Engine Company, Firefighting

Off-the-Beaten-Path Engine Company Tips

By Tom Sitz

As we progress through our careers as firefighters, we pick up tips along the way that make our life easier.  Some of these tips were passed on to us by the previous generation or our peers or were learned by continuing our education beyond the fire academy by attending conferences or pursuing higher education. These are the tips that   often enable us to skip the trial-and-error phase of the learning curve because someone had already tried and perfected them. Other information we acquire the hard way, though our experiences. When we work through these things ourselves, our learning curve is full. It contains the things that worked and the things that did not work. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Failure can be a tough teacher, but tough lessons tend to be we never forget. We have all done things where the only thing we learned was to “never do that again.”  

FDIC Preview: Tom Sitz to Present “Size-Up Videos and Tactics for the First-Due Engine”

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Our job is experience driven. In fact, experience is the primary educational tool we use to develop our skills. We can gain experience on the fireground and on the training ground. As general rule of thumb, we should try to limit our trial-and-error learning on the fireground. We should develop and practice our skill sets on the training ground. The first time you use a saw on a roof, there should not be a fire below you and the engine company should not be standing fast as you struggle to complete your part of the task. Saw usage is an easy skill set to develop in training with the use of props. Cutting rebar in a prop has the same feel as cutting bars on a window. The saw reacts the same; the “feel” the saw operator gets from the cutting is the same, so even though you might have cut bars for the first time on the training ground, you have perfected this skill so that you are ready to use the saw at an actual fire.

If all our learning occurred on the fireground, we would not be very good at our job: People would be losing their property and, in some extreme instances, their lives, because we failed to develop the experience levels needed to be a good firefighter prior to the fire. But, just because you go to lots of fires does not mean that you’re necessarily going to be a great firefighter. All it means is that you will have more opportunities to develop your skills. To paraphrase the late Tom Brennan, “It’s not how many fires you go to; it is what you do with the ones that you have.”

Unlike experience gained on the fireground and training ground, tips can be passed onto us by senior members, peers, and education or learned through experiences on the fireground and training ground. Tips are suggestions, hints, or recommendations we build into our experiences to make things easier. The remainder of this article presents tips I have found helpful in my career. Some were passed on to me, some I discovered while engaged in my formal education, and others company members figured out for ourselves to improve our company’s efficiency. Some of these tips may seem very basic, but sometimes we tend to overlook some of the more basic things in life, which is the reason they are included.

Tip 1: When the attack line is light in pressure, the attack team should not request a specific pounds-per-square-inch (psi) adjustment.

 It is common to hear the following radio transmission from the attack team when the line is light on pressure: “Engine One Officer to Engine One Chauffeur, increase your pressure 20 psi” (the 20 psi is a random number). The three most common reasons the attack line may be light on pressure are that it is being underpumped, there is a kink in the line, or a length has burst. If the line is being underpumped, increasing the psi will fix it as long as you increase the required psi to get to your required nozzle pressure. However, increasing the psi will not kick out a severe kink in most instances and will make a burst length worse in most cases. Arbitrarily increasing the psi does not diagnose the problem and fixes only one of the three most common causes of an ineffective attack fire stream.

In my experience, what tends to happen is that if the initial increase in pressure does not the fix the problem, we request additional increases in pressure. I learned this lesson the hard way as a young lieutenant. We had a 2½-story frame dwelling with exterior fire running up the C side of the building from the ground level to the second-floor attic soffits and the master bedroom on the second floor that had already flashed over before arrival.

This house ended up being a house behind a house, so it was a long initial stretch, approximately 300 feet. Because of the length of the stretch and the volume of fire, the stretch was started off the 2½ dead load. I arrived on the second-due company and assumed the position of incident commander. When I arrived, the stretch had been made to the door and the fire attack team was getting ready to initiate a fire attack. They made entry and quickly reported pressure problems. I requested that the attack engine increase pressure; the chauffeur did, and fire attack was again initiated. Again, the attack engine was asked to increase pressure, and it was done. This went on for another several minutes.

As this was occurring, we began to look for kinks in the line. This driveway had a sharp hand turn about 100 feet from our point of entry. There was also a car parked just past the turn in the driveway. I could clearly see that we did not have a kink up to the car, but I could not see around the car.  I knew the chauffeur of the attack engine could see down the drive, so I asked him to look down the drive for kinks. He reported there were no kinks in the line. Even after all these requests and increases in the psi and a visualization of the line, we could not get an adequate fire stream.

Finally, I pulled one of the members off the line and asked him to “walk every inch of this line and look for a kink or burst length.” He found that the line had been pulled partially under the car tire prior to being charged and that once charged, the tire acted like a hose clamp to about 75 percent of the line. This firefighter immediately fixed the problem by pulling the line out from under the tire (it was not easy, but he was highly motivated at this point of the fire). At the exact instant the firefighter cleared the line, members were still operating this ineffective fire stream from an exterior position. I figured any water is better than no water. They immediately started to get whipped around by the line, and the nozzleman’s feet came off the ground. We were now giving an Urgent Radio transmission for a psi reduction. In our critique of this fire, we learned that at the point that the line was freed, it was being pumped at almost 300 psi. We were very lucky no one was injured when the line was freed.

