Lines Off, Ladders Up: A Training Approach for Successful Fireground Operations

Every alarm activation is an opportunity

Aerial spotting on a residential fire alarm. (Photos courtesy of author)

By Ty Wheeler

Every fire alarm is a dress rehearsal for the real event. If this is the case, what are we telling our firefighters and citizens when we show up to a fire alarm not wearing our personal protective equipment (PPE), with no tools, and in no hurry to get to work? Perception is everything in today’s world and this mindset can lead to negative patterns for the firefighters and the department who respond in this manner. How can firefighters expect building occupants to take fire alarms seriously if they give occupants the impression that they don’t?

When responding to fire or investigation alarms, we need to start treating these alarm drops as if they are on fire. We need to dress out, spot hydrants, and come off the truck ready to work–combat ready. If your department runs nonemergent to fire alarms or only has a single respond emergent, this does not negate the opportunity for training. Just because the flashy lights weren’t on and not making a lot of noise doesn’t downplay the potential seriousness of the call or the opportunity to gain valuable reps.

Habits and mindsets are hard to change once they become the norm. These small actions everyday begin to set our firefighters up for success by instilling the mindset of aggressive, combat ready crews. Our failure to recognize these situations as opportunities to learn is a disservice to our members. Those who continue to show up unprepared are creating negative habits. These small failures to properly don PPE and have assigned tools are leading their crews down a bad road. This is the normalization of deviance. If we routinely respond to calls unprepared and in the wrong type of mindset, it is difficult to quickly alter our mindset to address the situation. These failures lead to poor outcomes and failure on the fireground.

Every Fire Alarm Is an Opportunity

Few, if any, alarm activations materialize into an actual incident, but companies that treat every alarm activation as if were an actual fire will be prepared when it is the real thing. Firefighters should enter the building like they mean business; equipped with hose bundles, a standpipe accessory bag, forcible entry tools, a thermal imaging camera, and a water extinguisher. First-arriving companies assume the crucial role of the fire investigation team and should begin their investigation in the lobby by examining the fire alarm control panel and questioning building maintenance and security personnel. Once the origin of the alarm has been identified, the crew can take the opportunity to use this time to gain valuable training and knowledge of the building.

Every alarm activation is an opportunity for firefighters to sharpen their skills and cannot allow frequent false alarms and nuisance calls to certain buildings to lull them into a false sense of complacency. Firefighters in urban environments can attest from experience that it is no coincidence that buildings with frequent false fire alarms also have frequent burned food on the stove, stuck elevators, water leaks, and fire code violations.

Lines Off, Ladders Up Training Approach

This concept of training works from the Recency Theory or Recency Effect, which suggests recent tasks or information performed or learned is better remembered, which will increase performance of said task or knowledge in the future. To relate this concept to the fire service, if we force a door 10 times a shift for training and get called for a fire and have to perform that skill, the task will be completed quicker. On the other hand, someone who has not forced a door in 10 years will have a more difficult time performing the skill.

Line Off, Ladder Up is a training culture concept that encourages department to perform skills in their environment as much and as often as possible. Fire alarms and smoke investigation runs are an opportune time to use these real-world incidents to perfect aspects of our operations. Spotting hydrants, connecting the hydrant, pulling lines, and throwing ladders on real buildings are the most beneficial training a crew can get. This allows us to operate in our arena and understand the building construction, environments, and obstacles we will encounter. If we have never encountered difficult situations, we will be unable to quickly remedy these issues during times of high stress.

This training approach encourages crews to always have a proactive mindset and be ready to perform their job. This also allows them to take advantage of alarms to learn and perfect their craft. A false alarm can still have significant benefits to the success of the crews in the future. Having a mindset of aggressiveness and proactivity will improve performance on every scene. It is expected that every firefighter be prepared on every call to perform their assigned duties. This increase in training develops the movement patterns and muscle memory to improve efficiency in their movements, saving time to perform lifesaving skills.

As a rule, for Line Off, Ladders Up, engine companies are encouraged to spot hydrants and be ready to hook the plug. The engineer flushes the hydrant and deploys the large-diameter hose to the hydrant ready to charge. The firefighter and officer need to be able to investigate the issues, so deploying the line initially is not possible. Once the alarm is determined, this allows the time to pull the line or to game plan the stretch. Frequent causes for fire alarm activations and reports of an odor of smoke are hot or burning motors and belts in rooftop heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) units. A proactive ladder company will spot the aerial for the best placement to gain access to the roof and other operations.

The ladder crew throws a 24- or 28-foot ladder to the building and then moves to the interior to assist locating the issue for the alarm. The added benefit of having ladders in place if the investigation necessitates has already been accomplished.

Cultural Mindset

This type of training is a mindset and takes a commitment to training and a dedication to the craft. These beliefs need to be instilled into the crews by expressing the importance of the actions and the mindset to succeed on the fireground. These changes may be met with opposition and pushback, but consistency and leadership will drive the crews toward proficiency. The fire service needs to ensure competence over complacency and the Line Off, Ladders Up training approach will ensure the competence of every member of the crew.

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’s degree in paramedicine and a bachelor’s degree of science in fire science administration and is pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Waldorf University. He has received his managing officer certificate from the National Fire Academy and several fire service and EMS certifications at the state and national levels. He is a member of the Iowa Society of Fire Service Instructors and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Wheeler is a certified strength and conditioning coach through the NCSA, the president of The D.A.M. F.O.O.L.S., and co-owner of Rogue Training Consulting.

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