The Human Element of Moving Water

chief concerns | Richard Marinucci


Water has been used as an extinguishing agent ever since fire was discovered. There wasn’t much science to promote its use; people just figured out it worked.

Richard Marinucci

Of course, we now know why it is so effective and the choice for extinguishment in the majority of hostile fires. It is readily available, relatively inexpensive, and effective. Not to discount the importance of low cost and access, the fact that water is very effective when applied makes it the best option in most cases.


The effectiveness is attributed to its properties. Water has the ability to cool environments, absorb heat when converting from liquid to gas, and expel oxygen and other gases because of its tremendous expansion as it enters the gas state of matter. Looking at it from a simplistic view considering the fire triangle, water helps in all aspects of extinguishment. Heat, fuel, and oxygen are needed to have combustion. Water helps reduce the heat below ignition temperatures because of its ability to absorb heat. It can contribute to the smothering of a fire from its rapid expansion that will produce about 1,600 times the volume when in a gaseous state vs. a liquid. So, for every gallon of water that converts to steam, there will be 1,600 “gallons” of gas. This will help to force out oxygen, which lowers the amount needed to sustain combustion. The expansion will also help replace flammable gases.

This simple explanation is intended to get you more in tune with the capabilities of water as an extinguishing agent and understand why it is so important to move the water from a source to the fire as quickly as possible and with as much as possible, depending on conditions and supply. The fire service has done a very good job of developing methods to move the water. Some have been through trial and error, some science, and some lessons learned from experience. Some of the properties of water have created challenges, such as its freezing point of 32°F. The more that is understood, the better chance of properly applying the water.


Moving water from a source to the fire involves hoses, a pump, appliances, and people. For areas with good water supply systems, the source is rarely a stumbling block. But in cold weather climates, maintenance of hydrants becomes important. The maintenance may also affect operation: If routine maintenance is not done, it can lead to “frozen” hydrants—those that don’t open because of corrosion, rust, or some other reason. Connecting to the water source should be an automatic operation. Of course, in some communities some of the hydrants are not standardized.

I once worked in a community where a few hydrants had different threads and some had different size outlets; in a few private systems, there was never any certainty. Suffice it to say, a sound and basic knowledge of the system is very important.


Regardless of the source, hose, or equipment, people are needed to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. From the pump operator to the pipe man, there need to be knowledge, skills, and abilities. This will require study, policies, training, and practice. The physical abilities of the firefighters also come into play. It is not only a case of physical strength but also aerobic capacity so that, after doing the strenuous work of deployment, there needs to be a reserve that allows the firefight to continue.

Another factor to consider is staffing. There are limitations on what can be done safely and efficiently. Time to complete the entire delivery is very important, as just completing the task won’t mean anything if the fire exceeds the extinguishing power of the water.


Training to be good involves the initial learning of the skill, a significant amount of reps to establish competency, and study to stay on top of changes that may be applicable. The training must be based on established policies and procedures within the organization. These will be developed with national standards and best practices in mind as well as the unique features of the department. For the sets and reps to become and remain competent and continually studied, members need to be unconsciously competent in the basic water delivery methods. This is not to imply that there is an “autopilot” button. It means that the maintenance of core competencies allows the freedom to problem solve without detracting from the operation. It also provides a baseline for the incident commander to consider when developing the strategy and tactics to be used.

Keeping up with developments applies to water delivery and new products. For example, it was long taught that fire was to always be attacked from the unburned side, preferably with an interior attack. Studies have now shown that putting water on the fire as quickly as possible regardless of how it is applied improves conditions rapidly. Departments that learn from these studies can alter and improve their operations.

Training programs should be based on the resources available to the department including the staffing, apparatus, water supply, hoses, and appliances. Inadequate staffing limits capabilities in many ways and the amount and size of hose that can be deployed in a reasonable amount of time. If an engine company with three people arrives at a scene and the next arriving company is at least five minutes away, there certainly are limits as to what tasks can be completed. Connecting to a water source and deploying an attack line are not going to happen in a short period of time regardless of how much you practice. In these cases, a quick blast with a deck gun may buy time that allows for additional resources to arrive and limited staffing to set out the lines to be used. Trying to deploy a 2½-inch hose with limited staffing and less than ideal conditions may be an exercise in futility.

There are many considerations in developing a strategy to deliver water to the fire. The most important of these is firefighters who respond. There need to be enough people for the task, and those firefighters need to be properly trained. After training, there needs to be repetition (practice) to gain unconscious competence to get the water to the fire in the most efficient and effective manner. Every department must work toward the goal of speed of deployment, matching volume of water delivery with the amount of fire needing extinguishment. It will benefit the property owner and minimize unnecessary risks to firefighters. Fires go out when the amount of water being delivered overcomes the British thermal units being produced. The sooner this occurs, the better the outcome.


RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 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 and Fire Engineering 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.

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