The Fireground is Like Loading a Dishwasher

I suppose I am fortunate that one of the only ongoing debates between my wife and I are the nuances of loading the dishwasher.  You see, I load the dishwasher the way it was designed to be loaded.  My wife, she believes randomly loading the dishwasher.  We both think that our respective methods work best for fitting the most dishes and getting the job done the best.  Much like the fireground, and numerous other “hot topics” right now, there are many different opinions and theories on the “best” way to operate at fires.

Personally, I like the fireground the same way I like my dishwasher, where everything fits into a certain place.  As long as everything fits the way it should, we can maximize the work load and the effectiveness (for both).  That being said, because I load the dishwasher (pretty much) the same way every time, on the occasion that we have more dishes than usual or dishes we don’t use that often, I know where I can move things around to accommodate for the special circumstances and still fit all the normal dishes.

On the fireground, my dish loading concept is similar to the thought behind alarm assignments and riding/tool assignments.  With this concept, every responding company knows their basic role and everyone on the rig knows what basic tools they should have.  The other benefit to this is that, if everyone uses the system, everyone knows what the other is or should be doing.  When the air brakes are set, everyone goes to work.  Subsequently, the Incident Commander also knows what resources are coming, where they are on the fireground, what they are doing and what/how they will do it.  Real and functional accountability.  If special circumstances “pop up”, they know who to call, how it will affect the the big picture and they can accurately assess what other resources are needed.  At the company level, crews can talk crew to crew and streamline the communication process because they know who to call.

One of the limitations to this method of fireground operations is that you have to have predictable and consistent resource responses to your fires.  This style is popular in many urban and suburban departments because they have strong first alarm assigments.  However, it can be adapted for use in the volunteer and combination setting as well.  You can generalize your tactical priorities.  That way, as resources become available, you have a template you are working from as opposed to reacting to the latest information received at the Command Post.  Remember, on the fireground, everybody’s needs are the most important to them, so stay disciplined to the overall plan.  Take some time beforehand and plan what your department views as priorities at fires based on your response area and department structure.  A little planning on the front-end, can save time and lives on the working end.

My wife’s method gets the dishes clean also.  The biggest difference between our two methods is she likes to put dishes wherever they fit at the time.  While this works most of the time, sometimes the dishes don’t end up as clean as the maybe should be.  Also, she occasionally cannot find anywhere to put some of the dishes so she just leaves them in the sink.

This sounds similar to some firegrounds I have been on.  Firefighters are there and, most likely they are being assigned one-by-one on an as needed basis.  This scene may also feature a mob of people huddled at or around the Command Post.  The worst case is people wandering around looking for something to do.  Unlike the dishwasher, the fireground is a time-sensitive place where waiting to make assignments until after you realize you need that task performed can have nasty consequences.  From a Command standpoint, they are saddled with sizing up and evaluating the hazards, considering what needs to be done and then they have to make all of the assignments.  While the IC may know exactly whats going on, this a cumbersome system that lends itself to communications problems at the crew level and lack of functional accountability.

Respectfully, departments who rely on volunteer, off-duty and/or paid-on-call response to make up much of there fire response may work like this out of necessity.  I am familiar with this scenario also.  The only caution is to diligently monitor communication.  Though the IC may know who is doing what on the fireground, the crews may not know who is working around them.  This could result in opposing hose streams, poor coordination or increase risk of accidents in general.  Another caution for the IC is accountability.  When you look up from the buggy and in one direction a building is on fire and the other direction is a mob of game-faced firefighters ready to go to work, it is easy to start running off orders without properly tracking the assignments.  Whatever your system is, use it and communicate.

At the crew level in this system, the crew/team leaders have to be particularly aware of there surroundings.  They may have just met their crew at the front door and have little or no fire experience with them.  Since you may or may not have a working or training history to base decisions on, monitoring progress and conditions will be the best way to truly judge effectiveness.  Systems that start with make-up crews, tend to be susceptible to mix-and-match crews.  After a work period, groups of firefighters will be in rehab with varying levels of fatigue and remaining motivation.  Sometimes, the go-getters will partner up and report back to Command for a re-assignment.  Again, if this is how your system operates, tracking is an accountability nightmare.  However, if you are disciplined and consistent, this may prove successful for you based on your jurisdictions needs and structure.

In summary, there are as many ways to operate on the fireground as there are ways to load a dishwasher.  Some require a little planning but result is streamlined operations and functional flexibility.  Others rely on making the plan as you go and may require a little more work to get the job.  Despite my wife and my methods, our dishes still get clean.  Likewise, with a solid plan, good communications and crew discipline, the fireground can run smoothly and effectively despite the many ways there are to approach it.

(My wife doesn’t know I wrote this!)

Thanks and be safe.


  • Ric Jorge says:

    lol … a very unique example that hit home for me. Great article.

  • Mick Mayers says:

    Very well done. I too like to organize the dishwasher. My kids and wife, not so much. Admittedly, throwing it all in there seems to get the dishes clean, but there are always problems like glasses upside down and full of nasty water, and there’s always the chaos of demobilizing (unloading). And trust me, I have seen my share of fireground management that has been haphazard and poorly run, much like your analogy. Keep up the good work!

  • DW says:

    Great article! I recently used the example of a baseball team to explain exactly what you are referring too. I talked about how the players on the field are arranged in specific locations to provide adequate coverage based on the normal flow of the game. The key is that every player on the field understand all of the other positions. When one of those unusual plays comes up, players are prepared to slide around to cover any open spots. This is how we need to approach the fire ground. Always knowing the normal routine, but being ready and capable of moving around to catch the curve ball.

  • Great post! There is a million ways to skin a cat as they say and everyone has their own way of doing things. Firefighters train relentlessly to be the most tactical and efficient as they possibly can. But I think I would rather fight a fire than tell my wife she is doing something wrong lol! Thanks for the great info!

  • Thanks to everyone for the great feedback and generous comments. Its amazing what pops into your head sometimes.


  • Good analogy. It’s nice to be the IC of your dishwasher. Getting it laid out the way you want, however when no one takes on that task from the start and firefighters just drop in their plates individually (firehouse) then pre washing is the trick to a cleaner result. Just like training before hand.

    • Ray,

      I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes its very difficult to get people to pre-wash, especially at the firehouse and especially if the FD has a history of not pre-washing. I guess that’s why it’s also important to put strong leaders in positions of influence. Thanks for the feedback.

      Safe Firefighter, LLC

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