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‘Everything on this truck is my responsibility’: A day in the life of an apparatus operator

The engineer serves several roles, from equipment checks to throwing ladders, medic assists and more

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Let’s take a ride through a typical day of an apparatus operator.

Photo/Trevor Frodge

A day in the life as an apparatus operator can immediately bring jokes of ice cream, naps and laziness. That isn’t the case with me.

Although I am now promoted up, when I was an apparatus operator, I took great pride and ownership of my craft.

Let’s take a ride through a typical day of an apparatus operator. Perhaps this inside look, plus some tips and practices, will help current or aspiring engineers.

0530: I arrive at the station 30 minutes or so ahead of time. Our shift changes at 0600, but it was instilled in me early into my career to arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of schedule in order to catch an early run and to relieve the off-going crew. My lieutenant is already here, and for the life of me, I can never seem to beat him to work. The captain is pulling in right behind me, right on time as usual.

I check in with my lieutenant with our typical good mornings. I start up a pot of fresh coffee, normally a job for the roughneck or nozzle firefighter, but I like to get the first pot going. There are five of us assigned to this firehouse – my lieutenant and four of us firefighters. The captain is in charge of the shift and the other four fire stations and rides in his SUV. Today it is my day to drive the engine.

0600: I’m showered and changed, shaved and in uniform, sitting down with a cup of coffee with the off-going shift. There are a couple of guys still in the bunk, a pretty normal occurrence for the medics who were up on calls the night before. We all know that our run volume has been going up over the last several months, and nobody minds letting the guys sleep in for a little while longer before they drive home.

I speak with the off-going driver. He explains that they put fuel in the engine yesterday and passes down any pertinent mechanical information. The truck just received a preventative maintenance check two shifts prior, so things should be OK.

0615: I’m on the bay floor with the rest of the company and put my gear on the rig. As a department practice, every member checks in their own PPE. I check my SCBA and verify the PASS alarm sounds and that the air pack functions appropriately. I also passively listen and note that the other SCBAs are functioning. Even though they will be used by the lieutenant and roughneck firefighter, everything on this truck is my responsibility.

With my gear stowed, I start my walk-around inspection. I verify the shoreline is connected and the batteries appear charged. The tires look inflated, but it is easy to note there is some wear on the treads. I’ll have to write them up for replacement. The engine is a rescue pumper, and it has some age to it. I don’t see any new body damage.

I start going through the compartments. With each one I open, I verify the contents from memory. My engineer compartment has all my appliances and adapters, as well as a hydrant wrench, a small pony section of LDH and a section of 2½-inch line for quick hydrant connections. The next compartment back has some of our rescue gear, including the RIC pack, lights and ropes. I verify the RIC bottle is full and that the facepiece is attached and ready to go.

I continue going through each compartment verifying tools and equipment. I run the saws, the rescue tools, and then refuel them after shutdown. I verify my hose loads and nozzles and ensure that they are loaded correctly and ready for deployment.

Finally, after my walk-around, I climb into the cab and start the truck. I check the lights and gauges and engage the pump. I ensure that the pump throttles up, that my water tank is full, and that my foam level is correct as well. I check the fuel gauge, which reads three-quarters full. I guess they got fuel but never topped off again. I’ll fill up while we are out.

0700: It’s time for shift briefing. The captain gives us the daily rundown of duties for the day. We have training at 0900 at an acquired structure and a public education detail at 1330 for a school in our district. Simple day.

0715: After the briefing, it’s time to work out. I try to stay active, and I know if I can hit it early, there is less chance of being interrupted than if I put if off until later in the day.

0737: So much for the lack of interruptions. We are dispatched to an MVA on the interstate, a normal occurrence for us during the morning rush hour. We arrive and block lanes down for a relatively minor crash. It seems to be a simple rear-end crash, and while one of the cars is likely totaled with the hood crumpled and airbags deployed, nobody seems injured. The medics take one patient to the hospital as a precaution. I place cones and floor dry to soak up some leaking vehicle fluids. We return to the station after about 20 minutes of work.

0845: With my workout complete, I am ready to go to training. The crew mounts up and I verify that everyone is in and seat-belted. We take off down the road for training.

0900: It is a simple drill –deploy a preconnect line into a structure for fire attack while another company searches. The lieutenant and roughneck go to work, simultaneously performing a 360 and getting the line to the door. I send water into the line at the right pressure within a minute of starting and admire how dialed in our engine company is. The crew masks up and in the front door they go. I go to work throwing an extension ladder and securing a water supply. By the time I get the hydrant on and connections made, the drill is complete. We reload our lines, take down the ladder and critique the drill.

