Piercing Nozzle Can Be Among The Most Effective

piercing nozzle
A piercing nozzle can be used to introduce water into a confined space from an adjacent room when the fire room is difficult to access or the act of forcing the door will be time consuming.
piercing nozzle
The tips of piercing nozzles are made of hardened steel and penetrate confined spaces, introducing a sprinkler head to the fire.
piercing nozzle
When lightweight trusses and metal roofs are exposed to fire from below, vertical ventilation can be extremely dangerous. Using a piercing nozzle for an indirect attack from an aerial ladder or elevated platform can be a safe alternative.
piercing nozzle
A pre-connected piercing nozzle is mounted on the front bumper of the Buckley (Wash.) Volunteer Fire Department’s Engine 5210. It is frequently used due to its effectiveness in the face of limited water and limited staffing.
piercing nozzle
Buckley (Wash.) Volunteer Fire Department’s Engine 5210 has attachments for its piercing nozzle mounted behind the crew cab for easy access and flexibility.
piercing nozzle
Using a piercing nozzle to attack an attic space fire from below is sometimes an easier way access the confined space. Remember the nozzle is limited by reach, and it is difficult to forcefully insert the nozzle when a charged hose line is attached. (Mt. Pleasant (Mich.) Fire Department Photo)
piercing nozzle
The largest piercing nozzle in the arsenal of firefighting tools is a pre-plumbed Snozzle. It is used by Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) crews to attack fires in aircraft. This method of indirect attack is effective for fires in the passenger cabin and engine housings. (Crash Rescue Photo)
Bayonet-style piercing nozzles
Bayonet-style piercing nozzles have striking plates on their back ends allowing them to be driven with a sledgehammer, maul or axe. They can penetrate a variety of material including sheet metal, plywood, sheet rock and cinder blocks.
Bayonet-style piercing nozzles
Augustus Fire Tools Series 100 piercing nozzle is made for use with fire extinguishers. It is ideal for car fires and can be carried on light rescue trucks and in officers’ vehicles easily.

The only nozzle in our arsenal of fire fighting tools that requires brute strength and aggressiveness to operate is the piercing nozzle. There are many types of piercing nozzles on the market, but you can’t help but like using them because they all require firefighters to whack, slam, or ram them into place for operation.

Perhaps the most advantageous, yet indirect, feature of the piercing nozzle is that firefighters, for the most part, operate this nozzle in a safe, tenable environment, free from smoke, heat, and fire.

I want to emphasize that the piercing nozzle is a specialized tool. It’s not the panacea of nozzles, but under the right conditions, it can be the most effective nozzle on the engine.

A few years ago, I was testing a piercing nozzle on a car fire. My crew was anxious to try the new nozzle on an actual fire because this particular model required the nozzle to be swung like an axe for penetration, so there was no shortage of volunteers to operate the nozzle.

After a quick knockdown and extinguishment, it was apparent the car had been abandoned. There was another abandoned vehicle in the immediate area, so we took the opportunity to practice a little longer with the new piercing nozzle.

The following shift, I received a call from the arson squad inquiring about our car fire. They were quite concerned about the numerous golf ball-sized holes in the cars. Since this fire happened in the not so desirable “knife and gun club” part of the city, the investigators thought it had been shot up with a Howitzer or a .50-caliber machine gun.

The alarming anxiety that this type of firepower was now on the streets was quickly relieved when they found out it was only Captain Angulo and Engine 33 drilling with the new piercing nozzle.

Little Structural Damage

The practice use of these nozzles does leave a huge imprint in the form of numerous holes, but during an actual incident, it’s quite the opposite. One of the strongest advantages for using a piercing nozzle is it causes very little structural damage and minimizes water damage.

The fire service has many responsibilities, but our primary responsibility is to put out fires in buildings. People live in buildings, and we save more lives, even with fewer firefighters, by simply putting out the fire.

This is our battlefield, and as Frank Brannigan says, “The building is your enemy…know your enemy!” As the building construction industry changes, the fire service has to adapt to these changes. If we are to be successful in our primary mission and perform it safely, so that everyone goes home at the end of the shift, the continuous study of building construction is paramount.

Lightweight Construction

Profit and economic competition drive the construction industry to build it cheaper and faster. Lightweight construction is no longer a new term in the fire service. Rather, it’s the industry standard of every new construction project around the country.

