Positioning Apparatus for Maximum Efficiency and Safety


Safe and effective placement of apparatus at fires requires discipline to take the time to conduct a size-up before committing companies. Proper apparatus positioning also requires foresight to visualize what the fire, the fire building, and the fire scene will look like later in the incident—once other apparatus are on the scene.

A fire officer who is first to arrive at a fire must conduct an initial size-up that considers the following factors that affect apparatus placement.

  • The location of the fire.
  • Where and how to reach it.
  • The possibility of damage to apparatus from fire intensification, building collapse, or falling electrical wires.
  • Positioning of later-arriving apparatus.


You cannot always determine the location of the fire and how to reach it from the cab of the first-arriving apparatus. For example, large buildings accessible by more than one street and an alley or a complex consisting of several buildings may have just one street address. Fire companies will naturally respond to the side of the building displaying a street address or the main entrance gate of the complex. Further investigation, however, may indicate that the fire must be reached from another street, a rear alley, or another entrance to the complex.

Do not rely on the police or civilians to do your size-up. Often, they will direct apparatus to an improper location, requiring an excessively long hose stretch or repositioning of the apparatus. A few months ago my company, a quint, responded to a fire in a large recycling plant. Smoke was visible from blocks away, but we could not see the fire when we arrived because the chain link fence surrounding the complex was covered in a green fabric. An employee frantically waved his arms to direct us into the main entrance of the plant. We knew that there was more than one entrance to the plant; not knowing which entrance to take, we stood by on the street while our medic-rescue responding behind us entered the complex to locate the fire and determine which entrance we should take. This took a few minutes, but it was nothing compared to the time we could have wasted if we heeded the employee’s instruction and took the wrong entrance.

When fire companies arrive without a specific assignment, they should stage their apparatus and await orders from the incident commander (IC). Some departments preassign responding companies to a specific location or task. For example, unless told otherwise, the second engine responds to the rear of the fire building or locates a hydrant, flows it to check for water and to flush debris, and backs down toward the fire building.

Staging and preassigned positions take some of the pressure off the officer conducting the initial size-up and determining where to assign companies. Conversely, radio transmissions such as “Engine 3 to command, we’re three minutes away. Where do you want us?” seldom expedite the correct placement of apparatus and can distract the officer conducting the initial size-up.




One of the most common, embarrassing, and preventable accidents can occur when apparatus is hastily backed out of the wrong location. Backing-up accidents are best avoided by not backing up! It is almost always faster to stop an apparatus, determine its proper location, and then drive it forward instead of backing to reposition it. This is not to discourage the practice of an engine’s “backing down” to a fire after flowing a hydrant. Backing an apparatus for this purpose is proactive and an effective practice because it facilitates a reverse hoselay from the fire back to the hydrant.

Another consequence of improper positioning can occur when a first-arriving engine forward lays its own supply line into the fire scene without first sizing up the fire. This can lead to laying into the wrong street, to the wrong side of a building, or into the wrong entrance of a complex. To prevent laying in to the wrong location, an engine responding with other companies from the same firehouse should stop at a hydrant, flow it, and await direction from a chief or another company responding directly into the fire scene. This, of course, isn’t always possible in rural and suburban areas, where the first engine may have to operate alone for several minutes before help arrives. In this case, the engine officer should order the apparatus to stand by at the hydrant while he proceeds on foot to size up the fire.

Failure to anticipate a fire’s intensification or spread can result in the apparatus’ having burnt paint, cracked windows, and melted lights. Consider the wind’s speed and direction when positioning an apparatus. Could a sudden gust or change in wind direction blow fire toward the apparatus? Read the fire building: Is it presenting signs that the fire could rapidly intensify and burn apparatus? For example, large storefront show windows that are hot, obscured with soot, or beginning to crack are a strong indication that a fire could backdraft or at least rapidly intensify when firefighters break the windows, the windows fail from heat, or the fire receives a fresh supply of oxygen. Do not position personnel or apparatus directly in front of show windows under these conditions. Similarly, use caution when positioning apparatus near a closed, unventilated building that is pushing hot, pressurized smoke. Firefighters in my battalion learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago.

