Overcoming Challenges to Scene Access


Personnel’s knowledge of their response area is a basic component of a fire department’s success. The sooner the fire department arrives, the sooner things start to get better. When considering structure fires, it is important not only that the first-in engine or ladder company, but also the entire fire response, make it to the right place as soon as possible to successfully mitigate the emergency. Depending on the location, this can be a major challenge.

The drivers or engineers who can recall every detail of their response area have always garnered a special type of respect around the firehouse, and deservingly so. They can tell you the best route to a particular address based on the time of day, traffic congestion, and several other variables. They know the water main sizes that supply the hydrants to their target hazards. They can drive straight to those addresses that even the postal workers can’t find. Every one of those district gurus can also tell you about areas that create challenges even for them—the areas in which it is difficult to drive a car through, much less a fire engine. Some areas may pose a challenge because a railroad crossing is next to the only hydrant or perhaps because the area has odd address designations. No matter what the difficulty, the fire department has to meet the challenge and conquer it.

Some of the challenges can be addressed through routine district drills. Having a firefighter who excels in district knowledge is good, but it is better to have an entire crew that is knowledgeable. The entire battalion needs to know as much as they possibly can about their fire alarm response area. It is a good idea to hold district drills at the sites in question. Allowing personnel to drive to those locations in a nonemergency situation will increase their chances of remembering the locations and how to get there. When personnel arrive, ensure that they understand why that address is being showcased in the drill. Ensure that their response maps are up-to-date, especially as they relate to that specific target hazard. If bridge weight limits are the issue, make sure crews understand that fact before they drive over a bridge designated for a maximum weight that is lower than the weight of the vehicle. If it isn’t possible to bring the entire battalion over at the same time because of call volumes, assign the visit. Once the crew has driven to the area, have them e-mail or call with the details about the address. Once all affected personnel have driven to the location, hold a drill or at least have them e-mail a list of the reasons this address was chosen for the training site.

Figure 1. Response Map Illustrating Curb-Marking System

Other access challenges cannot be handled through discussion alone. Some will require an in-depth preplan. One example is an area where the access route is so narrow that it can accommodate only a single apparatus at a time or streets that may require departments to deviate from their normal response protocols. For example, some departments require that the first-arriving engine establish the water supply from a hydrant. Most of the time, this practice doesn’t pose significant problems, and it can even be argued that it ensures adequate water for the fire attack crews.

However, some situations will require a different approach. If the initial-arriving engine follows the normal protocol, it could very well block the only access to the fire building. When these instances arise, it will be more appropriate for the initial engine to go on into the scene, hopefully followed by the initial-arriving ladder company. The second engine can then catch the hydrant and bring in the necessary supply line.


With all of that being said, it is wise to remember that “exceptions to the exceptions” exist. If the later-arriving companies are going to be delayed for any reason and the initial engine officer knows this, he may opt to establish the water supply for the sake of time. If the supply line is going to block access, the officer should communicate this so that later-arriving apparatus can adjust their response accordingly. Depending on the municipality’s zoning practices, a particular parcel of land may be zoned strictly for multifamily residences. This results in large sections of apartments that line an entire stretch of road. In these situations, it becomes difficult to know where one complex ends and another begins. To complicate this even further, apartment complex owners are notorious for changing the name of their property. Unless some sort of property divider, such as a fence, exists, the crew can easily turn into the wrong complex. By the time they realize the error, they would have driven too far into the complex to turn around, so the rig would have to back out of the area. This is very time consuming not to mention frustrating.

(1) An example of a curb marking system. (Photos by author.)

To resolve this, crews may need to develop an entrance designation system of some sort. One department implemented a numbering system that corresponds with each complex—specifically, it painted a number on the curb at each entrance from the main thoroughfare. The response map was then marked to reflect the corresponding numbers in relation to that particular apartment complex. This has been a tremendous help not only to the initial responders but also to others who are not as familiar with the area. This solution works for this department because the area doesn’t normally receive much snow. In areas where it is normal to have the curbs covered with snow six months out of the year, it might be better to post signs that designate the entrance number or specify the apartment addresses that are accessed from that entrance.

If hydrant accessibility is the issue, crews may need only to look at the adjoining property for a solution. To reach a hydrant that would otherwise be inaccessible may be as simple as removing a fence from an adjoining property. If a section of fence or some other type of obstacle can be removed to access the hydrant, the fire department should ask the property owners to put a gate in that location to save the fence and minimize property damage.

Unfortunately, situations exist where it isn’t possible to get apparatus as close as normally desired because of the layout of the building complex or building setback. In such cases, crews should plan how they intend to overcome those challenges. Many departments will get the apparatus as close as possible to the affected structure and then build or extend handlines as necessary. This approach can be accomplished quickly and should be an option, but it does have limitations.

(2) A key box configuration.

If the situation necessitates multiple large handlines, crews could end up using all of their available hose just to build a couple of lines. This often happens in large garden-style apartment complexes where the developer is allowed (no one knows why; fire code enforcement requiring fire access roads and accessibility to all structures is critical to correct this problem) to construct the complex in such a manner that it makes it impossible for apparatus to get close enough to function normally. In these situations, some departments employ the “Apartment Lay” or “Horizontal Standpipe” tactic. This entails taking the water supply from the engine to the desired location. Once the supply line is correctly placed, a wye or other appropriate manifold is attached to the line. This tactic allows crews to deliver larger amounts of water than could be provided with just a couple of extended handlines. It is similar to a reverse lay except that the hose is moved by hand instead of the engine’s driving off. If a four-inch hose is used for this maneuver, flows of up to 1,300 gallons per minute (gpm) can routinely be achieved. A well-practiced crew can perform this maneuver with three or four firefighters in a reasonable time. If the incident grows to a point that the exposures need to be protected, the waiting manifold can supply as many as four 2½-inch handlines or two master stream devices.

