The Roundtable: 3 Most Important Skill Sets

Opinions from Around the Country

Bobby Halton and Bill Carey

We are reinitiating the Fire Engineering Roundtable column however it will be online on Fire Engineering and FirefighterNation. We have received a lot of interest in hearing what you and others think about the major issues of the day. We thought we would open with this question:

“What are the three most important skill sets every firefighter should master in your system”?

(Table photos courtesy of Robert Shimits)

Daniel Sheridan

  1. First and foremost every firefighter needs to know their SCBA and any personal safety systems they may have ( bailouts, ropes, etc.) inside and out. They should be able to be able to don and doff without thinking about it
  2. Every firefighter needs to know where every tool is on the truck without thinking. They should know how to operate them and, if needed emergency, operations (saw conking out on a roof) ( saws, extrication tools, air bags, etc.)
  3. Every firefighters needs to maintain his/her situational awareness at all times. What floor the fire is on, where they are in relation to fire, second means of egress at all times

Eddie Buchanan

In our system, I believe the most important firefighting skills sets to master are based on water, hose and ladders.  This is based on our local staffing models, response times and response area.  We don’t have dedicated chauffeurs in our department, so pump operations are an essential skill every firefighter must master.  It is critical that every firefighter in our department understand how to get water in both municipal and rural water supply settings and be able to apply proper fire flows to the attack and supply lines.  Most importantly, they must be able to troubleshoot when something goes wrong and quickly get water to where it needs to go.  This is typically a one-person operation, so there’s no hiding from the task.  You’ve gotta get it right the first time.

Hose movement and efficiency are key to ensure the nozzle finds its way to the seat of the fire quickly.  Running 3-person minimum staffing means our firefighters must be able to overcome setbacks and obstacles quickly and efficiently to maintain a quick and effective fire attack.  We are very pleased with our departments’ ability to move a line!

Finally, I believe ladders are an often-overlooked skill that firefighters must master.  A ladder in the hands of a well-trained firefighter can be a very effective life-saving tool.  Learning how to manipulate a ladder with speed and efficiency takes practice.  It’s not just about placing a ground ladder under a window; it’s about moving that ladder from window to window; rapidly searching multiple rooms from exterior windows.  It’s about maneuvering ladders quickly, even when staffing on scene is less than ideal, and working in tight and awkward spaces.  You can tell a lot about a firefighter by watching them handle a ladder for just a few minutes.

So, I like the basics for the most important skill sets.  When you get water, hose movement and ladder placement right on the initial arrival, things tend to go your way as the incident progresses.  

David Owens

The three most important traits every firefighter should master:

1.            Ability to work together as part of a team and put the mission or success of the team above their needs.

If a firefighter is to be successful, they will need to function in a team environment. This means putting the team, organization or mission first above their individual needs

2.            Problem-solving and Reasoning

Develop the ability to recognize when something is wrong or realize when something bad is going to happen.

Develop the knowledge base to solve an issue that arises during the day. This can be a conflict in the station, a burst hose line on the fire ground or a firefighter trapped in a basement

Conduct a risk/benefit analysis in your decision making. Is the risk of the possible outcome worth the benefit. This risk could be death or injury or damage to one’s integrity.

3.            Building Construction

Mastery of building construction and the effects fire will have on those construction components, individually and, will save you and your crew for injury or death on the fire ground. Be a student of the building that is happening in your response district and share this knowledge with others on your department or region. 

Joe Pronesti

If I had a dime for every time, I heard a firefighter say “what do you want from me” I would be golfing at the absolute best courses in the nation. That said, I would say the top three things in my world of Elyria, Ohio fire department protecting 55,000 people in an old, poor, rough, depressed town out of three fire stations would be the following:

1)            We are NOT that good and THAT INCLUDES ME!

2)            Its ok to go out into your district to look at buildings

3)            Its ok to sit at the table and talk about the job and not be on the phone constantly

1)            We are NOT that good

I had the privilege to serve on the same department as my father did for thirty years, while we didn’t serve together, when I came on in 1989 we prided ourselves on the all too common refrain of  being “aggressive interior fire department”, we never trained and my mentors many of whom worked with my dad did so in the period of high fire duty and less EMS, when we arrived on the job we went right to work, freelanced more, did not complete 360s, did no real size ups, just stretch and go. My department has been paid and organized since 1906, and our IAFF number 474 tells everyone that we are OLD.

