Getting the First Hoseline in Operation


You can’t overstate the importance of getting the first hoseline in operation at a fire. The first hoseline has two functions: to protect egress routes (it is placed between the fire and the normal means of egress) and to extinguish the fire. By default, the second function is usually a result of the first. There are rare exceptions where the first line will not extinguish the fire, which I will get into later. If we are talking about a response of four firefighters, which may be the norm in many departments in the United States, saving life should only be put ahead of stretching a hoseline in situations where the unit could not do both. For example, you don’t need the whole company to put up a portable ladder for someone showing at a window. Usually, you can detail one firefighter to do a task while the rest of the crew stretches the hoseline. Sometimes, venting the roof to draw fire away may be sufficient to buy enough time for the victim. Getting water on the fire quickly is the most effective way to save lives.

It does not take much to make a situation go bad; usually, when one thing goes wrong, there is a domino effect, and things start to go bad rapidly. Start with your equipment. Having a maintenance program where hydrants are checked twice a year goes a long way (photo 1). Especially in areas that are prone to freezing, it is important to find out which hydrants will freeze before the cold weather sets in. Usually, checking the hydrants gives you a chance to know the locations of all the hydrants in your district. Normally after checking the hydrants, you will grease the outlets for easy removal of the caps. In areas that get a lot of snow, some departments mark the hydrants with flags so they can be located easily, which is a good idea.

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(1) This out-of-service hydrant was one of the contributing factors to a fatal fire in Florida. (Photo courtesy of Fire Department of New York archives; others by author unless noted.)

All firefighters should be able to do the following:

  • Put the engine into “pump.”
  • Connect to the hydrant.
  • Maintain pressure on a hoseline.


Check the pumper at the start of every tour to ensure the pumps are operating properly. Bring any problems to the attention of the officer in charge, and correct them immediately. Check all nozzles and fittings at the start of every tour. A few years back, I visited a fire department in a large South American city. The firefighters in one of the stations wanted to demonstrate how they would get a hoseline to the top of the building next door. They lit a fire on the roof, brought the line up to the roof, and called for water. When they opened the nozzle, it malfunctioned. It was an old fog nozzle that was jammed. We finished the drill by extinguishing the fire with a different hoseline. Later that night, we were scheduled to do another drill involving live fire. To my utter disbelief, when we called for water, the same nozzle was on the line. It had been placed back in service. I couldn’t believe that they put the same nozzle back in service without correcting the problem. What if it were a real fire?




What type of nozzle to use is a hotly debated topic. In my department, we don’t use anything but smooth bore nozzles for structural firefighting. We will use a fog nozzle to combat an outside fire, but that is the extent of it. We want the best weapon to be armed against our enemy, the fire. A 15⁄16-inch tip will provide 180 gallons per minute (gpm) at 50 pounds per square inch (psi) when using a 1¾-inch hoseline, and we don’t have to worry about the nozzle’s clogging in the middle of a fire. With the fire loads with which we are dealing today, 18,000 British thermal units (Btus) per pound, we want to maximize the gpm we can get out of a hoseline. If we were using a 2½-inch hoseline, our tip would be 11⁄8 inches, and we would get 250 gpm. My thinking is that we may have only enough personnel to get the first line in operation, so let’s use the most effective weapon. Let’s not bring a knife to a gun battle.

I had recently traveled to another major city in South America. I was riding along on one of the pumpers when we were called to a fire in a construction shed inside a fire-resistive multiple dwelling under construction. On arrival, we were confronted with a large body of fire on the first floor of the building. Our unit was second due; in that city, the protocol is that the second-due engine is responsible for the water supply. The first engine pulled the equivalent of a 1½-inch hoseline with a fog nozzle. I witnessed the firefighters making entry; to my amazement, they entered with full fog. The unit I was riding with stretched a second hoseline of a larger diameter and ultimately extinguished the fire. There were two things I would have done differently at this fire:

  • I would have used a 11⁄8-inch smooth bore nozzle.
  • I would have stretched a larger-diameter hose, a 2½-inch line.





Hose selection is usually based on a couple of things. You need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the 1¾- and the 2½-inch hoselines. When speed and mobility are factors, and conditions allow it, you can use the smaller hose. There are times, however, when you must use the larger hose. In my department, we use the larger hoseline in the following situations:

  • In a purely defensive position.
  • If there is an advanced fire on arrival.
  • If a large volume of water is needed to cool a superheated area.
  • In a large, uncompartmented area.
  • If the fire area is undetermined.
  • For standpipe operations.


