Better emergency response: Put the fire officer in the backseat

Robert Avsec

The following suggestion would not just be a paradigm shift. Probably more like a paradigm earthquake. But it’s long overdue.

The fire officer should be a member of the crew riding in the rear of the crew compartment on fire apparatus during emergency response.

Now that the earth has stopped shaking, can we get on to the logic behind such a drastic change in fire department operations – one needed to meet the challenges presented to the fire officer in command of a piece of fire apparatus?

Fire officer or apparatus navigator?

Let’s start with answering that question. The fire officer in the front seat currently is (or should be) part of the two-person team that’s working in concert with the driver to get the apparatus and its crew safely to the scene. Those duties should include the duties of a navigator:

  • Operating the audible warning devices,
  • Listening to and responding to radio communications, and
  • Being the second set of eyes watching for traffic hazards.

At the same time, the fire officer is expected to perform the duties of a fire officer who’s:

  1. Responsible for the safety of his or her apparatus and crew during emergency response;
  2. Listening to additional information received by radio and processing that information;
  3. Accessing information from an onboard computer or tablet (e.g., CADS information, building pre-plans and reference information from sources such as the North American Emergency Response Guidebook);
  4. Developing an initial incident action plan if they will be the first-arriving officer or developing a tactical plan for their crew upon receiving a radio assignment from the on-scene incident commander.

Give a little thought to item No. 3. Fire departments have invested huge sums of money to put mobile data terminals, computers and tablets in their fire apparatus, yet how many of them are getting more than just a better navigation system (e.g., real-time GPS mapping and response routes)?

Software development companies are continually developing more robust software and applications that can put information like detailed maps, building photographs, building pre-fire plans, SOGs, hazardous materials information and much more at the fingertips of the user.

But how much of those capabilities are really being used by the fire officer riding in the front seat? And if the officer is truly focused on what’s available on the computer screen, what is he or she missing?

Increasingly, that’s a lot of tasks and responsibilities for one person to accomplish in the short timeframe (four to six minutes) before that fire officer and crew arrive at the scene (if they’re the first arriving unit). Keep in mind, they’re accomplishing all this in the tight confines of the front seat of most fire apparatus while simultaneously donning their SCBA, if their apparatus is so equipped.

Put the fire officer in the rear apparatus crew compartment

So, let’s put the fire officer in the rear of the crew compartment where they have only their fire officer responsibilities to address. Doing so would provide fire officers with the following advantages over the current practices:

  • They could concern themselves with listening and processing information coming via radio transmissions without the distractions of those navigator tasks;
  • Their space in crew compartment could be configured to be a more efficient and effective workspace, giving them better access to all the above-mentioned information that’s critical to developing an initial IAP or tactical plan for their crew;
  • They could arrive at the emergency scene with a better mindset (a tactical mindset) that’s ready to start gathering and processing additional information about the emergency event (e.g., conducting a 360-degree assessment, and delivering tactical assignments to other responding resources);
  • By getting off the apparatus with a focus entirely on strategic and tactical decision-making, they would be in a better position to make better critical decisions in those first five to 10 minutes after arrival. How many times have we heard the phrase, “The decisions made by the company officer in the first five minutes of an operation can determine what the operation will look like in the next two hours?”

Still want your fire officer to see what they’re rolling in on? Put a dash cam up front with a feed back to the officer’s computer or tablet in the rear of the crew compartment.

Imagine what a positive impact such a paradigm shakeup would have on firefighter safety and emergency response incident management. And those benefits would not just be conferred on the first-arriving fire officer. Every other fire officer on responding fire apparatus could gain the same benefits, the most prominent being that they would be better informed and educated about what they and their crew need to accomplish when given a tactical assignment by the incident commander.

A new opportunity for firefighter training

The firefighter that’s currently riding in the rear of the crew compartment is a vastly underutilized resource. With the officer in the rear listening to and responding to the radio transmissions, the firefighter occupying the right front seat would only have to be responsible for the navigator functions. With proper training and coaching, they could easily become a competent navigator working with the driver to get the apparatus to the emergency scene.

This new responsibility could provide fire departments with a new phase for a firefighter’s professional development: assuming additional responsibility. It could also lead to the development of better driver operators for the department. I can’t think of a better introduction to the awesome responsibilities of driving fire apparatus under emergency conditions than to have a front row seat and be able to see and hear what the driver is dealing with during the response – and to be an active participant in the process? Priceless.

Compare the apparatus riding assignment options

Officer riding in the front seat of the apparatus Officer riding the rear of crew compartment Multi-tasking roles of navigator and company officer Focused on role of company officer Operating the audible warning devices Better able to listen to and process and respond to radio communications Listening to and responding to radio communications More room on apparatus to configure a more effective and efficient workspace for the officer Being the second set of eyes watching for traffic hazards Better able to process all available information to develop an IAP if they're first-arriving officer Accessing information from an onboard computer or tablet (e.g., CADS information, building pre-plans and reference information) Better able to process available information to develop tactical action plan for their crew when given an assignment by the IC Developing an initial incident action plan if they will be the first-arriving officer or developing a tactical plan for their crew upon receiving a radio assignment from the on-scene incident commander Mentally more prepared to do the job of a fire officer in command of a situation when they dismount their apparatus

Put aside for the moment the advantages of the fire officer being able to use the available technology while enroute to the call. I’m more focused on the benefits of having a fire officer who’s had nothing else to concern themselves with during the transit response than collecting and processing information they hear, read or see (using that dash cam feed).

Such an officer is going to be better prepared to lead, guide and direct emergency operations, whether they are the initial IC, assigned to supervise a division or group, or to be the tactical leader for their crew. If we’re truly committed to improving firefighter safety and reducing firefighter deaths and injuries, how can we continue to ask the fire officer to fill two roles at the same time?

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