When a person chooses the fire service as a career, he or she also accepts necessary involvement in circumstances which may or may not be under her or his control. The work world of the firefighter is full of routine and yet full of danger. In any given day on the job, one can go from performing some mundane task like painting a fire hydrant, to physically rescuing someone in under less than ten minutes. In some ways, it is the attraction of the fire service; in other ways, it is a liability.
This chapter is limited to the fire combat role, in order to provide a sense of perspective. In earlier chapters, we discussed several related jobs that have different work days. In the interest of time and space, this section will only deal with the entry level firefighter situation.
Fire Department Organization
Typically, firefighters are assigned to crews that are called "companies." A fire company usually consists of an officer, an apparatus operator, and one or two firefighters. They are normally assigned to a specific piece of fire equipment, like an engine or Pumper Company or sometimes an aerial or truck company. Depending on local conditions, there may be one or two fire companies assigned to each fire station. Normally fire companies are assigned to work "shifts." These shifts vary from department to department. In most of the country the shifts are for a 24 hour period. In some parts of the country the shifts are for 10 or 14 hours, and the crews rotated from day to night shift periodically.
Each shift is referred to as a "platoon." Typically a platoon or shift is referenced by the letters A, B, or C. If a department has more than five or six fire stations, a platoon is broken down into "battalions." These are groupings of fire companies which protect specific geographical areas and operate under the command of one chief officer. In large cities, there may even be many different battalions.
Another aspect of the life of the firefighter is the fact that the fire station is like a home away from home. Because they work in "shifts" and in "companies" there is a tendency in the fire service to be very fraternalistic. When a person has to spend an entire twenty four hour shift with another person, a type of bonding occurs that's very different from other jobs. Firefighters must eat together, they must work together, and they must face danger together. There are very few jobs where camaraderie and the spirit of cooperation are as important as they are in the fire service.
To show how a work shift for a firefighter might involve several of these factors, we will follow an imaginary firefighter from the time the shift starts to the following morning when the shift goes off duty. Granted, there are days when a firefighter can be bored to death, but they are in the minority. The majority of the shifts that a firefighter works will resemble the following scenario very closely. The actual amount of activity and intensity of the activity varies a great deal. Fire company workloads usually depend on the type of community served industrial, urban, or isolated.
Fictional Firefighter Russell At Work
In order to make this chapter realistic, we have created a fictional firefighter in order to give you the flavor of the fire service.
Some people just show up for work. They don't concern themselves about what has happened while they were gone, and they don't care what happens after they leave. Firefighter Christopher Russell doesn't feel that way, for a very good reason. He is assigned to the truck company, a 100 foot aerial ladder stationed at Headquarters of any town, USA. What has happened since he left the station 24 hours before may affect his life in the next 24 hours. As he enters the fire station from the back of the dormitory, he notices that the hose tower is full of wet fire hose. Yesterday wasn't scheduled for a wet hose lay drill, so that could mean that the crew fought fire yesterday.
The observation is reinforced as he pours himself the first cup of coffee for the day. The A shift is up and about, but that's about all. Sprawled in the chairs around the room, they exhibit the familiar characteristic of men who have been up all night. They are groggy and anxious for some sleep. They are tired, but retain their sense of humor. Christopher notes that the two captains are in the office with the door closed. His captain will assume command of the shift at 0800 hours. His captain is talking in an animated fashion with the other captain.
The contrast between the on coming shift and the off going one is stark. Christopher and the rest of B shift are in crisp, clean uniforms. Shaved and polished they look ready to assume their duty. A shift on the other hand looks thrashed. Most are in their turnout clothing, with rumpled T shirts rudely tucked in and unshaven faces showing the signs of lack of sleep, stress and stain.
Tiredness doesn't affect the banter, however. Customarily shift changes in the firehouse serve three purposes. The first is to exchange important information about broken or missing equipment, and to discuss new policies and procedures and work that cannot wait until the shift returns. The second purpose is to formally exchange responsibility from one shift to the other one company logs out, the other logs in. The third reason is to catch up on the latest gossip, jokes, and rumors. Included in category three is the friendly harassment that goes on between the respective personnel and shifts.