Years ago when I was a firefighter, I remember responding to a fire in a couple of row-frame buildings; the fire was moving fast, and we had to put a hoseline on the outside of one of the exposures. We stretched the 2½-inch hose. As conditions improved, we were able to enter the exposure building to extinguish the few rooms that were now involved in fire. I remember trying to move the nozzle through this small building and not being able to get the last few rooms because the hose was too large.

At another fire, it was just the opposite. Sometimes firefighters have it in their minds to always bring certain hose to certain types of buildings. For example, if you were to ask any FDNY firefighter what type of hose he would use in a taxpayer, he would answer, “2½ inch.” In the case of a private dwelling, the firefighter would respond, “1¾ inch.” I believe that there are times when certain buildings are a sort of gray area. For the majority of fires in tenement buildings, a 1¾-inch line is the right choice, but there are exceptions.

One night, we pulled up to a fire in an H-type building. It was obvious on arrival that we had a working fire. There were close to a hundred people on all the fire escapes. That should have been my first clue that something was different, that we had a serious fire. The firefighters did what they are trained to do, go to the back step and pull the 1¾-inch hose. As I entered the lobby, all I could see was orange. I crawled in the lobby toward the glow. I was thinking that there was such a large body of fire that the fire must be outside in the courtyard. As I got closer, I realized that the door to the fire apartment was open and that the fire was out into the hallway and up the interior stairway on the exposure 2 (B) side. I was now on my radio telling the members to start a 2½-inch hose when I realized that they were already at the lobby door with the 1¾-inch hose. It was not their fault; they did what they were trained to do. We made our way into the lobby and were able to get the fire back into the apartment and extinguish the fire, but it was a heck of a job. The point is that sometimes it may be to our advantage to wait a minute until we know what we are up against before we stretch that first line (photo 2).

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(2) At a fire in this public hall, firefighters stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline. A 2½-inch line was needed, however, because of heavy fire.

I live in an area north of New York City. It is semirural, more suburban now than rural. In the past years, many of the farms have given way to the large modern center-hall colonial houses that are in developments all over the country. We also have lots of ranch, high ranch, and Cape Cod houses that have been here for years. I would say that the houses have small rooms and probably average about 1,600 square feet. I am sure that firefighters across the country would choose a 1½- or 1¾-inch hose. Looking now at these new houses, some are 5,000 square feet, with 20-foot vaulted ceilings. These departments should start thinking about 2½-inch hose. If you are going to have any chance at all, you are going to need a quick knockdown. With all the lightweight materials being used in modern construction, the days of the long interior firefight are over. Lots of new houses have central heating and air-conditioning, with ductwork running all through the house. Once you move from a contents fire to a structural fire, it may be time to change your tactics. If you go to a defensive operation, you will need the 2½-inch hose anyway, so you may as well start with it (photo 3).

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(3) A typical large center-hall Colonial house with 20-foot ceilings.




Most times, the location of the fire and the route you are going to take to bring the line to that location are quite obvious, especially in small buildings, private dwellings, and some stores. There are times, however, when it may not be as obvious. In my response area, we have lots of very large apartment fires. We refer to these structures as “H-type buildings,” because from above they look like the letter “H.” An H-type building generally has two wings and may have as many as four. The wings are separated by throats, where there usually is an apartment or sometimes two apartments (photo 4). It is very possible that if you pick the wrong stairway to get to the fire, you may be in the wrong wing and may not be able to cross over to the correct wing. If you are sure of your hose size, and the majority of the times you will be using 1¾-inch, you can start your stretch to the front of the building, but do not commit until you know the exact location of the fire apartment. In New York City, it is not uncommon to find a renovated H-type building; sometimes the whole floor plan has been changed. At one house fire where the fire appeared to be in the A-wing, we stretched the first line up the stairs to what appeared to be the fire apartment. It turned out that the fire was in the B-wing and that there was no access to the other side. This resulted in a delay in getting water—and in a multiple alarm with fire extending into the cockloft.

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(4) This typical H-type house in New York City has three wings.

At another response, the fire was reported to be on the second floor of a six-story tenement. The ladder company went to the reported location and encountered heavy smoke and heat. The lieutenant radioed to the engine that he had found the fire and that it should stretch a line to the second floor. The ladder company’s inside team proceeded to search and couldn’t find the fire, which turned out to be in the dropped ceiling in the first-floor apartment. There was a delay, and the fire spread throughout a number of voids and eventually traveled to the cockloft. It took a fifth alarm to finally get the fire under control. This was an honest mistake, but the delay gave the fire enough time to gain serious headway. You can stretch the line, but don’t charge it until you are 100-percent sure of the fire’s location.

