Firefighters are tasked with many different roles and responsibilities. Some are the result of initiative and deliberate choices the firefighter makes while in the fire service. Others are simply due to the nature of the job and fall on all firefighters to do during the normal performance of their job. One of these responsibilities is driving the fire trucks.
Not all firefighters drive trucks. In most career fire departments, driving the trucks is encouraged, but optional. It is looked at as a step in career advancement, much like rank is in the military. However, driving is not mandatory in most cases and firefighters do not need to drive the trucks to be a firefighter.
Those firefighters that do drive the fire trucks tend to do it later in their career. Many career fire departments approach driving as a promotion of sorts. When hired, firefighters tend to be younger and pretty gung-ho to go out and fight the fire. The task of driving usually falls on more senior-level firefighters who have already done their time as a firefighter and may look for a move up the career ladder or a way to continue to contribute as they get older.
Progressing to Operating Fire Trucks
While not all fire departments approach driving or operating fire tucks the same, the majority tend to view it as discussed above. There are a few career fire departments that expect that recruits learn to drive and operate fire trucks right away, and at the opposite end of the spectrum are fire departments that never require firefighters to drive and operate fire trucks unless they want to.
Once hired in a fire department, a recruit’s time is filled with learning the ropes. Driving is rarely included in this. Some departments that run their emergency medical services may have ambulances in the department. If the department requires all firefighters to participate in the delivery of emergency medical services, driving ambulances may be part of this.
In most cases, ambulances are not considered fire apparatus, and just because a recruit drives an ambulance does not mean there will be an expectation for them to drive the fire trucks. Many career fire departments also have other support vehicles that do not fire trucks. Because these seldom require specialized training, some firefighters may also drive these without actually being classified as a driver.
Most career fire departments recognize the time and dedication needed to complete driver/operator training and certification. Once completed, the drivers earn the title of Engineer. Engineers are the firefighters who have passed all the necessary training and are generally certified on all the department’s fire apparatus, including fire engines, ladder trucks, tankers, and other specialized equipment.
Because of the weights and size of fire apparatus, most states also require a commercial license to drive them. Part of the Engineer certification process is obtaining the appropriate state license to operate the fire equipment. The process to achieve Engineer status can take several years from start to finish, as there are usually tests along the way and a limited number of spots available.
On a traditional shift, there will be an officer, an Engineer, and two or more firefighters. In the absence of an officer, the Engineer will step up into that role. This is one of the reasons most career fire departments wait to move firefighters into driving positions.
Drivers are expected to do more than simply drive. Having an awareness of the department fire district and standard operating guidelines is necessary background knowledge. Many times, this knowledge comes from years of experience. Expecting a recruit to drive can create safety and logistical concerns, so most departments require a waiting time before testing for a driver position.
Other Roles and Responsibilities
In the fire service, like most jobs, some responsibilities govern day to day activities. The difference is, in the fire service, these responsibilities affect life and death situations at times. Around the station or firehouse, roles and responsibilities can be much different than on the fire ground during an emergency.
The station requires daily upkeep and relies on the assigned shift to fill several roles. Some of them are the same basic responsibilities every job has. Keeping the area clean and looking good, acting as a liaison to guests and visitors, and performing job-related tasks, such as training and writing reports, can all be expected responsibilities at the fire station.
Because of the live-in quarters and shift set-up, other roles may be present and a bit more unique, such as being the cook for the shift. The proximity to peers, combined with the long hours can result in some roles and responsibilities few other jobs have.
There are also roles and responsibilities brought about primarily by the emergency nature of the job. Most shifts start by assigning riding assignments to the crew. These may vary from shift to shift and can make a big difference in what your job is for the shift. Being assigned to an ambulance, for example, generally means you will be one of the busier people that day, and your response on the ambulance supersedes other responsibilities at the fire station.
During an emergency response and on the fire ground, roles and responsibilities are also assigned to crew members. In most cases, these roles and responsibilities are assigned to your riding position on a truck. Every seat has a job. That way, everyone knows that regardless of who is filling the seat, they know what jobs need to be done and how to do it.
On a fire, you have specific jobs assigned to the seats. The officer rides in the front passenger seat and is responsible for radio communication and running the incident. The driver/operator (Engineer) drives the truck to the scene and then needs to be able to operate it successfully, whether that means pumping water, raising a ladder, or simply parking in the right spot. The back-seat riders have jobs such as catching the fire hydrant to hook up the hose, forcing entry into a building, operating the nozzle of the fire hose, and searching for victims.
Part of what makes a fire department successful is knowing everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Many times, lives to hang in the balance, and at times your own life. Important decisions are made in seconds and having a competent crew that knows what they should be doing brings the best outcomes.
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How do volunteer fire departments approach driving responsibilities?
Volunteer fire departments can differ greatly. Many times they fall under entirely different rules and regulations. In Texas, for example, career fire departments are inspected to make sure they maintain certain standards and guidelines, while volunteer fire departments are not required to meet those same standards and guidelines.
Volunteer fire departments, most of them, are understaffed today. It has been a long, slow trend, and volunteer fire departments have adapted to the shortage of volunteers in several different ways. The most common is to quickly train recruits to do as much as possible.
In most cases, recruits are tasked to learn as much as they can from other members. Budgets and other resources prevent formal training in many volunteer fire departments. Most training is passed down from senior members to recruits. This includes driving equipment.
Driving is usually encouraged early and continues as long as the new firefighter is comfortable learning the larger trucks. The advantage is that the department ends up with more drivers, while the downside is that the drivers may not have the same knowledge and experience as a career apparatus driver/operator.
How difficult is driving a fire truck?
The most obvious challenge is the sheer size of the trucks. The trucks are long and can be very heavy. Ladder trucks and tillers can be over 50 feet long, and tankers can weigh over 30 tons. Tight streets and crowded roadways add to the challenge of driving these trucks.
Beyond the size of the trucks, you also need to know how to operate them safely. The trucks have pumps, motors, generators, lighting systems, ladders, outriggers, and many other systems the Engineer needs to be familiar with. Knowledge comes with study and practice and operating all of these additional systems needs to be seamless.
Engineers are expected to know the equipment inside and out. Facts and details-such as weight, height, tank size, pump size, etc.-need to be committed to memory, and the Engineer needs to know and be able to operate every piece of equipment in every spot and compartment.
Engineers also must be able to pass the state tests, which many times requires knowledge far beyond what an Engineer needs to know to operate a fire truck. Most require the same license as a commercial vehicle, and some states even require you to parallel park a fire engine when you test!
And finally, some fire trucks require special certifications or length of service (seniority) to drive. Driving specialized trucks, such as a hazardous materials response truck will require the Engineer to have more knowledge than an Engineer driving a fire engine. The Engineer in this case will be exposed to more hazards and needs more training and awareness to operate safely on these scenes.
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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.