Evolving Truck Company Operations
Truck companies do what they can to give engine companies the best opportunity to complete their mission of water application. This involves forcible entry, ventilation, and searching for victims. Included are ladder operations to get firefighters to positions where they can do their job and also to provide a means of escape should traditional ways out be blocked. We may have not included everything here but suffice to say, the truck companies are “jacks of all trades” and vital components of any successful operation.
Modern research should cause fire departments to reevaluate truck company functions and perform those that will assist in mitigating the issues while allowing for reasonable personnel safety. As an example, ventilation on the fireground is an important function. For the most part, this has involved vertical ventilation, which means getting to the roof to open it up. It could also include horizontal options like breaking windows (my personal favorite). There can also be some mechanical options involving fans and such. But in today’s world with the information at hand, there must be more consideration of flow path and how ventilation will affect fire spread. In addition, modern construction techniques make roofs very untenable in a short period of time when supporting substructures are under fire conditions.
My time in the fire service has seen many changes resulting from research, with more occurring in the past couple of years than ever before. I have been part of many approaches to ventilation. There have been roof functions that mandated opening a roof on virtually all structure fires, airing of the structure by breaking every window that you could (my personal favorite), and using a positive-pressure fan. There was and is a time and a place for all. But, recent research on flow paths indicates that there needs to be much more thought into the best way to ventilate a structure, and that method must be coordinated with hose placement.
It seems that the arbitrary introduction of air into a structure fire will make things worse. So, the objective would be to greatly coordinate water application with ventilation. This means that forcible entry will wait for the engine crew to get to the access point. Of course, life safety and rescue opportunities will trump this. Roof operations for ventilation, horizontal considerations, and positive-pressure tactics must be done within the right time frame. There can be some standard options, but coordinating operations is essential.
Flow path is the most critical element in fire spread. Intuitively, we know that adding air to a fire will accelerate its growth. It works on simple things like campfires. We blow on them, fan them, or use bellows to get the fire development we desire. Uncontrolled air entrainment will make the fire less predictable and potentially more dangerous to occupants and firefighters. Some departments have changed their approach and are finding success. Simple things like assigning a door person to control air flow will allow for more tactics coordination. Any choices should not be arbitrary and should be based on sound knowledge of fire dynamics. This knowledge is gained through experience and study.
For those who don’t want to believe the science or are not aware of it occurring, consider another approach to understanding flow path. How many firefighters have complained about law enforcement personnel getting to a fire first and opening a door or window and making things worse? I bet a lot. This is nothing more than entraining air before fire suppression forces are ready to attack the fire. When doors or windows are opened prematurely, the fire grows as more air is introduced. This is “blowing” on the fire. The stronger the wind conditions, the larger the fire gets. It is no longer air-limited but fuel-driven. And with today’s fire loads, there can be explosive growth.
Other considerations for truck company operations are changing construction methods. It is not sufficient to classify a building solely on its type—I, II, III, IV, or V. These are more commonly known as fire-resistive, noncombustible, ordinary, heavy timber, and wood frame. Ordinary and wood frame especially have differences based on when they were constructed. Besides timber size changes, there are composite materials and different connection methods. Even the mass of modern construction materials can affect fire development and spread. Essentially, most structural members are made with less mass as it saves on cost. Less mass means less time under fire conditions. This is just another contributing factor indicating less time to perform operations. Crews must also know realistically how long certain tactics will take.
The intent here is not to review building construction, as there is neither time or space. Suffice it to say, buildings are different. If you use the same tactics, you are asking for trouble. Fires immediately below lightweight construction members will cause a very quick failure. Placing someone over this will not turn out good. Knowledge of this potential will help when making decisions regarding forcible entry, search, and ventilation. Departments should rewrite policies that promote a consistent approach that does not allow discretion for decision making based on this information.
Other construction features that cannot be discounted are those designed for energy efficiency. Buildings, in general, are sealed better than ever. This could affect ventilation operations and may add to the risk of hostile fire events. Added security measures can make forcible entry more challenging. Departments should evaluate their methods and tools for access and make sure they are as efficient and effective as possible. Solar panels (photovoltaic) could affect tactics by adding to the dead load of a building.
Truck company operations remain critical to successful outcomes in building fires. For many years, the same tactics have been used and, for the most part, have been successful. Changes in society have changed the types of fires being fought, and changes in building construction methods and materials information obtained from recent studies indicate that some previous standard truck company practices may need to be altered a bit. In addition, the information requires a fireground assessment to consider construction features based on not only use but the era in which a structure was built. Truck company functions are basically the same, but firefighters may need different approaches to accomplish the goals. There is no “automatic” or “standard” approach. Firefighters must think first so they take the best approach based on the conditions presented including fire load, construction challenges, and weather conditions. These are just a few, but they indicate the need for continued study and improved knowledge about the job.