The first-arriving engine responding to a reported house fire found a small, one-story, wood-frame house with plywood covering all its doors and windows. No fire was visible, but the hot, pressurized smoke pushing from around the plywood coverings and roof soffit vents should have been a warning sign that this fire, deprived of oxygen, could “get away” from these firefighters when the building was opened (photo 1).

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(1) Pressurized smoke pushing from a house that has plywood covering its doors and windows should be a warning sign that the fire will intensify and burn apparatus positioned close to the structure when the plywood is removed. (Photo by John Ferraro.)

The first-arriving engine company stood by at the front door with a charged 1¾-inch hoseline while other firefighters removed the plywood. Suddenly, the boiling smoke turned into a ball of fire, forcing everyone to retreat. Now attention turned to protecting exposures from the intense, radiant heat—the exposures were the houses on each side of the fire building and the apparatus positioned in front of the fire building.




Apparatus positioned too close to a fire building can be struck by a collapsing wall or façade. Also consider that a wall collapse can result in burning apparatus when it releases a ball of wind-driven fire or radiant heat. When falling walls are a possibility, position apparatus outside the “collapse zone”—a distance from the building that is at least equal to the vertical height of the threatening wall. Keep in mind that this distance could be insufficient if bricks or blocks bounce and roll. Also consider that a falling wall can strike and bring down utility poles, transformers, and electric wires that can fall on apparatus positioned outside a wall’s collapse zone. When you cannot position apparatus at a safe distance from a fire building, spot them in flanking positions—for example, in front of adjoining buildings. Aerial apparatus positioned at corners stand less of a chance of being struck by a wall and have the added advantage of being able to reach two sides of a building with their aerial device.

Avoid placing apparatus under electric wires that could fall (photo 2). Be particularly careful at fires involving wood-frame structures, because electric service wires quickly burn off the fire building but remain energized and connected at the pole. This can endanger apparatus spotted under an electric service that connects to a pole across the street from the fire building (photo 3).

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(2) Do not position apparatus under wires that could fall. (Photos by Eric Goodman.)
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(3) If electric service wires burn off a wood-frame house, they will fall on the apparatus and remain energized; they are still connected to the pole across the street.




Some collapse indications such as a crack in a wall or an intense fire burning for more than an hour may not have been considered when first-arriving companies were positioned. Apparatus may have to be repositioned as a result of changing conditions observed later in the incident. This is a perfect example of why size-up must be a continuous, ongoing process. Say, for example, that a large crack develops in a wall after an hour of firefighting operations. Can an aerial apparatus positioned within a wall’s collapse zone be rapidly moved? A lot depends on how well this ladder company has drilled on rapidly repositioning the apparatus. Fire Engineering’s Web site (www.fireengineering.com) features a Training Minutes segment hosted by John Riker (Season 3) that demonstrates how a ladder company can rapidly reposition its truck.1

Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue engines and quints carry a large-diameter water thief that facilitates rapid repositioning of apparatus. When a company lays large-diameter hose (LDH) from a hydrant to a fire, it does not connect the LDH directly to a pump intake; first, the company connects a water thief to the LDH and then uses a 15-, 25-, or 50-foot section of LDH between the water thief and pump intake. Should that apparatus have to be repositioned, its water supply can be shut down and disconnected without having to run hundreds of feet back to the hydrant to shut down the supply line (photo 4).

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(4) A water thief manifold facilitates the rapid relocation of apparatus because the large-diameter hoseline (LDH) water supply can be shut down at the fire scene. (Photo by Eric Goodman.)




When I became a firefighter in 1973, the largest hose in use by most fire departments in the Chicago area was three inches in diameter. In those days, it was a common practice for the first-arriving engine to drop a “skid” or bundle of 1½-inch hose at the fire and reverse lay a split load of 2½- and three-inch hose to a hydrant where it would connect with a five- or six-inch-diameter section of suction hose and pump the hoselines. This worked well because a ladder apparatus following the engine could position at the front or corners of the fire building, unobstructed by engines or hose. Years ago, engines didn’t carry a lot of equipment; ladder apparatus or a squad provided most of the ground ladders, tools, fans, and floodlights used on the fireground.

