Apparatus Purchasing: Dropping a Line

Bill Adams

Most training manuals define laying a supply or feeder line from the hydrant to the fire as making a forward lay. Regionally, it’s called dropping a line, a flying stretch, laying in, dropping cotton, bringing water, or hitting a plug. Don’t confuse the term hitting a plug with making a plug when a pumper reverse lays fire to hydrant and ties in. Regardless of region or nomenclature, years ago, laying in was a relatively simple and fast but inherently dangerous evolution. It was a performance that just reading about would cause today’s safety officers to cavitate. Actually observing it could send them into vapor lock.

The door was removed from the center tailboard compartment on this 1985 pumper
(1) The door was removed from the center tailboard compartment on this 1985 pumper when the supply line was switched to LDH. Although it is very easy to deploy, some sort of retaining strap may be advisable. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

When the rig approached the scene, the officer would stand up (no roof) and point at the hydrant man riding on the back step (no crew cab or jump seats)-note that the term hydrant man refers to the firefighter who makes a hydrant, regardless of gender. That was the signal to drop a line (no intercom). On rigs with split beds, if the officer held up two fingers, it meant to lay duals [before large-diameter hose (LDH)].

Common practice was to hang onto a grab rail with one hand and grab the gates and lines with the other. When the rig slowed down and pulled toward the side of the road, you waited until you felt the driver disengage the clutch (no automatics) then glanced down the side of the rig to estimate how much hose was required to reach the hydrant. Letting go of the grab rail, the hydrant man balanced himself on the rear step (no safety belt), grabbed the appropriate folds of hose, and bailed off-usually before the rig came to a complete stop and hopefully without breaking anything, hence the term “flying stretch.” Most of the time it worked. If not, you hoped injuries weren’t too serious.

1990 rear-engine pumper
(2) This 1990 rear-engine pumper uses a bolt-on hydrant box at the rear of the apparatus to simplify dropping a line. Pick up the hydrant bag, throw the butt end with the attached hydrant valve over your shoulder, and head for the plug. (3) A box semirecessed into the rear panel was provided on this 1999 rear-mount pumper. After several trips over bumpy roads, the hydrant bag was eventually secured with a carabiner.

Today, dropping cotton takes longer and isn’t necessarily as safe as one may think. Getting to the scene is one thing. Newer apparatus have enclosed cabs, seat belts, front and side air bags, and numerous mandated electronic safety and stability features. Manufacturers must adhere to a plethora of stringent regulatory safety standards, rules, and regulations that, for the most part, are standard for all apparatus. It is unquestionably safer riding inside a fire truck today than it was riding the rear step-as it should be.

It’s another story after the rig arrives on location. How efficiently, expeditiously, and safely firefighters, including the hydrant man, accomplish their mission is a direct result of the competence or failure of the apparatus purchasing committee (APC) in designing and specifying a new rig. It’s harsh but true that an APC’s inattention to the procedure of laying in may inadvertently make the task unnecessarily time-consuming and possibly compromise the very safety of the hydrant man. Failing to address accessing the supply line and hydrant makeup (gates, wrenches, and so on) can make hitting the hydrant just as dangerous as leaping off the tailboard of a moving rig with an armful of hose and hydrant gates. Safety officers should contribute their words of wisdom during the design phase of apparatus purchasing.

A box semirecessed into the rear panel was provided on this 1999 rear-mount pumpe
(3) A box semirecessed into the rear panel was provided on this 1999 rear-mount pumper. After several trips over bumpy roads, the hydrant bag was eventually secured with a carabiner.

How to lay, load, or repack a supply line; what size hose and type of hydrant makeup to use; and the actual evolution itself are local operational concerns. Do what works well for your department. Firefighter safety is nonnegotiable. It starts with, and is the obligation of, the APC.

Primary Mission

Because hose wagons are mostly a thing of the past, I address pumpers and, in particular, multifunctional pumpers herein. Requests for emergency medical services (EMS) may account for the vast majority of some pumpers’ responses. In some jurisdictions, EMS, budget constraints, limited staffing, downsizing, and numerous nonstructural fire responses may necessitate the use of multitasking pumpers. They are inherently large and long, and “space” is at a premium.

Altoona (PA) Fire Department Engine 311's 2010 Rosenbauer
(4) Altoona (PA) Fire Department Engine 311’s 2010 Rosenbauer shows a loose supply line butt accessible from ground level and a hydrant bag held on with a carabiner. The hand loops on the hosebed cover tie downs keep the hydrant man from climbing onto the rig to undo them-a smart move. (Photo by Assistant Chief Steve Michelone, Altoona Fire Department.)

