“One of the most expensive schools in the world is the school of firefighting experience; it costs billions of dollars each year. And, by the time the fire officer has acquired a reasonable amount of operational knowledge through experience, the cost of the property destroyed in the process makes it a high price to pay. Therefore, knowledge must be acquired through training and experience.” William Clark wrote this in his classic book Firefighting Principles and Practices. If you have not read it, you should—no, you must. This article shares critical operational knowledge I learned through experience.


The time is approximately 11:40 p.m. It has been a regular kind of day in the firehouse, but things are quiet now as a few members have gone to bed, a couple are “shootin’ the bull” in the kitchen, and a couple are watching televisions in other areas of the station. The engine and ladder answered several calls throughout the day but nothing serious. After dinner, the house routine of cleaning the kitchen and hallway was done.

Culture in the Engine House, Part 1 | Part 2

It’s Gallons Per Minute that Put the Fire Out!

The speakers of the voice alarm dispatch system start to crackle as everyone in the house—even those in bed—are now listening for the dispatcher’s voice. The dispatcher announces, “Box alarm to the fire department, a reported building on fire!” followed by the location and companies assigned. Everyone knows the address because of its close proximity to the firehouse.

“All hands” are jumping up from what they were doing and heading to the apparatus floor and their respective units. Members are getting into their turnout gear; climbing into the cabs; donning self-contained breathing apparatus, clipping the buckles, and adjusting the straps; and turning on portable radios to the assigned battalion channel. They look around at each other and yell, “Go, go!”

The engine pulls out first and turns right while the ladder truck follows close behind. A quick left turn at the first main intersection puts them on the street given by dispatch.

(1) When arriving on scene, slow down your apparatus response to get a better view of the incident. Engines should make room for ladder/truck apparatus placement either by pulling past the fire building or stopping short of the building, depending on street conditions and where the truck may be responding from. Look for building access, fire location, fire travel, exposures, water supply, and so on. This building is built of wood-frame construction. Its age should indicate plenty of voids through which fire can spread. Engine hose loads are critical, since buildings like these may require multiple hoselines that may be longer than preconnected lines. (Photo by Steve Nedrich.) 

There is not much traffic on the city streets at this time of night, so the engine and ladder make good time responding without speeding. On arrival, the engine slows down and passes a small group of three or four people standing on the sidewalk in front of the fire building. The engine stops after pulling past the fire building, allowing the ladder company room to spot their apparatus in front of the fire building.

The fire building is a 2½-story, standalone, wood-frame structure of mixed-use occupancy and Type 5 construction. These structures can create heavy fire conditions because of voids and alterations, as their original use most likely has changed over the years. Sometimes the fire load is heavy because the building is used for warehousing. Strategic and tactical considerations are the age and volume capacity of the municipal water system and hydrant availability, especially during a heavy fire condition where there is extension within and to other buildings.

There is no fire showing as the firefighters get out of the cab, but the smoke is extremely thick as it pushes from the entire second floor, banking down and looking like oil oozing out of the building. The senior firefighter from the engine points to the second floor and tells the truckies to get the “front and west windows out right now!”

The nozzleman takes the nozzle and his 50-foot working length of 1¾-inch hose from the static hosebed in the rear of the engine and stretches down the alleyway to an enclosed exterior stairway, where he drops the working length at the bottom of the stairs, takes the nozzle and hose halfway up, and then calls for water. The backup firefighter has flaked and straightened the uncharged hoseline to eliminate kinks.

Heavy smoke is coming down the stairway. The nozzleman and the backup firefighter mask up on the stairway while the engine officer does the same at the base of the stairs. The pump operator has acknowledged the call for water, and the nozzleman gives the line a good bleed.

With everyone on air, the crew moves up in zero visibility to the hallway, through a door, and to the right into the fire apartment, staying low to the floor. They make a 180° turn into the fire apartment, made more difficult by the dense smoke condition and kitchen furniture. However, once inside the first room—the kitchen area of the apartment—they find medium heat, which allows them to crouch to move a little easier with the line. There is no visible fire, glow, or crackling or popping sounds to give clues to the fire’s location—strange, considering the smoke density. There’s only a little more time before this apartment can reach conditions where ignition will occur.