0930: With lines reloaded, it’s time to hit the store. We drive to the grocery and enjoy our small talk about department politics and what our families have been up to. While driving I note hydrant locations and streets as we go. I don’t know every street in town, but I’ve got our major and secondary roads down pat.

1000: While at the store we were dispatched to an EMS detail for a woman with trouble breathing. Even though we were out of our first-due, the automatic vehicle locator tied to our dispatch center sent us because we were closer. We provided her some oxygen and obtained an EKG before the medic unit arrived.

1100: We return to quarters and work on getting the truck restocked from our EMS call earlier. Once the supplies are restocked, a quick and easy job, we go to work preparing lunch in the kitchen at our fire headquarters. The kitchen is the life blood of any firehouse, and ours is no different. We hold trainings, engage in spirited debates and department gossip, and share family stories at our kitchen table and large island. Now members begin to gather around for the upcoming meal.

1200: Lunch time. The captain is adamant we eat at noon and 6, and we don’t disappoint. Today is my day to cook, but we all pitch in and work together. Again, it is nice to have a dialed-in company.

1330: Right on time we go to the school and talk to the kids about fire safety. Our roughneck dons his gear and I talk about each component to help ease the kids’ anxiety of what a firefighter looks like. We deliver a great message on staying low in smoke, as well as closing the door at night when they sleep. They know how to call 911 and have a family meeting place outside.

1445: Time to fuel up. We top off our fuel tanks at three-quarters, and given a couple of runs and details, we are a little bit below now. The truck will hopefully be full for shift change.

1500: The rest of the afternoon goes by relatively uneventfully. The lieutenant does his paperwork, and I remember to write up the tires. Some of the guys go and work out, others tend to their inventories. That is when I remember that I forgot to inventory the airway bag after our EMS run. Better get to it.

1715: We start dinner and finish it uninterrupted. Naturally, the medics get toned out right after dinner is served promptly at 1800.

1900: The engine company starts cleaning up the station – and preserving the plates of the medic crew. They’ll be back soon to finish up. We wash the truck and have it ready for the oncoming crew.

2100: Fire alarm activation at a hotel. We have 14 hotels in our first-due, so this is nothing new for us. I position the engine near the lobby doors as the crew goes to check the alarm panel and investigate. I tune into the fireground channel on the portable and listen for updates. The alarm is on the fourth floor. I consider the closest access for the stairwell and lengths of line needed in case this turns out to be something. It turns out to be an alarm activation from cooking and burning popcorn in a microwave. All units go in service.

2200: I try and bed down for the night, but we are immediately sent back out with our medic unit for a person unconscious. I assist in gathering equipment and supplies for the medics. We are all paramedics on scene, but as the engine driver, I’m the one fetching items that the medics need. I grab a Reeves stretcher and position the cot. I help the medics carry the patient down the stairs. It might be a stroke. We send our roughneck with the medic unit and go available with two personnel.

2245: Crawling back into bed I can’t help but consider that we are probably going to be up again. No bother, though; that is what we signed up for, and all of us enjoy making runs.

0200: I was right. We are going to another fire alarm activation, but this time it is down in our industrial area and we will be second due. The first-due apparatus, the tower ladder that I also sometimes operate when on overtime, arrives and confirms it is a false alarm. We return back to quarters.

0515: Toned out again. This time we are going to another EMS run for an elderly woman who has fallen and broken her hip. We help to package her, and I draw up some pain medications and set up IV supplies. The medics administer some fentanyl for pain and then transport her to the hospital. We return again.

0545: We pull back into quarters and I see the oncoming shift is arriving. My relief is already waiting in the kitchen ready to go. The coffee is on, and we sit down to give my pass-along information. I explain that we got fuel and the tires are written up. We give a summary of runs and details from the day before, with details embellished and stories told.

Even though I’m tired from the overnight runs, there is no place I’d rather be at the moment. Sitting around this table with these guys, laughing and drinking some mediocre coffee, knowing that at any moment we can be toned out for “the big one” is something unique that only we firefighters will ever know. It is by far the best job in the world.

Now it’s time to go home and do it all over again three days from now, except that day I’ll be on the medic.

Trevor Frodge is a fire lieutenant with the West Chester Fire Department in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, currently assigned to one of two rescue engines. He is a nationally registered paramedic, fire and EMS instructor, and fire inspector. Frodge is a member of the Butler County Technical Rescue Team, as well as a Hazardous Materials Specialist for Ohio Task Force 1.

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