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How to be a better fire apparatus operator

Being a good apparatus operator starts in the station, extends to the street and carries over to the fireground

By Brian S. Gettemeier, FR1 contributor

Being an apparatus operator is a rite of passage for most of us. Regardless how you came to that honor, your responsibilities far exceeds safe driving and proficient pump operation.

If fire departments only wanted the apparatus operator to be a professional truck driver, they would hire from the local truck driving school. The fire service needs drivers who are an integral part of the emergency operations.

Some organizations have formal programs and promotion processes; others offer very little direction for their apparatus operators. The average apparatus operator class is about safe truck operations, pumping and basic mechanics and maintenance.

This means know your apparatus beyond the basics of fluids, gallons in the water tank, hose loads and lengths. A good apparatus operator knows how long they can operate on a tank of water flowing various lines. The water gauge should be viewed as a countdown clock.

Who cares how many gallons the tank has left? The more important question is how much time is left to establish a water supply. You must also know how long can you operate on a tank of fuel.

Meaningful truck check
Know the inventory forward and backward. That means knowing where that little-used piece of equipment is on the apparatus. It means knowing if the foam system contains alcohol type concentrate — just because the jug says 6 percent does not mean it’s ATC foam.

Work on perfecting the ability to maintain and do quick fixes on the equipment on the apparatus. And keep the equipment properly placed in the compartment in a state of readiness.

The apparatus operator’s life-safety responsibility begins in the station. Part of that safety responsibility is reducing firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens and other deadly substances.

Pull the apparatus on the apron when conducting truck checks and running small engines; close the bay doors to prevent CO from being blown into the bays.

Keep the SCBAs, seats and equipment wiped clean. Engage the smoke capture system anytime you leave and return to the station.

Chart the course
A driver must have a thorough knowledge of the streets, subdivisions and complexes within the response area. Some organizations require the driver to know all this information while others put that responsibility on the company officer.

Company officers have too many responsibilities after being dispatched to tell the driver if they should make a left or right turn. While the firefighters and company officer are donning their gear before departing the station, the driver should be looking at the map book or running card to plot the response route.

Knowing the still alarm area allows the driver to know where they need to finesse the apparatus to gain access. For example, a center median may prevent the apparatus from making a sharp right turn to access some apartments. Knowing this, the apparatus operator can adjust the approach to the scene, possibly entering on the exit side of the median to allow more room for the right turn.

The apparatus operator should be aware of bridge weight or height limits. The driver must be apprised of road construction and know the alternate routes.

Parking the apparatus
Apparatus operators and company officers must discuss apparatus placement based on the call location, order of arrival and incident type. At all incidents, the apparatus should be placed tactically, not based on convenience.

On EMS calls, allow room for the ambulance and place the apparatus for quick departure in case another emergency comes in. When arriving on the nothing-showing incidents, stage like it is a working incident for two reasons. First, it’s a good practice. Second, if it becomes a working incident, the driver won’t have to reposition the rig.

When arriving in an engine, position it to allow line deployment, ladder truck access and water supply connection. And keep out of the collapse zone.

When arriving in a ladder truck, do not block the engine company’s access, and position it to allow the best ladder access to as much of the building as possible. Do not place the apparatus so close to other rigs that it prevents access to equipment. On motor vehicle crashes, park to shelter the crews from being hit by other vehicles.

Every scene is dynamic and requires decisions be fine-tuned. But if the apparatus operator and company officer are thinking alike, this decision will be made with very little effort or debate.

The safety role
For the first-due apparatus on a working incident where crews have gone interior, the driver will be the only person outside the immediately dangerous to life and health zone to relay critical scene information to the incoming officers.

The driver should be proficient at reading buildings, fire behavior and smoke. Often times the fire service becomes too focused on officers assuming these responsibilities. We tend to overlook that a driver is the only person who knew what the building looked like and what the conditions were when they arrived.

With the lack of an exterior incident commander, the driver must be able to recognize changes in the smoke that indicates the need for a crew to evacuate.

Once the incident commander arrives, the driver must describe in detail the volume, velocity and color of the smoke so the commander can make the appropriate tactical decision.

When arriving on scene first, the driver is the safety officer until additional companies arrive. The driver must listen to the radio traffic and maintain accountability.

A helping hand
As first-due, the primary responsibility should be water on the fire. The driver should assist getting the first hose line off the truck. Once the hose lines are stretched and charged, chase any kinks that may have occurred to maximize water flow.

Consider pulling a second hand line to prepare for a second crew to make entry. Now it is time to begin to look for a water supply.

The driver also can support the interior crews by staging equipment. Bring fans and forcible-entry equipment to the point of entry. Ensure overhead doors are blocked open and ladders are staged. Start saws to ensure they are ready to operate and gather equipment for RIT.

While supporting the operations of your crew you must remain vigilant about your personal safety. The apparatus operators are in a unique position — they are a member of the crew but work independently during an incident.

Work within the scene’s accountability system. In incidents operators have been killed because they were paired with other crews or engaged in independent activities only to be lost in the accountability system when the incident has turned bad.

Keep fit
Some may think that the physical demands on a driver are less than those on the interior crews, which cannot be further from the truth. Keep yourself in shape to maximize your performance and reduce your risk of injury.

Do not forget to participate in rehab. Often the apparatus operators do not believe they need to go to rehab, or the incident commander does not assign them to rehab. There is a physical demand on operators and they must be medically evaluated, receive fluid and eat.

The driver is often over looked and underrated when it comes to the performance of a crew at the scene. Interior crews often forget that on the other end of that hose is someone who is ultimately responsible for their life safety.

An apparatus operator’s failure could be the weak link in the chain of events that leads to a mayday.

The driver’s focus on the crew’s safety begins in the station, transfers to the streets and continues on the call. Unfortunately driver operators have been assigned to return their apparatus to the engine house minus a crew because of unfortunate circumstances.

The crew’s life safety is in the driver’s hands, regardless if those hands are on the steering wheel, operating the pump or doing a routine apparatus check.

About the author

Brian S. Gettemeier is a second-generation firefighter with 23 years of service, with the last 20 years as a career firefighter with the Cottleville Fire Protection District of St. Charles County, Mo. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and holds numerous state certifications. He teaches all hazard classes for numerous organizations throughout Missouri.

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