By Mark van der Feyst
The position of apparatus driver is not a glorious one. As with a football team, on which the quarterback or wide receiver gets all the attention from scoring or passing touchdowns, suppression firefighters tend to be in the spotlight, with their pictures in the paper or on the TV news. In both cases, however, the stars are able to do what they can only by virtue of the others doing their jobs.
What a truck driver does for the crew affects that crew’s performance. Success comes only from all of the team members working together.
Driver duty is a fitting topic considering we are now in the winter season. The driver’s primary job is to drive safely and defensively.
Fire trucks are heavy pieces of machinery that require special skills to operate. A general rule for braking distance is the heavier the vehicle, the greater the braking distance required. Normally a four- to seven-second gap between vehicles is required for a truck driver to brake effectively, depending upon how fast the apparatus is moving. Always remember to use defensive driving skills and scan the roadway ahead of you in order to anticipate problems that will require the use of brakes.
Besides driving and operating the pump, drivers can help the crew in several other ways. For starters, drivers can help to ladder the outside of the building as part of the proactive fire-ground activities. Once a pump is put into gear and water is delivered to the hoselines, the driver then monitors the pump. He or she is therefore free to place ground ladders at windows around the structure to provide a means of egress and access for the rest of the crews (see photo 1). It is possible for a single firefighter to ladder the second-storey or third-storey windows; it takes practice, but it can be done and with ease once a firefighter learns how. When there is limited manpower, the driver can help in this area.
The driver can also help with hose advancement from off of the apparatus. Sometimes, the crew arriving on scene first is not dressed in appropriate PPE and SCBA for the situation. If this is the case, the driver can easily assist the team by pulling off the hand line from the hose bed and advancing it for the crew to the front door (see photo 2). Of course, the pump has already been engaged and is circulating water from the onboard water tank to the pump in the meantime. Good drivers are able to put their pumps into gear, have the pump circulating water, and pull off the line, all before the crew is fully dressed.
Drivers can also help to advance the line into the structure from the outside (see photo 3). Standing just outside the entrance point, a driver can feed hose inside the building and stage outside hose closer to the entrance. Because the hoseline is stretched off of the apparatus, there is still a good length of hose outside; by looping the hose and bringing it to the front door or entrance of the building, the interior crews can access and easily advance more hose as needed.
The driver can also listen attentively to the radio. If the driver hears that a team needs certain equipment, he or she is in the best position to retrieve it and bring it to the front door or thereabouts. In this case, the driver’s actions save valuable time that it would take for crew members to go outside to get the equipment.
On the scene of a vehicle accident requiring extrication tactics, the driver is often instrumental to the overall operation. Certain tools will be grabbed and used right away by the extrication team members, but as the incident unfolds, other items may be needed. If a driver is close enough to hear the communication among members, he or she can predict what the team will do next. If the operation is not going well and a change in tactics requires different tools, the driver will ideally have already left to retrieve those tools (see photo 4.) The driver can also act as a substitute when a member becomes fatigued or exhausted.
If the apparatus used during an incident is an aerial device, then drivers are tasked to operate the aerial ladder for either water delivery or for access to an elevated area. Skill is required to operate an aerial device, including an awareness of the surroundings with respect to power lines.
Depending on the number of firefighters responding to the incident and the order in which the fire trucks arrive, a driver may be a part of the crew handling interior or exterior operations, or can assist another driver with various duties. Drivers can also be used by command as accountability officers or as scribes.
Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario. Mark teaches in Canada, the United States and India. He is a local-level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and an instructor for the Justice Institute of BC. He is also the lead author of Pennwell’s Residential Fire Rescue book. Email Mark at Mark@FireStarTraining.com