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Fire Department Ranks

Fire Chief voicing commands during an active fire in the background

The fire service was developed as a paramilitary organization around 1647, which has helped create the structure of fire department rankings that we see today. 

A paramilitary organization is a semi-militarized organizational structure similar to those of a professional military but not actually part of the armed forces

When firefighters are hired, they are considered recruits. They must complete a recruit academy to become probationary firefighters and remain on probation for six months. Promotions to higher ranks are determined by years of experience, test scores, and other evaluative criteria.

Here is an outline of the firefighter ranks in order:

  1. Probationary firefighter
  2. Firefighter
  3. Driver engineer
  4. Lieutenant
  5. Captain
  6. Battalion chief
  7. Assistant Chief
  8. Fire chief

Fire Department Units

Fire department units are usually divided into a few basic categories:

  1. Company
  2. Battalion
  3. Districts

Company

Two or more firefighters are organized as a team, led by a fire officer, and equipped to perform certain operational functions. This is the basic unit.

Battalion

A battalion consists of several fire stations and multiple fire companies. A battalion chief has command over each fire station’s officers and each company or unit’s officers, as well as the uniformed firefighters.

Districts

This is another division that is most often employed only in the larger departments. A district chief is usually over several battalions.

Firefighter Ranks

Here is a look at each role within the fire service and its ranks.

Probationary firefighter

The probationary firefighter is an individual that is classified as entry-level within the hierarchy. They are often still undergoing training and evaluation to determine if there is an organizational fit. The period for the probationary term may span from 6 months to one year, depending on the individual and the organization.

Firefighter

After an individual completes the probationary period, they are referred to as a firefighter. The role of firefighter is responsible for much of the actual hands-on actions during a live operation. These tasks can include but are not limited to handling hoses, operating fire-rescue equipment, and conducting a search, find, and rendering of initial first aid care to victims of the fire.

Driver/Engineer

Fire engineers are responsible for the implementation of the firefighting vehicles that respond to emergencies. They ensure that the vehicle is clean and running efficiently, perform maintenance tasks, and drive the truck. In addition to knowing the apparatus in and out, the Engineer is also responsible for knowing the location of every alarm in his jurisdiction and the location of each hydrant.

Lieutenant

Aside from overseeing apparatus operation and the crew’s responsibilities, fire lieutenants are also responsible for candidate training, daily firehouse operations, and other duties. In the absence of the captain, lieutenants may stand in as acting captains.

Captain

This firefighter is the highest-ranking on-scene responder, responsible for directing operations at the scene of a fire incident and overseeing station duties. This role requires great responsibility, and the individual must have exemplary management skills and the ability to lead firefighters.

Battalion Chief

The Battalion Chief oversees administrative tasks such as employee scheduling and ensuring all firehouses under their scope are staffed for emergencies. Due to the nature of shift-work in firefighting, one fire department could have numerous rotating Battalion Chiefs ensuring 24/7 operational readiness.

Assistant Chief

The assistant Chief helps support the Fire Chief by ensuring a high standard in operational quality free from personnel issues that could jeopardize the department’s mission. In addition, the Assistant Chief also helps the Chief with matters such as budgets, community and department programming, training, and managing the success of the fire department.

Fire Chief

This is the highest-ranking position in the fire department organization. The Chief oversees all operations and roles inside the department and works with city officials to create a safer community. A successful Chief understands the value of legal agreements, partnerships, networking, trusting and empowering others, and stepping back to look at the big picture.

All ranks have the opportunity to work their way up the ranks to the fire chief.

As firefighters advance their careers, they are likely to assume more responsibility in managerial or administrative roles. It becomes their duty to train, assist, and promote the interests of their company, battalion, or district.

Reading Smoke Signals: How Firefighters Use Smoke Signals

Firefighters Reading and Understanding smoke signals

One of the most important skills all firemen should possess is the ability to read smoke signals. The ability to read the smoke at any position within the company can help those responding to the incident make better tactical decisions.

Smoke can help first responders determine the fire’s location, growth, toxicity, the direction of travel. In the case of a structure fire, it helps us predict hostile fire events like smoke explosions, backdrafts, and flashovers.  “Reading smoke can tell us what is happening now and, more importantly, what is going to happen in the future,” said author the author of The Art of Reading Smoke, David W. Dodson. “Watching how fast it is changing can tell if we have seconds or minutes before something happens.”

Types of Smoke Signals

The art of reading smoke must first start with what comprises the emission.  Smoke is made up of particulates, aerosols, and gases, and has four attributes:

  1. Smoke Volume
  2. Smoke Velocity
  3. Smoke Density
  4. Smoke Color

Smoke Volume

Smoke Volume can provide a useful indication of the location and indicates the amount of fuels off-gassing within an area. The measure of volume is important but unfortunately, it elucidates nothing much other than location. There can be large volumes of smoke with very little fire.