In my opinion, if a rig is compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, as a pumper, its primary mission of securing a positive water supply and putting water on the fire should be a high priority in its design. Despite a rig’s size, secondary mission, or frequency of making a forward lay, laying in should be made as safe and expedient as possible. The intent of this article is to make purchasers aware that speed, efficiency, and safety may be compromised by lack of forethought, poor design, and indifferent spec writing.

Getting Out

Safety rules and regulations are there for a reason. Although not in question, they can indirectly affect dropping a line. Just exiting the cab is one, especially if firefighters must be geared up when responding to an alarm of fire. When hitting a plug, does the hydrant man carry his helmet with him or leave it on the rig? Remember, it’s not supposed to be worn in the cab. Intracab helmet holders should be easily released with a gloved hand. Be careful not to let a loose SCBA strap, a face piece hanging from a neck strap, or a portable radio’s dangling microphone cord get hung up while exiting the cab, interfere when accessing the supply line, or get caught when dressing the hydrant.

2010 E-ONE pumper delivered to Weymouth, Massachusetts
(5) This 2010 E-ONE pumper delivered to Weymouth, Massachusetts, has a four-way hydrant valve preconnected to an LDH supply line, which is stored in the bolt-on compartment at the right rear. A preconnected ground monitor is stored on the left side. The doors are notched to accommodate the hose. (Photo courtesy of Greenwood Emergency Vehicles.)

A department’s standard operating procedure (SOP) may require that the parking brake be set before firefighters exit the cab. Does it apply when dropping cotton? Common sense dictates it should if firefighters are physically removing equipment from or climbing onto the apparatus. After all, the hydrant man does remove equipment and may have to climb on the rig to reach it. Again, safety officers, where were you when this rig was laid out?

Slow down. It’s imperative to look before exiting the cab. Some departments specify the hydrant man has an assigned seating position, so there’s a 50/50 chance he’ll become a target for oncoming vehicles if exiting the cab into an active traffic lane. Seemingly trivial is making sure the hydrant man closes the cab door behind him. If not done, someone else may have to unbuckle himself and possibly have to leave the cab to close it. Think safe, act safe, be safe.

Rear Step and Rear Compartment

Historically, the 18- to 24-inch-deep full width rear step (aka tailboard, back step, and rear work platform) was the domain of the hydrant man and hose crew. They rode there and worked from there. Most standard pumper bodies also featured a full width recessed intermediate step above the rear compartment to access the hosebed.

2004 Crimson rear-mount pumper
(6, 7) These photos of a 2004 Crimson rear-mount pumper show an open LDH butt end post-mounted on the rear step. The LDH hydrant valve and bag are stored on a slide-out tray under the pump panel located behind the rear wheels on the driver’s side. (Photos by Chief Jared Meeker, Lake Shore (NY) Fire District.)

In my opinion, many fire chiefs and APCs no longer consider hose evolutions a primary function of the engine or they wouldn’t have eliminated that work area. The intermediate step and large rear work platform have either vanished altogether or been turned into compartmentation. By design, the task of hose handling off the back end may have been made difficult at the least and possibly dangerous at the most.

Many older pumpers featured a rear step compartment (door was optional) located between the side compartments behind the rear axle. This frame-rail-width compartment was an ideal location to carry hose evolution equipment such as nozzles, adapters, and the hydrant makeup (photo 1). Apparatus designs today commonly incorporate the area into a large side-to-side transverse storage area that ends up holding “other” equipment.

Old-timers and traditionalists must accept the fact that the APC and fire chief may have decided that safely securing a positive water supply takes second place to easily accessing EMS bags, Stokes baskets, backboards, smoke ejectors, hydraulic rescue tools, air bags, cribbing, portable generators, traffic cones, or whatever nonengine company equipment now occupies the rear step compartment. Caution-it’s a two-way street. That same white coat can’t jump up and down in front of a working structure fire yelling because it’s taking the pumper too long to drop a line. You can’t have it both ways-especially if you helped write the specs.

Pumper 313, from the Bushnell's Basin Fire Department
(8-10) Pumper 313, from the Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department in Pittsford, NY, is a 2005 American La France. The LDH open butt end is stored in the hosebed, accessible from ground level by a webbed strap. The hydrant makeup is stored in a polypropylene box located on the driver’s side behind the rear wheels. Assistant Chief LJ Sutherland notes that apparatus seating positions are job-specific. The forward facing bench seat in the crew cab is for the hydrant man. The SOP is for the officer to dismount the rig to ensure the hydrant man gets the makeup box and line to the hydrant. The officer remounts the apparatus, tells the driver it’s OK to proceed, and the rig lays in while the hydrant man dresses the plug. It sounds safe, reasonable, and workable.

Bear in mind that specification writers may not have physically laid a line in a long time. Maybe they should before they specify how to do it. Apparatus manufacturers shouldn’t be faulted. They’ll build exactly what’s in the specifications. If a rig is hard to work off of, talk to the people who wrote the specs and bought the truck.

