What defines an ‘engineer’?

CarolinaFireJournal - By Willie Wimmer
By Willie Wimmer
01/10/2013 -

I have never been one to sugar coat or even try to make the things I need to say a little more easy to the ears and I am sure not going to start now. I have been in the fire service and in the fire apparatus repair field for 16 years now and I must say things have really changed. When I say changed it is not for the good that I am writing about. It used to be as an engineer, well that term is used a little too lightly now, this was a promotion up from riding backwards and then from there you went to the right seat as far as promotions went and the engineer would fill in when the officer was gone. We are taking this a little too lightly when it comes to an operator/engineer or a driver — big difference here and I think everyone will agree after reading this. Oh yeah, and by the way, if I offend you in any way you need to get over it and deal with it, because if it does offend you then you are second guessing yourself and need to reevaluate your engineer program.


The dictionary defines an engineer as “a person who runs or supervises an engine or an apparatus.” Thank you Merriam Webster for the use and now there is no copyright infringement. I’m talking about a person who runs or supervises an engine or an apparatus — not someone who can get water from a to b — I can train a monkey to do that. An engineer knows his truck, knows how it works and can even troubleshoot an issue on the fire ground. OK and now I am going to hear the “I just finished the driver operator series and I am good and I don’t need to read any further,” well you are wrong. If you can answer all of the following questions then you are getting close to engineer status. If you can’t answer any more than a couple you need to do some research after reading the rest of this article.

  1. Do I know how to manually shift my pump into gear if there is a pump shift failure?
  2. Do I know how to correctly operate and maintain my pressure governor or relief valve?
  3. Do I know the correct friction loss calculations?
  4. What do I do if my truck starts to overheat on a fire ground?
  5. What is the GVW of my apparatus?
  6. How far do I need to stop my apparatus?
  7. How long can I pump two cross lays with the water I have in my tank?
  8. The difference in check engine lights and stop engine lights and what causes them?
  9. What is a regeneration?
  10. How close are my cab gauges to my pump panel gauges?

OK, you get my point. I could keep asking questions but this would turn into a novel and not an article. An engineer knows these items and puts them to work at each and every fire ground operation and will continually check these issues through out the week and month and so on. An engineer will know how to operate the truck by sound as much as the gauges. An engineer will get equipment ready for the crew as well as operate the truck. An engineer can tell you exactly where a tool is and look in the compartment and tell if something is out of place. Does everyone get what I am throwing down?

A driver can start the truck and drive it to the scene safely and get water out. But if an issue arises they are giving the deer in the headlights look to command. You can’t take this position in the fire service lightly because it is probably one of the most important. If you screw up and don’t get the right water flow or get water supply, the people on the other end of the line are in trouble and there are times you and I both know where seconds can make a difference in life and death. At my department we have instituted a new program with driver operators to help instill the importance of the difference in an engineer and a driver. I am all the time asking when troubleshooting a truck what exactly happened and I can tell the difference between the two by their answer and how their response when it happened.

The engineer of that apparatus should and will take pride in the apparatus once they know the importance of their role. This role, like many in the fire service, is not for everyone due to the types of knowledge and skills that need to be exercised. An engineer needs to have fire knowledge as well as pump knowledge. As a second set of eyes for command you may see smoke pushing from an area that that command doesn’t, but you need to know what that means and a little shout out. If you have the chance to attend the “Art Of Reading Smoke” class, it is awesome. When I say it’s not for everyone a lot of you need to realize your limitations for the fire service. I am not cutting anyone down by any means, but it is kind of like being a chief — not everyone has the ability to be a chief and I am not a firm believer in equal opportunity when it comes to certain things. Maybe I didn’t put that right but I am saying there are some jobs not everyone is cut out for. It takes every member of a team to make things work. Use your strong parts to make the team work. If you are a center you are usually not a running back as well. I know times are tough and manpower is low everywhere, but you can find the right person for the right job and a person that has the ability to be an engineer.

I am also a firm believer that street smarts and street experience is 100 times better than a book smart person. I am not saying knowledge is not the way to go, but experience goes a long way and that’s why a new probie won’t make captain the first day. He does not have enough experience for the role that is also why someone first coming in the fire service should have a lot of backward time before a lot of front time. You will learn the ins and outs and what it’s like if pressures get too high or there is water loss and what to do and how it feels.

Next question is how many of you engineer’s out there even know where the operators manual is or has read any of the manual before operating the truck? They don’t just put these together to use valuable shelf space. They are there for you to read important information about your apparatus. All fire trucks are not the same. Yes, they all pump and drive and have lights and cool stuff but the ins and outs are different and each apparatus is different as well. It is also not a bad idea to have assigned engineers to each piece of apparatus in your department starting with a utility all the way up to a ladder truck

OK, my short article turned into long because I have such a strong love for the fire service and a strong love for everyone going HOME!!! Remember, an engineer is a vital role to those words and no one should take them lightly. Drills and more drills and more evolutions are the key to a good engineer as well as your apparatus knowledge. In closing we all need to strive to be the best we can in every situation and always the best at what we do. No one likes second place and a favorite saying of mine from an all-time great movie is,“I wake up in the morning and piss excellence,” — Talladega Nights. Thank you Ricky Bobby for an awesome line, you rank right up there with Confucius.

Willie Wimmer (owner/head mechanic) started working for KME in 1996 while in school and continued to work there until 2007 when he relocated to the Outer Banks. He started with KME building trucks, moved into repairs and finished by traveling across country repairing trucks, selling and training on the apparatus. He has been an active volunteer firefighter since 1996.
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