Fire Fighting in Canada

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Fire IQ: January 2010

Although it’s great for our customers, the inevitable decline in the number of working fires due to advances in building and fire codes, fire prevention initiatives and even residential sprinklers, in some jurisdictions, means that most of us can’t treat any of our fires as routine.

January 8, 2010 
By Peter Hunt

Although it’s great for our customers, the inevitable decline in the number of working fires due to advances in building and fire codes, fire prevention initiatives and even residential sprinklers, in some jurisdictions, means that most of us can’t treat any of our fires as routine.

It’s generally accepted that firefighting activities in the first five minutes will set the stage for the entire operation that follows, and we get only one chance to do it right.

Let’s look at the key elements that must be considered in the critical first five minutes of operations at a working structure fire.

Before the fire
At the risk of stating the obvious, all members’ preparation for their first five minutes, from rookie to veteran firefighter to company officer and chief, began the moment they entered the fire service. Through training, equipment familiarization, building pre-planning, firefighting tactics, personal initiative and years of service, responding members arrive with their own unique sets of tools, levels of experience, preparedness and ability to perform.


The one intangible factor – the manner in which one’s training and experience plays out in the critical first five minutes – is not so easily defined.

The truly great firefighters and officers are capable of working safely, acting professionally and executing calmly when confronted with stressful and potentially life-threatening circumstances.

To achieve this, members must constantly pre-plan, train, strategize and generally share ideas.

The moment the alarm sounds, a series of thoughts and behaviours come into play. For the apparatus operator, it’s “Do I know that address?” and “What’s the most direct route?” Factors such as time of day, traffic patterns and temporary construction detours must be considered.

For the firefighters, it’s “How do I do my job (hydrant, force entry, vent, rescue, fire control, salvage, overhaul) at that particular building?”

For the company officer, it’s “Have we pre-planned that building (or one like it)?” and “Do we have strategies and tactics in place that adequately define each member’s role and responsibility on arrival?”

Responding to an incident can be more dangerous than the incident itself. Even experienced drivers will occasionally blow a red light or stop sign in their eagerness to get there. And who can’t relate to that bullet-proof feeling we all have in the rig that leads us to forget about our seatbelts?

We’ve got to get there in one piece to do the job, and every firefighter must develop the discipline to stop for the reds and buckle up!

On arrival
If you’ve ever been ordered to move a fully deployed ladder truck because the fire wouldn’t go out and it’s now threatening to destroy the rig, you know the importance of initial apparatus placement.

If you’ve ever parked the pump in the perfect place for a quick hose stretch only to observe that the ladder truck is down the block and can’t put its guys on the roof in a hurry, you do too.

Although no rule can be applied 100 per cent of the time, especially in our business, there is a reason the ladder should get the front of the building and the pump has a long hose load for the initial stretch.

Remember that the ladder operator is actually spotting the turntable, not the rig.

Also remember that orienting the pump to allow the nozzle to advance directly toward the fire will dramatically simplify the initial hose stretch, especially for companies with staffing issues.

On a related subject, some crews have developed a habit of driving past the hydrant and relying on the second due pump to provide a water supply. This can be a very dangerous practice if the first due company officer can’t guarantee that that pump is just around the corner.

Stretching the initial attack hose line
In many cases, first due units often face more jobs and responsibilities than there are firefighters to carry them out, and the burden placed on the officer in the first five minutes can be immense. Civilians screaming to be rescued; fire pushing from windows and doors; and exposures at risk of becoming involved in fire can overwhelm companies that are understaffed or unprepared. Having the discipline to carry out a proper size-up, taking the time to check the rear, and clearly communicating strategies and tactics, is critical.
A few key principles are also worth reviewing:

  • Select the proper size hose line for the volume of fire. Stretch the 2.5-inch if you need it!
  • If operating a fog nozzle, select the proper pattern based on extinguishing, holding or pushing the fire.
  • Push fire away from known or suspecting victims and search crews and toward natural or man-made ventilation openings in a co-ordinated effort with the vent team.
  • Additional lines should protect the access and egress of firefighting and rescue crews, and cover exposures.

Well-trained crew, who know their equipment, have thoroughly pre-planned their district and stick to the basics can make it through the first five minutes and set the stage for a successful operation to follow. As second due companies arrive, and command is passed to the first chief officer, the operation will ramp up seamlessly toward a successful conclusion. Good luck. 

Peter Hunt, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain in the Ottawa Fire Department’s suppression division. He can be reached at

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