Water Supply Tactics: Expect the Unexpected

By Mark Rossi

We all know that our basic job description as firefighters is to “put the wet stuff on the hot stuff.” As firefighters responding to a structure fire, we all want to be first-due or first in on the fire. Often, though, our arrival on scene depends on several factors: zone, distance to location, traffic, weather, and other factors beyond our control. Regardless of our arrival on scene, one things remains the same regardless of fire type: Water supply, without which we are destined to fail. Fire extinguishment is the fundamental operation of the fire service. For extinguishment to effectively take place, the fire must be attacked with copious amounts of constant water to overcome the amount of heat generated from fire. Whether your engine is large or small, you are limited by your water tank size. Putting one line in operation may be okay for a car fire, dumpster fire, or small trash fire. Anything beyond a one-line operation will call for water supply tactics. As a driver/engineer, it is your job (not the job of command or a chief officer) to secure a water supply for yourself. This should be considered from the time the call is dispatched, while you are en route, and prior to arrival on scene, not after you get there and realize you need more water. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) dictate who is supposed to get the water, but this article is for the proactive engineer who should be thinking water supply regardless of when you arrive on the fireground.


Preplanning how you’ll establish a water supply might not matter if you’re handling smaller fires, but it will matter in a house or building when firefighters are on the interior and at risk. It will also matter when the fire has the immediate potential to spread to exposures. Often, we as firefighters allow our adrenaline to take over. As initial arriving companies on scene, we get so focused on arriving first that we neglect to provide our crews with an uninterrupted water supply to get the job done. This happens a lot with undisciplined new drivers or drivers that are only thinking about what they have to do on scene rather than thinking about what they will need on scene to operate successfully. Hydrants are passed, tools needed to obtain a water supply forgotten, and alternate water sources not even considered. Essentially, this complacent attitude gets them into trouble, hoping that, if needed, the next in engine will bail them out. This isn’t good planning and often leads to disaster, or worse, an injured firefighter.

Preplanning or taking part in tactical surveys points out the potential hazards one might face as well as determines the water supply locations of a particular residence or business. It is also good practice to note working hydrants versus hydrants that are out of order. Consider the location of the hydrants. Are there shrubs and bushes covering the hydrant, or are the hydrants located in tight areas? Are you able to locate hydrants at night as well? In Fort Lauderdale, most of the neighborhoods in our city have blue reflectors in the middle of the roads. These reflectors are parallel to the city hydrants, which is a tremendous help when it is dark. Static water supply sources are also important to consider. If you have to draft, will you be able to access the water source quickly when needed, and is the water source big enough for your operation? Obviously, prefire planning addresses a variety of factors (i.e. entry, egress, building construction, hazards, etc.) to consider on the fireground. Water supply is one of the more crucial priorities to observe.


Obtaining a secure water supply starts and ends with discipline. Of course, as firefighters responding to a structure fire, we all want to be that first engine or ladder company to arrive on scene. The last thing we want is to be stuck on a hydrant down the road, away from the action on the “water supply” assignment. Yet this assignment is just as crucial and important as putting the fire out successfully. Without water, fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. Although not as glorious as actually putting the fire out, securing a water supply saves lives and property, which is in every job description as a firefighter. Often, water supply is neglected until its too late, resulting in greater property loss and increased dangers to firefighters.

In my February 2013 Fire Engineering article, “The First-Due Engineer,” I talked about expecting the unexpected, when fireground operations sometimes do not go as planned. The same principle can be applied to securing a water supply. Adequate water supply during fire attack operations has a critical impact on fire control outcomes. A good water supply results in favorable outcomes. Delayed or limited water supply leads to delayed fire control, increased risk to firefighters and victims and greater losses from fire. Most driver/engineers and their crews can perform the standard tasks of obtaining a water supply, such as forward lay or reverse lay, regardless of the scenario. We are taught these skills in our minimum standard classes. But what if the scenario calls for something else, such as drafting, tandem pumping, or creating a portable standpipe? In such cases, engineers must think outside the box.

Water supply begins with dispatch information. Where is the call? What’s the type of structure? Commercial or residential? Single-story or multiple stories? Is there access to the scene? Hazards? These are questions you as a driver/engineer need to consider when leaving the station en route to the call. Although often the officer makes the ultimate decision on whether or not to perform a straight lay versus reverse lay, a good driver will make this decision easy for the officer. Some departments require the first-due engine to lay their own supply line. In my department, the second-due engine gets the water for a residential fire and the third-due engine on a high-rise fire. I prefer to reverse out if we are tasked with water supply. This leaves room for the first-arriving aerial, which should be directly in front of most structures, and moves our engine out of the way for other incoming units. Either decision you make should be thought of well before your arrival on scene, regardless of the incident.