As we fast forward to 2020 we still say we have that aggressive mindset and myself in a leadership position has to be in front leading the members, but we simply don’t have the same experience and past encyclopedia of the city and buildings to go back in our collective brains, go on auto pilot and put the fire out. I am not being critical, not at all, I guess I am trying to say that we haven’t all been “there and done that”. It’s hard for me to understand that and it’s also hard to get the department to buy into that. It takes more time to be a great aerial operator or excellent pump operator, or to know where every Siamese connection is at on every building in Elyria, Ohio. Our members certainly want the training, but the self-motivation and desire just isn’t there sometimes like it should and our members including myself need to know that.

An Elyria firefighter MUST know that we don’t have the same amount of experience this job isn’t going to be learned by osmosis and its ok to get out on your own or with your crews and stretch lines, throw ladders, read a Fire Engineering, etc. not just when I tell them we are going to have a drill. We can’t rest on our laurels no matter how real or perceived they may be. 

2)            Get out into your streets and look at your buildings and housing stock:

My role as a shift commander is to lead by example but no matter how much I preach it’s up to every single member to get out and know our buildings and housing stock, we have hundreds of old wood frame multi-family and ordinary constructed dwellings that will take an incredible amount of work, effort and knowledge to battle a fire in successfully. I want to hope that everyone understands fire travel in these and that we are all on the same page when we arrive  but we must understand these structures AHEAD of the alarm, that means going out and cruising the neighborhoods, walking our downtown main street, taking our aerial out to the strip mall on a Saturday or Sunday when its quiet and practice setting up, etc. To pen a phrase from Anthony Avillo, “it’s better to know a little about a lot of buildings than a lot about a little”. Over the past twenty years my department has hired mostly members from outside the city they didn’t grow up and compounded with the lack of fire duty (see item 1) we must do a better job of getting in our buildings and understanding them. An Elyria Firefighter MUST KNOW THEIR BUILDINGS

3)            An Elyria Firefighter must know that its ok to sit and talk about the job:

I know I will sound like an old curmudgeon, but I pine for the days when as a young firefighter I would sit with my shift at the coffee table in a kitchen full of cigarette smoke and talked about the job, its ok that we put our phones down and talk at coffee its ok that we sit outside on a hot summer night and discuss a fire that occurred in our next door community or even in Baltimore, that we can read an article in Fire Engineering magazine and share with your crew. To be successful a firefighter needs to read and be up to date on the latest regardless of how long you have been on the job. I understand that today we all read on our phones and maybe that young firefighter is reading something job related on their phone but it’s important to understand that its ok to SHARE and DISCUSS.

P.J. Norwood

Most fire officers or firefighters will likely answer this question with a tactical mind-set. I want to look at three skill sets that are not tactical. However, three skill sets without you cannot be effective on the fireground

Communication — there are plenty of people today who talk a lot. Whether it be on the phone, face to face around the kitchen table or through other electronic devices. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of actual communication that occurs.

Communication requires a message that must be delivered, heard and understood by the other individual(s). By simply speaking does not mean the person it was being sent to has even heard let alone understood your message. Often the biggest breakdown is communication is not necessarily the sender of the message but often the receiver. Often the receiver is distracted, not paying attention or simply not listening. There are also times the receiver has an opinion already and has their mind is already made. In these cases, the receiver of the message is formatting their answer instead of truly hearing your message. So, one important skill set that all firefighters must have surrounds being a good communicator involves delivering a clear concise message, truly listening to what is being said, understanding the message being delivered and providing feedback that you heard and understood what was being communicated.

Trust — trust is one of our core foundation principals that we must have to be successful in the fire service. Trust is higher on my list then performance. If I need to pick some to get something done for me, I am going to choose the individual I have trust in. There may be someone who might be a little better performer in the specific task. But if there is not a high level of trust they will be overlooked.

While you must also be able to perform at the appropriate level for the task there needs to be a balance of both trust and performance. Most officers are going to always lean on those they trust before simply the high performers.

Self-Care — self-care is not something that most of think of as a skillset. Quite frankly I did not ever consider self-care for the first twenty-five plus years in the fire service. My involvement on PEER support teams and many personal challenges I found myself saying “you can’t take care of them if you don’t take care of yourself”. While this is a very easy statement to say and understand it is a very hard skill set to accomplish. As fire service professional’s it is ingrained in our DNA to take care of others and to put others first. Which is an absolute priority, to a certain extent! We have sworn an oath and we must put those that we serve at the top of the list.  We must and we will continue to put our lives on the line for those in need. That is the oath we have sworn to. However, self-care must be considered each day so we can meet the mission of the department and live up to our oath. If we don’t eat right, exercise, get appropriate sleep, obtain yearly physicals, and seek support of our PEER support and EAP programs we will not be performing at the highest level. While it is easy to understand this concept and easy for me to write about it is hard to achieve for many of us. We must begin looking in the mirror and realize there are things we need to do for us to be better for those we serve.

