Building an Engine Ready to Work

(author photos)

Our successes and failures begin with the engine

By Ty Wheeler

Every fire department operates as a team. Not a single resource can perform all duties required on the fireground. We need incident command to make strategic decisions, the truck to ventilate and search, and medics for victims and our own safety, but one company is the foundation of every fire department and an integral part of fire suppression: the engine company. The engine company is the workhorse of the fire service. If we are poor at engine work, we are a poor fire department.

The engine company has the simplest job in theory, which is to put water on the fire, but it is complex to execute. There are so many variables and unknowns the engine crew will face, so their job is much more than dragging a hose into the structure. With fire burning faster than ever before, our ability to stretch the handline becomes more apparent. To be faster, there are only a few areas on which we can improve. We cannot make our apparatus faster. We can try to improve notification time, but our ability for that is minimal and with great cost to dispatch centers and fire safety appliances. So, where can we make up the time? 

The greatest area we can improve is from our zero-impact time, which is the time from the parking brake to water on the fire. From the arrival to the water on fire, there are many decisions that must be made, and tasks completed. Arrival report, apparatus placement, 360 size-up, forced entry, handline selection, and hose stretch are some of the tasks we must complete, and time is of the essence.

From all this we can discuss proper hoseline stretch and mask-up drills to improve our time, but one area that might be overlooked is apparatus design and equipment placement. We need to build an engine ready to work and built to win. When designing our apparatus, we must determine our objectives. Each apparatus will have different roles and responsibilities, so it is vital to ensure our apparatus fits the need of the organization to accomplish the mission.

For every fire department, there are two main objectives: saves lives and protect property. The engine needs to be built with these objectives in mind while being mindful of how we can accomplish those goals while being minimalist. Things fail and equipment breaks; simplicity always works. When specifying any apparatus, many decisions need to be made and need to focus on the firefighter’s ability to perform tasks. These decisions while specifying our apparatus can affect the organization for 10 to 20 years and can reduce the effectiveness on the fireground.

Functional Engine Company

There are going to be some specifics to each organization based on the department, geography, culture, district, and mutual-aid resources. We must design our apparatus to enhance our abilities to perform our duties. We cannot have our personnel trying to make up for our mistakes when the apparatus was built.

Many aspects of apparatus specification design and countless hours go into to building a custom engine; hopefully, the work pays off with a well-designed apparatus. We need to ensure we are picking effectiveness over glamour. We will review several areas where design and specifications can improve our zero-impact time and reduce the time to water on the fire.

The fire engine’s main purpose is to stretch hose and put the fire out to mitigate the situation. The primary design factors need to be hoseline deployment, safety, pumping capacity, water supply, and victim rescue.


Injuries happen when firefighters are stepping on and off the apparatus, causing knee, ankle, low back, and shoulder issues. The first step in building an engine is to ensure we are taking care of our personnel and make it safe and easy for them to move on and off the apparatus and reach the equipment without putting themselves in precarious positions.

As apparatus are getting taller, our risk is becoming more apparent. Storage is at a premium in new apparatus as we are taking more responsibilities as the fire service. Creating areas to stand while loading hose, proper equipment mounting, and convenient placement of frequently used equipment can improve our safety on the fireground.

Locating pump panels on the side of the apparatus where all levers can be reached while standing from the ground can be helpful. Although top-mounted pump panels allow for a 360 view of the fireground, the engineer must mount and dismount the apparatus several times to charge hose, connect a water supply, and adjust any pressures.

As stated earlier, apparatus are getting taller as we try to carry as much equipment as possible. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may feel you need to have a “do it all” fire engine. Staffing will dictate how many apparatus we staff and their capabilities, but the more we carry, the longer and taller the engine will become, and we will begin to sacrifice in other areas, such as higher hosebeds or ladder racks.

Having taller trucks requires us to raise the entire body and cab as well. This requires our firefighters to mount and dismount more steps, increasing their chance of failing or injuring themselves while loaded with the additional weight of our PPE. Keeping the cab lower and more streamline can improve our ability and increase our speed while deploying the attack line.

Hosebed Design

With the technology and manufacturers’ ability to design poly tanks, our excuse of high hosebeds because of water is null and void. It is common to see a lower hosebed, under 60 inches, with a tank capacity of 1,000 gallons.

