There was a time when fire departments would be called out to help get the family cat down out of a tree. Although like most fire departments we stopped this practice years ago, we still get these calls from time to time. An open can of tuna will typically do the trick, but this scenario points out that there can be misunderstandings about how we do our jobs as Firefighters. To help reduce any confusion, the following are some other common questions or misconceptions about SAFD operations along with an explanation of why we do what we do.
“I called for an ambulance, but a fire truck showed up.”
Here’s an interesting fact: almost 78% of our calls for assistance are medical in nature. Because our Firefighters are also Emergency Medical Technicians, SAFD made the strategic decision to equip our first responders with the resources they needed to deliver a higher level of medical care as a part of their first response to an incident. This is why we frequently hear, “I called for an ambulance, but a fire truck showed up.” In many cases, the fire EMTs are able to address the situation so that an ambulance is not needed. This helps to “free up” the ambulances so that they are available for the more serious incidents. This creative approach to resource management has helped to reduce EMS response times, while enhancing the overall level of medical service to the community.
“Why do so many fire trucks respond to simple incidents?”
It may seem like a “simple incident,” but through experience we have learned that underestimating an emergency situation can be a big mistake. For this reason, our approach is to think pessimistically when responding to a call. In other words, we come prepared to deal with the worst that could happen.
SAFD units are dispatched according to information received by our Communications Center Call Takers/Dispatchers. Dispatched units typically include an engine company or a ladder truck company, a first responder EMT unit, and an Advance Life Support ambulance in case the medical situation is past the capabilities of the first responder EMTs. It may seem like overkill, but we think it is better to send a piece of equipment away, than to lose valuable time waiting for it to arrive once a review of the situation calls for it. The winner in this situation will always be the citizen who needs help.
“How come I see fire trucks with full lights and sirens go through a red light at intersections and then, after they go through, they turn off their lights and slow down?”
As explained earlier, sometimes several units are dispatched to the same incident. The first unit may have arrived on the scene, surveyed the situation and informed the dispatcher that the incident was under control. All other responding units were then cancelled and put back into service so they would ready to take another call. So when you when you see an emergency vehicle go "Code 3" (lights and siren) through an intersection and then slow down and turn the emergency lights off, most likely they have been cancelled from the call they were going on.
“I was passing by the scene of a building fire and there were a lot of trucks, but only one or two Firefighters? Why so few?”
If you had been at the scene when the units first arrived, chances are you would have easily counted 20 or more Firefighters on the ground. After a quick assessment of the situation, Firefighters will enter a structure to first search extensively for any people and then to begin putting out the fire. Firefighters only leave the building when the fire is completely out, or if the fire can no longer be contained. So often the bulk of the Firefighters responding to a fire can’t be seen because they are doing their jobs inside the building.
“Why do I see Firefighters cutting holes in the roof of a building that’s on fire?”
This is called "venting the roof." There are several reasons for doing this:
- Dangerous gases and dark smoke accumulate in a burning building, making it impossible for Firefighters to see. Cutting a hole in the roof "vents" the building, allowing the smoke and gases to escape. This in turn makes it easier for the Firefighters to see.
- Venting so that smoke and gases can escape also reduces the possibilities of backdraft and flashover.
- Venting allows the Firefighters to see how far the fire has progressed and to “head it off” if possible. One of the fastest avenues through which fires spread is the attic. Heat and smoke rise into the attic where the fire can move quickly. Firefighters may go ahead of the fire on a roof, cut holes to access the attic and stop the fire from spreading through the attic.
“Why does it sometimes seem to take fire trucks a long time to arrive at a fire?”
There are many factors that impact the time it takes for SAFD units to arrive at a scene. Many of these factors can’t be controlled by the department, such as heavy traffic patterns, the increase in gated communities, and poorly marked house numbers to list a few. The rapid growth of our city—both in population and square miles— has required thoughtful planning and resource management. SAFD has been aggressive in acquiring the equipment, personnel and training needed to meet the challenge. As a result, San Antonio has one of the lowest response times and rate of property damage for comparable cities its size.