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Special Call

Is that a fire engine or a fire truck?

In response to my Sunday Fun about marking your gear, I received comments from across the pond asking the difference between our different units in the US, since I mentioned the need to tell us apart based on task.

So for my UK friends, and maybe my few readers not in the business, I give you the American Fire Department 101.

The Engine Company

The work horse of the American Fire Service is the Engine Company. Originally hand pulled pumps, then steam engines, these machines supply the water for the fire fight. The Engine Company carries three main elements that make it a stand alone team. A Pump, a tank and hose. The tank is often 500-1000 gallons, depending on the reliability of water supplies and can, if need be, draw water (draft) from a static source such as a pool or lake. The pump moves the water through the manifold and out one of many outlets to fight the fire. I can’t imagine this being much different than the UK Brigade units.

In some municipalities, the engines also offer EMS response at the Basic and Paramedic level as well as extrication using multiple power tools.

At a fire the engine company will usually arrive first, do their best to secure a water supply, deploy lines, find the seat of the fire and knock it down. Even though their mission may include other tasks, this is their main purpose, water on the fire.

“God Bless the Engine”

The Truck or Ladder Company
AKA the Hook and Ladder Company

The Truck Company has a completely separate set of tasks to accomplish at a fire or emergency scene. The truck, or ladder, carries, you guessed it, a variety of ladders and tools designed to gain access to the fire building for two main reasons, ventilation and search.

The truck company is often second or third to arrive at a fire and prefers to have access to the front in case the large ladder is needed. Although Happy prefers a 100 foot articulated ladder truck (with a driver in the rear to provide maximum maneuverability) ladders can also have buckets on the end, making them a different tool entirely.

Truck members will focus on ventilating the building of heat and poisonous gasses by opening windows and cutting holes in the roof they gained access to using their wide variety of ladders. These folks do not concern themselves with fighting the fire, that is not their job. If I am on an engine, shooting water on the fire, they are working above me cutting the roof, or behind me using thier hooks to pull the ceiling down to check for fire spread. Without them the fire could work it’s way back over our heads and emerge behind us, cutting off our escape.

Very rarely does a ladder truck carry water, and even then it is a small amount compared to the engine companies. The mission of these firefighters is not to fight fire directly, but to aid in the containment and ability of firefighters to attack the fire effectively.

At non fire scenes truck companies often provide forcible entry, advanced extrication, rope rescues and similar tasks, not to mention they are my heroes when a fire sprinkler needs to be shut down and replaced.

“God Save the Truck”

The Medic Van

The Paramedic units can, of course, treat and transport the sick and injured, but in a fire or rescue scenario are trained and equipped to fit into most roles on the fire ground from the hose line from the engine, or the saw on the truck, or harnessed up to go over the edge with the rescue squad to execute a rescue. This is the most versatile crew in the service today, and my favorite spot I might add. You can go from transporting a skinned knee and hate your job one minute, to carrying a person down a flight of stairs at a fire the next. Ok not that fast, but you get the idea.
And intubating with an airpack on…not as hard as it looks, but no reason not to gear down first.

“God help the medics”

The Squad

A squad in the US can mean a number of things. It can range from a Paramedic pickup truck as in the Emergency! TV series. It has been known to identify any team of firefighters not assigned to a pumper engine or ladder truck. A squad in the FDNY is a specialized team that can perform duties above a regular engine company. But for the purposes of Happy Medic Headquarters, a squad refers to the big boys, the HEAVY RESCUE SQUAD, the heroes, the Gods of the Fire Service. No really, just ask them.

Although the training, equipment and abilities of each rescue squad is unique, they are most certainly armed to the teeth for their standard responses and whatever else might get thrown their way. This is who responds for building collapses, swift water rescue, dive emergencies, you name it, chances are they drilled on it this week. Some units carry ice rescue gear, while the heavy rescue squads in San Diego, California likely fill that spot with something surf related. They carry heavy lifting bags, SCUBA gear, confined space and haz-mat suits, high and low angle rope kits, etc, etc, etc. A giant rolling tool box. These are the men who will go where I will not and hand me a (most often) viable patient. Or completely disregard my presence.

“God is the Squad”

The Quint

This hybrid combination (bastard) of the service is a politician’s dream and a firefighter’s nightmare. On paper it combines a 4 man truck company and a 3 man engine company into a 4 man quint company. But now that we know the engine and truck have COMPLETELY different tasks on the fire ground, this is just silly. Besides, you had to shorten the ladder to fit it on my engine frame and all the ladder hardware, the jacks, hydrolics, extra beefy frame, leave less room for an adequate water tank to fight the fire.
I used to serve on one of these and my verdict is: You’re fooling yourself. A 60 foot elevated master stream with a framed box ladder does not a truck company make you. Ahem…

The Ambulance

Not to be left out in describing the American Fire Service is the role of private ambulance companies. While not technically part of the service, they work hand in hand with responders to provide treatment and transport either as the sole carrier or to augment an existing, but not quite adequate municipal system. They are a needed piece of the puzzle in the American model. Some places they thrive, others they struggle, but where I am they do a great job picking up the slack from a devastated budget that cut EMS first.

So there you have it my UK friends, a brief introduction to that which is the American Fire Service. Perhaps when MedicBlog999 gets back from his engine ride along he can explain it in more detail. Graphs and charts perhaps.

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  1. Jonathan May 4, 2013 9:31 pm

    About that quint… could a quint hook up to a hydrant and be as effective as a separate engine and ladder at a residential scene? If not, why?

  2. Justin May 7, 2013 7:15 am

    Jonathan, Yes the quint can hook up and pump water at a residential fire. It can also drop the riggers and put up an elevated master stream.
    The problem with the quint is that you sacrifice engine space for truck equipment and sacrifice truck room for engine equipment.

    In communities that have quints, you’ll notice they never send just one.

    A Quint is an accountant’s dream and a firefighter’s nightmare. A Quint implies tha tit is simply the elevated master stream that makes a truck, so add one onto an engine and voila! We can disband a truck company. Trouble is, unless you’re running 6 men on that Quint you can’t Attakcthe fire, search the floor above and vent the roof at the same time.

    Thanks for reading!

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