The truckies have started ventilation, beginning with the second-floor front windows, and have moved to the second-floor west/side D windows to take them out. Inside, the senior firefighter yells to the nozzleman to “hit the ceiling”—open the nozzle fully and sweep it across the ceiling with a good, long blast to cool the gases and smoke and keep them below their ignition temperature. The nozzleman repeats this move a couple more times. The smoke is not lifting—it’s still dense and down to the floor—and heat conditions are not getting any better.

(2) This is a typical access stairway to the upper floors found in many mixed-use buildings. In some cases, the stairways are in the rear of a building. Some fire situations may have you stretching hoselines to the rear of a building, up the stairs to whatever floor the fire is located on, and then down a hallway to the fire apartment. These situations may require longer hose stretches than what ordinary preconnected hoselines provide. If your community has these types of structures, plan for them. If your department does not use static hose loads, perhaps consider one bed on your engines. Also note to keep your attack hoselines straight, and don’t pile excess hose in hallways or stairways. Hose management is a skill that you should train on regularly. (Photo by author.)

As ventilation takes effect, the heat starts a rapid buildup in the apartment and banks down to the floor as the firefighters move back to the apartment entrance to get their bearings and to reassess fire conditions. At this moment, the front rooms of the apartment show fire through the heavy smoke. Then, complete ignition occurs, with both front rooms becoming completely involved with heavy fire venting from the structure.

The attack starts—a 1¾-inch hoseline equipped with a solid bore nozzle using a 15⁄16-inch tip. The line is in a good position to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire.

The nozzleman does a great job of working the nozzle stream, bouncing it off the ceiling and upper walls, using a sweeping motion along with an up-and-down motion to cover as much area as possible from one vantage point before moving closer. Occasionally, he aims the stream up overhead as a precautionary measure to stop anything from passing behind the attack crew.

It takes a lot of effort and coordination, but the reach, force, and volume of the stream start making an impact on the fire. While fire attack is taking place, another engine crew stretches a second hoseline from the attack engine to the attic area above because fire has extended there and is rolling around and out the front window. They are successful in holding the fire at that point.

This was a successful fire attack because of good firefighting principles used by the first-due engine and ladder companies. Both crews arrived and began operating quickly without problems because of prefire assignments. The fire problem and location were identified on arrival and, with a quick communication from the engine crew, a coordinated operation began. Critical functions were performed, which allowed for better attack to access the fire. Fires like this one point to the need for regular fire training on fire attack procedures and to make sure the critical and tactical skills (principles and practices) are trained on regularly.

After-Action Review

After any fire with unusual complexities, critiques at the fire scene are important. After returning to the firehouse, and after all the work has been done getting things back in service, have “all hands” meet in the firehouse kitchen for a cup of coffee and a quick review to give a little more attention to details and reinforce the learning moment.

Firefighting has always been a profession where experience and knowledge go hand in hand in making for the best and most efficient procedures. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn from the job you so dearly wanted to be a part of! And be sure to pass experience and knowledge on to the next generation (mentoring).

Fire Attack Principles and Lessons

Response and approach to the fire building. When your company is first to arrive at an obvious working structure fire, especially when there is heavy fire and smoke, slow down the apparatus when entering the fire scene. If the driver does not do this, the officer should tell him to. This gives you and your crew a chance to put together a clearer picture of what the problem is. It allows you to look at the approach side, front side, and far side of the fire building before dismounting. Look for anything that will help you size up the fire situation, such as possible trapped victims and their location; fire volume, location, and extension; wind conditions (wind-driven fire?); smoke condition and color; wires down; exposures; holes in the street; hydrant location; and so on. This “slow-down” approach helps each firefighter be more prepared to deal with the problem and have better self-control should the situation deteriorate. It allows the company officer to size up the fire more completely, select a fitting strategy, give any information or orders, and match standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tactics to the situation.

