Second-Due Engine Roles & Responsibilities

Getting the first line into service may accomplish more for life safety than any other tactic on the fireground.

Many factors affect the first line’s deployment: the composition of the engine company crew the building size and type the terrain the size of the line used the hose loads on the engine company the type and number of other responding companies and the amount and type of training performed. This column focuses specifically on the roles and responsibilities of the second-due engine and their assistance with stretching the first fire line.

The Fight to be First

Any discussion of the second-due engine company’s role must acknowledge the competitive side of the fire service (which is good). How many times have you been assigned to an engine company and tried to beat the first-due engine company to the fire location? Most firefighters would agree that there’s nothing better than being first due especially when you aren’t supposed to be first due.

On routine room-and-contents fires involving one or two rooms only a couple of firefighters will actually see the fire. It’s not uncommon however for many other firefighters to try to get to the seat of the fire sometimes abandoning other key jobs and overlooking simple tasks that can assist in getting the first line in service. Many of us have been involved in a race to the entrance door with hose on our shoulder a few elbow checks in the stairwell or even passing another fire line caught under a door or in a pile on a stair landing enabling us to get past the first-due engine.

When engine companies compete to advance separate lines to the fire are we really extinguishing the fire in the safest most effective manner? We’ve often heard that “The first 10 minutes of a fire dictate the next 2 hours.” Or “The first hoseline puts out 90 percent of the fires we make.” This is absolutely true. Doesn’t it then make sense to get that line in service in the safest most effective manner possible? Put another way: During this competition to get the first line in service what’s happening to the fire? What’s happening to the integrity of the building? And more importantly what’s happening to the safety and survivability of the environment within which you’ll be working?

Change Your Mindset

A single engine company should be able to easily stretch a fire line into most one- or two-story single family dwellings. But in larger or multiple-story dwellings the stretch can become more difficult especially if the fire isn’t on the first floor. Stretches into multi-family occupancies off standpipe valves and into high-rise and commercial occupancies are often much more difficult.

The apparatus operator not included many engine companies in the United States have only one or two people to advance the first line meaning that they might not have the staffing available to quickly get a fire line into service to accomplish fast containment and extinguishment.

This is where the role of the second-due engine company comes into play and it’s important regardless of the department’s size. We were amazed when we came from smaller fire departments to the larger city fire department to see how many people arrived within a couple of minutes and how fast everything occurred. Unfortunately throwing a lot of people at a fire doesn’t make it go away. But a sufficient complement of firefighters performing specific disciplined tasks does help. The second engine company at a fire in a multi-family dwelling in rural America can have the same impact as a second engine company in urban America if they take a minute to assist the first company with their stretch.

Being part of a second-due engine then requires a change in your mindset: You must realize you won’t get water on the fire first and you probably won’t see the fire. Your role instead should be to assist the first engine company in ensuring their line is positioned and in service. Then you can stretch a back-up line.

Helping Stretch the First Line

So if we can agree that the second-due engine is going to work to support the first-due engine in stretching the first line what’s the best way to provide such support?

At the task-level work assisting the first-due may include the following rules:

  • Don’t compete for first water. Ensure that the first engine is in position and supplied with the best water source.
  • When you’re approaching with a mindset of assisting the first due you won’t be approaching from opposite directions. This is the best way to protect the means of egress and confine the fire away from occupants.
  • Help advance the hose around obstacles outside and inside the building. Usually a proficient engine operator will help flake hose on the outside but the actions of firefighters inside the structure are equally important. Doors corners and all turns in the hose make deployment and advancement difficult.
  • Remove any kinks in the line caused by poor hose deployment or construction features.
  • Assist in stretching the line up stairwells. Return-type stairs scissor-stairs or stairs that stretch around elevator shafts can hamper the speed of the stretch.

Remember: When the first line can’t get to the fire the small problem won’t stay small for long.

The smaller fire will extend to void spaces and other rooms heat the building and could lead to flashover.

Proof Positive

If your crew is still resistant to the need for second-due support consider running some training evolutions to show the effect such support can have.

In Cincinnati we conducted hose-deployment training that involved multiple timed assessments of all the fire companies on each shift. These evolutions were conducted in our burn building that all our firefighters are intimately familiar with.

First we had a single engine company stretch a fire line to the third floor of our burn building. The crew then called for water donned masks and advanced the line just as they would at a fire. When they reached a defined point on the third floor and flowed water they stopped. We then told them their time and critiqued the evolution with them and the other companies.

Next we had another engine company perform the same stretch and when about 1 minute of time elapsed we placed a second engine company into the evolution without any specific directions except to assist the first company.

The results were startling: Time and again the second company was able to cut in half the time required by the first company to stretch a line.

The tests prove that the second-due engine company plays a critical role in achieving the overall mission: Put the fire out fast and keep the small problem small.

You Can Make a Difference

Getting the first line in service quickly is extremely important for the survivability of trapped occupants and for the safety of the firefighters trying to perform search operations.

Even if your fire department doesn’t support the concept of the second-due engine assisting the first-due as an engine company officer you can take small steps to ensure the first line gets in service fast. In Cincinnati we don’t have a steadfast rule that the second-due must assist the first engine company; however many rank-and-file firefighters have taken it upon themselves to assist the first line and then get the back-up line in service. Those who do this have seen a big difference.

Sometimes the procedures in place need revisiting. Conduct your own tests. When you prove it works try to adjust your alarm assignments and procedures to allow companies to work together to get the first water on the fire fast. Keep it simple: Stretch the first line help to stretch the first line stretch a back-up line and stretch a line to the floor above the fire—and so on.

Remember: Putting the fire out is the greatest lifesaving action you can perform on the fireground and sometimes the first line is the only shot you’ve got to do it.

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