Engine Company, Firefighting

The Second Line: A Backup Line or a Second Attack Line

Firefighters advance a line into a dwelling during fire training

By Anthony Rowett Jr.

Photo by Tony Greco

The primary focus of engine company operations is the initial attack line, and rightly so. As stated by the late Lt. Andrew Fredericks (FDNY) “Stretching and advancing the initial attack line is the most fundamental and important task an engine company has to perform.” When responding to a structure fire, usually only the initial arriving engine company will perform the initial attack line operation, however. Other responding engine companies must be prepared to perform a different operation. Some departments assign the second-arriving engine company to rapid intervention, or perhaps the second handline. Regardless of which company is assigned to the second handline, the operation must be performed effectively.

RELATED: Extending the Hoseline: Overcoming a Short Stretch, Part 1 | Part 2

When assigned the task of stretching, advancing, and operating the second handline, you first must decide what tactical function the handline will perform. The second handline can be operated as a backup line for the initial attack line or as a second attack line. Many factors should be assessed when making this decision, including the location and size of the fire, the effectiveness of the initial attack line, and the likelihood of fire spread. These last two are critically important considerations for your decision. If the progress being made by the initial attack line is determined to be insufficient or if fire spread is likely, a second attack line may be needed rather than a backup line.

Probably the most common use for the second handline is as a backup line, especially when it comes to fires in private dwellings. In such cases, the mission of the second handline is to support the initial attack line, not operate alongside it. Although all firefighters want to advance the hoseline to the fire area and attack, when assigned to the backup line, firefighters must be able to control this urge and instead focus their actions on the mission of supporting the initial attack line. Backup line firefighters should not allow themselves to stray from their responsibilities.

When the second handline operate as a backup line, hoseline selection may differ from that of the initial attack line. Although the company officer assigned to the backup line operation should perform his or her own size-up of the building and determine the correct hoseline, the initial attack line should also be factored in. When possible, the backup line should be at minimum the same size as the initial attack line if not larger. Selecting a larger hoseline allows the backup line to provide protection for the attack team in the event that their line proves insufficient. This would also allow the backup line to take over the initial attack operation and continue the advance to the seat of the fire.

The estimate of the hose stretch for the backup line also varies. The backup line should be at least one section of hoseline (50 feet) longer than the initial attack line. This is to provide the same benefit as using a larger hoseline. Should the initial attack line stretch short, the backup line can be advanced from its position behind the initial attack line to perform the fire attack. The company officer assigned to the backup line should not simply add one length of hoseline to the length of the initial attack line when making this determination. Instead, the backup line company officer must perform his or her own estimate of the stretch. One way to do this is use the rules of thumb for estimating a hose stretch that have been developed by Fredericks:

  • Private dwellings up to three stories: between one and three lengths
  • Two-story garden apartments: two lengths
  • Three-story garden apartments: three lengths
  • Small multiple dwellings (frontage of 35 feet or less and a depth between 50 and 75 feet): same as the floor number of the fire floor (for example, a fire on the fourth floor requires a hose length of four lengths)
  • Large multiple dwellings (frontage from 36-100 feet and depths up to 100 feet): floor of fire floor plus one length
  • Typical businesses (single-story or first floor or taxpayer buildings): one or two lengths

When using these rules of thumb, the company officer must remember that the estimates are only of the fire building itself; they must also estimate the distance from the apparatus to the building entrance and then add that length to the hoseline.

Another method for estimating the stretch is to break it down into three sections:

  • Fire area
  • Fire area to building entrance
  • Building entrance to apparatus

Beginning at the fire area and working backwards to the apparatus, the company officer can then size up the building and estimate the proper length for the hoseline. When using method, the company officer should ensure that at least one length of hoseline (50 feet) is provided for the fire area itself. At least one length of hoseline (50 feet) should also be provided for each floor from the fire area to the building entrance. Finally, the amount of hoseline needed to span the distance between the building entrance and the apparatus must be determined. These three sections are added together for the final length.

