

One mental mapping technique for becoming more informed and educated about the target hazards in your response district follows the plan-prepare-practice model.

Plan: Make a site visit to one of those target hazards and conduct a 360-degree assessment of the property while you draw a map of the property. Why draw the map? Research has shown that when an individual takes written notes, they retrain more of the information because the task requires your brain to more effectively process the information so that it can turn the information into action, that is, writing.

The map should include critical information, such as, but not limited to, these items:

  • Location of fire department connection (FDC) for a fire sprinkler system and/or standpipe system if the building is so equipped. There are also buildings that do not have a sprinkler system but do have a fire standpipe system.
  • Sometimes there are two different FDCs – one for the sprinkler and one for the standpipe. Depending on your community’s requirements, they may not be in the same spot. Also, there can be more than one FDC to a building if a building’s fire protection system is zoned; each zone might have its own FDC.
  • Location of the Knox Box where the property owner can safely store applicable keys and other information relative to their building. Is a ladder required to reach the Knox Box?
  • Location of all hydrants that would be used in a major response to the occupancy.
  • Anything that could impair the ability of the fire apparatus that would respond from access to any side or portion of the building (e.g., narrow horizontal or vertical clearances or overhead powerlines).
  • And don’t just think about your pumper. Remember that a truck or heavy rescue could be responding as well, and they won’t have the benefit of the 360-degree assessment that you undertook under less stressful conditions.

Prepare: Take that information and start developing your own mental maps, not only of what you see during a site visit, but also what the fireground would look like if you’re the first pumping apparatus on scene of an incident there.

Practice: Good driver/operators are made on the street, not at the fire station. Practice is where you take those mental maps and put them into action. That means spotting and hooking up to hydrants. It means having your crew stretch different sizes and lengths of fire hose so you can become skilled at consistently getting them the proper gpms at the correct nozzle pressures.

Putting your site visit information to use

Let’s now walk through an example. Imagine you conducted a site visit for a 40,000-square-foot big-box occupancy. Given the size of such occupancies, like a department store or commercial structure, it’s easy to see that a 200-foot pre-connected hoseline won’t get too far past the front doors.


Photo/Robert Avsec

Now, if you’d assessed this building as part of your driver/operator training, you’d already know how to overcome this obstacle, right?

Yes, because you’d know about all the doors. Other apparatus could locate and operate from a door closer to the fire’s location. Or you would know that 150-foot stretch of 3-inch hose wyed down to two 1¾-inch hoselines with automatic nozzles would put 400 gpm at the seat of the fire. Or that a fire in a big-box occupancy may require a greater-caliber fire stream, like a 2-inch or 2½-inch hoseline. (You should always be guided by your fire department’s SOG for such occupancies).

It’s more than just driving

There is certainly much more that goes into becoming a proficient driver/operator. They must also have the knowledge, skills and abilities regarding to get the water to the firefighters engaged in fire suppression operations. They must also have a solid knowledge of all the equipment carried on the apparatus – the hydraulic rescue tools, portable generators, portable gas monitors and more.

In future articles, we’ll continue looking at what should be in your “body of knowledge” as you work toward become the kind of driver/operator that your fellow firefighters know they can depend on.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.