Low hosebeds allow our firefighters to quickly deploy the hose without having to climb or step up to reach the hose or nozzles. This reduces our zero-impact time and limits the risk to our firefighters of sustaining an injury.

This hosebed allows for multiple handlines off the rear. This hosebed is also designed with an apartment lay of 250 feet of 2½-inch hose for long apartment stretches. The 400 feet of 2½-inch is the primary attack line with a smooth bore nozzle for fire attack. This hosebed also allows for 600 feet of three-inch for supplying fire department connections and for relay pumping where LDH was not used. (Photos and illustration courtesy of author.)

What is low? A low hosebed allows the firefighters to deploy the handline without having to jump onto a tailboard. This typically means under 70 inches as an absolute and 60 inches or below preferred. Low hosebeds also reduce our risk when loading hose as well. National Fire Protection Association 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, sets the minimum requirements for apparatus specifications. The Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) Buyers Guide states that a lower hosebed height improves ergonomics and reduces injuries.

This leads into the attack line and preconnected hoseline. Every department is going to do what fits its system best but ensuring our attack lines are also lower is critical. Many times, departments put crosslays by the pump panel. This allows the deployment of the line from both sides and one closest to the specific side of the street. With this design, the crosslays are located very high on top of the pump panel. This also places the high-pressure hoseline next to the pump operator’s head, which, if it bursts, can cause injuries.

Locating attack lines off the rear of the truck allows for deployment of all handlines to either side of the engine. Usually the engine is positioned past the address, which enables the rear of the engine to be closest to the structure. By doing so, we can use the entire length of the hose if the outlet is positioned in the rear of the truck instead of at the front of the hosebed.

A low rear hosebed.

One attack line that is not located on the rear of the engine is the trash line or bumper line. It usually runs between 100 and 150 feet. It is beneficial to have this line on the front bumper for vehicle fires, dumpster fires, and short setbacks on houses to limit unnecessary hose deployment.

The hosebed needs to be the primary focus for fireground operational readiness. If the hosebed is designed to increase functionality and deployment speed, this will allow the firefighters to improve their operational effectiveness.


Time matters when there is a rescue to be made. To have an impact on saving a life, you need to be efficient with your movements and confident in your skills. If the rescue requires a ladder, this needs to be quickly deployed without any wasted time. When we encounter these situations, the last thing we want to be waiting for is a ladder rack, which is placed well above our heads, to be lowered before we can begin with rescue efforts. Although these systems are getting quicker, they are still relatively slow and can be difficult to operate. There is also the chance of failure because of hydraulics or electrical issues with these devices.

Often the argument is made that the department wants to increase storage because it made the apparatus shorter or lowered the hosebed. This is not the equipment to sacrifice for more storage. If you are running out of room, put fewer things on the engine. Ladders serve as a vital tool to life saving tactics and must be deployed quickly and easily. Remember, our primary duties are to preserve life and property; ladders serve as a primary tool for this objective.

Mounting ladders on the side of the truck allows for easy access. These are one-person deployable and allow for quick operations if a rescue is necessary.

Water Supply

Apart from the water carried on the engine, our scarce resource is water. We must ensure we establish a water supply quickly to ensure the attack crew has the water they need. A room-and-contents fire can easily be handled with the 500 to 1,000 gallons of water on the engine while multiple rooms will require much more water.

As the first-arriving engine operator, you have many tasks to complete, and one of the most significant is to establish a sustainable water supply. This needs to be completed quickly to move on to other tasks like throwing ladders and pulling a backup (not second) hoseline.

If you are running large-diameter hose (LDH), the task can be daunting if you must pull the hose back to the hydrant. Allowing the operator to connect his own hydrant can save personnel and time if you are able to provide the layout for this practice through apparatus design.

Side and Front Bumper Intakes

Spotting a hydrant is easier if the driver can see it easily. A front 25- or 35-foot five-inch LDH allows the driver to “nose in” to the hydrant with a preconnected line to establish the water supply. This reduces the time necessary to stop and lay in or pull 50 to 100 feet of LDH off the rear and make two connections.

