driver operator

How To Become A Driver Operator

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There are many departments today that are looking for great candidates. The fire service is facing many personnel shortages nationwide. Besides needing more entry level firefighters, fire departments are usually promoting members as well. Since the driver/operator is considered a rank, the people who leave being a driver are usually getting promoted. 

So how does a firefighter become a driver operator? You have to become certified in most states, if not all. A driver/operator also is one of a few positions that do not require a CDL to operate in the fire department’s jurisdiction. You must take the required classes, then test out to become certified. 

What Is A Driver Operator

The driver operator is exactly what it is called, both driver and operator. What does the driver operate, if driving is simply called driving? Well there are two engines that the driver operates, the engine that moves the truck, and an engine that operates the pump. 

The driver/operator is usually a promotional position. Some departments will refer to them as Drivers, Engineers or even HEOs (Heavy equipment operators).

What Is A Fire Pump

Here’s a quick breakdown of what the fire pump is by Dallas Fire

In case you are unsure what the fire pump is, it’s pretty much how a fire hose is able to spray so much water at high pressure since the fire hydrant does not put out that much pressure. Many fire engines are equipped with a water tank in them which is why American fire trucks are so big. 

The most important reason fire apparatuses are equipped with the water tank is because as soon as the “first due” apparatus is on scene, they need to get water on that fire as soon as possible. Even if the driver operator has not attached the pump to an external water source like a fire hydrant, a static water source like a pool or lake or even a tender or another engine for relay pumping.

Training Of The Driver/Operator

I previously wrote about how to study for your driver/operator-pumper exam, you can check that out right here

There is a lot of training that goes into training for driver operators that I detailed in that other post I wrote. I will however talk about it briefly. Remember how I said earlier in this post that driver operators usually do not require a CDL. They are exempt similar to snow plow drivers that work for the county or city.

Although the CDL is not required, you do have to have a CDL permit to learn how to drive and operate heavy air brake equipped vehicles and tanker type vehicles. When I was told that I needed to get my CDL permit, I was honestly a little bit irritated by it since I knew it was not a requirement.

Little did I realize that the information I learned for general knowledge, air brakes and tanker portions would also be things I would need to be aware of while driving the apparatus over the road, as well as questions about them showing up on the driver operator state exam.

Another thing that you learn in this course is how to actually drive the apparatus. Unlike say a bus that my sometimes be similar in length, a bus does not carry the same weight as a fire apparatus. So it is extremely important to become accustomed to driving an extremely large vehicle with the following effects:

  1. Liquid Surge (back and forth sloshing of water than can affect the apparatuses handling)
  2. Braking Delay due to air brakes
  3. Ability to tip

Check out the video below. This is a demonstration on how much power liquid surge can put on the apparatus, or any tanker vehicle that is carrying liquid. In the fire service, we carry large amounts of water on every apparatus, as well as some foam.

Think about having to drive lights and siren, then needing to suddenly stop or turn.

Demonstration of the effects of liquid surge on a tanker vehicle

One thing that was of interest to me is how constantly using the air horn during an emergency response will affect your ability to effectively brake. If it were not for the CDL permit, I would not have known that air horns and air brakes both share the same air tank system. So if you are running too low on air (around 60 psi or lower), the emergency brake will automatically kick on no matter where you are driving or are located.

Where To Get This Type Of Training

There are a few ways to get this type of training. One way to do it is to simply pay for the class out of pocket. This is a great option if you are not looking to get on a large department, or even located in a relatively smaller jurisdiction. 

For firefighters that receive all of their fire training through a large department specific department such as FDNY, LAFD or even Chicago Fire, the firefighters are trained to the point that they can operate safely and not be a hazard to other firefighters. I’m not saying that those firefighters do not ever receive driver operator training, but these departments are likely to put these specific certifications off for a few years until that firefighter is off probation and has some seniority.

I decided to pay for this class out of pocket and take it, because it certainly helped me have a stronger resume and application, than another applicant who may have had all the same other certifications.


Becoming the driver operator of a crew is a huge responsibility. You’re responsible for getting your crew safely to and from an emergency scene, as well as getting water to your attack team which can affect their survivability as well as victims that may be in a burning structure. Knowing the proper pressure to pump a hoseline up 6 floors to your crew, without cavitation your pump or the water main.

Click the button below to check out how to study for the driver/operator-pumper written exam.

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