No one is exempt. The two shifts overlap for a period of about thirty minutes to carry out the ritual. During that interval Christopher discovers that the air cylinders in the breathing apparatus on Truck One had to be dealt with immediately. Last night's fire depleted the bottles below departmental standards. They need to be refilled; that will be top priority. The entire crew's life may depend on that air sometime later the same day. He also discovers that the crew received a phone call last night from a girl who had asked for him by name. Several remarks were made regarding Chris's social life.
As soon as the off going shift gathers their personal belongings and leave, an air of calm comes over the station. For about ten minutes the crew merely sits around, sipping on their second cups of coffee and reading the material on the clipboard and bulletin boards. Presently the company officer emerges from the office; he spends the remainder of the shift exchange period going over the day's work schedule with the crew. As usual, the emphasis is on readiness and routine. The officer had a full schedule of events for the day. Chris knows without direction that the top priority is to make sure that Truck One will be ready to answer the bell. Other activities for the day are prioritized too, but all in descending order from the duty to be ready to roll. While the captain reviews the schedule, Chris makes mental notes on the details of his responsibilities in the completion of the day's tasks. Today the tasks range from the menial to the mentally demanding. The station kitchen is to be "dutied" (given a special amount of attention during its cleaning), and there is a pre fire planning session at the chemical plant.
When the crew splits up each member does her or his tasks with a minimum of supervision. The officer returns to the office to begin the paperwork for the day. Chris is assigned to the dormitory and restroom area. He goes to the apparatus room and helps the apparatus operator get the bottles back in shape on the breathing apparatus. The crew of the engine company busily checks the inventory of the engine.
Housekeeping is always a chore, but in a fire station it is an essential part of a disciplined life style. Chris and firefighter Karen Evans from the truck company spend from 0830 to 0930 getting the station into to proper shape; they square away the beds and clean the restroom thoroughly. In as much as fire stations employ several shifts of personnel, cleanliness is essential to good health and compatibility. The other shifts did their part by keeping the debris of the former night to a minimum. In the firehouse tradition, everyone picks up after herself or himself. Chris and his partner make sure that all facilities are ready for inspection.
The captain of the engine company calls his crew for coffee break a little earlier than the truck company. The engine company is due to go to the drill tower at 1000 for a series of drills on hose handling under supervision of the department's training officer. Sometimes Chris and the truck company train with the Engine Company, but today work separately. While the personnel on the engine prepare for their drill, Chris helps the engineer of the truck company finish. Chris will be taking an examination for the job of apparatus operator in less than 6 months, so he never turns down a chance to operate on the equipment.
With a belch of gray blue diesel smoke, the engine company crew leaves the station and heads for the training tower. The two crews exchange comments about what "real" firefighters would be doing during their day. Chris feels a pang of remorse about not getting to engage in the physical task of pulling and stretching the fire hose. Today he will perform inspections, while the task pales in comparison; it is just as important as fire suppression.
Just as they sit down at the dining room table, the first bell sounds. As the dispatcher calls out the address and response district, Chris moves quickly to his position on the truck company. The call is for a reported structure fire in an apartment complex. Putting on his turnout’s suit, Chris mentally reviews what he knows about the complex: access, type of construction, shapes of buildings, and such come quickly to mind because he has been in the buildings many times on pre-plans or inspections.
The siren on the truck has just barely gone through its second oscillation when the engine company reports that they are on the scene and can handle the call. Conflicting feelings ripple through Chris' mind, a combination of relief that the fire is not serious and a sense of frustration caused by being geared up for the fight and then being brought back down so quickly. Once Chris had admitted these conflicting feelings to an old veteran firefighter who had confessed to Chris that he had them too and would probably have them until the day he retired.
Pre-Fire Planning Session
The crew never finishes coffee break. They are scheduled to be at the chemical plant at 1030. The captain does not want to be late, so they just gather the necessary paperwork. The captain has a sheath of papers about the plant on the clipboard, including a plot plan of the structure, records of previous inspections, some inspection guidelines, and various reports to be submitted after the inspection.
