For newly instated engine captains, wildland firefighting requires attention to detail and a regard for experience — both yours and your crew's.
The most important part of a fire engine is the people who operate it. This expensive machine is useless without fire engine leaders who understand the need to take care of the many little things necessary to keep a fire engine running.
I had the good fortune during boot camp to have been exposed to a concept — when I was new to the adult work force — that is tried and true, yet simple and easy to use. It's called attention to detail. It doesn't sound like much, but once you get it, you will understand just how important it can be. In recent years, wildland fire circles have focused on concepts derived from military tools such as high-reliability organization, crew resource management, risk management, commander's intent and situational awareness. Despite their pedigree, they all boil down to good, old-fashioned attention to detail.
Take safety, for instance. Safety is not an inherently dangerous task or profession such as combat, law enforcement or firefighting; it really is nothing more than identifying dangers, determining acceptable risk and implementing job skills to accomplish objectives, with very little or no margin for error. If you base this process on attention to detail, you won't miss the little things and will prevent them from sneaking up and biting you. Attention to detail should be your cornerstone for developing situational awareness. And, just like all the things you have learned about situational awareness needing to be updated constantly, you can achieve this by paying attention to detail.
BASICS FOR ENGINES
Engine operations, too, require an engine captain's attention to detail. Before you are promoted to engine captain, you're expected to have spent some time as a fire apparatus engineer or firefighter. In many instances, the knowledge and skills that you gained and used before you were promoted are still required of you. To keep it simple, remember your ability to get the wet stuff on the red stuff. This is, and always will be, the primary responsibility of a fire engine.
In other words, attention to detail regarding the basics of engine operations should be your cornerstone for all the other things you will need to know or do as an engine captain. If you and your crew can't get the basics done effectively, you should consider putting a hold on further professional growth until you reach the high end of the proficiency scale.
Some of those little things that will continue to confront you are hose lays, pump operations, driving and routine maintenance. However, the difference will be that you decide the type of hose lay to deploy, how much water you need and where to get it. You also will be tasked with doing engine checks every morning, and determining where you need to set up the engine to be effective in suppression and being prepared for egress. When you are ready to apply attention to detail, making these decisions means you are ready to be the supervisor.
As a new engine captain, there will be other additions to your daily routine. For example, although you've gained proficiency in the use of technology such as radios and GPS units, the challenge will be to teach your crew how to use them correctly. You may even have to learn how to program this technology or become an advanced user — you should know the radio channel numbering and use for your area and neighboring jurisdictions. If your agency uses computer programs or email, you may need to be proficient in their use and be able to teach these skills to your subordinates. Of course, you also should be familiar with your response area and where you are going. The use of maps and navigational aids will be one of your responsibilities.
Protecting you and your crew, along with staying informed of safety concerns, will be part of your position. This includes making sure that briefings are conducted and that messages, directives and weather advisories are shared. You may not have given much thought to becoming an administrator, but you will have taken your first step in that direction. Completing all the forms for daily vehicle inspections, engine and/or station inventories, time sheets, incident reports and ICS forms will be your responsibility. Some agencies may require you to assist in the hiring process for your crew and complete employee evaluations. You will need to learn your agency policies and any pertinent laws regarding worker's rights, harassment and injury compensation insurance.
You should use checklists, such as those found in an incident response pocket guide, to achieve attention to detail. They will help ensure that little things are not overlooked. Interaction with other single resources and strike team leaders will be your concern. You may be the first representative from your agency to arrive at incident locations; as such, you'll be expected to work with neighboring jurisdictions. In doing so, you will be expected to be a good ambassador. If at all possible, try to enhance your interagency cooperation.
TRAINING FOR OTHERS — AND YOU
Take time to seek out training opportunities for both you and your crew. It is up to the engine captain to train in order to stay proficient, become better and prepare others for their career progression. Prior to now in your firefighting experience, you probably have not worried about strategy because you have been engaged in implementation of tactics. As an engine captain during initial attack, you will be responsible for strategy and planning. Have you been a student of fire? Are you confident in your knowledge of fire behavior? Can you identify good opportunities to conduct a burnout? How comfortable are you in wildland urban interface operations? These are some examples of new responsibilities — the little things — you may find yourself dealing with.
The next part of becoming a good engine captain involves leadership — and managing and leading is not the same thing. Management is focused more on directing, while leadership is focused more on guidance.
Being a good leader requires a willingness to act and the ability to be a problem solver. One crucial element is being a good listener. By applying attention to detail toward listening, you also will improve your problem-solving skills, as you would being mentored by a seasoned, experienced engine captain or chief officer. Merely observing someone who has a good, solid experience base will help you figure things out.
Good leaders will set the mood and keep morale healthy, and great leaders will build esprit de corp. It's all in the attitude. One term that I gleaned from a fire manager who I respect and admire is "sport b*(&*%$*." While attending an M-581 class several years ago, Bobbi Scopa, FMO on the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest, explained this concept in a way that really hit home. When we are involved in our profession's routine tasks, we complain about the job or the agency just so we can kill time.
Unfortunately, this sets a negative mood and attitude that grows and festers like a plague. I challenge you to avoid such complaining. A new engine captain will be most challenged when undertaking mundane tasks, such as mop-up. This tiresome operation is vital to the success of wildland fire suppression. If the leaders are complacent, the potential for dire consequences becomes more likely. Consider the Oakland Hills Fire. If the initial-attack engines had been able to take care of the little things during the first operational period's mop-up, the catastrophic events that followed may have been avoided.
Attention to detail is important in situations outside the realm of engine captains as well. For example, the U.S. Marine Corps is using a campaign in its aviation community called the "global war on error." It is an enhancement to the Corps' long-standing attention-to-detail culture. It reinforces the need to have a purpose in what we do and how we go about accomplishing the mission. This campaign has three simple steps that you should apply in order to succeed as an engine leader: learn it, link it, live it. Go forth and do good things.
Steve Fraidenburg has served in fire and life safety for 17 years — working with local, tribal and state agencies in several capacities, including engine captain, recruitment officer, battalion chief, training officer and fire management officer. He has a BS in fire safety management, and his professional interests include training, fire apparatus, wildland urban interface operations and prevention. He currently works for the state of Washington.