Fire Department Structure: Behind the Scenes of Fire Safety
All fire departments across the United States tend to follow a similar organizational structure. While this format can vary depending on the needs of the municipality, each fire department generally follows the same configuration. The Chief is on the top of the fire department’s organization and leads a group of battalions (or sometimes just one in the case of many small towns). Companies make up the battalions and are organized around a piece of apparatus like a fire engine and the specialty of the team.
Keep reading to learn more about each structural grouping and the essential roles that keep citizens safe from fire danger.
Fire Chief (Commissioner)
Similar to the framework of a police department, the Fire Chief (sometimes referred to as Fire Commissioner) is the head of the entire department and is accountable to the mayor or city council/commission. The duties of the Fire Chief vary greatly based on the size of the department. In general, the Fire Chief directly supervises the heads of each battalion. The Chief is responsible for creating policy aligned with the municipality’s principles and goals. Additionally, the Chief oversees the operational tasks of running a fire department such as fiscal management and code enforcement.
Battalions consist of a grouping of stations. Occasionally, a battalion can be referred to as a district (such as within the Boston Fire Department). A Battalion Chief (or District Chief) typically heads each battalion and reports directly to the Fire Chief. Depending on the population and needs of the city, a fire department could have any number of battalions. For example, New York City with a population of nearly 8.4 million has 53 battalions. In contrast, a smaller city such as Palo Alto, California (population of 66,666) has four battalions, and an even smaller town, like Georgetown, Texas (population of 49,562), may only have one.
A station is a physical location that houses different companies and apparatuses (such as a fire truck or engine). Typically, fire stations are named after the company or major piece of apparatus that they house. For example, in New York City, each station is named after a piece of apparatus located there (lower Manhattan’s station on South Street is called Engine 4).
A company is a basic unit within a fire department. An apparatus (a fire truck for example) and the crew of firefighters and emergency services personnel that operates it, make up a company (sometimes referred to as an engine or truck company). There are different types of companies depending on the apparatus and skill set of the crew.
Engine Company or Pumper Company
This specific company is responsible for providing water to the scene of a fire, identifying the location of the fire, and suppressing it. This company typically has at least one extremely skilled pump operator, but each firefighter on the rig is trained in operating the pump and controlling the pump panel. While it is not this type of company’s main focus, some engine company personnel might have the capability to provide basic medical or rescue response.
Truck Company or Ladder Company
The Truck or Ladder Companies focus on accessing areas of the building that cannot be reached easily on foot. These areas typically include the upper floor and the roof of the building. Firefighters in a truck/ladder company are skilled in choosing and operating the most appropriate type of ladder depending on the situation. Typically, the truck or ladder company is equipped with either a tower ladder or a truck-mounted aerial ladder. A Captain tends to be the leader of a truck/ladder company reporting directly to a Battalion Chief.
The rescue company is the most highly skilled company in the department. Members of a rescue company are trained in building construction, rigging ropes, rescues from buildings and vehicles, among other emergency protocols and procedures. Additionally, firefighters in this company, as the name suggests, will rescue victims from fires and confined spaces.
Depending on the size and needs of the municipality, a fire department might have more specialized companies. For example, the Chicago Fire Department also has a fireboat engine company and two specialized aerial tower companies.
Support Services and Fire Prevention
Rounding out the fire department are support-type departments and services. These departments could include personnel, HR, and/or training. Fire prevention focuses on providing permits, public education, and performing inspections. Lastly, in some areas and municipalities, there may be special operations that focus on areas such as technical rescues, hazardous materials, marine/diving rescue, and many others.
To learn more about open positions within fire departments across the country, take a look at the RedBlueJobs.com job portal.