As they drive to the plant, Chris reflects on the fact that since becoming a firefighter three years ago he has been inside practically every commercial structure they pass. He has spent hundreds of hours learning the anatomy of the business and industrial community. He knows thousands of details about the "first in" district that he responds to, it never seems to stop. The more he learns the more he finds to learn.
The inspection doesn't take long. The captain meets with the plant foreman; they take a brief tour around the exterior of the plant and then go into the buildings. The apparatus driver stays on the rig, in case a call comes in. One hour later the crew emerges. They have checked exits, looked at electrical panels, reviewed the inspection dates on fire protection systems, and discovered that a new ethylene oxide tank has been installed in the rear of one of the buildings. That information will have to be relayed to the Fire Marshall, to be put on the bureaus records.
Mealtime at the Station
Lunch is uneventful, except that it is prepared by the rookie Danny Kelly. Danny is the newest member of Truck One. While he is enthusiastic, his culinary skills are somewhat lacking. Typically, the task of preparing meals rotates among the members of the fire company. This usually assures that one or more of the meals served during a shift will provide the energy necessary to survive the shift. Danny underestimates the appetites of the eleven men assigned to Headquarters and comes up a bit short of helpings.
Truck One and Engine One eat together most of the time. Mealtime in the fire station is an important part of the lifestyle of the firefighter. Firefighters always seem to be together on drills, on emergencies, and at the meal table. Much of the camaraderie on the team begins at the dining room table and is tested on the fire ground.
The first part of the afternoon is devoted to a little bit of housekeeping again. After the meal is cleaned up, the crew goes about the task of straightening the station again. Chris turns on the television to watch part of the World Cup Soccer series while the others read or talk about plans for their days off. They return to work at 1300.
Public Assist Call
The bells sound for the second time during the shift at 1342. This time the call is for a public assist. A lady let her three year old granddaughter go into the bathroom by herself. The child played with the lock and locked herself in the bathroom. A Code Two response (no red lights and sirens) to the scene puts Chris and the crew at the scene within five minutes of the lady's panicked call to the dispatch center. Eleven minutes later the frightened child and grateful grandmother were reunited.
At 1520 the captain announces the drill for the day. The engine company has already done their training for the day, so it will not be a multi company drill. About thirty minutes earlier, the engine company had left the station to perform in service fire inspections of the business community. This week they were concentrating on the public assemblies like restaurants and theatres.
Today's training for the truck company relates to the activities of their engine company counterparts; the drill is on high rise firefighting tactics. A lot of the details that firefighters need to know to fight a high rise fire are founded in good fire prevention practices.
Training is a type of prevention too. Chris has never fought a high rise fire. In fact he has never even seen one, but he has the knowledge he needs to face the event when it happens. His training at the recruit academy and in his classes at the community college has prepared him to combat fire above the reaches of the aerial apparatus to which he is assigned. This is necessary in order to have enough manpower available to help the public to safety in a high rise incident. All of his training is designed to prevent injury to him or his fellow crew members.
The drill is supposed to end at 1700, but the clanging of the station bells ends it prematurely. The dispatcher receives several calls simultaneously. The first is from a citizen on the emergency telephone line. The second is from the police department dispatcher. Skillfully, the dispatcher handles the telephones and the radios to get the information to the fire companies.
This time the call is for a Traffic Collision Cut and Rescue. Response to the scene is Code Three, (red light and siren). Donning their heavy turnout coats, pants, boots, and helmets, crew members take their positions on the apparatus.
Chris shares the concern of the others on the rig as they roll through intersection after intersection. This type of response calls for multiple companies to respond. That always creates danger to the companies because sometimes they cannot hear each other as they come to the intersections. Arriving at the scene of this TC, Chris sees that all of the other units are already there. The paramedics are inside the badly twisted wreck, administering medical aid to the trapped victim.
