Efficient Water Delivery

Richard Marinucci   Richard Marinucci

Water remains the choice for extinguishing structure fires.

Even though advancements and technology offer other options, such as foam and other special extinguishing agents, fire departments operate with the assumption that the appropriate amount of water will extinguish most, if not all, fires.

The basic objective is to overcome the British thermal units (Btus) being generated and ensure that the fuel is cooled enough to cease generating flammable gases. It goes back to the basic fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Although the tetrahedron was added for the chemical chain reaction, this discussion is intended to look at simplicity.

The Value of Water

Instinctively and possibly through study and experience, firefighters have always known the value of water. Studies from Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology confirm that the faster firefighters apply water, the better the outcome. Firefighters are taught early in recruit school that using water fire extinguishers works best when water is applied to the base of the fire. This applies as the fire grows. The amount of water must be of a volume to cool the burning material quickly enough. If the volume isn’t adequate, the fire will not go out. Hence, the source of water and the delivery capabilities of hoses and nozzles affect the outcome. By source, we mean the availability of water. If volume is limited because of pipe (main) size, system pressure, pump capacity, or tanker operations, then options are limited.

The direction from which water is applied has no impact on “pushing fire” through a structure, so the goal should be to figure out the quickest way to the fire. I think the “pushing” concept is related to the debris that gets moved when a fire stream hits objects that are not fastened down. Firefighters on the opposite side of a flowing line will certainly have materials “pushed” on them, but the actual fire is not spread in this manner. What the studies have shown is that water applied to fire cools the area and other parts of the structure. Dropping temperatures are good for everyone.

Water Delivery

With this information, departments should review tactics and strategies frequently. Through training and experience, organizations should know the quickest way they can deliver water and through what means. There may be times when a quick hit with a deck gun using tank water will significantly slow down the fire and allow time to establish a water supply and deploy lines. Organizations that have limited staffing, particularly early in the operations, should consider this tactic for some types of structure fires. Staffing limitations should dictate strategies. Do you have enough personnel to deploy lines and make a fire hydrant connection? The difference between a forward and reverse lay may also affect this. If you are required to leave someone at the hydrant to flush, connect, and open, then you are taking someone from the fireground. You need to weigh the benefits and obstacles in doing this.

One of the simplest axioms in the fire service is “big fire, big water.” For the most part, I would agree. However, this is another area where staffing plays a role. Do you know how many people it will take to deploy 250 feet of 2½-inch line to the rear of a house? Do you know the difference between stretching dry and charged hose? Obviously, moving a 2½-inch line filled with water requires a significant investment in people power. It is heavy, and terrain can make the effort even more challenging. Further, have you trained on deployment and timed how long it takes? Now compare this to the amount of time and number of personnel required to deploy a 1¾-inch line. The point here is that crews and incident commanders must evaluate the pros and cons of quick water vs. volumes of water. Which will produce the best outcome? Through study and experience, personnel can make good, sound decisions.

Another issue that requires investigation is the long-held practice that water should only be applied when flames are spotted. In today’s fire environment, the products of combustion are very volatile and can lead to hostile events including backdrafts, smoke explosions, flashovers, and rapid fire growth. The smoke particles are combustible and will ignite with the right combination of air (oxygen). Refer to your basics and the fire triangle. Heat, fuel, and oxygen are required for the rapid oxidation that is accompanied by heat and light. If you cannot remove the fuel and if oxygen is introduced, you have a fire. So, logically, one way to address the fire triangle is to remove the heat (or lessen it). This is done by introducing water, which absorbs heat as it goes from liquid to gas. I realize that many have been taught otherwise, but newer developments indicate that introducing water into heated environments, even without visualizing fire, will make conditions better for firefighters and reduce the risk of a hostile fire event. Consider applying water sooner rather than later. It doesn’t make the job any less. It just makes it smarter.


The main job of a fire department in almost all cases is to get water on the fire. Recent studies have more than confirmed this concept. So, the objective is to get the most water in the quickest manner and balance the benefits of faster vs. volume. This can be accomplished by study, experience, and practice. Not every department knows how long it takes to complete the basic tasks required to deliver water. Organizations must practice (train) regularly on the basics. As part of the training, crews should be timed so there is a realistic expectation of how long certain aspects of the job will take. You should know how long a hydrant hookup takes or how much time you need to establish a water shuttle using tankers. This would seem to be key in developing an incident action plan and strategy.

Besides having a water source, knowing crews’ capabilities regarding hose deployment will allow incident commanders to make better decisions. If they know the times to deploy, they can weigh options regarding hose size and the possible use of devices. They can also better determine line and device placement. Staffing and training will provide this information but only if the training is regular and realistic. Of course, there are limitations. Training mostly takes place in ideal conditions. Fires don’t. Capabilities on the training ground are usually as good as it gets. Prepare accordingly.

All departments want to be good. The world is changing, and so are the requirements of fire departments. To be good, organizations and their personnel must know their profession and constantly study so that they are on top of the latest developments. They must realistically know their capabilities. This is affected by staffing, equipment, apparatus, and training. Add practice to the mix through “sets and reps” so that there is a level of unconscious competence. With all of this in place, good decisions can be made that make for better outcomes and a safer work environment.

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.

No posts to display