Lightweight doesn’t refer only to wood. We now have lightweight steel and aluminum building components showing up as wall studs, connectors, columns, trusses, and joists.

Lightweight metal roofs are making a noticeable appearance in the housing market. They are extremely popular in wildland interface neighborhoods because they resist the flaming embers of a wildland fire.

In the urban-metro cities, they are popular because they are virtually maintenance-free and will outlast the life span of a traditional wood frame roof. This poses a challenge to fire crews tasked with vertical ventilation. Tools like chainsaws and axes that worked extremely well on traditional wooden roofs are ineffective on metal roofs. Firefighters have to use a rescue saw or consider using a piercing nozzle.

Suburban Growth

The search for affordable housing has driven families further away from the job centers, and as a result, new neighborhoods are popping up in the middle of nowhere, putting a tremendous burden on suburban and rural fire departments to meet increased levels of adequate fire protection.

Without a commercial tax base, the residential tax base is often insufficient to sustain the necessary growth of fire services. New water systems need to be installed, along with the construction of new fire stations. New apparatus and increased staffing are required. Otherwise, existing water supplies and hydrants can be spread out and not accessed in a timely manner.

Response times will be increased. An increase in population translates into an increase in alarms. That has a severe impact on a volunteer fire department. Until qualified candidates are recruited and trained, volunteer fire departments need to do more with less. Piercing nozzles can help make a difference.

Quick And Efficient

Under the right circumstances when a fire is compartmentalized and isolated in a confined space, using a piercing nozzle for extinguishment is safe, quick and efficient.

The piercing nozzle throws a 25-foot diameter, umbrella-type, spray pattern which, when converted to steam, can cover a 2,400 square foot area with dense fog. The steam cools the temperature of the fire gases, reducing the heat. It also cools the temperature of the fuel and displaces oxygen, thus smothering the fire.

In live fire tests conducted by the Hoquiam (Wash.) Fire Department, a fully-involved, normal-sized, room fire in a house was extinguished by a piercing nozzle in 6-8 seconds using 3-5 gallons of water. Again, under the right circumstances, using the piecing nozzle is excellent for booster tank attacks when there are a limited number of personnel or when the water supply is limited, delayed, or unavailable.

On the other side of the social spectrum, many single young professionals, couples without kids, and retired baby-boomers – empty nesters – are returning to the inner cities, causing the condominium market to skyrocket. Many urban areas are seeing what are essentially high rise structures being constructed in their districts, which were predominately single-family, wood-framed residences and multi-family apartment complexes of four stories or less.

Duties typically assigned to a truck company are now facing many fire departments that don’t even have aerial apparatus in their fleets. Piercing nozzles can help make the difference in those situations too.

The new construction of modern condominiums uses a tremendous amount of lightweight steel and aluminum building components, not to mention the extensive HVAC ductwork.

If breaching is necessary to access void spaces, a rescue saw with a metal cutting blade may be required. Many of the front doors to the individual units are heavy metal fire doors that also serve as high security doors to prevent burglary.

For the inexperienced fire fighter, forcing these doors in a fire is difficult and time consuming. Ramming a piercing nozzle through the drywall from the hallway is a lot quicker and safer and immediately introduces water into the fire unit.

Though using a rescue saw is common on the fireground, it is still a dangerous operation. Extreme personal safety must be exercised. Sparks are being thrown on both sides of the cut, and this may pose a problem if pre-heated combustible material is suddenly showered with sparks.

These sparks can also become an ignition source if the firefighter is cutting into an explosive atmosphere, triggering an explosion. If the firefighter is operating in a smoky environment, insufficient oxygen may choke out the saw causing it to stall. A piercing nozzle can have an immediate effect on a fire by quickly breaching the void space and introducing water to a superheated environment.

The use of diffused spray was first proposed in 1950 by Chief Lloyd Layman of the Parkersburg (W.Va.) Fire Department at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Memphis, Tenn.

Direct Versus Indirect

Though the benefits and preferences of direct attack versus indirect attack can be argued and debated, the science behind indirect attack cannot. When water vaporizes, it expands in volume 1,700 times the volume of water in a liquid state. It greatly absorbs heat, displaces oxygen, cools smoke – which should be considered flammable gases – and lowers the temperature of heated fuels within the enclosed compartment.

This single act of introducing water in an expanded vaporized state is the quickest way to prevent flashover. The sides of the fire triangle are simultaneously broken, and the fire is extinguished.