In a matter of moments, the Truck crew unloads the hydraulic rescue tool, the air chisel, and the come along. Working in close coordination with the other crews, the captain stabilized the vehicle so that it would not roll any more, endangering the crews. While the engine company lays hose lines to fight any potential fire in the spilled fuel, Chris puts on goggles and heavy gloves. Performing like a well rehearsed dance team, the team members work to remove the trapped victims. Chris operates the "Jaws of Life." This powerful hydraulic tool tears at the sheet metal that holds the victim in the vehicle. Another crew member cuts the seat belt and then the seat bolts, so that the victim can be moved.
The come along (which are like block and tackle devices) are used to pull the steering wheel up and out of the way.
The sound of the pulsating hydraulic tool and the hammering air chisel are normal sounds to the crew. The paramedics work closely with the victim and warn him what to expect. Each move is calculated to do the least possible amount of damage to the trapped person. Nothing is done without being coordinated between all crew members.
The paramedics working on the trapped victim maintain radio contact with the emergency room at the local hospital. After diagnosing the person's injuries, they transmit that information to a doctor. After only a few moments consultation, they receive orders to administer an intravenous solution and give the victim some drugs to counter the effects of his injury.
To the onlooker, the crews appear to be moving slowly. Several civilians standing behind the police lines offer advice and criticism about the way the operation is going. Chris knows, however, that speed is secondary to accuracy. A slip of those powerful hydraulic tools can cripple a person for the rest of her or his life.
The crew uses its time carefully, and shortly the victim is in the ambulance and on his way to the hospital. The return to the station, without benefit of red light and siren, take almost two and a half times longer than the original response. Dinner is not served until almost 1930.
A Quiet Evening
After 2000 hours, the crew relaxes and hopes that the rest of the shift will remain quiet. The chances of that are slim, for it is a matter of record that most of the "deadly" fires occur during the small hours of the morning. Things like cooking, heating, and hobby activities lead to circumstances requiring assistance from the fire department. More emergencies occur between 7 PM and 7 AM than vice versa.
The only interruption of the evening's activities is a few telephone calls from the outlying stations. The battalion chief, who is responsible for the entire on duty shift, stays at the station during the evening hours, so there tend to be more telephone calls than usual. Chris spends the evening studying a hydraulics textbook. Because of the number of candidates for the next exam, he knows that he must understand the material well. He, like most of the others, goes to bed at around 2130 hours.
Late night Fire Call
But not for long. The dispatcher's voice over the loudspeaker and the activation of the bells awakens Chris instantly. The announcement is for a reported structure fire in Engine Three's first in area. Engine One and Truck One are due to act as backup. Engine Three does not have a truck company in quarters, so Truck One is the first due truck. Quickly rolling out of bed, the entire crew gets into their turnout clothing, snapping suspenders into place as they tromp out of the dorm onto the apparatus room floor. The lights have been turned on by the relays that activated the alarms.
Engine one rolls first. The truck emerges into the cold night air, squealing its tires as it makes the first intersection. The siren is briefly overpowered by the sound of the air horn. Chris knows from the address that the response is to a garden apartment complex. As the apparatus driver steers the 100 foot aerial through the semi abandoned streets, Chris reviews the checklist of possible tasks he may need to perform in the first few minutes on the scene ventilation, rescue, forcible entry, salvage. A combination of training and anticipation gained from going to so many near misses has given Chris a sense of fate: this is going to be a worker.
As the truck follows the engine through the streets, the firefighters see the column of smoke billowing over the tops of the other structures. Even at night, smoke is visible. The lights of the city reflect off the convoluted and animated edges of the brownish gray smoke cloud. Getting closer, the truck sees that the smoke comes from the top apartment of a three story garden apartment. Engine Three issues orders by radio to each arriving company. Chris doesn't worry about orders.
The captain worries about them instead, and Chris listens to orders from his officer. He never second guesses the captain. Some of his actions are automatic, as part of standard operating procedures. Disembarking from the aerial, he immediately puts on steel tanks to carry his breathing air. The captain orders two men to the interior, to help the engine ventilate the building. Both he and Chris know however, that the fire is in the attic and running to the other apartments.
