As I write this column, Spring Training is in full swing (pun intended). When you read this column, Major League Baseball will be a month or so into its regular season.
You are probably wondering what this has to do with moving water. Well, when I go to a major league ballgame, I notice that about halfway through the game the grounds crew races out onto the field with a hose. The purpose is to reset the infield for the rest of the game and minimize dust and such. There are between six and 10 people moving the hose onto the field and into position. They go quickly so that the game is not unduly delayed.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you had six to 10 people to move the hose around on a fire scene? Good luck with that one. But if we look at the example above, we can understand the reason for that number of people. The hose is heavy, and they have to be in a hurry so as to not impact the flow of the game. A cynical question might be to ask why that is more important than deploying hose during a true emergency. We know the answer to that, but maybe there are some things we can learn to better understand the challenges of delivering water under fire conditions.
Based on my rough calculations, there are approximately 5,887 cubic inches of water in 100 feet of 2½-inch hose. This translates to approximately 25 gallons of water. The weight of one gallon of water is about 8.33 pounds. That means that there are more than 200 pounds of water in the 100 feet of hose. This does not include the weight of the hose. So a 200-foot length of hose would be more than 400 pounds. That is a lot of mass to move in ideal conditions.
How often do you have ideal conditions? For the past few months, the cold and snow have added to the workload of deploying hose. Walking through a few feet of snow to get a line to the C side takes a lot of effort. Even without snow, the friction on the ground adds to the force required to move the line after it is filled with water. So to maneuver 200 feet of 2½-inch hose when it is charged requires whatever personnel you have to work with who have to move well more than 400 pounds plus additional friction from the ground or whatever may be adding to the challenge.
Though this background information may seem trivial to many, it offers some information to consider when selecting tactics and strategy. If water is your choice for extinguishment (as opposed to removing the oxygen or fuel), then the objective is to get the water to the base of the fire. It does no good to squirt smoke or pour water onto shingles or bricks. The water must reach the fire. This can happen by properly deploying the streams or waiting for the fire to reach stationary lines.
I have heard the axiom many times that if you have a big fire you need big water. This would be hard to dispute. But I would offer a couple of points for you to consider before you automatically or arbitrarily employ this tactic. First and foremost, train your personnel to recognize what truly is a big fire requiring the big guns. This is challenging for those who do not go to a lot of “big ones.” It requires study of the trade and learning from others. It requires understanding the properties of water, fire flow, fire load, and building construction. It requires learning as much as possible from recent research conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL). A review of the basics of fire science (physics and chemistry) may refresh some basic understanding.
Next, consider your staffing. Do you have enough personnel to maneuver and manipulate lines once you have charged them? Based on some of the very basic information presented here, you should be able to evaluate how many people you will need to deploy the lines initially and then continue to move them into position. You may be putting on a good show for the bystanders by flowing a lot of water or may think that you have made the best choice, but there has to be a balance between selecting the right volume based on your ability to reach the seat of the fire.
In a perfect world, all fire departments would have adequate staffing to properly and safely deploy lines and then be able to move them as needed. This requires continual evaluation of the effectiveness of the water in gaining control of the fire. Someone has to view the big picture and determine if lines are being effective or if they need to be relocated. Another question to answer is whether staffing mandates smaller, more maneuverable lines that can better reach the target.
Please do not misinterpret this information. There are times where master streams are your only option. Departments should know their capabilities to deliver large volumes of water through elevated streams and stationary devices. There are times when all efforts are established to attempt to overwhelm the fire. Unfortunately, not all organizations are staffed to make this happen.
Another staffing consideration is your ability to rotate personnel. Moving large hoses around will tire firefighters out and require some rehab. Again, examine your staffing. Regardless of the number of fires a fire department has in a given year, the resources needed for individual fires remain the same. If your organization does not have the human resources needed to effectively deploy certain tools, then explore alternate methods.
In many ways, extinguishing a fire is fairly simple: put enough water on the fire to overcome the British thermal units (Btus) being generated. When that happens, the fire goes out. One way to overwhelm a fire is to keep adding to the volume of water being applied. This can be accomplished by larger lines or smaller ones. Regardless, both options require people-with the exceptions of deck guns and elevated streams. The important message here is that there are options; one size does not necessarily fit all. Organizations and individuals must study their profession. They must know the advantages and disadvantages of their options. They must know the staffing needs and the time required to deploy. A fire left unchecked will continue to worsen until the amount of fuel reduces. Therefore, consider how long it may take to place a line when determining location and hose size.
Water remains the best option to extinguish most fires. Getting water to the right place at the right time determines operational success. Staffing and training contribute to your capabilities. You need to know realistically what you can accomplish given the resources available. This influences tactics and strategy and the outcomes. It is about getting what you need in the moments that matter. If you don’t, the outcome is predictable.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and 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 a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.