Accessing the Supply Line

I believe if a firefighter has to physically climb onto a pumper to access a primary piece of equipment such as the supply line, the purchasing committee did a lousy job. If the shoe fits, wear it. The hydrant man should be able to walk up to the rear step, access the butt end of the line (with or without a hydrant gate-your call), and walk away from the rig with enough hose to reach the plug. Can a second fold of hose be reached if needed?

Some apparatus with extraordinarily high hosebeds have flip-down access steps to access the supply line. Try them before you buy them. Remember, it’s “one hand for me and one hand for thee.” Some users provide a hydrant rope or webbing strap on the supply line that can be reached from ground level. That’ll work. Just make sure the open butt is located so the hydrant man doesn’t catch it in the face when pulling it off the rig. A five-inch Storz coupling will leave a lasting impression.

Regardless of the storage locations, purchasing specifications should address them in detail. Usually they don’t. Most APCs merely specify the capacity of the hosebed. After the rig is delivered is when some purchasers try to figure out how to locate everything to lay a line. Good luck. Fire departments regularly preplan and physically run hose evolutions for target hazards in their response districts. It is advantageous and helpful. Doing so can be equally beneficial when designing a fire truck to lay hose, particularly if the design and layout of the proposed rig’s working end is different from what’s currently used.

Don’t forget accessing hosebed cover tie downs on the vertical end flaps. They should be reachable without climbing onto the rig (photo 4). If that requirement is not in your purchasing specifications, chances are you may not get it.

LDH butt end with gate valve easily accessible from ground level
(11) The Pittsford (NY) Fire District’s Engine 382 shows the LDH butt end with gate valve easily accessible from ground level, as are the retaining straps on the lower portion of the hosebed cover. The hydrant bag is stored in the rear compartment, keeping the hydrant man out of a traffic lane. Everything required to drop a line is in one location and does not require the firefighter to climb onto the apparatus to accomplish the evolution.

The Hydrant Makeup

A common practice is to dress (gate) all the ports on a hydrant when laying in. Even if one gate is preconnected to the supply line, there might be two more gates, a hydrant wrench, maybe a couple of spanners, and even an adaptor or two that must be carted from the rig to the plug. Some departments use hydrant bags while others use metal or polypropylene boxes (photo 10). Ever weigh one with everything in it? There is no judgment made on what to carry, how to carry it, or how to make the plug. That’s the APC’s and fire chief’s responsibility. Providing reasonably safe access to the equipment is also their responsibility.

When there is no rear step or room in the rear compartment, some users carry hydrant makeups in one of the side exterior compartments (photos 7 and 9). Keep in mind when stopping at the plug that the pumper itself is probably in a traffic lane. Depending on which side the hydrant makeup is stored, the firefighter has a chance of stepping farther into active traffic. That’s not safe. Keep it at the rear. Hopefully, the safety fanatics will not come up with a requirement to put out traffic cones and barricade tape and don traffic safety vests before laying a line. If the makeup is mounted on a slide-out tray, don’t forget to push it back in. Adding two feet to a rig’s width may not be advisable in a congested area. Don’t leave the compartment door open. The flashing door-ajar light in the cab might distract the driver at night when laying in.

Specify the Location

If the intent is to store the supply line butt at or near ground level, purchasing specifications ought to specify the exact location. The apparatus manufacturer doesn’t know what you intend to do when you get the rig home. Be careful not to inadvertently block rear stop, turn, tail, warning, or scene lighting. A popular feature on today’s rigs is a vertical three- or four-light module mounted low on each side at the rear. Consider a horizontally mounted light module with a step or platform above it large enough to hold a hydrant makeup on one side and perhaps the working end of the supply hose on the other. And, don’t negate that $1,500 traffic arrow light by dangling a piece of five-inch LDH in front of it.

Or, move the lights. I interpret Chapter V of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as saying stop and tail lights can be from 15 to 72 inches from ground level, up to 83 inches for directional lights, and no height requirement for backup lights. Apparatus manufacturers regularly promote building custom apparatus. Ask them if they can find a compliant space for the lower warning lights, move the others up high, and provide a place to mount the hydrant man’s equipment so it can be reached. It’s been done before.

If LDH is used, LDH gate valves, four-way hydrant valves, and the hose itself are heavier than traditional 2½- and three-inch. The hydrant man may have to dodge traffic twice while removing it, then possibly make two trips dragging everything to the plug before dressing it, flushing it, and charging it. Make the job as safe and easy as you can.

Compromising firefighter safety is never condoned on the fireground. Safety should start when writing purchasing specifications. Make them work for you-not against you. Specification writers may be hard pressed to define ease of accessibility and safe placement for a supply line hose butt and the hydrant makeup, but they should try. The hydrant man will appreciate it.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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