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.
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.