Moving Water

Richard Marinucci

Water has been the extinguishing agent of choice for hundreds of years. Its properties and availability make it the most reasonable choice in most communities. In fact, communities establish water systems to carry large enough volumes for the main purpose of fire protection where they design water main sizes to meet required fire flows. ISO considers water supply a major component of its grading schedule. Until a better agent is found, fire departments will continue to improve on ways to deliver water to the base of the fire.

Over the years, I have heard that many people feel safe because they have a fire hydrant in front of their house. I have even heard this from firefighters, as if they believe that water will magically jump out of the hydrant and find its way to the fire. I have heard similar comments about swimming pools and ponds as sources of water that provide a sense of security in the event of a fire. I have received calls from residents and insurance agents asking for the location of the closest hydrant to a dwelling or business because that apparently affects the insurance rates for some companies. The important thing to remember is that departments need to move that water to the fire to produce the best possible results.

Effective Delivery

Despite the perception that nearby water sources somehow provide fire protection, we all know that delivering water to the proper place will extinguish a fire most efficiently and effectively. One early lesson I remember from recruit school was how to use a pressurized water extinguisher. I was told that, to be most effective, the water was to be applied at the base of the flames. This concept applies to fires of all sizes: Water needs to get to the source. While I am not discounting the benefits of indirect application of water and its effectiveness, the fact is that if water is applied at the base of the flames, extinguishment is quicker and the chances of a rekindle or continuation of a deep-seated fire are minimized.

Regardless of your position on direct vs. indirect attack, offensive or defensive, straight stream or fog nozzle, or even “penciling” methods, all these techniques require water. The ultimate objective is simple: overcome the Btus the fire generates. This seems to be a fairly simple concept. The real challenge is to find the best way to deliver the water. In most cases, this involves human resources. Quite frankly, most structures that are attacked using technology instead of human beings-i.e., unstaffed master stream devices-are going to end up as total losses. Lives and property are most likely to be saved with properly placed handlines deployed by firefighters. This concept requires adequate staffing to have the best possible outcome.

Staffing the Difference

Staffing is the key component in deploying hoselines to aggressively attack a fire. Firefighters must be adequately trained to be efficient and physically prepared for the strenuous work. Getting water on the fire doesn’t just happen. There are many challenges to overcome. Some can be addressed with technology, while others still require brute force. If you consider your response time to be the total time it takes from discovery to water application, then you understand the importance of speed in deployment, not just the time it takes to drive to the scene.

The weight of water is approximately 62.4 pounds per cubic foot. If my math is right, that would place the weight of a 50-foot length of 13/4-inch hose at approximately 60 pounds plus the weight of the hose and nozzle. If you multiply this by the number of lengths, you begin to see one of the challenges of moving charged hose. This increases greatly as the hose’s diameter increases. As an exercise, calculate the weight of 2½-inch hose per length and in your supply line. Even though the axiom of “big fire, big water” applies, it is somewhat impractical to deploy a larger hoseline if it is to be moved after it is charged unless you have sufficient staffing. This affects tactics and strategy.

Another factor to consider is operating pressure. Higher pressures reduce flexibility, making turns more challenging. Consider operating pressure when selecting hose size; higher pressures make larger hoselines very difficult to turn.

Technology and Training

Because many departments have experienced reduced staffing, this simple concept must be reviewed to make sure you are capable of deploying the water resources you need. There are a couple of things to consider. Technology can help a little. Hoses are made with lighter materials, helping to reduce some of the weight. Nozzles are designed to operate with lower pressures while delivering the desired water flow, which can help with some of the flexibility issues. Also, newer technology can provide remote activation of hydrant valves, which can free up additional personnel to help place hoselines. Crew members do not need to stay at the hydrant waiting for instructions to open it up. Although this might be a minor issue, better use of limited human resources will help a bit.

Hands-on training is essential to determine the capabilities of your organization. Practice moving water with your typical staffing. You may find that the number of people you have on a first alarm cannot realistically move larger-sized hoselines. Calculate the weight of a typical length of hose that might be needed to reach one of the “bread and butter” fires in your average dwelling. Then deploy that hose while wearing all of your protective clothing to see the actual labor required. Knowing what your crews can do is essential in selecting the right tactics and strategy. Even if your quick calculation is telling you that you would like to deploy a larger attack line, the inability to put it in the location where it is needed should cause you to reevaluate.

Even though we can make some adjustments, the real solution to this problem is more staffing. Unfortunately, many departments are struggling with staffing issues and cannot meet even the most minimum acceptable standards. Until this situation changes, departments must rely on calling more alarms and mutual aid if they wish to deliver water to the seat of the fire in an efficient and effective manner. Remember that a fire will eventually go out. You can catch it before it gets past your capabilities or you can wait until it returns to a size you can handle. The best option to minimize damage is to apply water while there remains something to be saved. Your ability to move the water and apply it to the proper spot will determine how successful you are.

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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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Moving Water

Water has been the primary choice for extinguishing fires since fire departments began. The properties of water and its availability make it a good choice for most types of fires. The principle is relatively simple: apply enough water to overcome the British thermal units (Btus) being generated. The trick is to get the required volume of water to what is generating the heat. Moving the water from the source to the fire has always been the challenge. No one should be surprised to learn that staffing levels affect the ability to deliver and move water—from the supply to the attack line and everything in between.