A Sprinkler System

Whether you are talking about fire in an attic, a basement, a confined space or a concealed space, in essence what you are doing with an indirect offensive attack is introducing a sprinkler system, or at least the equivalent of a sprinkler head, into the compartment, and the effectiveness of sprinklers cannot be refuted.

The application of a fog stream is a tactic for indirect attack in an offensive strategy. This attack strategy is being reconsidered in fire departments throughout the country as a safer way to attack fires in lightweight construction.

Modern household furnishing are primarily made of plastics, causing room fires to burn faster and hotter than ordinary Class A combustibles. This narrows the time to flashover, and a contents fire can quickly progress to a structure fire.

When fire attacks web members and structural connectors of lightweight roofs and floor trusses, their failure and collapse times are unpredictable. But they can happen as quickly as 2 to 5 minutes after being exposed to fire. When you take into account the factors of when the fire was discovered, time of day, response times, and on-scene set up times, fire crews are making entry into these structures dangerously close to that catastrophic event. The last place a fire crew wants to be is standing on a burning truss or operating underneath one.

Piercing Nozzles On ARFFs

The most extreme example of an indirect offensive attack is The Snozzle. This apparatus is used at many international airports by Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) units.

This giant piercing nozzle is attached to a pre-plumbed boom and is rammed through the fuselage of an aircraft to extinguish an interior fire. This humongous sprinkler head quickly gains access to the seat of the fire and is impervious to smoke, heat and fatigue. Any chances for passengers surviving an interior cabin fire would be lost if ARFF firefighters used valuable time accessing the plane by traditional means, such as cutting into the fuselage or trying to force the door.

Piercing nozzles are designed to be operated much more aggressively than the older fog applicators. They are used much like a firefighter using a forcible entry tool and can be rammed or struck into any kind of building material except steel.

They can penetrate a concealed space and deliver a superior water fog pattern that ranges between 55 and 276 gpm depending on the model. They operate between 100 and 135 psi, depending on the friction loss, and most models have a low nozzle reaction, making it relatively easy for two firefighters to handle it.

Tips are made of hardened stainless steel, are heat-treated and resist corrosion and rust. The tips can be sharpened to remove burrs that occasionally occur during use.

Vehicle Fires

These nozzles are excellent for fires in vehicles’ engine compartments, passenger areas and trunks; panel trucks and semi truck trailers; and aircraft and marine vessels and trains.

They can also be very effective during structure fires in attics, basements, crawl spaces, balloon construction and in eaves, soffits, balconies, knee walls and void spaces.

Piercing nozzles also work on mobile home trailers, mini-storage facilities and sheds; trash containers and trash compactors; air ducts; and stacks of paper, cardboard and wood chips and fires in bales of hay and cotton, which can be very difficult to fight. Some models can be attached to fire extinguishers using common and special extinguishing agents. Most can be used with foam and all are valuable when staffing and waters supplies are limited.

Firefighters using piercing nozzles are protected from steam burns and smoke as well.

However, they do have some disadvantages.

Since these nozzles are designed to pierce and penetrate a structure with force, they have to be designed with an in-line, straight shaft to continue the directional force of the striking tool. Because of that, swinging clearances can present problems and render the tool ineffective. They also require at least two firefighters to operate, and the reach is limited to the length of the nozzle.

Remember Load Limits

They can also be difficult to operate if attached to a charged hose line while trying to insert the nozzle, and the straight end models can’t reach around corners.

Another downside is use of the piercing nozzle creates an impact load to a weakened structure from the downward thrusts or upward and lateral thrusts as firefighters get the tool to penetrate.

In rare instances they have been known to cause explosions on oxygen limiting, or sealed, silos. Conventional silos don’t pose that problem.

Not Suitable For All

Piercing nozzles are an indirect attack on the fire and that tactic is not suitable for every situation. In fact, it’s for special situations, and it’s generally not the attack of choice for most firefighters.

From day one of the fire academy, firefighters are taught to “get in there and put that fire out!” Advances in personal protective bunker gear have made the task easier – and perhaps more dangerous.

Certainly, if life safety concerns warrant a direct offensive attack, then by all means, make it happen. If finding the seat of the fire is relatively easy, a direct offensive attack is certainly the best tactic.

However, when forcible entry issues delay entry teams or the seat of the fire is difficult to find and hard to access, or when a direct offensive attack will place firefighters in a precarious situation or in untenable conditions, an indirect attack should be considered before offensive strategies are abandoned.