Smoke Velocity

Smoke Velocity is the speed of the smoke leaving the structure.  The velocity is an indicator of pressure that has built up within the compartment. If the velocity of smoke leaving an opening is agitated or turbulent, then rapid-fire progress is likely to occur. In these cases, unless the structure is ventilated and cooled a backdraft, explosive burning of heated gases, will occur due to the improper ventilation.

Smoke Density

Smoke Density refers to the thickness of the emission and how much fuel is laden in the smoke. Optical density refers to how difficult it is to see through the smoke. Thick or optically dense smoke contains a high concentration of particulates and is difficult to see through. The greater the smoke density the more likely a hostile fire event, such as flashover or rapid fire spread.

The thicker the smoke, the more spectacular the flashover or fire spread.  Worse yet due to the concentration, thick black smoke can be an ignitable fuel.

Smoke Color

Smoke Color is the visible shade of the spectrum and tells the stage of the fire as well as helps determine the location of the fire.  Petroleum products, rubber, and many plastics will produce black smoke.  Wood and other ordinary combustibles will commonly produce smoke ranging from light gray to yellowish.  

It’s important to make a distinction that lighter-colored smoke frequently contains a substantial concentration of unburned, highly flammable, and deoxygenated materials.  Under these conditions, the smoke can ignite and create a hazardous and possibly deadly situation for firefighters. When a fire produces dark brown or even black it is an indication that the fire is underventilated and/or it contains an abundance of petroleum products.  

Additionally, brownish smoke will tell you that fire has ignited wood, which usually means that the fire has infiltrated the structural integrity of the building and could provide a collapse hazard. The color of smoke is generally thought of as the most comprehensive indicator of fire behavior.  However, it is essential to remember that smoke color is only one indicator that is a part of a number of indicators used to predict fire behavior and it must be considered in context.

The above signs of reading smoke are excellent tools to have, but they are not all-inclusive. In The Art of Reading Smoke, David W. Dodson stresses that firefighters and incident commanders need to use their best judgment when reading smoke and committing firefighters to assignments. Here are a few tips Dodson shared in the first part of his book:

  • Stop watching the fire. The first big barrier to learning to read smoke is that our eyes are naturally drawn to light and movement, both of which are exhibited by fire. “The fire is the endgame,” Dodson says. “An experienced fire officer looks away from the light.”
  • Know the four characteristics of smoke: volume, color, velocity and density. More importantly, know how to look at smoke and quickly identify it in terms of these characteristics.
  • Thin, black, fast smoke indicates a well-ventilated fire is nearby.
  • Slow, white, dissipating smoke (first thick but thinning quickly) is a sign of steam, and indicates early stage heating.
  • Brown smoke indicates unfinished wood burning. In lightweight construction, this can be a warning sign for building collapse.

Community Honors Idaho Fallen Firefighters

idaho fallen firefighters statue by rusty talbot
A bronze statue, created by Idaho artist Agnes Vincent "Rusty" Talbot, stands at the center of the Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Plaza where communities from across Idaho gather to remember the firefighters who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.

Firefighters from across Idaho gathered on Friday, September 6 to remember and honor their fallen comrades at the annual Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Ceremony. Both the ceremony and its venue, the Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park, were steeped in time-honored tradition, a moving tribute to the men and women who sacrificed everything to protect their communities.

The ceremony opened to the rousing call of pipes and drums. The Boise Fire Department Pipe & Drum Band and a statewide honor guard filed down the greenway to raise the flags of country, state, and community, marching past a wall of names. Speakers took the podium to honor and reflect upon the legacy of those names.

“They were the epitome of humility when it came to doing the job they did,” said Boise Fire Department Chief Dennis Doan. “Never wanting to bring the spotlight of attention on themselves for their work protecting others.”

It is only fitting, then, that they be honored and remembered for their selfless acts of courage. At the center of the plaza stands a life-size bronze statue of three firefighters, one fallen in the line of duty. His brothers support and mourn him. It serves as a moving representation of the unique bond shared among the fire community, and their incredible commitment and sacrifice.

idaho honor guard closes memorial ceremony
The honor guard marches back down the plaza to close the Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Ceremony.
ringing the bell to honor fallen firefighters
A member of the honor guard rings a bell to pay tribute to each of Idaho's fallen firefighters.

A Legacy of Tradition

Traditions are also shared among the fire community, and several were observed in the course of the ceremony. Pipes and drums, preceded by the “ringing of the bell,” concluded the ceremony in respectful remembrance. Two bells were rung three times for each name that was read, signalling honor to those who had fallen in the line of duty. Members of the Honor Guard laid roses at the foot of the statue for each of the fallen.

firefighters memorial salute
A member of the honor guard salutes in respect after laying a rose in memory of one of Idaho's fallen firefighters.