One of the biggest issues that tends to arise, particularly in private dwellings, is the “piling in” of firefighters into a small area that impedes the advancement of the initial attack line. Positioning the backup line and its firefighters is essential to the mission. When backup line firefighters advance into the fire building until they reach the initial attack line nozzle team, the result is many times a decrease in the effectiveness of the attack line because of too many members packed into a tight area. Rather than positioning the backup line in a position that impedes the attack team, firefighters operating the backup line must position themselves and the line in a location to improve fire attack effectiveness. A good way to accomplish this is for the nozzle of the backup line to be positioned one length of hoseline (50 feet) behind the initial attack line nozzle. This positioning allows the initial attack team room to work yet allows the backup line members to assist with the advancement of the initial attack line. There are very few departments with large enough staffing levels to allow for fully staffed hoselines. The result is that most departments must operate hoselines without a door firefighter or control firefighter. Once in position, the backup line firefighters can essentially perform some of the functions of the door/control positions for the initial attack line. Backup line can assist in feeding slack to the initial attack team during hoseline advancement and help manage turns and other pinch points for the initial attack line. Another common method, especially at private dwelling fires, is to position the nozzle of the backup line one room behind the initial attack line nozzle team of the initial attack line. Positioning to protect the stairway used by the initial attack line is another potential tactic.

The second handline can also be used as a second attack line—a very different function than operating as a backup line. The three most common reasons for this decision is the ineffectiveness of the initial attack line, the likelihood of fire spread, and the presence of a large basement/cellar fire. When operating as a second attack line, the second handline may operate alongside the initial attack line or it may operate remotely, depending on the needs of the incident.

In situations where the initial attack line is not making progress in knocking down the fire, a second attack line can be advanced to operate alongside the initial attack line. This second attack line is typically the same size hoseline as the initial attack line, although a larger hoseline can be used. Do not use a smaller size hoseline for the second attack line. It is a good practice for the second attack line to be one length (50 feet) longer than the initial attack line just in case the latter comes up short.

In situations where fire spread is likely, it is not uncommon for a second attack line to be advanced into areas remote from the location where the initial attack line is operating with the mission of searching for fire extension and extinguishing any fire that has spread into these areas. This may include advancing a second attack line to the floor above the fire or into exposure buildings. When the second attack line will be advanced to the floor above the fire floor, an additional length of hoseline (50 feet) must be added to it, above and beyond the length of the initial attack line. This additional length will allow the second attack line greater penetration of the area.

Basement/cellar fires are another situation where a second attack line is commonly advanced. Although a small basement/cellar fire is typically extinguished by the initial attack line, a large basement/cellar fire will require the advancement of a second attack line. Regardless of the size of the fire, in such scenarios it is common practice for the initial attack line to enter the fire building on the first floor and advance to a position at the top of the stairway leading down to the basement/cellar. This enables the initial attack line to protect the stairway from fire spread, confining the fire to the basement/cellar area. For small fires, the initial attack line will be able to advance down the stairway into the basement/cellar to perform extinguishment. When the fire is larger and more advanced, the second attack line should be advanced to one of two positions. If there is a grade-level entrance to the basement/cellar present, the second attack line should be advanced to this location. It will then advance into the basement/cellar and extinguish the fire while the initial attack line remains at the top of the interior stairway to protect the stairway from fire spread. It is imperative that the hoseline be of adequate length to reach the grade level entrance as well as reach all areas of the basement/cellar. Attention must be paid to the proper estimation of the hose stretch for the second attack line, as in many cases, the second attack line will be required to be stretched to the rear of the fire building prior to being advanced into the basement/cellar. If a grade-level entrance to the basement/cellar is not present, the second attack line should be advanced to the same location as the initial attack line, the top of the interior stairway leading down to the basement/cellar. Once the second attack line is thus positioned, the initial attack line is advanced down the interior stairway to extinguish the fire. The second attack line will not be advanced down into the basement/cellar unless at the request of the initial attack line crew, in which case it will be replaced by a third attack line. Instead, the second attack line maintains the position at the top of the interior stairway and protects the interior stairway from fire spread while also ensuring that no fire spreads to other areas of the first floor of the building. In these situation, the second attack line operation is very similar to the operation of a second attack line operating on the floor above the fire floor.

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During interior firefighting operations, the second handline can operate as either a backup line or a second attack line. Firefighters should be comfortable in performing either operation as well as understand when each operation is necessary. Members must also understand the importance of their role in each operation in relation to the overall fireground operation. A backup line that positions itself in the way of the initial attack line is ineffective and a detriment to the overall fire operation, as is a second attack line that is not advanced into the proper location. You cannot always be first in; understand the operation of the second handline so that you can effectively support or supplement the initial attack line.

Anthony Rowett Jr. is a captain with the Mobile (AL) Fire Rescue Department. He was previously a firefighter for the Ogdensburg (NJ) Fire Department. Rowett has an associate’s degree in fire science technology from the County College of Morris in New Jersey and a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fire science and emergency services management, respectively, from Columbia Southern University. He has been published in Fire Engineering and Fire Rescue. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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