The Lesson: Buy What You Need

When it comes to buying fire pumps for apparatus, departments should buy what they need and use what they have to the fullest.

That simple axiom is the only thing that unifies the experts and readers who commented on the great pump debate.

Opinions as to whether big pumps, meaning those rated at larger than 1,250 gpm, were necessary varied widely. People who wrote letters to the editor seem to favor large pumps and our own expert, Gary Handwerk, who is the global pump product manager for Hale Products, suggested there are many departments that can benefit greatly from large body pumps.

However, there are equally vocal folks, including a veteran firefighter and Mack apparatus expert, Harvey Eckart, who believe money spent on large pumps could be better spent on other equipment or components.

Closely Divided Opinions

Those who responded to questions posted on our web site at were closely divided on the value of big pumps. Approximately 39 percent of respondents said they believe money spent on big pumps would be better used for other component systems, while some 30 percent said buying pumps over 1,250 gpm capacity is worth the money.

In all, Fire Apparatus has published more than 10,000 words on the topic of pumps in the past three months.

In support of big pumps, Handwerk cited several reasons for purchasing a big pump. He said departments that draft often, especially from great horizontal distances, 70 to 80 feet and from very deep lifts, 15 to 27 feet, will see great benefits from purchasing big-bodied pumps. He suggested big body pumps will supply as much as 300 to 400 gpm at draft over the smaller bodied pump. A big pump, at a reasonable engine speed, will produce 1,500 gpm at 220 psi, something a small body pump cannot do, Handwerk said.

Moving Water Effectively

Handwerk said even departments operating from hydrants could move more water effectively because of reduced friction loss in the pump and better flow at reduced engine speed.

However, even Handwerk pointed out that if departments only fight small fires, single-family homes, or room and contents fires that take a couple of hand lines, or a personal monitor to extinguish, a small pump is sufficient. He further pointed out that a small department with no water supply and limited staffing might find an apparatus with a 750 gpm pump and a 3,000-gallon tank to be best suited for its needs.

A big pump is a necessity for a department that routinely fights big fires, the kind that eat city blocks or commercial establishments, and where elevated waterways and big monitors are deployed, Handwerk says.

Reader Bill Brown, who is a lieutenant with the Wellington (Ohio) Fire District, agrees that location should dictate the pump size, but with a slightly different slant.

Brown believes that most big cities have well established water systems that should provide the fire flow needed to handle any incident. Therefore, a big pump is probably overkill. Yet, rural departments that find they’re most often drafting to provide an adequate fire flow, or are doing pump relays, will realize more benefit from a big pump.

Syracuse (N.Y.) District Chief David B. Reeves says his fire department, an urban and suburban area in central New York state, needs big pumps on its apparatus because each engine is equipped with a  50-foot TeleSqurt boom and four crosslays. He says it is common for his department to have all four crosslays flowing water, as well as the boom and therefore, the big pump is needed.

Reeves acknowledges his department is blessed with a prodigious water system that provides excellent fire flows. His department has decided to use it to the fullest and not be constrained by small-bodied pumps. His city can supply the “Syracuse Engine” and they have all the appliances to handle the large flow.

And that’s a point that Joe Mercieri, chief of the Littleton (N.H.) Fire Department made. Pumps are only as good as their water delivery system. A 1,500 gpm pump cannot put out any more water than is put into it. An inadequate hydrant system and mismatched appliances and nozzles will sap the capacity very quickly. He asserted a 1,250 gpm pump can deliver more water than a mismatched water delivery system using a 1,500 gpm fire pump.

Mercieri also said that departments seldom need to flow the maximum capacity of any fire pump, but when and if they do, they really need to make sure they have the capabilities. In his mind, that includes paying extra for a 5-inch discharge casting on the pump and using 5-inch hose to reduce restrictions and friction loss so the department can get the most out of what they bought.

Big fire requires big water, Mercieri stated and big pumps are worth the money, but only if the department needs it and can supply it adequately.

Wayne Knott also subscribes to the “big fire, big water” theory and makes the analogy that a Daisy air rifle isn’t going to take down the trophy 12-point buck – it’s going to take the favorite hunting rifle to do the job.

Rural areas can benefit from big pumps, says Knott, a firefighter with the Groton (Vt.) Fire Department and former fire chief, who has more than 40 years in the fire service, including several as an instructor.

Static Sources

Knott points out, like others have, that a large capacity pumper can move more water at a static source than a smaller pumper, but bigger pumps require bigger apparatus and sometimes, big trucks have difficulties getting to draft sites that are potentially muddy and otherwise inaccessible.

He also advocates evaluating the particular department’s needs with a more regional view and a look to the future as well. A big pump might not be needed now, but as sprawl reaches further into rural areas, the big pump might be a welcome addition. Looking regionally, Knott suggests that departments consider how their apparatus will fit into the mutual aid system in their area, but in the end, the department should buy what they need now and in the future.

Insufficient Water Supply

Troy Ruggles, another Vermont fire chief, serving with the St. Johnsbury Fire Department, has a different take on the big pump debate. He’s not certain there are many communities capable of supporting big pumps. He said he is not against big pumps, but emphasizes the need for departments to be practical and not just try to keep up with their neighbors.

When making decisions about pump needs, Ruggles suggests departments look at “target hazards” to determine fire flows, and then make a pump need analysis. He suggests departments us reports from the Insurance Services Organization (ISO) to gather relevant information.