For crews to determine which tactic is most appropriate for the location, it will be helpful to use the National Fire Academy’s (NFA) Fire Flow Formula (length of the building multiplied by the width of the building, divided by three; L × W/3 × % of building involvement) or other suitable method of determining the gpm needed. The required flow to protect the exposures will also need to be considered in the total fire equation. If the NFA Fire Flow Formula is used, add 25 percent to the total gpm requirement of the main building. (External exposures are buildings within 50 feet of the main fire building: L × W/3 × % of involvement × 25% for each exposure.)

It is also important to note that if the Apartment Lay or other suitable tactic is used, the officer should communicate this over the radio because of the unavoidable time delay implementing the special tactic would cause.


Another aspect of preplanning is to address code violations, such as blocked fire lanes. When crews discover blocked fire lanes, they should speak with the property managers about the problem. If the property is used for residential use, inquire as to whether there is a neighborhood or tenant association. If so, if the association has regular meetings, ask if you can come to a meeting to speak about this problem. A direct, friendly reminder may be all that is needed, especially if the tenants are reminded that blocking the fire lane places them at risk. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the officer should report the violation to the proper authorities.

A common problem has to do with location of the garbage dumpster. Though the dumpster may not block a hydrant or a fire lane, it can still pose a significant access problem for fire apparatus. This is even more apparent if the dumpster is at a parking lot intersection of garden-style apartments. Waste collection drivers like to place dumpsters at these locations because it allows them to drive straight to the dumpster, unload it, back out, and make a turn and continue on their route. The faster they can complete their route, the sooner they get to go home. Although departments should always attempt to work with proprietors, if the dumpster prevents fire apparatus from making a necessary turn within the complex, you will have to seek a compromise. If the waste management company is unwilling to compromise, again, the fire officer will have to notify the proper authorities to get the situation resolved.

Gated communities have become popular with suburbanites desiring to live in a quiet neighborhood. Since the purpose of the gates is to cut down on nuisance traffic, it also cuts down on a fire department’s ability to get into the community. Instead of departments having to keep up with numerous gate codes or various keys, an efficient solution is a key box. This allows the apparatus to carry only one key to access the box, which will contain a gate key, a card, or a lock combination. Of course, if those methods fail, you can use common forcible entry methods, but they won’t be as fast and will cause considerable damage to an expensive gate. Reminding developers or homeowners’ associations of that fact will usually be enough to encourage them to purchase a key box.

The most menacing problem responders will face is the blocking of the only point of access. This problem is usually caused accidentally, such as when there are road construction projects or a rapid weather event. When this happens, it is extremely important that the initial-arriving officer inform other responders of the situation immediately. Depending on the town or area, when a major intersection is closed because of construction, apparatus may have to travel miles farther than they would normally. This occurs in rural areas or where new housing developments are being built and the only paved roads border the mile section. If one of the intersections that happens to be in the direct response path is closed, responders have no other choice but to drive around the entire miles section, which will add at least three miles to the response.

One way to prevent access problems caused by construction is to develop a good working relationship with the Street Department. Explain the importance of keeping the routes open; ask that it inform the fire department about closures. Informed road crews can and should provide temporary access points during major road construction projects if the project completely blocks entrance to a possible response area. If a construction project does not allow fire apparatus a thoroughfare, the fire department will have to be diligent in persuading the contractors to install a suitable surface for rigs to drive over. If an officer discovers a new road project in the area, the officer should determine alternative routes to the area. If satisfactory routes can be found, the officer should then inform other potential responders of the situation. When a response occurs in that area, the officer should remind other responders of the construction project and inform them of the alternative routes.

Windstorms or tornados can wreak havoc on an otherwise routine response. Downed power lines create a multitude of hazards for civilians and responders. Whenever possible, crews should avoid driving over downed lines. Although a downed line may appear to be harmless, it could very well carry more than 34,000 volts. If the downed line has high enough voltage, it can ruin the tires on the apparatus because of the heat produced from the electricity. If the apparatus is being driven at a high speed, the line could get caught within its duals and then subsequently wind around the axle. The apparatus would quickly become entangled and unable to continue. If the line is only partially downed, an apparatus driving over it could put sufficient tension on the line to drag a damaged power pole onto the apparatus or onto an otherwise undamaged structure.

Flash floods also can severely compromise access to an area. Commonly, personnel assume they can drive their apparatus through water, only to cause significant damage to the apparatus and place them in severe danger. It is true that a large engine or a ladder is unlikely to be washed away, but it is possible. Remember, aircraft carriers make a fire apparatus look tiny, and they float just fine. Keep in mind the damage the water causes to the road itself. The road surface may look fine, but the earth underneath the road could have been washed away. Any road that has endured a flood should be inspected before traffic drives over it. Another likely scenario is to have water sucked up into the apparatus motor. Some manufacturers place the main air intake for the motor toward the bottom of the apparatus to get sufficient air for the engine. It takes only a small amount of water to destroy the apparatus and leave a crew that is needed at an emergency stranded somewhere en route.

There are other challenges to scene access. The main point is that crews should resolve their problems before a crisis ensues. Hoping and keeping your fingers crossed that the worst scenario will never happen is begging for it to happen. At the very least, it will be embarrassing. It could be far worse and cost lives to be lost.

MIKE WALKER is a battalion chief with the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department, where he has served for almost 21 years. During his tenure with the department, he has served as a training officer, hazardous materials technician, technical rescue officer, and task force leader for Oklahoma Task Force One. He has been a fire service instructor for almost 17 years.

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