Having two preconnected LDH supply lines allows the driver to double tap the hydrant or heavy hook the hydrant to maximize the water and can be a single-person operation. With a side and front bumper intake, this operation is quickly completed by hooking the initial line and connecting the hydrant stack and double tapping the hydrant with the second short section of LDH by the hydrant stack with the hydrant charged.

Double tapping the hydrant with preconnected LDH sections.

Hydrant Stack

Another option for quick and effective water supply is to use a “hydrant stack.” This combination of adapters allows two engines or a single engine to “double tap” or heavy hook the hydrant using two LDH supply lines. This consists of a 4-inch male NST to a 2 ½-inch female and a 2½-inch gate valve with a hydrant wrench slid in the end and secured with the gate valve. This allows the connection of the steamer and another 2½-inch outlet for a second-arriving engine or to secure two supply lines off the hydrant without delaying initial water supply. This combination also reduces the need to dig through the hydrant bag looking for your equipment. The package is always together and connected to the hose, limiting the driver/operator from having to run back and forth or open unnecessary compartments when looking for adapters. Again, efficiency is critical when discussing time.

Double tap using the side 35-foot preconnected LDH and front 25-foot preconnected LDH.


The worst sight to see is a firefighter or officer getting off the apparatus unprepared and without a tool. We have seen firefighters exit the apparatus and begin to run around the truck opening compartments for their tools. If we want to build an engine company to be effective on the fireground and the firefighters prepared to accomplish their task, we need to set up the apparatus with their tools easily accessible.

The officer should have a flashlight and a thermal imaging camera next to his seat ready for deployment. Once the officer dismounts the apparatus, he needs to have access to his assigned tools. The company officer’s duties are numerous on arrival at an incident, so the last thing we want is our officers running around the truck looking for their tools. They need to be able to depart the engine and get to work.

Tool placement and mounting inside and outside the cab.

The nozzleman, layout, and irons should be assigned a seat closest to their tools. With rear-facing attack lines, this can be either side. The layout and irons would be positioned on the side with the hydrant bag. If the fourth person runs irons, he should have a married set next to him or on an outside compartment behind his seat. Having tools close allows a reduced zero-impact time by designing the engine to result in quick action.

Cab Design

The cab is where personnel spend most of the time riding to and from calls. This area needs to be designed with comfort and functionality in mind.

Situational awareness and arrival size-up are critical not only for the officers but for all the crew members on the apparatus. Everyone arriving needs to be conducting their own internal size-up and situational awareness. Because of this, it is preferable to have the firefighters’ seats facing forward. This allows everyone in the cab to see the situation together as one and begin to plan their course of action. The firefighters can start preparing and discussing the plan with the officer and driver.

Tool placement inside the officer’s seat.

If we limit the situational awareness, the firefighters will be unprepared and unable to adequately perform their duties. We have all been riding backward with our neck cranked to the front trying to get a glimpse of what we are walking into. Situating our seats to allow for a full visual of the incident will improve planning with the crew and encourage teamwork.

As for the officer, his eyes need to be forward looking, directing and planning. Having the mobile data terminal (MDT) facing to the side moves our line of sight to the side, creating a twisting motion. If we need to access information via preplans or other resources, we can do so, but our focus needs to be forward. With the MDTs in front, we can plan a course of action based on information we are receiving and from what we see in front of us. We can see the traffic conditions, approach, and fire conditions on arrival. This will enable the fire officer to make decisions for a better outcome.

Engine Is the Workhorse

The engine is the oldest and most basic type of apparatus we have and is still the workhorse in the fire service. Many times, departments try to pack everything on the unit to make it a “do it all” apparatus. This hinders the main purpose of fire suppression and causes the apparatus to become less efficient. Designing an apparatus is a large undertaking; start the design process by understanding the mission of the organization and the objective of the apparatus. 

Building an effective engine company starts with the apparatus we design. Our successes and failures begin with the engine. When designing the engine, keep it functional, effective, and simple because complexity breeds chaos. 

Ty Wheeler is a lieutenant with the Johnston-Grimes (IA) Metropolitan Fire Department and has been with the fire service for more than 10 years. He has an associate degree in paramedicine and a bachelor of science degree in fire science administration from Waldorf University. He has received his managing officer certificate from the National Fire Academy and received his fire officer credential from the CPSE. Wheeler has obtained several fire service and EMS certifications at the state and national level.

No posts to display