Ruggles suggests that departments look at their ISO grades to determine exactly what the department is expected to have based on the schedule.

In his 25 years of experience, Ruggles said he has often heard firefighters say they are pumping to the trucks’ capacity. Rather, Ruggles thinks those firefighters are pumping to the water supply capacity. Rarely do pumpers reach capacity at any fire scene.

Don’t be mislead by the notion that bigger pumps don’t cost a lot more than small pumps, Ruggles warned. There are other charges that come into play when considering a big pump, as they require bigger engines and bigger transmissions, which can cost a lot more money.

In his estimation, a 1,250 gpm pump is a good, sound investment and the department should at least have that much capacity on front-line, Class A pumpers. More capacity is OK, but it is important to remember what is necessary when it comes to selecting pump capacity.

John Clauson, a past chief of the Unionville Volunteer Fire Department, Orange County, N.Y., and its current engineer, believes ISO requirements should play a major role in deciding what size pump departments specify. The “needed fire flow,” something mentioned by Chief Ruggles, is the basis of firefighting in both the National Fire Protection Association and the ISO standards.

Clauson, who is also a consultant with the National Fire Services Office in Sylvania, Ga., is an advocate to “right size” an engine to the district needs.

Look At ISO Ratings

For example, Clauson says his department must pump 3,000 gpm to meet its ISO requirement and they do that with two 1,500 gpm pumpers. Smaller pumps would mean lower ISO rating, or would require a third pumper.

He agrees that buying a big pump just to “keep up with the Joneses” is not the way to run a fire department. However, selecting the right pump to meet the community needs is prudent, and consolidating the number of pumpers is the better way to save money.

Harvey Eckart has a different point of view. He believes that two smaller pumpers will provide more capacity and flexibility than one big one, and provide a back up when one pumper is out of service, for whatever reason.

Being a realist, Eckart says big pumps will sustain 1,000 gpm or more, at 250 psi, but he says there are rarely any practical applications for that water flow from one apparatus.

Eckart, who has been a firefighter for more than 50 years, most of them as a pump operator, believes two smaller pumpers can run circles around one big pumper and be supplying water long before the 2,000 gpm rig can get into a suitable position to use the dual suctions to get the expected flow.

Back To The Basics

“It has been my observation that you will run out of water, hose, or personnel long before you run out of pump capacity,” Eckart writes. “Let’s get back to the basics and only buy what we need and what is practical.

In the same camp is Michael Farrell, a 28-year veteran of the Connecticut fire service, a captain with the Waterbury Fire Department and a member of the Avon (Conn.) Volunteer Fire Department.

Farrell says some departments have lost focus on the basic functional and hydraulic fundamentals of pumping apparatus.

The trend to “super-size” everything in the fire service has gotten out of hand and he attributes that to the need to out do the neighbors, or a basic naiveté to the realities of simple fireground tactics and stream practices.

He says, too often departments do not adopt the whole package to fully appreciate the potential flow capabilities of high gpm pumps, instead using 4-inch, and sometimes 2.5-inch, supply hose. Those same departments use 1,000 gpm master stream monitors, under-powered engines that just can’t push the water and single-point inlets that further restrict flows.

It Doesn’t Make Sense

“It just doesn’t make sense to order a new pumper with a 2,000 gpm, two-stage pump if the department doesn’t draft, uses only 4-inch supply hose, has deck guns and monitors with 1,000 gpm tips and antiquated water main systems incapable of flowing big water,” he said.

Reader Daniel Supplee, who has been a firefighter and a fire officer with the Oreland Volunteer Fire Company, Oreland, Pa., says the perfect pump for all applications is rated at 1,500 gpm. He says it gives the flexibility to work within a local water system’s limitations, while still allowing departments to deliver in excess or 2,000 gpm given the proper equipment and water source.

Supplee, who is also the vice president of a family-owned and operated fire pump repair and testing company, says too many department dismiss the value of big pumps on the grounds that they don’t have the adequate water supply to support it, but over look the fact that the condition might change over the pumper’s lifespan. They may also find themselves well outside the local response area working in a relay, or as a water supply pumper where there is adequate water.

“The 1,500 gpm pump appears to be the most versatile pump on the market today and unless you need a higher rating for ISO, you are simply paying more for a number,” Supplee said.

Drafting  Departments

For Rich Teske, a reader and vice president of Trident Emergency Products, Hatboro, Pa., the debate all boils down to one question – does the department draft or not?

“If your department usually drafts and wants to flow big water, the large body pumps are a no-brainer,” Teske says. “…[It] all boils down to the fact that large body pumps draft more water under all conditions.”

On the flip side, Teske says he believes the overwhelming number of departments in the U.S. do not draft and for those departments, a 1,250 gpm pump, or smaller, can provide almost equivalent performance to a big pump. The cost savings can be spent on other tools, like a foam system or a compressed air foam system.

“This is true because any fire pump meeting the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 performance rating can flow at least 1.5 times its rating when operating from a suitable pressurized hydrant, provided the engine has sufficient power,” Teske says.

So, while there is no right or wrong answers in the pump debate, there is a consensus that departments need to do their homework, figure out the required fire flows, get the appropriate water appliances and buy the pump with the rating that best matches fire suppression needs.

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