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5 tips for new engineers

Tactical tips, safety guidelines and a key mantra to be successful in this role

Firefighter about to close the door of his truck

Congratulations! You’ve taken the next step in your fire service career by becoming an engineer. Here are five things you should know.

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Congratulations! You’ve taken the next step in your fire service career by becoming an engineer. While fire departments may have different titles for this position (e.g., driver/operator, motor pump operator, chauffer), they all have the same responsibilities: Get the apparatus and personnel to the scene and back safely, and once on scene, operate the fire apparatus safely, effectively and efficiently to support tactical operations.

Here we’ll cover five things that every engineer must do, especially new ones like you.

1. Protect your respiratory system

Typically, there is no direct supervision or safety officer watching over you, the engineer. You must take responsibility for your own safety and wellbeing. Typically, the engineer does not wear their SCBA while performing their tasks following arrival at a structure fire, but that needs to change.

In her book, “EXPOSED: Carcinogenic Exposures on the Fireground and 11 ways to minimize the risk,” Dawn Balstad-Johnson describes the case of a long-serving Phoenix Fire Department engineer who developed chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CCL). CCL is not typically hereditary. This type of cancer is, however, on most “presumed firefighter cancer.” Balstad-Johnson notes that CCL occurs more often in engineers than any other fire role, which could be linked to the fact that they typically do not wear SCBA while taking care of their fireground responsibilities.

PPE is necessary due to the presence of diesel engine exhaust from running fire apparatus and from being at high risk of being engulfed by smoke from the fire due to atmospheric conditions or a change in wind direction while performing fireground support tasks (e.g., pulling additional lines, placing ladders, putting an exposure protection line in service).

As such, following are several practices that can decrease your respiratory risk:

  • Work at improving the initial positioning of your fire apparatus so that it is located upwind and uphill as often as possible, while still getting it into a good tactical position for your crew.
  • Don your SCBA when you exit the cab. If you don’t do it then, you’re already in danger because when the wind shifts and you are engulfed in smoke, it’s already too late.
  • If you’ve been in smoke (with your PPE and SCBA in place), you should go through initial decontamination reduction just like everyone else who was in the hot zone.

Afraid fellow firefighters will make fun of you? Just ask them if they’re willing to go into a structure fire without their SCBA. Stand up for yourself.

[Read Next: Protecting driver/operators from fireground health hazards]

2. Follow the mantra, “The fire apparatus doesn’t move until everyone is seated and belted”

Too many firefighters are still being ejected from fire apparatus or personal vehicles while responding to emergencies. In addition, fire department vehicle accidents are responsible for nearly one-quarter of firefighter injuries each year.

Also, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation:

  • Apparatus rollovers are the most common cause of firefighter fatal crashes.
  • 66% of all fatal apparatus crashes involve an unrestrained firefighter.
  • Wearing seat belts reduces death/injury potential by 50%.
  • 10-20% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths are the result of vehicle crashes.

Injuries and deaths stemming from failing to use seat belts are the most avoidable of all causes. Because of this, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) adopted a model policy position back in 2008:

  • All personnel must be seated and belted whenever the vehicle (either department or personal) is in motion for department business.
  • The driver and/or officer shall ensure by voice and personnel reply that seatbelts are properly fastened. The driver will only proceed when it can be confirmed that all members are seated and belted.
  • The only exception to the use of seatbelts while a vehicle is in motion is a situation where a person is providing direct patient care (EMS) and there is no reasonable restraint system available.
  • Utilize a progressive discipline system holding the violator and the supervisor responsible to ensure compliance with the seatbelt policy, reflecting the serious and potential life-threatening consequences of failure to comply.

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) support these policy positions, and Lexipol has incorporated them in its Seat Belt Policy, part of Lexipol’s Fire Policy and Training service.

3. Know your hoses, appliances and nozzles

Unfortunately, too many fire departments have become “preconnected 1¾-inch hoseline-dependent.” Large commercial occupancies, “big box” buildings, sprawling residential dwellings (aka “McMansions”) with long off-sets from the road, and apartment complexes that can resemble corn mazes are just few examples of fire situations that can render preconnected lines useless. Fires, particularly in residential dwellings, can grow rapidly due to lightweight building materials, open floor plans, and a fuel load that’s composed of predominantly petroleum-based synthetics. These fires need a lot of water, and they need it fast.

As an engineer, you must know the types, sizes and lengths of every piece of hose on your apparatus and must know how to use all the appliances and nozzles on your apparatus. You must know how to extend hoselines, how to create gated wye lines (a 2½-inch or 3-inch supply line gated down to two 1¾-inch attack lines), and how to get 2½-inch fire attack hoselines in service. There are many other examples, but start with these basics.

