What is a "Firefighter"?

Some people might be surprised to discover what a "firefighter's" job entails. A few years ago (in the late 80's) a fire chief, in a lecture said, "The fire department is misnamed." He explained that the police had the job of "interpersonal conflict mitigation". It was their job to intervene in those situations where one person was intent on stepping on the rights of another. Based upon this, he felt that the fire department should probably be called, "The Department of Environmental Intervention." While no one would never dream of changing the name, it does suggest what we really do. When disease, disaster, fire, injury, or accident threatens to impact negatively on another human, in any way, the fire department is called. So to review, Police- mitigating people to people problems, Fire Department -EVERYTHING ELSE!

If someone is having the most tragic or horrible day of their life, they usually call the fire department.

Chief Rick Lasky points out in his book, Pride & Ownership, that more and more expectations and jobs are added to the list of fire department responsibilities, all the time. He also correctly mentions that this is usually done without adequate funding.

The fire department usually welcomes these new responsibilities but once we explain that we will need more equipment and more personnel to achieve these goals, those people who control the purse strings usually do not part with the money readily. This is not new. It has been going on for hundreds of years.

 

Strategy, Tactics and Tools

Fire departments exist to protect: Lives, Property and the Environment. Alan Brunacini, former chief of Phoenix FD, describes the fire service's job as that of "interrupting loss".

Most people, including reporters, have no idea how fire departments go about their jobs. The average citizen sees news reports of water tower operations or examples of firefighting in movies. They don’t know what goes on inside of a structure. Just like with most things, the movies and television, usually have it all wrong. (Or at least mostly wrong.)

Ron Howard tried his best to depict firefighting in his movie “Backdraft”. But even he admitted that he had to take liberties with the truth. He sent his actors, crew and himself through training with the Chicago Fire Department. He discovered that firefighting is dark and dangerous. It is not the glorious walk through the flames that Hollywood would like you to believe. In an interview, Ron Howard stated that when you are in a fire that you can’t see anything. Unfortunately that makes for a boring movie. Imagine a movie made up of gray darkness and muffled yelling. He admitted that he took liberties in order to make a movie. The latest movie, "Ladder 49", was much the same way. There was room after room of nice smokeless fire. When we practice or train, we often wear black hoods over our breathing apparatus face pieces. This best simulates what we can usually see in a fire.

Without going through all the information that a rookie firefighter must learn in months of training and all the advanced training and experience an officer has, I will attempt to give you a sketchy overview of firefighting tactics and strategy.

The Basic Strategy
Fires are often fought from the inside of structures. We often fight the seat of the fire from five feet away (or less.)


In the photo above you see the Ft. Worth Fire Department making entry of a structure. Below the Weatherford FD makes entry. You might think it would have been easier and safer to have fought the fire from the outside, through the window. Doing so would ultimately have pushed the fire back into the building and caused more damage. We fight "from the unburned to the burned" whenever possible. They will enter the door, get behind the fire, and fight it that way, if they can.


Weatherford (Texas) FD fighting their way into a structure.

You will often see streams of water shooting up, or out, from inside the structure.

It is only when the fire is so large and so extensive or that entering a structure is impossible or extremely dangerous do we resort to a defensive tactic and fight fire from the outside.


Our goal is to save lives and as much property as we can. If we can do so by confining the fire to one room then that is what we do. If it means confining it to one structure then that may be the strategy. If your neighbor's house or apartment is on fire and we keep your home from burning, you will feel that we did our jobs. Although your neighbor might not. There are many reasons why an officer may choose a defensive (exterior) strategy over an aggressive (interior) one. It takes constant training, and learning from experience, to be able to make these decisions and this web site is not an adequate place to discuss this subject.

One of the most common comments we might get, is about firefighters who appear to not be in a hurry. "Why aren't they running?" We are taught to not run. Young firefighters do it anyway. As you get older you see, or experience yourself, the dangers in doing this. If you trip you may spill equipment or worse. This does not help the people you are wanting to assist. On the fire scene, just the gear we are wearing weighs many pounds. Running, with turnout on, greatly diminishes the energy reserves you may need later. We learn how to pace ourselves to be able to do more work for longer periods. This is why you often see experienced firefighters working for hours and the young ones wiped out, sitting on the curbs.


