As I write this, many parts of the country are finishing one of the most severe winter weather seasons in many years. There has been extreme cold and a lot of snow.
This has created operational challenges for many fire departments. In some cases, fire hydrants have been covered with snow and the cold weather has made other hydrants inoperable because of freezing. Of course, some folks think there is a simple solution-just dig out all the hydrants and test the hydrants regularly. If it was only that simple!
The point of this article is not to discuss the specific challenges of weather extremes but the need for redundancy in water delivery should the first option fail. As an example, a few years ago an entire water system went down during the summer months because of a power failure. Obviously, many departments were scrambling to come up with an alternate water source.
Have a Backup
Departments should have choices if the first option doesn’t work, regardless of why there is a failure. In areas served by fire hydrants, this could be as simple as knowing all the options available for hydrant selection. There should be a procedure that calls for responding units to take alternate routes to approach the scene from different directions. This would generally allow for multiple choices and a backup plan should the first hydrant fail for some reason. This seems so simple and logical that you might wonder why you would even need to tell anyone that this should be a standard operation. But there are some considerations, including organizational discipline, for responding appropriately on each call. Occasionally departments become complacent and don’t always remember their basics, especially if a department, a specific station, or even a shift doesn’t respond to many structure fires.
There is more to preparation than just driving a different route to the scene. Those who arrive first must leave space if they need subsequent responding units’ water supplies. The first-arriving crews also need to be efficient and able to determine early whether or not their first water supply option will work. Departments that are prepared for the second or even third option can transition smoothly. And, very often the public will not even know there was a problem. On the flip side, if you put all your eggs in one basket, everyone will know there was a problem. Not only will this negatively impact your suppression efforts, it could create a political issue long after the fire has been extinguished.
The most important reason for a smooth transition is relative to firefighter safety. Many departments initiate operations with tank water and rely on establishing a water supply from the fire hydrant quickly so that it is seamless for the operation. Firefighters initiate interior attacks, and as long as the continuous water supply is established before the tank water is depleted, there is no issue. However if there is any significant delay, it could place interior units in peril and expose them to additional risk.
Redundancy is easier with adequate staffing by dispatching enough units on the first alarm. This can be challenging for many departments that have seen reductions in these areas in the past few years. In this time, the perceived success of many departments may have led to complacency or overconfidence. They have not had any fire hydrant issues or difficulties supplying water. They, and too often those that fund the department, look at this as an opportunity to reduce costs through less staffing and apparatus. Like so much of what occurs in the emergency business, it isn’t a problem until something unusual occurs. Then someone is asked to explain.
There are other options to help with creating backup plans. Some areas have access to tanker trucks or water tenders-different terms for the same thing, depending on where you are in the country. Departments that cover areas without hydrants generally have a good system to shuttle water. Some departments have a mix of areas served by hydrants and those that are not. They may have a tanker truck available although not in every part of their service delivery areas. If they do not have the ability to approach from different directions or don’t have the ability to create multiple hydrant options, they may wish to consider dispatching the vehicles that carry the water. If they don’t have those vehicles, they need to become friends with their neighbors who do so that mutual aid is available.
Providing a water supply source is not the only consideration when creating redundancy. Lines used for fire attack could also have something go wrong. Occasionally hoses get kinked when being advanced, lines burn through, or they may just burst if they have something wrong. Good departments have a backup plan and are ready should this happen. This is most important for firefighter safety. Anyone who has had some type of failure while fighting a fire on the interior of a structure can attest to the instant feeling of panic. The hose is the lifeline, and any disruption will cause an initial increase in stress. There must be a safety backup in the event something goes wrong.
Fortunately this does not occur often but the infrequency must not create complacency. Again, staffing and equipment must be provided so that there is a method to rapidly adjust operations and create a means to transition as quickly and efficiently as possible. Whether you have one fire a year or one a day, there needs to be a system to offer a secondary water delivery method for firefighter safety. Further, firefighters must be as competent as possible in basic hose deployment and water delivery to minimize the potential of something going wrong.
Training must also prepare firefighters for the unusual and what actions need to be taken when things don’t go according to plan. Although ideally there is enough redundancy to accommodate any deviations from the norm, firefighters need to know what to do and to also do it confidently and competently. Training must be designed to not only create unconscious competence when everything goes as planned but also to quickly adjust actions, tactics, and strategies when needed.
Departments have a normal response to fires that calls for establishing a water supply and delivery of said water to the fire. There are established policies and procedures. Members train to a particular standard and are generally well served by this. But as all firefighters should know, not all plans go as designed. Good departments work at this just in case. Anticipate the types of challenges you could have if things go wrong during an operation and know what to do long before the snafu occurs.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.