In the beginning, departments used bucket brigades. A group of people lined up, and a person at one end dipped a bucket into the water. Then the bucket was passed to the front person, who got as close to the fire as possible to throw the water on the fire. The effectiveness of this could certainly be questioned. Most likely the water could not overcome the Btus until enough of the fuel burned away. Of course, this was very labor-intensive, in addition to being mostly ineffective.

Manual fire pumps were also used to move water. Firefighters would physically operate the pump to deliver the water. Firefighters or horses delivered the pump to the fire location, and if they didn’t use horses, I would guess the firefighters were quite tired before they even got to the fire! Although it was an improvement over the bucket brigade, it too was labor-intensive. Staffing on a manual pump greatly exceeded the current requirements of NFPA 1710 for a fire engine!

Motorized Engines Arrive

Improvements continued, with the next step being the use of steamers to operate the pumps, which eliminated the need for manual labor to make the pump work and deliver water. Horses usually transported the steamer, but it could be pulled by personnel. Although this was still labor-intensive, the numbers required to operate the pump decreased.

Motorized vehicles replaced the horses, and manufacturers continued to improve the pumps. The basic premise remained—to deliver the largest possible amount of water to extinguish the fire in the most efficient manner. The objective was, and still is, to move the water from the source to the fire. Improvements in technology have resulted in less required staffing, yet firefighting remains relatively labor-intensive, even though machines are used extensively to pump the water.

So, what does all this mean today? One of the prime considerations has to do with staffing levels. Even though technology has helped move water, it has not eliminated the need for personnel. With the financial challenges many communities face and some of the political issues facing some departments, limited staffing has affected the ability of departments to deliver the necessary water to the fire.

Equipment and technology today allow large volumes of water to be moved from the source to wherever it is needed. Fire pumps have large capacities, municipal water supplies have an endless volume, and hose sizes can deliver a lot of water. The primary limiting factor is the number of people available to use the tools. Other factors include the intensity of the fire, which restricts access; distance from the water source to the fire; and the overall collection of equipment to be used.

One firefighter on a fire truck could be considered a fire department. I wouldn’t say it would be a very good fire department. Yet, some communities continue to reduce staffing for financial reasons and still think they have a department. A deck gun on the top of an engine can be operated by one person. The apparatus can pull in front of the building and deliver water according to the capacities of the source, pump, and appliance. Water can be dumped in any opening reachable from the parked apparatus, and the volume of water probably is sufficient to overcome the Btus at many fires. Unfortunately, the water may not be delivered to the seat of the fire. Even though the hardware exists to deliver water, it takes proper personnel levels to affect the outcome.

Staffing issues affect other aspects of water delivery. An inadequate number of personnel will limit the size chosen and mobility of handlines. One person on the end of a 1½- or 1¾-inch handline will not move the hose if it is charged. This is even more challenging with 2½-inch hose. Unless Superman arrives, that hose is not moving once it is charged, and getting to the seat of the fire most likely will not happen. Limited staffing greatly impacts the effectiveness of hose deployment and the ability to move water.

Getting water from the source to the fire pump is also affected by staffing. Large-diameter hose (LDH) is very effective at delivering water, provided it can be put in place within a reasonable amount of time. Also consider the energy required to deploy LDH. Firefighters might be able to get it into place, but the firefighters will be ready for rehab before they get a chance to put water on the fire!

These challenges are new to many organizations as they see their numbers greatly reduced. It is not reasonable to expect the same level of service or performance on the fireground. Departments need to know their new limitations. They should adjust deployment, strategies, tactics, and expectations.

Train Like You Work

Fire departments need to explain to their policy makers, in terms that they will understand, that reduced staffing will not allow them to move water as they have in the past. With fewer capabilities, it will be more difficult to overcome the Btus. The fire may not be contained until it consumes the fuel load. This simple premise must be understood so that firefighters are not placed in harm’s way unnecessarily because they lack the water resources for basic fire attack.

Departments that have experienced a reduction should reevaluate their capabilities to see what they can accomplish within a reasonable timeframe after arrival on the scene. Return to the drill ground to practice with new staffing levels to see if anything has changed. See if those on the first-due assignment can deliver water as they have in the past. Let the limited staffing connect to a fire hydrant to see how much longer it will take and to see if it affects their stamina. Fill a 2½-inch line with water and see if the staff can move it into the proper position. In addition to moving forward, see if they can make any turns. Departments may find that using this size line is not practical or maybe not even possible until additional resources arrive. If these resources come via mutual aid, personnel need to know how long the response is likely to take.

Finding out on the first fire is too late. This should be known by all members of the department, especially those who arrive first to start the operation. It also needs to be explained in layman’s terms to those who authorize the resources for the department so they know there will be a significant change in capabilities, if that is what training results show.

People, mostly those outside the fire service, often will say that response times are not affected by staffing reductions because the trucks will get there in the same amount of time. They interpret this to mean that there will be no affect on service—but, that is not the case. Somehow this should be communicated, because staffing reductions can greatly impact water delivery.

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 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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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