Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Newby I.C.

There is a big difference between assigned to an incident and being in charge of an incident. As a firefighter or as an engineer, you are usually given an operational task, a certain level of direction and the resources necessary to complete your job. Should you fail to complete the task, you make the necessary changes to achieve your goal or modify the goal. You are responsible for your task, but the outcome for the entire incident is resting on the shoulders of the Incident Commander (I.C.)

Although we all take responsibility for our own safety and that of our teammates, ultimately, the I.C. is responsible for the safety for each and every member on the incident. This in an inherently dangerous environment.
Some people pin on the Captain's or D.C. badge and are immediately challenged by a large or difficult fire. Others, like me, do not. In the months following my promotion, I went to a lot of medical aids, rescues, traffic accidents and even a Mass Casualty Incident. I also responded to several fires. They were either extinguished before things got out of hand, or I was not the I.C.

In my agency, the first officer arriving at the scene of a fire has the option of keeping command or passing command to the next arriving officer. When command is kept, the rest of the crew is given an assignment such as fire attack and the officer then establishes command, sets up the command structure and begins making assignments for the other arriving units. In situations where there is a shortage of personnel at the beginning of an incident, the officer may opt to pass command to the next arriving officer and assist with the fire attack. There are advantages to both and the decision it is usually up to the first in officer.

It took six months after my promotion, for my opportunity to command a significant fire to occur.

The call came in the early morning hours for smoke seen coming from a local elementary school. Only one call was received, so I was thinking that maybe a dumpster had been torched somewhere at the school. We arrived on scene and could see a pretty good column of smoke and an orange glow coming from the center of the school. The size of the smoke column told me that the chances of this being a dumpster fire were small.

Where I was assigned at the time, school security was a big issue. Access to the schools were very limited, with six ft. high fences, locked gates and security posts in place to prevent criminal activity.

I had the additional responding units stand by at the street while my two firefighters and I grabbed tools and tried to enter the campus. The closest access point was a vehicular gate that was secured by a set up which prevented the padlock from being cut or forced. The gate was constructed in a way which would have made it difficult to cut the hinges and swing it as the device that prevented access to the locks would also prevent it from swinging.

The secured gate was throwing a monkey wrench into my plans. I sent the squad around to the other side of the campus to see if another gate was available, one easier to force. I hollered for my junior rookie (I had two) to get a roof ladder to scale the fence. I had been on scene for a couple of minutes and I had not yet seen the fire and did not know exactly what I was dealing with. Nor was that likely to change in the next few minutes.

Every once in a while, one arrives at a point when they realize they are not entirely in control of a situation. I work in a profession where I get paid to be in control of otherwise chaotic situations. It was disconcerting to realize that I was arriving at one of these points. My fear was, that I would be slow to recover from the challenges before me and that the incident would get worse as a result. I forced myself to take a deep breath and focus on my available options.

It was right then when I looked up and saw a man gate located in a dark corner about 10 feet away. I had somehow missed it when we arrived and even though we were using flashlights to look at our surroundings, all of us had missed it while messing with the gate.

The lock was easily cut and the three of us trotted down a narrow alleyway. We went in about 150 feet, turned a corner and we finally saw what our problem was. A portable classroom was fully involved with fire; a second was about half involved (exposure #1) and a third was steaming (exposure #2). Another portable was close enough to present an additional exposure problem. Of course, if either exposure #2 or #3 became well involved, there would be even more exposures.

I called for my crew to pull a 250 foot 2 1/2 inch diameter hose line and protect exposure #2. We would have to pull the line through the man gate. I had the second in engine lay us a supply line from the hydrant and then pull an additional line through the gate. The truck was tasked with forcing entry into two of the exposures and shutting down utilities.

I asked for an additional engine "just in case" and asked for the D.C. to be notified. All of this transpired in just a few moments. Then, the most wondrous thing happened.
Everybody did what they were assigned, some did more and the damn thing went out!!!
Quickly too I might add.

There is no feeling quite like that as when you have killed your dragon. You felt it's breath as you neared it, the heat passing around you, enveloping your mask and helmet with hot, black gasses. But now, after a short violent battle, your lance has pierced its chest and punctured its heart. The beasts lifeblood pours out of its wounds and covers your hands. This dragon is slain, nevermore to wreak its havoc upon our city.

Or, you're just glad the fire is out, no one got hurt and you didn't look like an idiot while attaining you objectives. Either way works for me.

This fire also served as an evaluation tool for me. My junior rookie was had been on about 7 months. This was the first time I got to see her actually fight fire. She performed well and I was encouraged to see her laying on her back, in the mud, overhauling the underside of the flooring in one of the exposures. I cannot stand working with someone who will not get dirty if necessary. This wasn't going to be an issue with her.

The fire turned out to be an arson fire, one of several school arsons that occurred in our district. The arsonist was never caught, at least by us. I am sure he is either dead, in prison or is still lighting fires somewhere.

I was glad to get this behind me. Looking back, this incident does not come close to others that I have commanded. I have to remember that at that time, it was the biggest fire I had ever called the shots on. I guess its a matter of perspective. It obviously still holds some significance with me, that's why I shared it with you.

Thanks for reading,


Just another Schmoe keeping the wolves from the door.


  1. Thanks for the write-up, great read! Can you explain what an engineer does in your context? How is the engineer's job different from that of a fireman? Julien.

  2. Great post! Got me thinking about the first serious fire I had to be IC for at the mill, and my first as a volly officer............

    Hmmmm............I may just have to post those stories soon!!

  3. Sure Julien,
    In our agency, the person who drives, maintains and operates the apparatus is called the engineer. The term is a holdover from the days when our fire engines were steam powered and the operators had to have a steam boiler engineers license.

    In most departments near where I work, the engineer is a position of rank where firefighters must be trained in the operation of the apparatus, hydraulics theory, legal issues, Incident Command and basic supervision skills.

    They then take part in an examination process to become "certified" to operate the apparatus as a relief driver when the engineer is away on a special detail.

    Once a year, we offer the Engineers promotional exam where the certified drivers take a competitive exam battery. The candidates a placed in order according to how well they do in the exam process. Fire fighters are promoted from that list to the rank of engineer.

    It is an important job. They must get all of us to the scene in a safe yet efficient manner. They perform risk reduction function by placing the apparatus in a way to shield us from traffic, setting up traffic barriers, securing vehicles and performing traffic control.

    They are the ones that get the water from the hydrant, through the hose to the engine and then thrugh the pump into some more hoses and finally onto the fire. Too little water someone gets hurt and the fire doesn't go out; too much water someone gets hurt and the fire doesn't go out.

    The engineer also acts as captain for limited amoiunts of time if the regular captain is away.

    Someday, I will write a post on it. Until then, I hope this helps.


  4. Nice work once again, Capt., it is difficult being the IC as well as the company officer. Sounds like you have things well under control.