The Water Can

By Alex Degnan

One tool that still has a prominent place on the interior of structure fires but is often overlooked or bypassed is the pressurized water can. Whether it is because of staffing constraints, distribution of duty, or the general redundancy of bringing in a charged line from behind, the can is often left on the rig. However, a mere 2½ gallons of water can assist with countless tasks. When triaging problems, the can will be of great assistance, but for now, I will look at what it can do for our teams in general.

We are all aware of the can’s use for combustibles ignited by unattended cooking (not the oils), small interior fires, spills, and so on. Many manuals have pages dedicated solely to what you can do with your extinguisher, what measures have to be in place, and its limitations. I want to look at some of the great many little things this can will do for the engine and truck companies at structural fires.


On the Engine

On the line, prior to charge, a water can in place will check the fire, help the crew bear down and hold position, and provide a (very brief) preflash safety net. In the real world, it is problematic assigning a member or officer an extinguisher if a line is coming in from right behind them. Aside from redundancy, staffing simply won’t allow for it. It is better to spend the effort getting the line into position quickly and getting it right at the fire. But, it can have its place. In a prior entry, I discussed the problem of “pinning down” fires. A can (whether taken from the rig or snatched from the common area) is invaluable in this scenario. When you take your initial look at the building, if you even think that you will have to scope out the location before committing the line, a water can is a great thing to take with you.

If you lose water temporarily (which does happen), a water can in conjunction with the line truly helps. I am not advocating automatically grabbing a can along with the line, a thermal imaging camera, and so on. Your efforts are better spent using the crew to get the line where it needs to be. In this situation, however, if you can grab a common area extinguisher quickly, or a crew outfitted with an extinguisher is coming in from behind, you can be summon them to the front. I’m not suggesting you can put out a room-and-contents fire with the approximate one-minute discharge from the can, but you may be able to hold your ground for a bit while the pump operator triages the problem outside. It is something that will buy a few seconds while the problem is fixed and the status of the attack is assessed. (Yes, loss of water is emergency and, yes, you should back out and create a barrier, and so on.)

Is a ladder or rescue company searching above? Are you protecting the stairs? Is the environment somewhere between survivable and recovery? If the answer to any of these is “yes,” you must stand your ground. Don’t become a liability, but understand that, in rare instances, a mere 2½ gallons of water can keep an operation on the offensive and survivable side. If you lose water temporarily while protecting an access/egress stairway with members above you, you cannot back your team out of that position; you are tied to them as much as they are to potential victims above. They must be apprised of what is happening so they can start taking preventative measures. The 2½ gallons of water may be all they get to protect their descent and exit if water is not regained and they need to make a quick bolt.

Keep in mind that your crew is going to feel the effects. Although the can will briefly check the fire, it will not have any dramatic effect on lowering the British thermal units. You can reduce flame and slow off-gassing, but you will feel it until that line gets going again. It is a very tough spot to be in. Get water back in that line immediately or the fire will gain the upper hand.

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Snags in the line, tight turns, short stretches, or sharp bends out the window or just around a door are all instances where a quick shot from the water can will help. If a can is handy, you can slow the immediacy of dealing with these problems. On the outside, a can is great for hitting the spandrel space between windows to limit auto exposure for a few seconds. It is also great for siding that is just beginning to ignite. Remember, it is not quenching the fire—it is stopping it and serving as a marker. Although it is not the tool of choice, a full extinguisher operating on a spot clearly denotes where that charged line is needed most.

On the Truck

The ladder company is where the can generally makes its merit. Larger departments assign a “can man” to protect the search, keep the extending fire in check, and even protect emergency egress. But again, it has many uses on the ladder company.

Victim access. This aspect of the tool is probably its biggest benefit. If a victim is down and in a very bad spot, the can will provide access when no water would render a grab nearly impossible. That small amount of water in the can will not only get you in but it can keep the environment stable enough to drag the victim out of harm’s way. Consider the scenario of a relatively large person in a bedroom next to the bed. The bedroom opens to a pseudo walk-in closet is adjacent to the bedroom entrance. The closet and contents are roaring, and fire is spilling out into the room. You can get to the victim without a problem, but he can suffer severe burns when being dragged out, sustaining further life-threatening injuries from the atmosphere. With a can, you can darken down the interior of the closet enough to shut the door. Without it, this becomes a possible window rescue, especially if there is another person down on the other side of the bed. (Remember, you are protected, they are not).