A simple change in the radio transmission will instantly eliminate one of the three most common problems–the line’s being underpumped–and also start the diagnosis process of what the issue is and possibly a quick fix from the exterior. If the light is on, the radio transmission should sound like this: “Engine One Officer to Engine One Chauffeur: Check your pressure; the line is light.” At this point, the chauffeur checks the psi gauge for the attack line; if it is at the proper pressure, we know the line is not being underpumped (photo 1). For example, the chauffeur knows that preconnect number one needs to be pumped at 140 psi. When the attack team advises that the line is light and the chauffeur sees that it is being pumped at 140 psi, he knows the line is not being underpumped, so we can infer that the most likely causes can be a kink or a burst length. Once the chauffeur checks his pressure and confirms that he is not underpumping the line, his radio transmission back to fire attack should go something like this: “Engine One Chauffeur to Engine Officer: The line is being pumped at the correct pressure; we must have a kink or burst length.”

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At this point, the fire attack officer knows the problem is past the pump and can send a member of the attack team to check the line from their current location to their entry point. The officer also knows that the chauffeur should be checking the line from the pump to the entry point. Once the chauffeur has checked the line, he needs to report that he found the problem and fixed it or that the line is clear up to their point of entry. In most instances, this phase of problem solving will be completed quickly because most of us live off the preconnected handline. Since this should happen quickly, the fire attack officer will know that the problem has been identified from the exterior and, hopefully, fixed or, in the case that the “line is clear up to the door,” he knows that the problem is somewhere inside the building from their point of entry to their current position.   

Tip 2: Flow the Nozzle

When I started in fire service, we were taught to bleed the nozzle before initiating fire attack. This consisted of cracking open the bail until the air bled out and some water came out, telling us the line was full of water. We did this to ensure immediate water application when we opened the line after making the push into the fire area (photo 2). In the last decade, the technique has been changed to “flowing the nozzle and check your stream.”

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Flowing the nozzle prior to entry has several advantages for the attack team: It bleeds the air out the lines (less important), and it confirms there is an effective fire stream prior to entering the fire area (more important). It tells us that we are pumped at the proper pressure and that the line is kink free. A kink has the same effect on a fire stream as underpumping. Engine company officers, senior members of the company, and academy instructors need to make sure when instructing in this technique that they explain “the how of checking a fire stream,” which has three phases: penetration, width, and nozzle reaction.

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Inexperienced members will rely mostly on the visualization of the fire stream to confirm its effectiveness, and their visualization process relies mainly on the penetration of the fire stream because of their lack of muscle memory in dealing with nozzle reaction pressures. Most of their experience is probably in flowing handlines on the training ground.

In my system, we use low-pressure fog nozzles. When we are properly pumped, we get 75 psi at the tip and about 70 feet of penetration at about a 75-degree angle from a kneeling position. We need to teach our new members that the penetration of the fire stream is not the only metric we should use to verify its effectiveness. In fact, it is probably the least effective. How many times, other than on the training ground, do we have the room to fully test the penetration of a fire stream? Depending on the neighborhoods where you go to work, you could be flowing a fire stream across four or five yards to verify its penetration.

In most instances, the nozzleman will aim the steam several feet in front of him into the ground. In that case, the only visualization you can use is the width of the fire stream. This becomes immensely important if you’re using automatic nozzles because a handline that is severely underpumped will have the penetration of a properly pumped fire stream because the nozzle will adjust itself by reducing its opening to keep the penetration the same. So, although the fire stream still has the same effective range, its gallons per minute (gpm) may be severely reduced. Experienced members can look at this fire stream and tell that although it is still going 70 feet, it is remarkably thinner than normal, indicating that the gpm value is reduced.             

Teaching how much nozzle reaction is in a properly pumped fire stream is very important because if you have developed the muscle memory of how much reaction you should be experiencing in your system based on your nozzles and the gpm you flow for structural firefighting, you do not have to see the fire stream. You can tell if you have the proper nozzle pressure by how it is reacting after you completely open the bail. In our system, we use low-pressure nozzles. When we get 75 psi at the tip, the nozzleman will experience 66 psi of nozzle reaction. When you’re in the fire area and open the nozzle, even though you cannot see the fire stream, the experienced nozzle firefighter will know immediately that the line is light and is flowing at a reduced gpm.           