Structural firefighting—engine operations complemented by truck operations. Two things must happen in most structural fire operations for efficient fire control: engine work and truck work—fire attack and extinguishment with forcible entry, ventilation, and search. Truck company tasks will support attack and all other things necessary during attack and will end with overhaul as soon as the main body of flames is knocked down.

(3) Mixed-use buildings can be of different types of construction. This building is of Type III ordinary construction with a flat roof over a cockloft. Because of age and other factors, it will most likely have had alterations or remodeling done over the years. There are most likely changes in occupancy and uses, vacancy, or perhaps warehousing found in them. This building has heavy fire involvement from two sides. Size-up includes the expectation that fire is already in the cockloft and spreading across the building and to the rear. The initial attack line has been stretched to a rear stairway as a second line is being stretched. Remember, as fire spreads quickly in void spaces, there will be a need for higher than normal water volume. The water system in an older neighborhood may not supply the volume needed, resulting in a need for relay pumping from better sources. Note exposures on the B and D sides; the D side exposure is a wood-frame structure set approximately four feet from the fire building. Use heavy streams, if necessary. (Photo by Steve Nedrich.)

Engine company personnel perform aggressive fire attack by quickly stretching an attack hoseline to the seat of a fire and delivering as much water as possible to overcome and kill the fire. This is where the officer’s and firefighters’ experience and knowledge come into play. A well-advanced fire attack must be complemented by truck work. Unfortunately, most fire departments do not have organized ladder or truck companies. Others have aerial/tower apparatus but do not have them respond with initial-arriving units because of lack of personnel. Sadly, some fire departments have ladder/trucks in service and staffed with personnel but have no plan or procedure for what to do when they get to the scene of a fire except to say, “We’ll see what we have when we get there!”

Regardless of a department’s situation, it is important to have all members learn, understand, and practice fire attack procedures and how they are complemented by ventilation and truck operations. Some fires create situations where ventilation procedures should be timed with the stretching and operating of hoselines. Other fires may call for ventilation before anything else. Sometimes attack must happen, then vent work follows because of hoseline accessibility and access to a fire area.

If you have ever been “pinned” to a floor, unable to move because of extreme heat or smoke conditions, you know the value of good, effective ventilation. Some fires may require a building to be completely vented in a top-down manner to locate the fire first, which may help engine personnel determine what size initial hoselines to stretch and where to stretch them. Whoever is assigned ventilation at a structure fire should be able to perform the basics of opening a building with two things in mind: life and fire concerns.

Nozzles, hose, and fire attack. Good, aggressive, offensive firefighting means taking an offensive approach, even when conditions are tough. In many cases, a quick, sustained hit on a fire will stop what looks like a violent or fast-moving fire. There may have been a time when you have found yourself lying on a floor unable to move, trying to avoid the heat and steam and everything else while your nozzle is fully opened, and yet it feels like the water is having no effect at all. It is a time like this when all parts of your fire attack system must function together for your survival. It is a time when everything—your engine pump and its discharge pressure, size of your attack line, your nozzle (is the bail open all the way?), the flow potential and the mechanics you’re using, the tactics you employ, the effectiveness of ventilation performed to complement your attack, water supply and a second line, your turnout gear, and more—comes together to keep you safe.

Take as much water into battle with you as you can. If a fire area you are in goes from black to orange, you’ll want every drop of water and more. Most interior attack operations use 1½- or 1¾-inch hose. In some cases, departments use two-inch attack hoselines outfitted with 1½-inch couplings and higher flow nozzles. Each size hoseline has a flow range and limitations.

Regardless of the size of attack line, strive to get the maximum gallon-per-minute output possible while being able to control and move the attack line using a low-pressure, high-volume nozzle. If you aggressively fight a fire and it lights up or grows rapidly, you want every drop of water on that fire to stop it. When you are attacking a heavy body of fire, it is important to do so aggressively and offensively.

Don’t be afraid to “throw water into smoke,” especially under extreme situations. Your job is to use your knowledge and experience and not let the fire take control. Keep in mind, when confronted with heavy or unusual conditions and an offensive attack is underway, the nozzleman and the engine officer must realize there are going to be many firefighters gaining access to this building to search and look for extension. You have the responsibility for an overwhelming attack on the fire to gain control so it does not extend and trap other firefighters doing their jobs.

