*Image from Bayonne, NJ Fire Department website
Whew! Well after that blow we all deserve a break on 'da tailboard and a nice hot cup of regulah. Everyone got one? Let's just have a nice chat then shall we?
When I first began driving fire apparatus I had been on the job about 3 years. I say that because nowadays it seems as if there is a big rush to get new guys driving. Now, don't get me wrong, three years was still new but today we've got guys and gals still on probation driving and pumping rigs. It's my opinion that this is too soon. These youngsters have enough to learn and worry about without all of the knowledge and responsibility that comes with driving. That's my opinion, anyway. But, with the fire service being what it is today we probably just have to accept this new trend and do the best we can to train the pups. When I was going through Driver/Operator training I learned that the D/O's position was the most important one on the fireground and the "craziest 10-minutes in firefighting" followed by an hour or more of shear boredom. I'd like to challenge the last part of that statement.
The academy where I teach rents out the facility to area departments who do not have their own burn facilities etc. Depending on what that department is doing there are also between 1 and sometimes as many as 10 staff instructors on-hand who act as stokers and saftey personnel. Because of this role I get to see a lot of other departments techniques and training evolutions. It was one of these evolutions that got me thinking about this topic. The department was a smaller one, with only two stations and about 10 guys a shift. Because of this they did not use permanent apparatus assignments, everyone did everything, including operate as a D/O. So the drill they were conducting that day utilized the burn tower and was going to start as an automatic fire alarm response which would quickly escalate. This department runs two Engines and a Truck each day so it was planned that the evolution would be run 3 times, to give everyone a chance at being first and second due Engine and once on the Truck. I was acting as a liason to the visiting Battalion Chief that day so I basically showed everyone around, answered questions, operated the cascade for them etc. etc. But during the evolutions I had no real responsibilites so I had the perfect opportunity to sit back and watch.
What got me watching initially was the first-due Engineer on the first evolution, not necessarily because I was looking for something but because where the apparatus was spotted blocked where the action was really taking place and I was really comfortable on my buddies tailgate where I had sat down. He was quick, efficient and obviously knew his job. He got the pump in service, charged the attack line, switched over from tank to hydrant water flawlesly and did an overall good job. The evolution went pretty smoothly, the objectives were met, things were re-packed, the guys were given a little break and their new assignments and then it was go-time again. Here's where things got interesting.
The second evolution D/O started things out pretty much like the first. Again, this was initially an AFA response. He pulled up and spotted the rig, but he did something different from the first guy. He got out with the rest of his crew and looked down both sides of the building (B and D). He then went and stood at the front of the rig watching what was going on. When the report of "smoke on the second floor" came over the radio he was off like a shot. Into the cab, rig in pump. Out of the rig to the curb-side where he pulled the line and then placed it on the backstep man's shoulder when he came back out the door. Flaked off some extra line, back to the pump panel. Waited for the order for water and charged the line. Throttled up, set the pressure, confirmed via radio that the nozzle had water and pressure. Ran to the ass-end of the rig and back-stretched two 3" lines to the yard haydrant about 400 feet away, made the hydrant, returned to the pump panel, checked his gauges and switched over to hydrant water. It was at about this time that the second-due Engine arrived. Back to the curb-side, shouldered the roof and 24' ladders and placed them near the A side of the building. Back to the ass-end and dropped both of this department's extra bundled lines and dragged them to the same location. Back to the pump panel to check his gauges again. Right about then was when the scenario started going South with a change in fire conditions, a Mayday, etc. In the next 10 minutes or so I watched this guy throw a 24' ladder by himself as a second means of egress, get two additional hand lines in service, stretch lines to the Tower and throw a 35' by-him-freaking-self as a third means of egress! So much for that whole "hour or more of boredom". And he did all this without a single order from anyone on the fireground. Freelancing? Not in my book. In my book freelancing is something that you do that could adversely affect the firefight or conditions or which could lead to serious injury or worse to yourself or others, and all without orders. In no way did this guy do that. He saw things that needed to be done in line with the scenario that was unfolding and he did them while all the while keeping tabs on the overall big picture (I saw him multiple times react to information being broadcast over the radio, including the placement of the two egress ladders) and his water supply situation. The first D/O did a good job, this guy was freakin' awesome at is job.