A Concern For Life Safety

A concern for life safety always comes up when discussing indirect attack. The fear of steaming or burning savable victims causes incident commanders to shy away from this strategy.

That debate is beyond the scope of this article, but I will say this – a savable victim will most likely be trapped in the incipient stage of the fire, when it’s still a contents fire. Once the room is fully involved, or when the smoke is so hot and thick that you question your own survivability with personal protective equipment (PPE) and a self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), it’s highly unlikely a civilian will be able to survive such an untenable environment.

At that point, remember why you’ve decided to make an indirect attack. Usually it’s because you’ve already decided you cannot go inside. In that case, it’s unlikely anyone could survive in those circumstances.

Once you’ve made the decision to launch an indirect attack, it should be launched as soon as possible. Installed sprinkler systems activate at specific temperatures regardless of the ventilation and search and rescue operations that may or may not be in progress.

The sooner the extinguishing agent is introduced into the hostile atmosphere, the sooner conditions will begin to improve. I don’t know about you, but I would rather take my chances being trapped in a room on fire with a functioning sprinkler system than in one that did not.

In my travels I’ve found one fire chief who firmly believes in the principles of indirect attack. He is Alan Predmore, chief of the Buckley (Wash.) Volunteer Fire Department.

Protecting Population

With two engines, this single-station volunteer department protects a population of 4,510 and covers 4.1 square miles.

Outside of the town, fire hydrants are spaced out, and the use of water tenders is a normal operation. Much of the area is suburban and rural. There’s a wide variety of construction, including balloon, older ordinary construction, lightweight homes, lightweight commercial and numerous mobile homes and trailers.

Mutual aid units are 10 minutes or more away. Realizing time is of the essence and water and staffing is limited, Chief Predmore has a preconnected piercing nozzle on the front bumper of the first-line engine. He also has numerous tips mounted on the apparatus for easy access, which can be attached to the piercing nozzle allowing for more flexible uses of this nozzle. His tactics impressed me, so I interviewed him to learn more about his philosophy on indirect attack.

Get Them Home Safely

“I became a firm believer of indirect attack after reading Lloyd Layman’s ‘Attacking and Extinguishing Interior Fires,'” Predmore said. “My volunteers are well trained and committed to safety. I take my responsibility for their lives very seriously. I feel each member is ‘on loan’ to me, and their families, as well as the community, expect me to do my job, put the fire out, and get them back home safely.”

He continued, “I am sure if we have a life to save, my firefighters will push it to the edge, but I will not risk the lives of my firefighters for buildings. I cannot needlessly expose them to the dangers encountered on the fireground when the only life hazard is themselves. Clandestine methamphetamine drug labs are prevalent around the county, so I don’t even like to expose them to the toxins and contaminates of smoke.

 “When there are no lives at risk, using an indirect attack with the piercing nozzle allows my members to accomplish the job with the greatest margin of personal safety. The less they are exposed to a smoky environment, the safer and healthier they will be. I want them to be around for a long time.” The chief said his department uses the piercing nozzle on car fires, trash container fires and especially mobile home fires.

“We have experienced excellent results with this nozzle,” he said. “Others can say whatever they like. For us, this nozzle has worked very well. I firmly believe piercing nozzles have a positive impact on fighting fires safely and effectively.”

The key to quick and effective extinguishment in an indirect attack is keeping the enclosed space closed. It is critical that truck company officers buy into this tactic because they are the ones who evaluate the need to “open the roof” for vertical ventilation.

In order to fight fires safer, we need to train firefighters to fight fires smarter. I believe we will see a return to indirect offensive attacks in the future. It will be driven by: changes in building construction and building materials; the make up of household fuel loads, primarily plastics; limited water supplies i.e. tender operations, distant hydrants; increased response time due to suburban and rural growth; limited staffing of firefighters, both career and volunteer; clandestine methamphetamine drug labs, and health and wellness initiatives to limit firefighter’s needless exposure to smoke when there is no civilian life hazard.

The piercing nozzle is a specialized tool. Under the right conditions, it is extremely safe and effective for extinguishing interior and compartmentalized fires.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo is a 27-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and Captain of Engine Company 18. He is on the advisory board for the Fire Department Instructors Conference and on the board of directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He writes for numerous fire service publications and is an instructor on fire service leadership, company officer development and fireground strategy and tactics. He teaches throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

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