But there are other traditions, as Coeur d’Alene Fire Department Chief Kenny Gabriel pointed out, that are better left in the past. “In my career I’ve seen huge changes…the days where wearing a breathing apparatus was a show of weakness,” he said in a call for cultivating a “culture of safety” in the fire industry. Cancer, heart disease, roadway incidents, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have claimed far too many lives, and there are more steps, he urged the community, that can be taken to prevent them. 

Indeed, PTSD and suicide are both major threats facing first responders. A Ruderman Family Foundation study found that suicides were more common among firefighters and police officers in 2017 than line-of-duty deaths. It is an issue that the nation’s fire community has been increasing their efforts to tackle by providing resources for their comrades struggling with mental health. A number of those resources are listed below, including mental health and suicide prevention hotlines.

Supporting Idaho Firefighters

Support for the fire community continues to be an important part of local and statewide organizations. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter recounted the city’s efforts in securing a riverside location for the Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park eleven years ago, and extended the city’s support to the Boise Fire Training Facility. “Whatever we can do in the city of Boise to help you,” he said, “please don’t hesitate to call.” 

The Idaho Fallen Firefighters Foundation is another key supporter of the state’s firefighters. Their joint effort with the city of Boise founded the Idaho Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park in 2008. Tyler Roundtree, speaking at this park more than a decade later, summed up the foundation’s mission: “We believe it is our goal to touch the hearts of all family members, supporting you today, and providing you the recognition you all deserve.”

Today the Idaho Fallen Firefighters Foundation continues their mission to honor the lives of firefighters who have died in the line of duty, provide support for their families, and promote the health and safety of Idaho firefighters. The organization holds community events to fund these efforts, including the annual Boise Mustache Memorial Ride

At Boise Mobile Equipment, it is the unparalleled devotion and camaraderie of the fire community that inspires us to build safe and reliable fire apparatus. We are proud to serve this industry of heroes in our state and across the nation.

Firefighter Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Resources

How to Prepare and Evacuate for a Wildfire

evacuate for a wildfire

Prevention

No matter where you live, you may be at risk for wildfires. Several steps can be taken to ensure you are prepared for the unexpected circumstance of a fire while safely evacuating your family from your home. One of the simplest ways for minimizing or preventing wildfire damage to your property is known as fire mitigation.

The most effective strategy to improve your home’s chance of surviving a wildfire is by creating defensible space around your property. It is recommended that you create two defensible space zones; a 30 foot and 100 foot zone, within this area you can take steps to reduce potential exposure to flames and radiant heat. Each zone will create a buffer between structures on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland surrounding it.

Homes built in pine forests should have a minimum safety zone of 100 feet. If your home sits on a steep slope, standard protective measures may not suffice. Contact your local fire department or forestry office for additional information. 

wildfire preparedness week

Whether you live in a fire zone or live in the city it is important to have defensible space around your home. Along with defensible space it is also important to consider the following to protect your property and home:

Property Checklist

Prevention Checklist

Preparation

Before a wildfire it is crucial to protect your home and prepare for evacuations. If you live in an area under threat by wildfire, pay attention to official channels for evacuation orders. Make sure every member of your family has a bag packed with essential items to last you multiple days away from home. Along with each members disaster supply kit, make sure you have a family emergency plan and a means of transportation standing by. 

wildfire evacuation preparedness

Once you have each kit packed, maintain them on a yearly basis by replacing expired items and rethinking the necessary contents. Food and cans should be packed and kept in cool, dry places. Keeping emergency kits at home, in your car and at work are all good ideas since you never know where you’ll be when you need to evacuate.

Evacuation

Depending on your evacuation orders, an immediate evacuation of your home may be necessary. If there are evacuations in your area you should monitor local radio and news stations. Be prepared to leave at any time and if asked to evacuate, do so.  If you have time prior to evacuating the following four steps will aid in protecting your home and assisting fire fighters in their efforts. 

  1. Keep all doors and windows closed in your home.
  2. Remove flammable drapes, curtains, awnings or other window coverings.
  3. Keep lights on to aid visibility in case smoke fills the house.
  4. If sufficient water is available, turn sprinklers on to wet the roof and any water-proof valuables.
wildfire evacuation
Along with these items it is important to have an evacuation plan prepared that you and your family members are all familiar with. The checklist below will help your family  create the right plan. Each family’s plan will be different, depending on a variety of issues, needs, and situations. Create an evacuation plan that includes:
  • A designated emergency meeting location outside the fire or hazard area. This is critical to determine who has safely evacuated from the affected area.
  • Several different escape routes from your home and community. Practice these often so everyone in your family is familiar in case of emergency.
  • Have an evacuation plan for pets and large animals such as horses and other livestock.
  • Family Communication Plan that designates an out-of-area friend or relative as a point of contact to act as a single source of communication among family members in case of separation. (It is easier to call or message one person and let them contact others than to try and call everyone when phone, cell, and internet systems can be overloaded or limited during a disaster.