Types of tools and techniques

Hose lines- Fire departments commonly use 1 3/4 inch lines with adjustable nozzles for the basic hand line. The nozzle can be set to a wide “fog” pattern down to a straight stream. The fog pattern can be use to protect firefighters or property while the straight stream has reach. These lines usually deliver between 100 and 200 gallons a minute. Some departments are sticking with the concept of straight/solid streams for hand lines. If you examine the types of structures they commonly fight fires in, you might see their point.

For large fires or for protecting exposures, some departments may use 2 1/2 inch hose lines. These lines require several people to be moved about. For this reason they are often located in a stationary position with one or two people operating them.

Water is transported in 3 inch or 5 inch lines to apparatus or appliances where it is then converted to a fire fighting line or stream. The 5 inch line or Large Diameter Hose (LDH) is mainly used to provide water from the hydrant to the fire engine where the water is then divided among fire lines. Note: You may find other variations in hose sizes.

NEVER DRIVE OVER FIRE HOSE! There are several reasons for this.
(1) It could damage or rupture the hose and deprive the firefighters, who are in a burning structure, of what they need to defend themselves or do their jobs. Laying new lines would be very time consuming.
(2) There are huge fines for driving over fire hose. There are usually police at fire scenes. If one of them sees you driving over hose you can be assured that you will get a ticket that may cost you hundreds of dollars.


Photo Ben Saladino

Deck Guns, Mulitversals and Monitors- These are often known as "master stream devices. They are also known as “appliances.” We can connect several large supply hoses (usually 3 inches in diameter) and set these very large nozzles to deliver huge amounts of water (1000’s of gallons a minute) to cover or protect things like rail road tank cars.

Ventilation- You may see firefighters cutting holes in roofs or breaking out windows. One might think that this will only make the fire larger. Believe it or not this is done in a very prescribed manner. It is also often necessary. The temperature in a room, with a fire, can be hundreds or even thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. By making a hole in the upper part of a structure we are allowing the superheated air and smoke to escape. This does two things. It lowers the temperature to allow firefighters to enter and fight the fire and by reducing the amount of heat it makes the contents not quite as combustible. The superheated gases are possibly very flammable and ready to combust if we happen to open a lower door or window and introduce oxygen. This is referred to as a “backdraft.” Fire fighting can also produce a great deal of hot steam. While this is not as important as the previously mentioned reasons to ventilate, it does help if the steam has somewhere to go. Ventilation is an important part of fire fighting.


Aerial Devices, Water towers, Snorkels etc.- The sight of several, hundred foot tall, ladders in the air, all spraying hundreds of gallons a minute onto a warehouse is an impressive sight. But as I mentioned earlier, this is our last resort. This means that we have decided to control the conflagration by limiting it to that building or at least that wing. Many things can cause us to make this decision. Examples can be the size of the fire upon our arrival or the contents of the structure are so dangerous that entry is out of the question. It could also be a structure that we know ahead of time that is unstable. On some occasions we may set up one of these devices to wet down an adjacent property or hazard. This is known as protecting an exposure with a master stream. We might also direct water into or across the smoke of flame coming from a building. This can be to douse fire brands or to assist ventilation. We should NEVER spray a stream down into an opening if there are people inside. This can severely injure firefighters by driving the heat back down upon them.

CO Detectors - These are devices that measure the Carbon Monoxide (and other gases) in a structure that has been on fire. If the “CO” is low enough Command will issue a statement that firefighters are then allowed to work without breathing apparatus if they wish. This occurs late in the salvage or overhaul operation. These are also used to help citizens to detect CO in their homes.

Pre-fire planning- As mentioned above, sometimes we know ahead of time that if a certain building catches fire that entry would be too dangerous. Fire stations spend a great deal of their time learning about the structures in their areas. We draw up plans and speculate on what we would do if this or that building were to catch on fire.


Please contact for permission to reproduce anything on these pages.

Most Action or Apparatus Photos Copyright© Ben Saladino.
Most photos since November 2002 taken with Nikon Coolpix 5700.
See hundreds more at: http://www.bensware.com/firetrucks/photos.htm

 

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