David Rhodes

If we are specifically speaking to the rank of firefighter I will say estimating and stretching the attack line, primary search including VES and SCBA operations including air management, emergency procedures including personal work times and limitations. Getting the line in place without delay is a critical function of all engine firefighters. Competency in this skill is essential to the success of the entire operation. Being able to conduct a search is the reason that we are there. Sizing up the building and deploying to the right location and using the proper technique will give the victim the greatest chance of survival. Knowing where to search first prioritizes actions so that those in greatest danger can be removed firsts. Last the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus allows us to accomplish those skills / tasks listed above. Full mastery of air consumption, proper operation, knowing your work times, managing your air and being proficient at problem solving and emergency procedures are essential to success.

Robin Nicoson

What a great question. but as we in this business know this job is not for everyone. so, my opinion the three most important skills needed are Desire, Dedication and Discipline

I would image most answers would be in physical tasks that are need in our business. but I believe if you  would master the  desire for the  job,  , desire to never stop learning the job, desire  to be the best  at the job and then the   dedication and self-discipline to accomplish the tasks that are  needed  you could have the best firefighter  in the world.  Those three basic skills would allow you to teach anyone to win the fight.

Ron Kanterman

Basic skill number one needed by firefighters is hose line deployment (water supply, getting the proper sized line in place, proper location) in order to accomplish effective and efficient fire extinguishment. As we know, getting water on the fire helps to alleviate all other allied issues during a fire emergency.

Basic skill number two is rescue techniques. From structural fire rescue to MVA’s to technical rescue such as confined space, high and low angle, water/ice, etc. These are the places where people expect us to “get them out” of. In large big city fire departments, there are usually enough units and personnel to “specialize” however these departments are the exception to the rule. Small fire department operations are the bulk of career and most volunteer fire departments around the nation. The firefighters of these departments need to hone most if not all these skills in order to effectively serve their communities, mutual aid aside.

The last item isn’t so cut and dry. The third skill (and I’m going out on a limb here) every fighter need is integrity (caring, kindness, etc.). It starts with the recruiting process where I believe that sometimes you want to recruit the “good” person to come on the fire department. If their firematic skills are mediocre but they can learn and are “nice” as Chief B used to say, then they are worth a shot. Most of our customer base nationwide usually comment on how nice and compassionate we were on their worst day. A west coast fire department published a booklet which they distributed to all their personnel initially and all subsequent probationary classes noted as “The West Coast Fire Department Way.” (Forgot the name of the FD.) I do however remember that the content stated who they were, how they operated, how they behave, etc. It was more like an “integrity statement.” I think it served as a great reminder of why they got into this business. A moral compass guide. I love the concept.

Water-rescue-integrity. My top three.

Jim Crawford

It is about outcomes — not outputs.  We stand to heavily on response times — and they are important.  But we must look at all the tools available to us to improve public safety and reduce risks in our communities.  If every building had fire sprinklers, our fire response would look very different.  That is not as unrealistic as it may sound — and more importantly points out the fact that there may be other ways of providing service that are ultimately more effective.  Focusing on outcomes in every line of business we have — means we can look for the most efficient and effective way of solving problems.  And that is the future of the fire service.  We can either drive that effort internally, or it will be driven externally by the same forces that constantly seek to manage and limit taxes.

Anthony Avillo

The three skill sets that must be mastered by firefighters are first and foremost how to react to and survive a life-threatening emergency on the fire ground. Whether it is in a SCBA malfunction, being trapped or caught in a collapse, or getting separated from your crew. The skill sets required are extremely perishable life and death skills that need to be mastered and reinforced repeatedly.

The second skill set is just if not more important because mastering these skills sets will hopefully prevent firefighters from getting in trouble. These are the basics. I know I am being general here but things like stretching hose, raising ladders, forcing entry and the things that we do routinely must be done with precision and competence or we wind up putting ourselves in jeopardy.

The third skill set that must be mastered is not necessarily something we teach. That third skill set is the ability to listen and follow orders. This is based on self-discipline which is a skill set that must be brought to the table. Without this critical skill set of being able to listen and follow orders all other fire ground operations become jeopardized. 

