Should the first-in truck company officer assume command or begin the search for the fire? SOGs that define individual and crew responsibilities will help standardize command and control operations and ultimately create a safer, more effective fireground. Photo Jamie Nicholson
At any fire, the officer of the first-in truck company can be one of the most important individuals on scene, because their initial duties include finding the fire with their crew—while keeping their crew safe—and alerting the engine company to the fire’s location as well as the best way to get a hoseline into position. (We should all know the quote, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”)
Why Find the Fire?
Let’s get down to basics here. Why do we want the truck company officer to find the fire? Anyone who’s ever been at a fire where the hoseline was stretched to the wrong location can answer that question. The fire location may not be the caller’s location. In one instance in my career, a caller reported smoke in his apartment on the top floor of a five-story multiple dwelling in the front wing. We responded to the caller’s apartment and found a moderate smoke condition. Members were dispatched to the floor below to search for the fire. The fire was eventually located in the rear wing in the apartment abutting the caller’s apartment. The stairway in the building had no well hole, so the hose stretch was six lengths into the building. If the engine company had stretched to the reported location of the fire before confirming its actual location, there could have been major delays in getting water on the fire.
In certain situations, even if you commit to a location before it’s been confirmed and you end up out of position, the second line can get the fire under control quickly. On the other hand, in situations where there’s limited staffing and resources, repositioning the line will take time, allowing the fire to extend. In short, the truck company officer and their crew need to find the fire before the engine company goes charging into the structure.
Not So Easy
Finding the fire can be a difficult task. This has been the case at some fires I responded to where the fire was located in the attic space or cockloft. At one incident, the truck company was searching for the fire for about 10 minutes. The fire was reported to be on the top floor, and upon arrival there, we had an odor of smoke, which smelled of wood—but no actual fire. Turns out that the fire was in a cockloft with blown-in insulation, so the thermal imaging camera (TIC) couldn’t see it. We knew we had something burning on the top floor but simply couldn’t find it. The fire was eventually discovered by the roof firefighter who was using the TIC to look down through the roof. Fortunately, the line had been stretched to the top floor, and the engine crew brought enough line to cover the entire top floor—a proactive and professional move by a good engine company.
One major issue with first-in truck company officers being assigned the task of finding the fire: What if that officer has to assume command? In most departments, the first-arriving officer assumes command at the fire and sets up a command post. They notify dispatch of conditions and resources needed.
But consider this: At almost all fires, the first-in company is an engine company. So the engine officer assumes command and has the company prepare to stretch a hoseline. Any well-trained engine company that’s empowered to make decisions as a unit should be able to stretch a line to the front of a building and estimate the amount of hose needed to complete the task at hand. If not, then it’s time to return to the basics.
So why do I bring this up? Some fire officers have raised these questions: What happens if they’re the truck company officer, and as they arrive on scene they have to relieve the engine company officer as the IC because they out-rank them? Who is going to be assigned the duty of locating the fire? If the truck officer is the IC, does that mean that the engine company officer assumes the truck duties, or is one of the truck crew firefighters now acting as the boss until the officer is relieved at the command post?
The answers to these questions actually require more questions. First, what are your department’s standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for this situation? What do these SOGs say about who’s replacing the line officer and who’s the acting IC until the arrival of a chief officer? These questions must be addressed and solved before a situation develops on the fireground.
Departments that have limited resources and/or chief officers responding from a distance need to have an established plan to ensure that someone is responsible for finding the fire and devising a way to get a hoseline in place to extinguish it. If we don’t have a plan, then we’re opening the door to the possibility of making mistakes and risking our crews’ safety. One solution: Although some departments may require the most senior officer arriving on scene to assume command, in this case it’s probably best to have the engine officer maintain command and allow the truck company officer to continue with the assigned task of locating the fire. Keep in mind, the less we transfer command, the less likely we are to miss critical communications and/or overlook critical task.
What other duties is the truck company officer responsible for? Once the officer has found the fire and communicated its location to the engine officer or members of the company responsible for stretching the line, they must then alert them to the safest route to get the line in place and operating. If the route is blocked by furniture, debris, toys or bicycles, those items should be removed for a more efficient stretch.
The other action that the truck company officer can undertake: confinement of the fire. This can be accomplished by either closing a door or using a pressurized water extinguisher. Confining the fire allows for a more thorough search of the area and allows the engine company to stretch the hoseline while the truck limits fire development.
Once a hoseline is in place and operating, then the truck officer’s duties switch to search. A primary search of the fire area or the entire structure is required. When doing a primary search, we’re looking for trapped occupants, fire extension and secondary means of egress. Once the primary search is complete, a secondary search is required and should be done by a different company, or at least different members. This might be a good time to relieve the first-in unit if the resources are available. Allow the first-in unit to take a break and allow other units to get a piece of the fire.
It’s critical that the first-in truck company officer know what they’re responsible for. After all, they are a vital part of the overall plan and success of the fire attack. The officer is ultimately responsible for locating the fire and ensuring the safety of their team, and they must continually do a personal size-up and maintain situational awareness. They must also keep in mind that if the fire cannot be found in a reasonable amount of time or the resources on hand are not sufficient to deal with this fire, they must make the call for a defensive operation.