Fireground Pump Operations: Mastering the Panel

By Paul Watlington

I once told my 10th grade math teacher that I probably would never use percentages and square roots in my future, and therefore I was not a fan of it. Five years later when I began learning the responsibilities of a fire apparatus driver/operator, I called her with an apology.

This is obviously only a fraction of the knowledge required to be a professional driver/operator and mastering a panel. To many, it is one of the least desirable positions on the fireground while others deem it one of the most important. Some even decline the position because of the stresses involved and the level of complexity; others say it is the heart and soul of the fireground. Firefighters join the service and become great as nozzle firefighters while some decide to move through the ranks to officers—then there are those that fall in love with the rewarding responsibility of the driver/operator. They thrive on the responsibility of the safe arrival of the apparatus to and from the scene and protecting the nozzle crew. They take pride in being able to determine pump pressures at a moment’s notice and taking full control of the panel while on scene.

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In most departments, firefighters operate in groups or in pairs. There is always someone near you to exchange ideas and advice. Most driver/operators do not have this luxury. He or she operates alone and is frequently charged with performing multiple tasks such as strategic positioning of the apparatus, securing water supplies, pumping hose and nozzle packages correctly, and overcoming any adversities or obstacles that may present themselves without the input of a partner. Career driver/operators spend countless hours studying district maps, hydraulics, changes in hose and nozzles, and the apparatus itself. Their work is time sensitive and many of their decisions dictate the forward progress of the incident. Confidence and composure in this position is vital and it shows when a well-prepared operator masters the panel.

The Panel

Most of us probably thought we were in the cockpit of an airplane when we first stepped up to a pump panel. Every button or lever went to something but we did not know where to start. There were so many gauges, knobs, and handles. They were labeled but for some that did not make it any easier. As we began to move water and become more familiar with the basic operation, we had to look more in depth. What is the auxiliary cooler? What is the primer? What are those two things labeled test ports? We went on to learn how to maintain pressures on one discharge while opening another. We mastered the finesse that is required to hold pressures. Advancements in apparatus have taken some of the work from pump operators. Now there are color-coded discharges, pressure governors, and other options. When the pressure governor systems hit the market, driver/operators had a lot of work to do to understand them. They had to familiarize themselves with the differences in psi and rpm mode. They had to understand what the pressure transducer could and could not handle. There will always be those that prefer the manual throttle pumps over the pressure governed pumps due to personal notions of reliability.

Pressure governors have simplified the operations at the panel for many operators but they do require expertise when operating. Understanding the possibilities of failures puts you a step ahead. The pressure transducer could malfunction or surges may occur, reducing the discharge pressures back to idle pressure. We cannot take away the possibility of operator error. This is obviously not the best scenario when crews are on a nozzle in a firefight. Knowing how to rapidly overcome these scenarios could make or break you at the panel and determine the safety of nozzle crews.

One of the most frustrating things that I have experienced in my career is doing something and not knowing why I was doing it, what I was accomplishing, or what was actually happening. I wanted to know exactly what was happening inside of the truck when I touched a button or operated a lever. I wanted to know about pump transmissions, impellers, and pump shafts. I wanted to know how water flowed through my apparatus. I wanted to have this relationship with my apparatus so that I could know how to overcome obstacles if my operations did not work. It is important to understand the limitations of the type of pressure system that your apparatus has. It is also very important to know about safety features on the panel and overrides that could make a difference with crew safety.

One of the first operations that I was exposed to as I began operating fire pumps was the location of the manual pump shift override. Many apparatus do not have this option, but it there in the event we needed it. Most of my pump panel training consisted of information on discharge pressures, changeovers, water supplies, and other panel options, but we also spent many hours training on the obstacles that firefighters might encounter. I remember being given many scenarios, but they all included obstacles that I had to overcome like a missing hydrant cap, a hole in a supply or attack line, or a discharge that did not work. This pushed me to teach the panel as a toolbox: you may not need everything on it on each incident, but you need to know what everything on it does so that you know what options exist if you need them.  These options may need to be used to get you out of a bind and resume normal operation. The nozzle needs its operating pressure and it all starts with the operator at the panel. You may be operating at draft or lucky enough to have a positive water supply. Either way, the net pump pressure is the responsibility of the operator at the mercy of the pump.

The Math

To correctly deliver the desired pressure at the nozzle, some level of math is required. We all know at least one person who has said, “Just pump me a tight line and we will be okay,” and then there is the good ol’ thumbs up and thumbs down to increase and decrease pressure. I have even heard one person say: “Just throttle up until the nozzle person’s feet leave the ground and then back it off a quarter of a turn.” This was obviously a joke. I found that if the ending numbers need to be right then the beginning and middle numbers have to be right.