Steve Marsar

I have included two separate lists, one for each of the departments I belong to. They are different from a large, career urban dept. versus a small, suburban volunteer one:


1. Size-Up/Assigned Positional Duties/ Tool Assignments:

Due to the varying age and multitude of different buildings types throughout our varied response areas, being able to determine general characteristics of structures and our individual positional tool assignments required for each, is essential.

2. Company Responsibilities:

Whether 1st, 2nd, or 20th due, basic responsibilities are expected and written as policy. The required knowledge – especially if your assigned company has specialties or unique training such as – a Water Rescue Unit, Lobby Control Unit, Helicopter High Rise Unit, Haz Mat Technician Unit, Communications Unit, Ventilation Unit, etc., etc. – the assigned members must know what is expected of them and their specialized tools and functions.

3. Response Area:

Knowing the unique buildings, transit systems, airports, construction sites, etc. that you respond to most often or, that have the potential for the most hazardous of responses is a must for every firefighter and fire officer.

My Volunteer Department

1. Water Supply/Hoselines (sizes, deployment, supply, and positioning):

Regardless of being a Ladder Co., Engine Co., Heavy Rescue Co. firefighter, knowing the basics of hoselines and how to adapt and overcome water issues is a must in suburban firefighting. 

2. Apparatus Placement:

It Doesn’t matter if you’re the chief, flood light unit, ladies Auxiliary, Fire Police, ambulance, Engine, Ladder, or command vehicle, there are correct and incorrect placement of your vehicle at every type of emergency scene. Knowing that placement as a driver, officer, and firefighter/EMT is paramount to the success of your department. If the most important vehicle required for a given emergency is blocked out it will take time, effort, and luck to straighten it out and overcoming the mistake of poor apparatus placement. This can be the beginning of the end of a successful emergency outcome.

3. S.O.P.s/S.O.G. s/Chain of Command:

In addition to the Rules and Regulations, every new firefighter that gets sworn in must become intimately familiar with the policies and procedures of their company and department. You cannot bend the rules if you don’t know them. Also, to get off probation, to become an apparatus driver, or to become an officer, these policies and procedures should be part of a formal testing process to see if you know how your company/department is expected to operate in any given situation.

Chris Tobin

The three most important skill sets are the ones that create the most important skill.

1 Toolmanship

2 Fire Behavior

3 Building Construction

1: Toolmanship in firefighting can be defined as the required knowledge, skill and ability of hand tool to compete a task. We have an entire generation of firefighters who are experts in ladders bails and VES but are completely incompetent when handed an axe, pike pole or halligan. This is our fault as instructors, in the era of declining fire we’ve allowed once basic skill sets taken for granted to erode.

2: Fire behavior but not just in the sense of all things chemically and physically speaking. A skilled firefighter needs to understand fire behavior as well as operate in hostile fire conditions with confidence. To do this takes more than just book knowledge of fire science. It takes a subconscious competency in an IDLH environment

3: Knowing about building construction and understanding how fire moves through a building differently. A well-rounded firefighter will not only know the principles of how buildings are built but also how they react under fire conditions.

These three skill sets combine in a synergistic force multiplier creating the skill of foreseeability. This allows one to take initiative by placing themselves in the right place at the right time instead of operating from a reactive posture.

Rick Lasky

1. Stretching the initial attack line.  Probably the most important task you can perform at a structure fire is that of stretching the initial attack hoseline.  More lives are saved (and protected) by this attack line than by any other task performed on the fireground.  This is not to say that the other required tasks at a fire are not important, just that this one ranks at the very top.  The faster and more efficiently you can stretch the initial attack line into a burning building, the faster our problems tend to go away.

2. Search and Rescue.  The art of performing search and rescue inside a structure fire has suffered some over the past few years.  Proficiency in the task of staying oriented in a smoke- filled building is an absolute must.  The fact that the “5 Senses” that we were all born with are of little use inside a burning building, just proves to us that much more that we need to be proficient with this task.

3. Forcible Entry.  Being able to gain access into a structure during an emergency is key if we are going to be successful in our firefighting efforts.  Having the working knowledge and the understanding of locking mechanisms, devices, doors, windows, gates and pretty much everything that tries to keep us out, and the tools needed to get us past them, is paramount to every firefighter.

Note: Responses are solely the opinion and views of the individual and have only been edited for grammatical reasons.
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Contact Bill Carey at

(Table photos courtesy of Robert Shimits)

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