We need to be teaching all three methods as we instruct our newer members: Look at the penetration of the stream, look at the width of the stream, and feel the nozzle reaction being produced. This is how a proper fire stream looks and feels in our system. Once we feel that the firefighter has enough experience on the nozzle of a properly operating fire stream and has a good feel for how the nozzle reacts when properly pumped, we can start to further develop muscle memory with nozzle-reaction drills. During these drills, we have the nozzle firefighter determine if the line is underpumped, overpumped, or at the proper pressure strictly by feel, gauging nozzle reaction without the visualization of the fire stream.

Nozzle Reaction Drill. This drill is executed with the nozzle firefighter and the backup firefighter in the kneeling position just as they would operate in real life. This reduces the chance that the nozzle firefighter will lose his footing or perform the awkward dance with the nozzle that happens when the nozzle reaction controls the firefighter instead of the firefighter controlling the nozzle. The instructor also needs to be within arm’s length of the nozzle firefighter just in case he needs to help steady the firefighter or nozzle. The pump operator will be briefed on what pressure to under- or overpump and when to properly pump the line. Never overpump the line more than 30 psi, the National Fire Protection Association standard for the operation of the internal relief valve to relieve a water hammer.  The nozzle firefighter is then instructed to close his eyes and open the nozzle. Relying solely on the nozzle reaction he is experiencing, he is to determine if the line is light, overpumped, or being pumped correctly. This forces the nozzle firefighter to recall the muscle memory he developed and compare it to the nozzle reaction he is experiencing. We are now developing a skill set in our firefighters that will enable them to know as soon as they open the nozzle inside a burning building whether the fire stream is effective (photo 4).

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Tip 3: Set Up the Deck Gun for Speed and Efficiency

Most engine companies keep their deck gun set up in a position they will rarely use–at a 35-degree angle (the most common angle below which deck guns cannot be lowered without disengaging the stop) and pointed to the rear or front of the engine (photo 5). This safety feature prevents the gun from being lowered below 35 degrees when ground mounted so it doesn’t kick back and injure a member.

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Most of the time when the gun is placed in service for our most common uses—garages, one- or two-story dwellings, a single-story commercial building—we most often lower the angle of the stream to apply water where we want. A common issue that arises with keeping the gun sitting on the locking mechanism at 35 degrees is that the longer it rests there, the more likely it will lock itself in that position and not allow you to pull the pin to disengage the lock without raising the gun above the locked position and then pulling the pin so you can lower the gun below 35 degrees so you can put water where it needs to be. In addition to a delay in getting water on the fire, you can also waste a lot of water if the gun is flowing while these adjustments need to be made.

If you charge a truck-mounted gun when it is at 35 degrees, your fire stream will be approximately 33 feet in the air at 50 feet, 39 feet at 75 feet, and 42 feet at 100 feet from the truck. Remember, when adding in the height of the engine, most of us are starting out our fire streams at between 10 and 15 feet in the air.

Consider that the average second-story window is between 15 and 20 feet in the air and, in most cases, closer to 15 feet. This means that if your goal is to darken down the second floor of a fully involved dwelling that is 50 feet from your truck-mounted deck gun, your fire stream will be overshooting its mark by 13 to 18 feet if the gun is not lowered. If your goal is to hit the roof of a fully involved two-story dwelling that has a 50-foot setback, you will be completely overshooting the house by three to eight feet. Since most of us are responding to single-family dwelling fires, not five-story tenements, this makes no sense (photo 6). In this photo, cone 1 is at the 50-foot mark and cone 2 is at the 75-foot mark. The telephone pole in the photo is 33 feet tall.

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Keep your gun below the safety lock so you will have to make only small adjustments to aim the gun and there is nothing in the way to prevent you from changing the angle of the fire stream. Point the gun to the right or the left, the direction in which you will be flowing water 99 percent of the time (photo 7). I am occasionally asked by a newer member to what side the gun should be pointing. My reply is, “It does not matter, whatever side you think the next fire will be on.” What I do know is that you have a 50 percent chance of being right instead of a 99 percent chance of being wrong if the gun is pointed forward or to the rear. I am sure it has been done, but I have never had to nose in or back into a dwelling going good so I could apply my deck gun. If the fire is on the right and the gun is pointed left, as long as it is set up correctly, it takes about three seconds to adjust it to the proper side. If it is set up at the proper angle for most work we expect it to do and the lock that keeps it from spinning is only finger tight, it is an easy adjustment. Besides, you have a 50 percent chance of the gun’s being pointed at your objective the second the engine stops.

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When you pull up on a structural fire and the first thing you do is apply tank water with your truck-mounted deck gun, you have a very serious fire—a fire whose outcome will be determined by the speed with which you can apply big water to it. Let’s set ourselves up for success. It’s the little things that determine if an engine is great or good.

 BIO         

Tom Sitz is a lieutenant and a 31-year veteran of the Painesville Twp. (OH) Fire Department. He has been a company officer for the past19 years. He has been an instructor at Auburn Career Center in the Fire Academy Program for 25 years and an instructor in the Fire Science program at Lakeland Community College for 15 years. He has presented numerous times at FDIC.  

Originally ran June 6, 2017.