Working Together

Teamwork in the fire service requires organization & strategy

By Michael M. Dugan
Published Thursday, February 19, 2009 | From the February 2007 Issue of FireRescue

The fire service and each of its units-engines, squads, rescue and truck companies-perform basic functions on the fireground, namely advancing onto the scene and extinguishing the fire. These operations are carried out every day all over the United States and the world by fire departments of various sizes using their own set of tactics. These varied and diverse sets of tactics and standard operating procedures (SOPs) all depend on one common denominator: teamwork.

Teamwork is a major part of any successful fireground operation. Why? Because each task on the fireground depends on someone else completing another related task or tasks. For example, if a firefighter vented the fire area before a hoseline was in place, the flames might intensify and endanger personnel trying to get a handline in place. Conversely, if no vent was provided, all the heat and products of combustion would be forced out of the initial entry point used by the firefighter on the hoseline. We must therefore rely on each other so that we can safely and effectively achieve the overall mission. Remember: The overall objective is to extinguish the fire as safely as possible.

Football & Firefighting?

There's nothing I like more than spending a Sunday afternoon in autumn at home with my family and friends watching football. As kids, many of us played football with our friends and neighbors. I remember that initially, one person would be the quarterback, but if they messed up, someone else would become the quarterback on the next play. Maybe you played this way too, or maybe you chose your quarterback by whoever called the play.

What would happen if your favorite NFL football team played this way during the Super Bowl? What if they showed up for the game without a plan or failed to re-evaluate their plan during halftime? What would happen if they didn't assign specific players to specific positions? It would be comical to expect a 350-lb. lineman to carry the ball. Fans would be calling for the coach's head in the local papers the next day.

Now imagine that lack of a strategy on a fire scene. What if you arrived at a working fire, but no one had a plan for how to control the fire, or firefighters and fire officers just decided not to follow the plan? How dangerous would that be?

What would happen if things weren't going right during a fire, but we didn't stop to evaluate or change our strategy? What if, after 10 minutes, the fire was not extinguished or knocked down? Should firefighters be allowed to stay inside the fire building when the strategy isn't working?

Strategizing Your SOPs

As I said before, to function effectively as a team and achieve the overall goal, firefighters must accomplish certain tasks on the fireground. These tasks can be defined as the basic SOPs of the fire service. For example, the engine must put water on the fire and ventilate the fire building, while another team or company must gain entry into the building and perform a search. These basic and required jobs must be done at every fire to which we respond. Note: Without a plan and a team qualified to carry out the plan, be very careful if you decide to enter the fire building; it will be dangerous if there's no plan in place.

But if your department doesn't have a strategy for accomplishing SOPs at every fire scene, then how, when and, more importantly, who will accomplish them? Assigned positions and duties allow for a more controlled and coordinated fire attack to be performed by a team that can be held accountable for its actions.

Firefighters or a fire company should perform their assigned tasks from a specific location, but to do this properly, the SOPs must be based on the type of buildings your department responds to and the manning of the apparatus. When you set up your assignment for a particular structure, base it on the minimum number of firefighters with which you're allowed to respond. If you find you have more firefighters than you need, incorporate them into your plan, but base your SOPs on the worst-case scenario for your department's manpower and develop the plan from there. Positions will vary as the type of construction and size of the buildings change, but the same basic functions must be accomplished at every fire.

A properly functioning team or crew must not only have the manpower, but also the tools, knowledge and training to complete the required assignments, as well as SOPs that outline which tools are needed for each task. For example, if you must ventilate the structure, you'll need a pike pole and a portable ladder, depending on the floor or the fire. If you must force entry into the structure, you'll need to know how to use a set of irons.

Taxing the Team

The engine company, the basic unit of the fire service, has one main duty: to put water on the fire. It has been said many times in the fire service that, at a fire, as the first hoseline goes in, so goes the fire. The first engine should get a hoseline in place and put water on the fire immediately. However, most engines responding to fires these days are responsible for all operations at the fire until more help arrives. If your department requires a three- or four-firefighter engine company to stretch a line, force entry, ventilate a fire building and perform a search, that team is going to be stretched to the limit and overworked.

As a result, some things will get overlooked. To combat this problem, consider what you would do first if it were your house that was burning down and your family that was trapped. What would you want first-arriving firefighters to do immediately to save your family?

Coordination for Ventilation

Ventilation is one of the most important tasks crews must accomplish at any fire, because it allows firefighters to immediately impact a fire building in a positive way. We can't change the size of the building, the fuel loading, or the type of construction, but we can change the fire environment by properly venting the building.

By allowing the smoke and heat to escape, the fire will have less impact on firefighters working on the scene. But again, to do this correctly, you need a team of properly trained firefighters and a well-defined plan of action (in other words, your SOPs,) that instructs the team about where to go and how to properly vent the building to help other firefighters and officers inside.

Once your team is assembled, the operation must be controlled and coordinated by someone in charge-a team leader, which is usually the chief or incident commander. Different departments have different standards for controlling ventilation. For some, the incident commander oversees ventilation; other departments assign a new firefighter who isn't interior-qualified to the task. And others don't assign anyone to the control ventilation, which has contributed to a few recent line-of-duty deaths.

Controlling horizontal ventilation is one of the most critical tasks on the fireground. Firefighters operating inside a fire building will be endangered by uncontrolled ventilation, which allows the fire to gain intensity. To protect themselves, fire officers from the FDNY allow only vertical ventilation to take place without the permission of any officer. This allows any firefighter to ventilate the stairs and clear hallways of combustible products, which improves residents' chances for survival and allows the engine company to move further into the building and closer to the fire.

To control horizontal ventilation, the FDNY assigns the truck company officer operating inside the building to the fire floor; horizontal ventilation on floors above and below the fire floor is controlled by the officers operating in that area. This allows the officer nearest the point of ventilation to take into account the wind, the heat and the position of the advancing hoseline before granting permission to ventilate the fire area. Important: If a firefighter operating on a floor above or below opens a window to ventilate the fire floor and encounters a heavy wind, they must notify the officer on the fire floor of this fact. This might change or alter the officer's initial decision.

Who is assigned ventilation control in your department? If they've never been inside a structure fire, they don't realize the importance of their task or how to accomplish it. To ensure team safety, assign someone who has experience ventilating structures.

Ike & the "F" Word

One of the biggest perks of teamwork is its ability to prevent firefighters from freelancing-yes, the dreaded "f" word! If a member of your department operates on their own without assigned duties or orders, they are not team players. Fire companies must operate as teams in the fire service of today because we cannot change the manning on our fire trucks or get City Hall to give us more firefighters. In a volunteer fire department, not all members can or will respond, so we must do the best we can with the resources we have.

But how can we accomplish our goals at every fire with limited resources? Through training and drills. Heart attacks are the leading cause of death among firefighters in the United States, and apathy is the main reason firefighters get in trouble on the fireground. We all know at least one firefighter who thinks they've seen it all and knows twice as much as anyone else. I like to call him Ike, short for "I know everything." He doesn't want to drill because he knows how to do everything already and doesn't want to leave the firehouse because his favorite TV show is on.

To bring Ike around to the proper way of thinking, we must make an extra effort to include him in our plans and make him a valued part of the team.

A Final Word

Remember: Every team must work together to accomplish and attain the goals set forth by the department. Therefore every firefighter must consider themselves the builder of their team, as well as a high-quality member of their team. Of course, the first goal is "Everyone Goes Home." That's the mantra for the new-millennium fire service.

Stay safe.

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Working Together

Teamwork in the fire service requires organization & strategy


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