The officer orders the apparatus operator to "ladder the building." Moving quickly to the apparatus jacks, Chris assists in lowering the massive legs to the ground to stabilize the aerial. Each member of the crew performs as if programmed. Moving to the turntable, the engineer raises the ladder from its bed and begins rising, rotating, and extending the ladder. Ultimately, the ladder rests on the roofs edge.
Chris grabs an axe; the captain has a pike pole (a short pole with a hook on it). The remaining truck crew member grabs another axe. Together, the three of them, looking like a combination of ancient gladiators and modern astronauts, climb the ladder to the roof edge. The captain also conducts periodic conversations on a pack set radio. The captain must coordinate the work with the firefighters operating the nozzles below. The three dismount the ladder and move to the peak of the roof, directly over the apartment where the fire seems to be. Chris moves cautiously on the roof, checking for softness of the roof from time to time.
It does not pay to be careless in a firefight. Many firefighters have gone through a roof into an inferno because they failed to check their path. Chris is young, inexperienced, but well trained. Taking the precaution seems natural. After finding the spot, the crew cuts a whole six feet square in the roof. This may sound easy, but it isn't when you are wearing forty five to fifty five pounds of equipment on your back and getting all of your breathing air through a little tube fed by the steel tank on your back. The job takes less than six minutes, but it seems like sixty.
As soon as the hole is finished, the truck company returns to the ground. The job is not over. The engine companies have been able to enter the building, but the area is far from secure. Engine crews are still lying on their bellies in the hot water that was coming off the walls and ceiling as the fire was extinguished. The truck crew continues in, to cross ventilate the rest of the area. Huge fans called smoke ejectors hang in the windows, to blow out the smoke and products of combustion created by the fire's spread.
The apartments below the involved apartment are now subject to damage from the water running off the fire. The truck's job is to get salvage covers over the people's property as quickly as possible. The captain regroups the crew as soon as the fire is declared under control. Chris and one other crew member are assigned to set up lights for the interior of the building. One of the engine companies had earlier cut off the utilities to the building so they now have no lights.
While the actual firefight only takes about twenty five minutes, the work has just begun. There is fire in the walls of the building, requiring a lot of overhaul to be performed. Meanwhile the large hose lines are rolled up by the engine personnel. Truck personnel continue extending electrical cords to take lights into every nook and cranny. Upon finishing that task, Chris uses the infra red heat scanner to check the burned areas around windows and doors.
After one hour and forty five minutes, the truck company is released. The engine leaves sooner, because they have hose to re pack and equipment to re store. Rolling back to the station, Chris notices that no matter how cold it is in the morning when you leave to go to the fire, it always seems colder when you are returning to the station. Scrunching down in the jump seat, the young firefighter remembers that his wet turnouts make it seem much colder on the tailboard of the truck.
Back to the Station
The clock registers 0342 when the cold turnouts are shed and the covers turned back on the bed. Chris falls into a fitful sleep. His sleep is disturbed one more time at 0515 when Engine One is called out to respond to a medical aid. The engine and the paramedics handle it. When they return to the station, they make coffee and get ready to greet the oncoming C shift. Chris gives up on sleep at 0615 and joins the rest in the coffee room.
The ritual of shift exchange occurs again. Eleven fresh, uniformed firefighters come to the station; eleven rumpled, tired bodies prepare to leave the station. Chris goes to his locker, changes into sweat suit, and prepares to ride his bicycle to his apartment.
This had not been his first shift, so he wasn't that excited. This had not been his last shift, so he wasn't bored. He has a lot more of this to look forward to. He knows as he closes the door behind him that every shift that he works will be a kaleidoscope of events and activities. Over his career he will deal with death and destruction, but also with life and the preservation of property. All in all it was a good day's work!
There you have it. A typical day in the life of a fire company. The scenarios can vary considerably. It's not uncommon for a firefighter to respond to an average of about five emergencies during any given shift. Some crews, like airport crash crews or fireboats, get only one or two calls a week. Other crews, such as those in the inner cities, run every hour on the hour. From the largest to the smallest of fire departments, the responsibility never changes, only the frequency with which their members are called upon to test themselves under emergency conditions.