Too often D/O's, Engineers, Pump Operators, Chauffers, whatever you call them are chained to their pump panels. This is either because of orders and SOP's, because they just don't know any better or for various reasons they're scared to leave that position. Many departments say right in their SOP's that the D/O will not leave the pump panel. This is usually due to wanting to have someone constantly monitoring the guages in case something goes wrong. I basically agree with that but don't think that the guy needs to stand right there every second staring unblinkingly at them either. Some guys just never think to do anything else other than their basic water supply responsibilities. They see that as their only responsibility because, again, for a couple hundred years we've been teaching guys and gals that supplying water to the attack line is their only and most important job. And then some guys are just too scared to leave the panel. This usually boils down to two things; insecurity in their abilities as a D/O and not wanting to get "in trouble" for doing something they're not "supposed" to. The former is a training issue and the latter, in my opinion again, is just bullshit. If you see somethig that needs doing and it's not gonna take you to the other side of the building, freaking do it! But 'dats just me.
When I was learning I was taught to "dump the rig." That meant the ground ladders, spare lines, tools, air bottles etc. That seems to have been lost along the way. Maybe some places don't teach it. Maybe some places just want their D/O to get water and that's it. I still think that just about anything on the A side of the building (or whatever side is in front of you) should be the D/O's domain to roam. In general the distance you would be away from the panel would not be that great that you couldn't get back to it in a timely manner if you heard a change in motor pitch or something over the radio indicating a problem. Most places, especially smaller departments, don't have the luxury of beginning inital offensive operations with two or three companies on the scene (I know, I know. 2-in-2-out. Another discussion). If guys are going in they should have more than one way out. Throw a ladder to the second floor window and then broadcast its position on the radio. If you have a top floor or attic job throw the 24' and the roof. When the truckies get there all they have to do is shoulder the roof and go up and start cutting. Maybe even hook a pike to a rung so they have that there too. There are lots of things an D/O can do that isn't necassarily their "job".
There's another thing that is most definitely an D/O's job. You need to have your eyes and ears open and sometimes use your mouth. What I mean by that is, because most of the time we aren't stretching additional lines and throwing big ladders by ourselves, we do have the opportunity to watch the fire scene and listen to the radio. As D/O's we may see and hear things that other members miss because they are focused on the task a couple feet in front of their masks. When we see these things we cannot be scared to act or key the radio. Because my company can respond as a special service unit or an additonal Engine we do use our pump a fair amount. I happended to be filling in as the D/O on a day when our regular guy was off and as luck would have it we caught a first-due job. It was a fairly straight-forward residential job with fire on the second floor in what looked like a bedroom. My guys were advancing in and I could see some steam conversion taking place when a portion of the roof suddenly came in and a very large volume of fire issued forth from the hole. I never hesitated and I never questioned my actions for a moment. The air-horns were sounding for an evacuation before anyone got on the radio. Later on, my Luft and the two step guys told me that they had no idea what had heppened. One minute they're hitting some moderate fire down a hall and the next they're on their bellies in pitch black and the heat felt like a blast furnace door had just been opened. When they heard the horns they knew something unrecoverable had happened and bailed right away. On another job my partner and I were assigned as the rear VES crew. We had vented a window and my partner had entered for the search while I stayed on the ladder as his safety. There was an Engine assigned to the rear in the alley and the crew had entered the building for another assignment, leaving the D/O at the rig. While my partner was inside and my attention was focused on him the D/O spotted a head and arm appear at a different window above and to the left of us, for just a second, before disappearing back into the smoke. He immediately radioed to us and relayed all the information, even walking us in over the radio to the correct window and correct height as we extended the ladder. Later when we were told we would be receiving a commendation for the rescue we both insisted the D/O be honored as well. It was more his rescue than ours. It ain't just about the water brothers and sisters.
Since many departments don't have permanent riding positions many of you who may read this operate as an D/O from time-to-time. Keep these things I've talked about in mind but operate within your particular organizations SOP's. I don't want any e-mails blaming me for days off, you lunk-heads. If you have the leeway to throw a ladder or do some of the other things I talked about, then do it. Just don't go venting windows and things willy-nilly. That's not what I mean.
Now getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and go practice your job!