Some of us have pumped attack lines three different ways. The equation pressure, the thumb rule pressure, and then the pressure that the nozzle crew wants. In most cases, all three are different. We cannot lose sight of what we need at the nozzle to have the effective stream and maneuverability. We know what we must have at the nozzle, and in most cases we know what we have the capability of delivering—it’s what happens in between that tells the story. We must take into consideration loss factors such as friction loss, elevation loss, appliance loss, and certain system losses.

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Curtis, 1978: Universal Friction Loss Formula

Hydraulic thumb rules and pump charts are predetermined by most departments to speed up the decision-making process at the panel. This is great, but do all operators know where this data came from, how it was determined, and when it needs to be changed? We must know the foundation of these calculations so that changes can be made when new equipment is purchased. The equations are not changing, but the numbers that we are plugging in are.

There are industry standards floating around in the fire service world, but some of these calculations may need to be determined by your department and are sensitive to your equipment.  For example, for years we have used 15.5 as a coefficient for 1 ¾-inch hose. It is still considered today by many as a happy medium in the friction loss calculations. The truth is that many manufacturers are relying on things like coefficients as selling points for their products. Manufacturing processes are changing their products, making hose heavier or lighter and with differences in inner layers. Some of us are guilty of buying it and not taking advantage of the reduction in friction loss that comes with the calculations.

Sylvia, 1970: Determining Engine Pressures Doesn’t Have to Be a Problem

Sylvia, 1981: Determine Engine Pressures With One Simple Formula

Ultimately, our discharge pressures are affecting the desired nozzle operating pressure, nozzle reaction, rpm on apparatus, hose maneuverability, and kinks. Testing your equipment and narrowing down the limitations and features of your own equipment is important given the wide variety of options that are out there now. I have performed hose and nozzle testing with calibrated gauges for multiple departments and determined a few different coefficients based on the brand or type of hose. Those departments went on to build their own pump reference charts based on their equipment. This resulted in lower pump pressures, more effective maneuvering of hose, and allowance of better nozzle techniques all while still maintaining the designed gpms and kink management in hose. The driver/operator must stay up to date on these pressure loss changes in equipment to perform professionally at the pump. If we are going to pride ourselves on the technical aspects of command decision making and interior conditions of fire compartments, then we should to do the same with the panel.


As an engine officer in the past, nothing gave me more comfort than to see that well-prepared driver/operator sitting in the driver’s seat. I did not have to worry about routes, missing, or damaged equipment, apparatus condition, or any other technical driver/operator responsibilities. When we were on the way to a call, I could gather my thoughts and have some type of pre-arrival plan. That well-prepared driver/operator was self-motivated. He or she studied maps, was engaged in all training, stayed up to date on new equipment on the apparatus, ensured the operation of all equipment, and reached out for even more information about the position from online resources and conferences. Small hose was placed on top of large hose and nothing was done for attention. He or she strived to be the best driver/operator to ever work for the department and did not expect a pat on the back for pumping a line correctly or keeping up with equipment that was removed from the rig by eight different people. Success was measured by nothing being said to them after the fact.

When setting up training for your department, do not simply train on the perfect-world scenarios. Throw in some obstacles and familiarize each other on new numbers developed through testing. Try new things and be willing to embrace the changes. Understand that we may be putting water on the fire and accomplishing our ultimate goal of extinguishment, but there may be an even better way. The fire is going out, but there may be a better hose, a better nozzle, a better pump pressure, or a better technique to make it go out quicker and make things better for occupants and nozzle crews.

Mastering the panel does not only include operations at the panel. It also includes operations away from the panel. In some lower staffed departments, driver/operators are given small tasks on the fireground that can be accomplished quickly. This gives them the ability to get back to the panel quickly. I have seen driver/operators deliver a fan to the entry point, help layout secondary hoselines, assist with water supplies, and provide access to tools on the apparatus.

It is however important to maintain the panel. Residuals drop, pressures may need adjustment, and water supplies may be jeopardized. Adjusting to these obstacles without interruption of vital operations is the goal. On scene of a working fire, the driver/operator may not be in the limelight. The incident commander is at the command post, Interior and exterior crews are extinguishing fire, and ventilation crews are setting up their operations. The driver/operator is tucked away behind the apparatus, peeking around every so often to be enticed by the fire. They are on guard for anything that could happen at or around the panel that could hamper operations and they know that they are alone. He or she has not forgotten where they started, but they take great pride in providing the crews with what they need to effect extinguishment and save lives and property.

Paul Watlington is a battalion chief with the Burlington (NC) Fire Department.

Originally ran November 5, 2019.

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