Today, fire departments, particularly those in big cities, continue to perform reverse hoselays, but many rural and suburban fire departments outside the big cities no longer routinely perform reverse hoselays since LDH has become available. Because of the impressive flow capabilities of LDH, it is now possible for pumping apparatus to forward lay a four- or five-inch supply hoseline from a hydrant and take a position at the fire. This has some advantages over a reverse lay. An engine “laying in” can deploy preconnected hoselines and an apparatus-mounted deck gun. Additionally, modern engines are commonly equipped with a multitude of equipment readily available at the fire scene. Also, consider that many fire departments operate a quint as their first-due apparatus. In this case, a quint company that forward lays LDH establishes its own water supply for pumping handlines and operating its elevated master stream.

Now let’s consider some of the drawbacks of laying LDH from the hydrant to the fire. First, hydrant pressure alone may be insufficient to supply the needed gallons-per-minute (gpm) flow. This can lead to pump cavitation and failure to suppress the fire. You can avoid this problem by connecting a second engine to the hydrant and pumping the LDH to an engine or quint at the fire. My department uses a four-way hydrant valve, which allows the first pumping apparatus to forward lay a supply line and operate with hydrant pressure. If this is not enough, another engine can connect to the four-way valve, take suction from the hydrant, and boost the pressure in the supply line without interrupting the water’s flow. Pumping a supply line by connecting a second engine to a hydrant is fine if a second engine has a timely response, something that may not be a certainty with small rural or suburban fire departments.

A second drawback of forward laying LDH is that it can interfere with the placement of ladder apparatus. Consider the following scenario:

Engine 1 is first to arrive at a fire in a congested downtown business district. The fire building, occupied by a row of stores on the first floor and apartments on the second floor, is located on a two-lane street, lined on each side with parallel parking. The engine company, following department procedure, stops at a hydrant and lays a five-inch supply line toward the fire building. Maneuvering the pumper is no easy task, because the LDH has to be laid around two double-parked police cars and a parcel truck making a delivery.

As the engine lays the line, its lieutenant and a firefighter walk behind the apparatus and pull the uncharged LDH over to the side alongside the tires of the parked cars. Unfortunately, their efforts to keep the street clear of hose will not be successful because the LDH develops bends that partially block the street when it is charged. This forces Truck 1, responding behind the engine, to run over the LDH. Although LDH can withstand apparatus driving over it, you should avoid doing so whenever possible. In this case, Truck 1, traveling parallel to the supply line, runs over a bend in the hose, which becomes jammed between the truck’s dual rear wheels. Then the hose wraps around the tires and is pulled out of a coupling, resulting in a total loss of water supply.

How could this disaster have been prevented? If a fire department requires that its first-arriving engines forward lay a supply line to a fire, it should also require that the truck company respond ahead of the engine when an engine and a ladder respond together from the same firehouse. This allows the truck to approach the fire building without running over hose (photo 5). The department should also have in place a procedure that requires an engine company arriving before a truck to make known its direction of travel so that the truck can approach the fire building from the opposite direction.

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(5) The truck company approaches the fire scene ahead of the engine laying in LDH so that the ladder apparatus does not run over the supply line. (Photo by Ray Bell.)




In the past two years, Miami-Dade County has experienced several serious fires in very large suburban homes, some larger than 5,000 square feet. It’s no coincidence that these fires have become more frequent since the decline in the economy and the rise in foreclosures. Most of these homes have been constructed within the past 10 years; consequently, they have high cathedral ceilings and floors and roofs supported by lightweight wood trusses prone to early collapse. Because of their size and lightweight construction, fires in these homes can rapidly intensify and necessitate defensive tactics, including the use of aerial master streams. Position aerial apparatus at fires in large suburban homes based on considerations that will enable the department to use them to their fullest effectiveness.