[Read Next: 5 things firefighters must know about nozzles]

4. Know your response district

Know your response district like you own it. It’s easy for engineers 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.

Learn what water supply sources are available in your district (e.g., static water sources, municipal water systems). Learn what size water mains deliver municipal water to various areas in your district because the availability of water from a hydrant is only as good as the water main supplying it. Check with the public utility or company that provides water for your community to get water supply maps and information to aid in your water supply education.

5. Understand the diesel particular filter system on your apparatus

EPA regulations to reduce diesel engine emissions (i.e., particulates or soot, and nitrous oxide) have progressed over the past 20 years beginning with the implementation of exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) systems, then progressing to the diesel particulate filter (DPF) system found on most fire apparatus today.

According to MMM Freight Corp, “The diesel particulate filter is a wall-flow substrate that is usually constructed using a porous ceramic media. As exhaust gases pass through the DPF, the ceramic media’s surface area and interior pores trap soot particles which are then burned off during a regeneration event.”

It’s critical to the life cycle of a diesel engine to keep the DPF clean. Over-the-road trucks using diesel engines generate the required heat to burn off the soot in the DPF (i.e., regenerate the filter) after about 20 minutes of continued operation under a load. And that’s where the DPF on fire apparatus presents a unique challenge.

We know that the life of a diesel engine in fire apparatus and ambulances consists of many short runs and idling for hours at a time. Such activity doesn’t give the engine an opportunity to generate enough heat for a long enough period to completely oxidize the accumulated soot on the DPF.

When a vehicle’s emissions system senses that the DPF is sufficiently full of soot, it dumps a charge of diesel fuel into the exhaust stream. The fuel passes through the oxidation catalyst, the fuel is oxidized, the exhaust is heated to a temperature that will burn off the soot in the DPF, and you have a process called active regeneration. The accumulated soot is burned off and life goes on.

Active regeneration can start because the vehicle’s emission system sensed the need, or it can be initiated manually at the direction of the vehicle’s engineer.

While the catalyst can take care of the soot, which is mostly carbon, by ensuring that it’s burned off in the DPF, there will still be solid particles trapped in the DPF that cannot burn, otherwise known as ash. The only method for removing this ash is to have the DPF removed and professionally cleaned by an authorized service center. The good news is that such cleaning is typically only needed after several hundred thousand miles of use. The DPF on most fire apparatus will likely never need to be cleaned, provided that the engineers assigned to a piece of fire apparatus pay attention to the system.

Warning lights on the dashboard of your fire apparatus are designed to keep you apprised of the level of soot in the DPF. The typical sequence begins with the DPF lamp coming on. This indicates that the DPF has become sufficiently loaded with soot and your intervention is necessary. The required intervention means operating the apparatus at a sufficient load, by pumping or driving or conducting a manual regeneration.

If no action is taken following the initial illumination of the DPF lamp, the lamp will begin to blink. Continued inaction will cause the DPF lamp to flash, followed by the check engine lamp to light, which is then followed shortly by the stop engine lamp.

If that happens, the vehicle must be stopped, and the engine shut off to avoid irreparable damage to the engine and its exhaust and emissions control systems. It is best to consult the operator manual for the exact sequence for your apparatus and engine.

As detailed by MMM Freight Corp., the newest generation of diesel emission reduction is the selective catalytic reduction system (SCR) that uses a consumable DEF in conjunction with a catalyst to reduce nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions. Because the fluid is consumed during the system’s normal operation, it requires the vehicles owner to not only monitor the DEF level but also refill it when it’s been used up.

SCR is a technology that uses a urea-based DEF and a catalytic converter to significantly reduce oxides of NOx emissions. A SCR system reduces the levels of NOx emitted from engines that are harmful to our health and the environment. SCR is an aftertreatment technology that treats exhaust gas downstream of the engine by injecting small quantities of DEF into the exhaust upstream of a catalyst, where it vaporizes and decomposes to form ammonia and carbon dioxide. The ammonia (NH3) is the desired product which in conjunction with the SCR catalyst, converts the NOx to harmless nitrogen and water.

Final thoughts

This list is certainly not meant to be all inclusive and shouldn’t be read that way. But making these five action items as part of your continuing education as an engineer will go a long way in protecting your health, making you a better engineer, and in protecting one of the most valuable assets of any fire department – your fire apparatus.

[Read Next: 5 fire engine pump operator mistakes]

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.