The 6 P's

In the event of a quick evacuation, remember the 6 P’s! By having these items prepared ahead of time, you can grab them on a moments notice and evacuate safely. 

  1. People & pets
  2. Papers, phone numbers, & important documents
  3. Prescriptions, vitamins, and eye glasses
  4. Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
  5. Personal computer, hard drives, and disks
  6. “Plastic” (Credit Cards, ATM Cards, and Cash)

Prevention is Key

Every year across the U.S., major wildfires test homeowners and firefighters, some homes survive while many others do not. Those that survive almost always do so because their owners had prepared for the eventuality of fire, which is an inescapable force of nature in fire-prone woodland areas. Another way we think of it as, if it’s predictable, it’s preventable!

The best way to protect your home and family during a wildfire is by adding prevention and preparation into your routine. There is a lot of steps to take to be prepared but they can make the difference between saving your home and potentially your life. 

Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance

Wildland Firefighter

Over many decades, lessons learned from accidents and fatalities that have occurred on wildland fires have led to significant improvements in firefighter education, training, operational practices, and risk management processes. Unfortunately, wildland firefighting remains inherently hazardous, and we continue to experience accidents and fatalities.
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The Importance of Home Fire Sprinkler Systems

 

A vast majority of fire-related deaths in North America happen at home. There is no better time to bring attention to this problem and it’s solution than during this year’s Home Fire Sprinkler Day. Home Fire Sprinkler Day was a project initiated by NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition-Canada. This project tasks fire sprinkler advocates across North America with hosting events on the same day that promote home fire sprinklers.

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How to Improve Diversity in Your Fire Department and Why It’s Important

firefighters diversity

Demographic trends indicate that women and minorities are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. workforce. As of 2012, women accounted for nearly half of the workforce, while minorities made up 36 percent of the workforce. However, this growth is not reflected in the fire service industry.  According to the NFPA, women made up just over 3 percent of firefighters, while minorities made up less than 20 percent. As people of different nationalities, religions, and genders choose the fire service for a career, fire organizational leadership and firefighters themselves must adapt to the changing demographic of the communities they serve.

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How Drones Are Hindering Firefighting Efforts  

drone interfere with firefighting

As we move deeper into the 21st century, one of the prevailing issues of our time is the need for common sense to keep up with burgeoning technology and how it can help or hinder our response to all sorts of emergencies. Recently, the serious issue of civilian drones has come to the forefront of emergency services as incidences of drones interfering with first responder operations are on the rise. Sometimes, this has devastating effects.

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Three Reasons Why Firefighting is Getting Costlier

wildfires getting costlier

It turns out that 2017 was a banner year, and ultimately a tragic one, for the bottom line among the world’s insurance carriers. Unparalleled natural disasters around the world will result in more than $135 billion in claims and losses. Total property losses, after you factor in uninsured property, will exceed $330 million. Only 2011, which included the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami at the Fukushima nuclear plant, resulted in greater losses.

While it’s impossible to put monetary value on the loss of life, one can only imagine the scale of tragedy after so many floods, hurricanes, severe storms, and wildfires.

Possibly more distressing is the overwhelming opinion among the scientific community that these natural disasters, caused and amplified by a number of factors, will only increase in years to come.

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Why Mudslides Occur After Large Wildfires Like the California Thomas Fire and How to Protect Yourself From Them

thomas fire

In January of 2018, the relief from hazardous weather and extreme conditions did not appear to be in sight for residents of the Golden State.  Devastating mudslides in California killed at least 20 people in early January in the coastal town of Montecito.  Downed trees and power lines as well as cascading boulders made the task of getting to those needing assistance difficult.  The excessive flooding and debris made air transport the only viable form of rescue.  Helicopters loaned by Ventura’s Air Squad 6 dedicated were used to pluck more than 50 people from rooftops from parts of Montecito and Santa Barbara.

As of mid-January, the relief and search effort numbered 3,000 workers from local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and the American Red Cross.  Details regarding the victims’ circumstances before the mudslides emerged from rescuers.  As the saturated hillsides gave way, the torrent of mud, water, and other debris was said to have swept the casualties away while they slept.  The mudslides were triggered by a powerful storm that hit the region along with mountainous areas that were stripped of vegetation burned bare by the gigantic December 2017 Thomas fire.  Let’s take a look at how the wildfires that raged through the area late last year have made the mudslides more devastating.

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