For years, newly promoted lieutenants in our Officer Development Program have been taught to spot the first-arriving engine slightly past the front of a fire building. This sounds good, because it gives the officer a view of three sides of the fire building and exposures on the A and B sides from the cab. Additionally, it keeps the front of the building clear for ladder apparatus. This practice works well when the first-arriving engine drops its hose and reverse lays to a hydrant. It doesn’t always work as well, however, for departments like mine, departments that often forward lay LDH to the fire, because it can interfere with the positioning of aerial apparatus, particularly at fires in large suburban homes.

Division Chief Dave Wood identified this problem. He suggested that engine officers consider stopping short of these homes when laying in a supply line. This keeps the front of the fire building clear of engines and LDH. That engine officer will determine conditions at the sides and rear of the structure when he conducts his 360° size-up. Wood also suggested that an engine or LDH should not block the driveway of a large home. This is essential because it may be necessary to back a ladder apparatus down a long driveway to a house set back a considerable distance from the street (photo 6).

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(6) This aerial apparatus is backed into the driveway of this large suburban house so its elevated master stream can be used most efficiently. (Photos by Eric Goodman.)

The attic of a large suburban home is an undivided lumberyard of lightweight wood trusses. In Miami-Dade County, the roofs of large, expensive homes are usually covered with heavy concrete or clay roof tile. One of the most effective tactics for fighting a serious fire in the attic of a large two-story house is to position the smooth bore nozzle of an aerial master stream at the bottom of the second-floor windows. A powerful solid stream directed upward will blast through any drywall or plaster ceiling and deflect off the underside of the roof. This distributes water over a large area of the attic. Conversely, streams directed into holes burned through the roof have little effect on fire that is not burning directly below the hole (photos 7, 8).

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(7, 8) The solid bore elevated master stream blasts through the heavy wire lath and plaster ceiling and deflects off the roof’s underside.
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Do not block the driveway of any residence that has a garage that is involved or could be involved in fire. This is important for three reasons: First, burning gasoline leaking from a vehicle or portable containers inside a garage can run down a sloping driveway and burn underneath an apparatus. Second, an apparatus blocking a driveway may be positioned directly in front of or behind a vehicle burning in a garage and will be within range of its exploding struts or other projectiles. Third, apparatus blocking a driveway will interfere with a wrecker if it is necessary to pull vehicles out of a garage for overhaul.




An apparatus-mounted deck gun is a powerful and effective master stream, capable of discharging more than 1,000 gpm. This device is usually piped directly to a pump discharge, allowing it to be put into operation quickly to knock down a large volume of fire or protect exposures. There are situations, however, when a deck gun may not be the most effective means of applying a heavy stream. For example, an engine positioned in front of a fire building to operate its deck gun may be burned by radiant heat, be struck by falling wires, or block access for a later-arriving ladder apparatus. Additionally, consider that a deck gun piped to the top of a modern engine is 10 feet above the street; consequently, its stream cannot be directed into the overhead to penetrate a first-floor ceiling or bounce off the underside of the roof to reach fire deep inside a one-story building (photo 9).

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(9) The deck gun mounted on top of this engine is unable to direct a stream into the overhead to penetrate a first-floor ceiling or deflect off the underside of the roof of a one-story building. (Photo by Ray Bell.)

Most apparatus-mounted master stream devices can be disconnected from the piping and operated on the ground, but they do not have the mobility of a portable master stream with one 2½-inch inlet. Mobility is important when a master stream must be operated at more than one location. For example, a fire that takes possession of the attic of a large house can be rapidly controlled by a ground-operated master stream that penetrates the ceiling. A well-involved attic fire, however, cannot be totally extinguished by streams directed into the overhead from just one door or window, because most large, modern houses have multiple roof lines that overlap in the attic and deflect streams, requiring application from more than one location. The portable master stream will, however, never completely replace larger devices, because it flows only half the gpm.




Choosing the proper master stream and positioning apparatus where they will be most effective are essential to a safe and effective firefighting operation.


 1. http://www.fireengineering.com/index/videos.html?bcpid=30311426001&bclid=6505716001&bctid-1940972001.

BILL GUSTIN, a 36-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department’s officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Gustin is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering .


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