Trending Topics

Do we strike the ‘old school’ or ‘new school’ second alarm?

It’s time to standardize your second-alarm assignment for the benefit of your citizens, not just who you want to respond with


“You built a building that has a sign labeled “FIRE DEPARTMENT,” so there should be a reasonable expectation that when people call, help will be on the way – the right help and plenty of it, quickly,” Goldfeder writes.

AP Photo/Phil Marcelo

I’ve always been a fan of standardization, at least the kind that does what’s best for the people having a need for standardization. Standardization should be for the greater good, right? Not to feed egos or manipulate decisions for self-focused purposes.

Our history of standardizing things in the fire service is pretty colorful. For example, the National Association of Fire Engineers (NAFE), the original parent organization of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), was formed in 1873 to standardize hose couplings. How’d that work out?

Is it a big deal if New York City hose fits Los Angeles? Probably not. But what makes it curious is why NYC or LA need their “own” couplings. Why not just have ONE standardized hose thread so we can mark that off our so-called standardization bucket list?

Sometimes it’s not that simple. Much of “old school” lack of standardization was economical or simply what was invented locally. Changing at this stage doesn’t always make sense, unless it interferes with our ability to take care of the people.

In general, we tend to operate in our own bubbles without really worrying about what that “other” fire department is doing, that is, until we arrive on a scene together and Harry Hosebed starts screaming that the hoses won’t connect.

Actually, we have standardized on some hose couplings, such as the “national standard” (which, wait, really isn’t standard), but on the supply line stuff, we have those “new style” Storz couplings. Fun fact: Storz is a type of hose coupling invented by Carl August Guido Storz in 1882, patented in Switzerland in 1890 and in the U.S. in 1893, that connects using interlocking hooks and flanges.

So, does any of this matter? Probably not. But if the lack of standardization is historically a local problem, then it must be solved locally, because some of the national attempts haven’t worked.

There are many areas that could probably stand some standardization – a sentiment typically followed by “well, as long as we don’t have to change.” These areas include apparatus layout, training, qualifications, helmet colors, radio terminology – all areas that have been discussed by people much smarter than me for years.

But there is one standardization that cannot be considered nationally but should be considered locally by every fire department and fire chief: what constitutes a first alarm and a second alarm.


Determining the makeup of your first alarm should not be a personality-based decision. If you don’t like those bastards down the street at that other firehouse, well, no one cares. What matters is that they are well-trained, arrive quick and do as expected on the scene. It’s that simple.

And if they aren’t? Invite them to training. And if you don’t “like” that chief down the street, well, then don’t invite that chief over for family celebrations. But if that department is sending you disciplined, well-trained firefighters quickly, use them!

So, what is a first-alarm assignment?

There are a million definitions, but let’s try this: It is an assignment that meets the expected staffing conditions for what’s on fire. In other words, use the ISO guide to fire flow to tell you what kind of water you need (gpm with handlines or larger) based upon the construction type, size, occupancy, etc.

Take those factors and then add staffing to water supply, apparatus operators, firefighters to stretch and flow handlines, search, rescue, venting, command, and that sorta stuff (generally we want those things done simultaneously), and that gives you your first-alarm assignment. It generally falls around 20-25 firefighters for a small to medium single-family dwelling around 1,500 square feet.

Of course, you can do it with less, but the fire will burn at the same destructive speed whether you send 5 people or 25 people (#firedontcare).


So now what? The fire is working and your resources may or may not be able to handle it. “Handle it” means you are very confident that you will be stopping the fire within minutes of arrival. IMO the moment you think you cannot handle it (even just the slightest doubt), which could also include a mayday, strike your second alarm.

Old-school thinking (not the good kind of old school) is, “we will handle it and don’t want any help.” New-school thinking is, “we would like to handle it but since we don’t own your house and that’s not our family in there, let’s get LOTS of extra help here quickly, just in case.”

In some areas, a second alarm means to set the tones off again. In some areas, it is a “recall” of off-duty personnel. In some areas, it means an additional engine and truck. For example, in the FDNY, a second-alarm fire can bring a total of eight engines, five ladders, five battalion chiefs and much, much more.

The point here is for you to consider what your second alarm should be.

A good rule of thumb is to at least double your expected first-alarm assignment – or at least that’s a start. In many areas with volunteer home response, you may or may not get even your first-alarm assignment filled – a sad fact in 2021. In some areas, that first alarm is “just our department/our station/our fire company, and we will call for more help once we get there.” Not smart.

Can you find any metro area or county fire department that does that? Nope. Why not? Because when they did that a century or so ago, stuff burned down. People died. Stuff like that.

“But we aren’t a metro city ….”

I get it, but you are a fire department. You built a building that has a sign labeled “FIRE DEPARTMENT,” so there should be a reasonable expectation that when people call, help will be on the way – the right help and plenty of it, quickly.

If the volunteers aren’t turning out, it’s time for the public to understand that. They need to be given options on how they can support your (their) department. Join. Hire. Automatic mutual aid. Pay taxes. Whatever. But do something.

If the career staffing is low in numbers, again, automatic aid or heavier alarm assignments may be the choice. But either way, the public has a reasonable expectation to understand to what will arrive when they have their really bad day.

Expectations and reality

The fact is that when the public dials 9-1-1, they envision a TV or movie-type of response – loads or rigs with loads of firefighters. If that’s being delivered to your community, that’s a really good thing.

However, when thinking about what’s best for your community, focus on a strong, egoless, non-personality-based first alarm that matches the building/neighborhood/complex type with the right stuff as described above. Then, build a system of multiple alarm levels above that, such as your second alarm, that should reasonably ensure that those additional resources will make things better.

With CAD systems today, there are so many simple ways to automatically set up your first (and greater) alarms to make a measurable difference. Don’t nickel and dime it either. (“Dispatch, uh, give me one more engine from Favoritetown … uh, dispatch, give me another engine from MyFriendsVille ….”) Send the cavalry.

Use the system to best benefit those having the emergency so that if you are ever asked, “Do your dispatch alarm assignments and turnout best benefit the public, based upon national standards, history and best practices?” you can confidently answer “yes!” Or perhaps better yet, answer yes to the question, “If your family’s house is on fire, do your dispatch alarm assignments best benefit your family and loved ones inside?

Editor’s note: What’s your department’s definition of a second-alarm assignment? Share in the comments below.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website
Email FireRescue1 your questions for Chief Goldfeder’s video series “What’s YOUR Problem?”