Upon arrival, decisions must be made not just on supplying the engine but also on determining the amount of water needed to put the fire out. Knowledge of your apparatus attack lines and master streams and the gpm they flow is the key to everything. A basic understanding of hydraulics, experience, and training can easily help you determine how much water is needed and how to secure that water for fire ground operations. Without resorting to complex formulas, think “big fire, bBig water.” Your handlines (smaller attack lines) can be used for small fires and one- or two-bedroom fires. Any commercial fires need to employ larger attack lines, such as 2 ½- or 3-inch lines and master streams. Once you have an idea of how much water you need you can determine how to secure a water supply and what tactic you will use. Can the tank water handle the job, or do you need to secure something more permanent? Straight lay from a hydrant or reverse lay to a hydrant? Portable standpipe or tandem pumping? Drafting from a static source or calling a tanker and shuttling water? As the driver/engineer, you can influence the officer as to which method is best suited for your operation. All of this happens in a matter of minutes to enable crews on scene to deliver the adequate amount of water to the fireground in a safe and effective manner.

How about the following scenario?

You respond to a call for a fire alarm in a two-story garden-style apartment complex with the alarm sounding in one of the buildings in the rear; it is located approximately 2,000 feet from the entrance of the complex. The only source of water is a hydrant at the front entrance. Upon arrival to the rear building, you find heavy smoke and flames showing from the second floor balcony with several exposures and unknown occupancy. The building is not sprinklered and does not have a suppression system in place. The second-due engine is two minutes away. As the first-due driver/engineer, what water supply tactics will you consider both for the officer and firefighter as well as supply for your engine?

In this particular situation, the portable standpipe along with tandem pumping might be the best choice. I will use my department as an example because our engines have a variety of hose on the rigs. Our engines carry approximately 800 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose, which we can use both as attack and/or as a supply line (we also carry 1,000-1,200 feet of 5-inch supply hose). We also have two different types of high-rise kits: 2 ½-inch hose and 1 ¾-inch hose. Realizing the need to get water on the fire as quickly as possible, setting up our portable standpipe can be done in about two minutes. We would stretch the amount of 2 1/2 we need to the courtyard and hook up the 1 3/4 high-rise pack to the gated wye as we have done on previous fires (see photo below). Depending on the stretch, we could add or subtract hose as needed. We would charge the 2 ½-inch line and supply water to the high-rise hose when needed running off our engine’s water tank until a water source is secured. Of course, this tactic works when we have an open courtyard, which in this example was the case.

Regarding water supply, the second-due engine would be asked to park their apparatus close to ours and tandem pump their water into our tank. In essence, the second engine is supplying us with water. If more water is needed, we could call for additional engines as necessary. This water supply tactic serves this particular purpose. It allows us to secure a water supply without laying hundreds of feet of 5-inch supply hose, which would be in the way of incoming units. In addition, we wouldn’t be playing the guessing game as to how much hose we would need to reach the hydrant located at the front entrance of the complex.

Again, your department SOPs may dictate what should be done in this situation. However, taking the initiative to pre-plan with your crews, performing tactical surveys on your first-due structures, and training on these evolutions are far more valuable than anything a textbook could teach and may be the difference between succeeding or failing on the fireground.

Portable standpipe with high-rise

(1) Portable standpipe with high-rise

Tandem pumping

(2) Tandem pumping

Water supply is one of the most fundamental and basic operations on the fireground, and its importance cannot be understated. A good water supply operation demands diligent training, constant preplanning, utilization of available resources, and a working knowledge of the hydraulics needed to quickly control and mitigate the fire. It’s the job of every engine company to anticipate long-term fireground water supply needs as they arrive on scene. Failing to recognize a working incident can cause an engine company to miss an opportunity to secure a water supply that may be key to controlling an incident. This can be even more critical if you are operating on an extended scene at a large commercial structure, high-profile types of calls, or a residential fire with limited access at which only a single pumper can enter. Remember: Be proactive, not reactive. Expect the unexpected when it comes to securing a water supply. Following these simple philosophies will ensure your crew’s safety. The result is an operation that continuously delivers an adequate amount of water to the fireground in a safe and effective manner.

MARK ROSSIMARK ROSSI is the driver/engineer on Engine 46 assigned to A-shift in the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Department. He is a 13-year veteran of the fire service, spending the last seven years with the city of Fort Lauderdale Fire Department. He is an LFTI, Fire Instructor III, and currently teaches driver/engineer and hydraulic classes locally. He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in business from the University of Florida. He is currently pursuing a PhD in emergency management.

No posts to display