Staying Smart in the Front Seat

So much more than just playing with the siren

It was a “routine” daytime call: an automatic alarm in a private residence. I was driving an engine company with an officer on my right and one older firefighter in the crew cab. As we were responding, the officer made idle chitchat with me and I, being no better, in turn reciprocated with conversation as we continued to respond. The conversation had nothing to do with the call we were on, nor did it have the slightest relevance to our emergency mode response.

We pulled up in front of the address. As I looked toward the house, I saw smoke rising over the ridge pole from the back of the house. I turned to the officer (who was still flapping his gums) and said, “I think we got something!”

Deep Conversations with the Right People Are Priceless

However, a deep conversation during an emergency response–even with the right people–is wrong and dangerous. Although there are times and places for those conversations to take place, certainly while responding in an emergency vehicle is NOT one of them!

In the real-life story above, the rest of the “conversation” wasn’t pretty. During our mindless response blabbering, we missed a message from the dispatcher to the responding chief; the alarm company called back after speaking with the homeowner, who stated that his boiler room was on fire!

Of course, the dispatcher could have used an alert tone or made sure that each of the responding units got the additional information, but he didn’t and we didn’t get the message. Now, don’t be distracted (as I was during this response); I am not blaming the dispatcher for our mistake. Quite the contrary. I am taking full responsibility for my mistake and the lambasting we took from the fire chief as he pulled up to us stretching a preconnected attack line into the house–without a positive water supply–as we had passed the closest hydrant.

You Stupid #@$%*!

The chief screamed at me to get back in the cab and back the engine up to the closest hydrant, then to “lay in” a supply line (at that time our engines were not set up for true fire-to-hydrant evolutions) and to get out from in front of the house to leave room for the ladder truck. In my mind, we could back stretch the supply hose to the hydrant by hand (not a reality considering the age of our backstep firefighter). Besides, I already had the pump engaged, the wheels chocked, and 250 feet of 1¾-inch hose stretched to the front door.

Just as the ladder truck pulled up behind us, the chief realized that evolution was now off the table. As his normally pale Irish face flushed with bright-red, boiling blood, he let out a frustrated and audible “Aggggghhhhhh,” and we commenced our operation with the second-due engine having to adapt and overcome our water supply issue. Needless to say, the critique of our operations was less than stellar.

Can We Talk?

Riding in the front seat on either side of the console is not easy. Each member (the driver and the officer) has his own responsibilities, expertise, and procedures. The driver must know the address, the quickest route to the emergency, the location of hydrants (for engines), the type of structure involved, the possible life hazard, the 13-point size-up considerations, etc. The officer, on the other hand, after securing his seat belt, must monitor the radio, work the siren, assist the driver, don self-contained breathing apparatus, and so on.

Nowhere in the above matrix is “carry on a conversation with the person sharing the cab with you” stated. In fact, the only conversations between the officer and driver during an emergency response should be those limited to safety and speed, information (pertinent to the response and/or emergency), and route.

The valuable lesson I learned during that incident has stuck with me for many years. And I freely share it with every emergency vehicle operators course or road test candidate I encounter. I am ashamed that I was caught so ill prepared for a fire purely based on an officer who couldn’t keep his mouth shut and my ignorance to partake in the other half of the conversation.

The Only Thing Harder Than Planning for A Response Is Explaining Why You Didn’t!

Can an officer prepare not to carry on a conversation with the driver during a response? Can the officer stop the driver from carrying on a conversation during a response? The seemingly obvious answer is yes. Just like we drill and prepare for a multitude of emergencies, this simple response policy can be easily overlooked. This is a training opportunity.

It makes sense that when we drive around in the nonemergency mode we, as humans, interact and converse. It’s what we do. It is a good way to get to know our team members, catch up on department happenings, and discuss our response areas and the like. However, it must be understood that when the bells/tones/whistles go off, we need to focus. We need to go into hyper-attack mode and know that nonessential talk must cease.

Officers, think about this the next time you respond. Resist the urge to speak to your drivers, especially in the emergency mode. They have enough to think and worry about. Share pertinent information with them; keep the response safe; and ensure that you do not miss any vital cues, clues, or messages that may be swirling around you. Stay focused on your mission.

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