Timing, efficiency, and effectiveness. A strategic point of firefighting to remember is, “Keep your firefighting simple, because the fire will make it complex enough for you!” The more steps you add to your fire attack plan, the more likely it is that you will take unnecessary time before attacking a fire. This can be true especially in “bread-and-butter” operations or those critical situations where the immediate application of water may be for the protection/saving of life or to prevent fire from spreading to other valuable areas or exposures. In our fire scenario, an attack SOP calls for immediately stretching a line and applying water as quickly as possible from the best vantage point or location.

Another timing consideration can be how a fire department loads its attack hoselines and how quickly (and efficiently) it can stretch and operate an initial attack line and other (multiple attack) lines. This part of fire attack is absolutely critical, and all department members should train on hose evolutions and other attack procedures regularly.

In this scenario, all attack hoselines in this department come from the rear of all engines and are flat loaded in static beds. Firefighters know there is a “standardization” of procedures on a citywide basis, and at fires where multiple hoselines are needed, there is some inherent familiarity even though companies/crews may not know each other. This same approach is helpful for smaller fire departments that work on a mutual- or auto-aid system, where firefighters may not know who they are going to have available on their own department or what other fire departments may be coming to help.

Another point here is each attack line was at least five lengths. Again, reliance on preconnected hoselines may increase time to attack if extra hose lengths must be added to the stretch. If firefighters are not trained or ready to do this at a fire, the delay could be critical. Keep it simple! Complex or unique hose loads may work against good fireground execution.

After stretching the initial attack hoseline, get it charged quickly. As soon as the nozzle operator gets to the drop point, a call to “charge the line” should be sent to the pump operator and acknowledgment should come back to the attack team. (Either the nozzle operator or engine company officer should make the call for water.) The attack team members should know to remove the kinks from the line, the line should be given a good bleed, and together everyone “goes on air” and moves in as a team. In extreme conditions everyone should keep the attack line in mind and stay with it to keep it moving.

An improper practice is where firefighters have been taught to keep pushing hose into an area where they can’t see anything in heavy smoke conditions and don’t know that the nozzle has stopped eight or 10 feet in front of them. The next thing you know, you have 75 feet of hose in a pile that is now a trip hazard, and it can kink more easily, especially in tight spaces, which can reduce the volume of water for attack.

A fire like this should be a coordinated fire attack with the engine and ladder crews, and everyone must understand that ventilation is important to the efficiency of the engine crew being able to move into position and attack the fire. Ventilation should be quick and efficient as the initial attack line is being stretched into position, with all window glass, screens, and drapes taken to provide clear paths for venting.

An attack crew should take as much water into a fire as possible and overwhelm it. This can only be done if there is enough water able to flow through a hoseline and nozzle and the nozzle operator has the nozzle bail fully open. Don’t shut the nozzle down just because flames darkened quickly. Keep it flowing for a little while, continually moving the stream around the fire area and overhead. Then, move the line in as a team so it’s done without someone pushing and another one pulling on the hose. Efficiency is being able to attack and hold your position and kill the enemy.

In today’s fire service, promoting teamwork is absolutely critical to a department’s overall skills and abilities. Firefighting is an experienced-based profession, continually learned over time. Knowledge gained over time and shared with others makes everyone better, and that knowledge is based on time-tested principles and practices that you can refer to time and time again, especially when confronted with that unusual and complex situation.

JEFF SHUPE began as a career as a firefighter in 1974 and retired from the Cleveland (OH) Fire Department in 2011. He then served as a division chief for the North Myrtle Beach (SC) Fire Department. He is an Ohio state-certified fire instructor and was a field training officer for the Ohio Fire Academy for 24 years. He has served with field suppression units, as an EMT, and as a hazmat technician and a training officer. He has an associate degree in fire technology and attended the University of Cincinnati Fire Protection Engineering program. He conducts hands-on training across the country in engine company and fireground operations. He is part of the team on the “The Senior Man” podcast.