Responding to a structure fire can be the easiest or the most challenging assignment a rural fire department deals with. Location, weather conditions, size of building and volume of fire are just a few of many conditions the officer must be prepared to consider.
The most important aspect of any rural response: staffing. Success or failure of operations depends largely on staffing—and not just the number of personnel available. Training, experience, attitude and abilities are some of the factors that combine to determine the outcome of the response.
Let’s consider one way of limiting variables in staffing at your rural response: seating assignments.
Who Does What?
Responses in the rural areas of North America are as varied and challenging as any. Although we may not be climbing up high-rises or diving into subway incidents, the rural environment offers firefighters many different types of alarms that our city brothers and sisters might not even imagine. Just like the large-city fire department, we must be ready to react to whatever the situation is.
Job assignments can be determined in many different ways. Career fire departments typically have job assignments predetermined before response. The tasks or title and the individual personnel on duty in a career fire department usually determine riding positions: those personnel who are assigned to a station or a company, the tasks that will need to be accomplished upon arrival and/or the position on the apparatus where these personnel ride.
Volunteer fire departments, however, often don’t know who will respond to any specific alarm. This creates a challenge for determining who will do what tasks.
Many volunteer fire departments overcome at least part of this challenge with assigned-duty crews, which stand by or stay at the fire station for a given period. This guarantees the number of personnel that will be responding to any alarm in this period. It also allows the chief or company officer to assign people to specific functions or tasks prior to the response.
Anyone involved in the fire service for more than a few alarms knows the safest and most efficient operations occur when trained, experienced firefighters and officers respond to and perform at an emergency. Although we’re involved in one of the most dangerous occupations on the planet, we can certainly put some more of the odds in our favor with proper planning. Prearranging seating and assignments is one of those things we can control—and it costs almost nothing to implement.
Assigned seating on fire apparatus simply determines what actions a firefighter will likely perform on the fireground. Obviously, there has to be some flexibility in the assignments. But if a person is riding on an engine as the “supply line” person, they know there’s a likelihood that they’ll be getting off of the apparatus to lay a supply line. Firefighters assigned as the “attack crew” have a pretty good chance of stretching the first preconnect into a building fire.
Because fire apparatus seating differs by manufacturer, cab style and department preference, and because all fire departments, alarms and regions are slightly different, these assignments or titles may—and should—vary across the fire service.
Before You Begin
Assigned riding positions can be accomplished many ways. Most fire departments that employ this method usually look at their typical responses for a given period of time, say 3 to 5 years. By reviewing fire reports for such a period, they are able to assess what types of alarms they typically respond to, what tasks were performed and what positions or assignments might accomplish these tasks in the most safe and efficient manner.
For example, every rural firefighter expects to respond to a structure fire at which water will be applied. But have you taken the time to determine how many structure fires you actually responded to in a 1-year period? How about a 5-year period? What types of structures did the responses involve and what challenges did they pose? What hoselays and attack procedures were employed? Were there more motor vehicle accidents and vehicle fires than structure fires? Would this justify modifying assignments on your apparatus?
Use this data to reevaluate your protocols. You may find, for example, that the seat dedicated to ladder raises is less useful to your day-to-day operations if you respond more often to vehicular incidents than to structure fires.
What the Seats Will Say
The person behind the wheel of the apparatus is, of course, responsible for driving the apparatus to and from the alarm. But what are the other responsibilities of the driver/operator? On a truck company, they may be part of the outside team. On a rural response to a single-family dwelling fire, the driver may be assigned to assist with raising and placing ground ladders in the event of rescue. On an engine company, the driver is typically expected to operate at the pump panel, as well as to hook up the supply line to a predetermined intake connection if the engine made a forward hoselay. Generally speaking, engine company riding assignments involve the driver doing pump operations and possible hoseline connections.
The officer’s riding position is almost always assigned to the seat beside the driver in the cab so the officer is able to listen to and speak over the radio, see the emergency as they approach and make a size-up based on the available information. They may be expected to do many different things in a rural response, but the officer is almost always assigned the overall safety of the crew, regardless the type of alarm.
Consider assigning the two seats behind the driver and officer or two seats in the center of the rear seats as the attack crew or first line. Ideal staffing would permit at least two firefighters to stretch the first preconnect to a structure fire. On other calls, these two seats might still be expected to stretch the first attack line.
Another seat may determine which person will be responsible for getting off the apparatus and performing the tasks associated with a forward or reverse hose lay with the engine. This firefighter may stay with the hoseline as the engine moves to or away from the fire.
Remember: There is no single seating assignment to suit all departments or every vehicle. Focus on safe operations based on the number of people riding on a specific piece of apparatus as you create assignments.
If seats are unoccupied during a response, it must be determined who will perform those tasks or whether those tasks can go undone. Once again, a great deal of flexibility must be permitted, but written standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and extensive training on seating assignments will establish safe and proficient operations at an emergency.
Volunteer departments might on occasion have members riding in a position with which they are not extremely familiar. Many volunteer departments therefore place a tag or sign at each seat or seating area with the title and functions of that seat. This assists the firefighter who may not have been in this position recently or who may not be as active as others who typically ride in any position.
Assignments on other rural pieces of apparatus are as simple as the functions required by that equipment. A person riding beside the driver of a tanker in the officer’s position may not have a lot of decisions to make if the tanker is involved in hauling water during a tanker shuttle. On the other hand, this position might be assigned to spot the driver/operator as they back up to a fill or dump site. This position might even be vacated by SOG if the fire department doesn’t feel that someone needs to ride with the driver when staffing is critically short.
Final determinations of the riding position titles, tasks and expectations should be made collectively by your fire department after due diligence. Review alarms, changes in responses and past performances and allow these findings to determine the assignments. Put them down in writing and ensure each member of your department is familiar with what is expected of them.
The next critical step is training. Each member must understand the roles required by each piece of apparatus and where precisely they fit in. Safe and efficient operations in rural fire department responses are the product of forethought and lots of training. Stay safe!
Sample Assigned Seating Arrangement
Engine Company--Typical 6-Seat Cab
Drives, positions apparatus per officer, chocks wheels, operates pump, may hook up supply or other hoselines, helps with scene safety and lighting, assists crew as available
Verifies everyone is seatbelted, performs continual size-up, gives an on-scene report, establishes command, gives orders, verifies water supply, enters with crew, carries tools, maintains crew safety and accountability
ATTACK CREW (3):
Along with position 4 FF, stretches first attack line, dons SCBA and enters (if interior operation), reports to officer or command about conditions and progress, uses situational awareness, works safely
ATTACK CREW (4):
Along with position 3 FF, stretches first attack line, dons SCBA and enters (if interior operation), reports to officer or command about conditions and progress, uses situational awareness, works safely
WATER SUPPLY (5):
Gets off of apparatus with supply line, wraps hydrant or object on forward lay, hooks to hydrant or supply engine, joins position 6 FF and helps stretch second attack line or set ground ladder
Makes intake connection to engine on forward lay, discharge connection if reverse lay, joins position 5 FF and helps stretch second attack line or set ground ladder