Water Application

chief concerns richard marinucci

Always attack a fire from the unburned side. How many firefighters learned this over the years?

But, research indicates that putting water on the fire, regardless of what direction, will make the situation better. Now there may be some perils from arbitrary application of water, but the fact remains that the best way to gain control is to get water to the fire as quickly as possible. Besides fire control, rescue profiles are enhanced for those sheltering in place. This is a shift in traditional thinking and, like anything else, one size does not fit all. There are various considerations when selecting the appropriate tactic including staffing levels, fire location and size, wind speed and direction, and available water supply. We can also include competence on that list.

Engine Company Tasks

Engine companies are usually the group assigned the task of water delivery. The simplest explanation of this responsibility is to get the water from the source to the fire. The source can be tank water on the engine, water from a tanker truck, a hydrant system, or water from a fixed source such as a pond. The source is important in the decision-making process as staffing and training come into play. Organizations with limited staffing are challenged to make hydrant lays and hookups while still trying to lay lines to the fire. Departments with minimal experience in tanker shuttle operations or drafting from a fixed source will not be able to quickly establish a continuous water source. Even areas with good mutual aid and a planned shuttle operation have to consider response times that can delay establishing a water supply early. All of this needs to be considered—and considered quickly—when selecting the appropriate tactic for water application.


Staffing levels and the ability to assemble the right number of people within certain time frames affect tactical decisions. Some organizations may have one or two people initially on an engine. Even with three, there are limitations. While ultimate staffing on the fireground may appear to be adequate or even in line with National Fire Protection Association standards, understaffed first-arriving vehicles will have limits to their tactical options. This also means that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation of two in/two out cannot be met until additional resources arrive. Where do the priorities lie—attack line or water source? This will depend on the experience level of the arriving units and their ability to make a fast assessment of the conditions. The size and location of the fire are the main factors. Engine companies can carry varying amounts of tank water. Is there enough to get a quick knockdown? If so, what is the best way to accomplish this?


Departments establish their best means of rapid deployment based on not only staffing but the equipment carried. Preconnected lines that are manageable by the staffing levels are intended for specific fires in structures—usually for an interior attack. The size of the lines used must be maneuverable by the personnel on hand. For example, charged 2½-inch lines are extremely heavy and are not easily relocated or advanced by most firefighters. Without adequate staffing to move the lines, they will end up in a fixed location. This may be okay if it fits the overall strategy. The decision should not be arbitrary or based on the way things have always been done.

Selecting line size should be based on knowledge gained from experience, study, and training. Reading the smoke, building, and weather conditions can help determine the amount of water necessary to make a quick knockdown or whether the operation is likely to take considerable time. Reasonable estimates of the likely contents also come into play. Storage buildings, warehouses, and factories will have a larger fire load with respect to contents. We also know that wind-driven fires can lead to explosive growth very quickly and can best be addressed with a good water supply and adequate staffing. If either of these are lacking, then alternate strategies must be employed until the right resources are on the scene and ready to be deployed.

Speed and Volume

A relatively large amount of water applied rapidly can overcome a reasonable amount of British thermal units. Think of it this way: If you use a mist sprayer to try and extinguish a campfire, you will not put the fire out even if you use a couple gallons of water. You simply cannot cool the fuel below its ignition temperature, and it will continue to produce flammable vapors. But if you were to take a couple of gallons of water and pour it all at once, the fire will be controlled. It will not rekindle quickly, and you can go get additional buckets of water. In many room-and-contents fires, the same principle can be applied. If you dump 500 to 1,000 gallons of water quickly on a room or two, there will be instant relief that may buy you time to assemble additional resources. Experience, education, and training help fire service professionals determine when this is the best option.

Firefighter Competency

The competence of individuals and the entire department is a crucial component when selecting the best option for the delivery of water. First, the initial arriving senior officer must make the right decision. The factors that contribute to this are the resources that will be available and in what time frame. It includes the size of the fire, the building in which the fire is, and weather conditions. It also includes the capabilities of the arriving units. This can be based on staffing levels, experience, and training. In essence, the basic question that has to be answered is, “how long will it take to deploy the selected tactical operation?” Units that practice regularly will be much more efficient. Departments that establish standards and test frequently to those standards will know the answer to that question. When a department knows how long it will take to deploy two handlines and establish a water supply within a period of time and the officer has the experience and education to predict the fire spread, then the lines can be placed at the right spot. Again, the objective is to get water to the fire as quickly as possible.

Access to the fire is another consideration. Building size in relation to fire location and forcible entry challenges can delay applying water. The easiest access to the fire is usually the best option, as it allows water to be applied the soonest. Concerns about “pushing” fire have been shown to be false by recent studies, and flow paths are more of a consideration. Wind direction and speed should influence decision making, and entry must be coordinated with fire attack. Premature ventilation is not good and causes additional fire spread.

There is no one good way for an organization to approach a fire. There must be some thought put into it based on the particular circumstances presented on arrival. There is no standard that applies to every department for every fire. There are too many factors to consider including staffing, building, response time, training levels, experience, equipment, water supply, and weather. The recent science tells us that putting water on a fire quickly is a good thing. Every department must know their realistic capabilities so they can anticipate fire growth. Continuous study and practice with repetition are critical. Good decisions must happen quickly so the best options are selected.

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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