Search access. If the interior stairs start to flame up and your assignment is a second-floor search, a can will check the growing stair fire and let you ascend it. This also means that additional access to the upper floor is not readily available. Remain realistic about who or what company is taking the line to the first-floor fire before proceeding. Have clear confirmation that a hoseline will be suppressing the first-floor fire and holding the stairs. You may need them to remove a victim and/or your team.

A can will provide much quick access for ladder companies in this fashion. If you are at a kitchen fire with the bedrooms behind it, give it a quick knock and go; the engine has your back. When searching small- to moderate-sized rooms, the can also serves as a good doorstop—i.e., someone will know you are in there. Members may automatically open and close doors, they may think twice before closing a door with an extinguisher against it. Although chocks get kicked out of the way, cans probably won’t. (Note: I don’t recommend this for larger areas, because the can should still be easily accessible to you.) 

A quick point on searching in pairs in moderate sized rooms over the fire area: The can member should stay at the door. If room conditions take a horrific turn and the environment starts to light up, the current will and head for the doorway—the coolest air is the best air. If the searcher in the room has a can, he may be blocked from the exit. If the door member has the can, he’ll be the first to see this environmental change. He can summon his partner, hold the upper reaches in abeyance, and allow the searcher to crawl out from underneath. Conversely, if an adjacent area or stairwell behind the crew starts to turn hot, he’s in the best place to protect them.

Vent-enter-serach. It is a sizable task taking an approximately 25-pound extinguisher up a ladder along with your compliment of tools. However, if you are doing the “porch hop” or just hitting a couple rooms, it is very valuable. Once you vent, allow the smoke to lift (sweep and sound the floor) and enter the room safely so you can close the door to the room, conduct your search, and still have the means to keep the room from lighting up (if you cannot immediately locate or get to the door and shut it). If the search is positive, you have more time to protect in place (by “more time” I mean moments). These moments may be where you can get back to the ladder, get to the porch roof, or get the victim to some breathable air.

Occasionally, the can will also provide access for the truck and engine. For example, let’s say you encounter an overhanging porch that has become involved from an interior fire on the first floor, the windows have failed, and the porch overhang is going good right in front of the Alpha side door; you know the stairs are right behind it, and the engine company wants to charge the line and attack from the porch on in. Of course, the engine can try for a side door, but you—the ladder crew—want to take the stairs right behind the front door. It would be considerably better for your team, any victims, and the operation if the engine can get inside that way. A shot from a water can may be able to darken it enough to let you in and make it easier for the engine to get through that front door. This is a unique circumstance, but not uncommon. The split-second decisions that initiate an operation can sometimes pay big dividends just minutes later.

Overhaul. When conducting precontrol overhaul, a can is never the answer to fully stop extension. However, once rooted out, overhaul can signify where the line needs to operate. Imagine opening stud channels and communicating with the lower floor where the line needs to operate. Shoot the can down this channel; with any luck, they’ll see it. A quick hit with the can while you are popping off switch plates, baseboards, and crown molding and around man-made openings will sometimes keep the area clean enough for precontrol. Stay vigilant about operating the can near electricity that may not be secured. Keep the stream tight to channels; this is a good tip if you move on to a more pressing task precontrol. Leave the empty can in place as a marker. When someone follows up, you can tell them, “I left the extinguisher right where it needs to be opened more.”) 

During postcontrol overhaul, a can, wedge, and a striking tool can be your “holy trinity” of wrapping up a totally burned-out room. At a “gut job,” any totally involved area where two joists meet up, are tied, spliced, and have been burned, drive a wedge between the seam and wet it down. A window sill, stud-to-base, and so on are prime candidates for this. Assuming this has all been done with a charged line beforehand, an extinguisher can give you a good once-over before you pack everything up.



Always be wary of the limits provided by such a modest amount of water. When you use extinguishers at structure fires, the expressed intent is threefold—quick access, temporary check of the fire, and limited protection. “Quick,” “temporary,” “limited”….these are very significant quantifiers. It is never a permanent safety net, expungement tool, or total atmosphere alleviator.  It will never protect you from fire being driven your way, it won’t stop you from being overrun, and it is solely useless if you are in or near a fully-involved environment. It will help prior to these conditions, albeit very briefly. Two-and-a-half gallons of water will never stop the oncoming storm. Be aware of it, and never let it take you a place you should not be. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to make that amount of water any lighter or less cumbersome.)

That said, from an old brass inverted bi-carb to today, the can remains a great tool. Know it well and what it can do for you. Just as you make sure your air bottle is totally full at the start of shift, so too should the water can. Its contents may one day ensure you can take that needed breath.

(Above photo courtesy of Florival fr.)


Alex Degnan is a 13-year memebr of and a captain with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department’s (JCFD’s) Squad Co. 4.  

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