It is very important to get the first line stretched and operating before stretching any other lines. Sometimes, it may take up to three engine companies to get that first line operating in these H-type buildings. I am a huge advocate of stretching a backup line at every fire, but never at the expense of getting the first line in operation. Recently at a fire where I was battalion chief, we had a good fire on the top floor of an H-type building. The officer from the third-due engine asked me if he should start a backup line. Normally, I would have said yes, but since this was such a long stretch, I told him to make sure the first line was in place and operating before starting the backup line. It turned out to be a good move because that first line kept the fire to the original room. Any delay can cause the fire to grow. I have learned over the years that once you get behind in a fire in these big buildings, it is tough to catch up.




Most departments around the world use preconnected hoselines; some have 150 or 200 feet of hose. That is fine if most of your work is going to be one- and two-story buildings. In FDNY, we don’t use preconnected hose; our lines are static. Our main attack line is usually the 1¾-inch line with a 15⁄16-inch smooth bore nozzle. Our apparatus are all set up the same way: two beds of 1¾-inch line, one bed of 2½-inch line, and a bed of 3½-inch supply line. Most companies fold the first length, or sometimes two lengths, into a horseshoe. We use only six lengths maximum of 1¾-inch line because of friction-loss concerns. We don’t want our engine company pump operators exceeding 250 psi at the pump. Each 50-foot length of 1¾-inch hose is calculated at 20-psi friction loss. We also count five-psi friction loss for each floor above grade. The rest of the stretch is filled out with 2½-inch hose.

There are two things you don’t want to happen in any stretch: stretching short (nothing is more embarrassing to a company) and overstretching. The way to prevent this from happening is to assign one firefighter to control the stretch (photo 5). Usually, it is a firefighter from the first-due engine. It is his job to make sure that exactly the right amount of hose is stretched. This firefighter stays at the back step until the stretch is finished, hands the last coupling to the engine company chauffeur, and tells him how much hose was stretched. The chauffeur uses this to calculate the correct pressure. Before we had this strict policy, firefighters would just keep pulling hose until it looked as if they had enough. Most times, there would be way too much hose; once in awhile, we ended up being short.

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(5) The control firefighter is breaking the hose.




When I was a captain, we responded to a fire in a three-story row frame building with a commercial occupancy on the ground floor. The fire was in the commercial occupancy and looked like a routine fire. We were assigned third due; our function was to stretch a second line. The first two engines pulled a few lengths. It looked as though it was going to be a very routine fire. What they didn’t factor in was the large addition that was attached to the back of the structure. The firefighters did not pull enough hose; in the middle of the operation, there was an urgent transmission for more line. My company brought in an extra length and attached it to the nozzle; the company was able to finish the operation and extinguish the fire. It turned out fine, but there was a potential for disaster, especially when firefighters are going above the fire and are depending on you to keep them safe. It reflects negatively on a company when it stretches short.

When I was still a firefighter, we responded to a fire in an apartment in a fire-resistive multiple dwelling one night. At the time, I was assigned to a truck company; our job was to locate and confine the fire. We found the fire in the rear bedroom of the apartment and were able to close the door. The engine thought it would be enough to stretch only two lengths of hose because the apartment was next to the stairway. The members didn’t factor in that there were a number of turns in the apartment. I watched as the nozzleman made it to the door of the bedroom but couldn’t make the turn because the company stretched short. It was almost comical watching a firefighter trying to bounce the water off the wall (it doesn’t work). The company had to back out, shut down, and add another length. Needless to say, the chief was quite unhappy when we got back to quarters.




If your department has a standard operating procedure (SOP), follow it. Most SOPs are there for a reason and are probably written in blood. For example, my department has a very strict policy for fires in fire-resistive multiple dwellings. We stretch at least three lengths of 2½-inch hose with a 11⁄8-inch nozzle (smooth bore) from the floor below, preferably in a stairway designated the attack stairs. The reason for this is that over the years we have had firefighter fatalities resulting from firefighters’ taking shortcuts (photo 6). At one fire in particular, firefighters stretched 1¾-inch hose from a cabinet on the fire floor. When the windows failed, the fire blew out the front door, forcing the firefighter at the control valve to abandon his operation. This, unfortunately, resulted in the death of one of the firefighters on the truck company’s inside team.

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(6) A burned-out hose outlet on the fire floor. (Photo courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)

There are times when things happen that are out of our control. If we are diligent about our stretch, we lessen the likelihood of a problem’s occurring. I don’t mind if I see an extra length in the street; one is okay. I encourage firefighters to take an extra one off. What I don’t want to see is a bowl of spaghetti in the street (photo 7). Too much hose can cause kinks and higher engine pressures that will strain the pumps and the hose. Also, you run the risk of a burst length. That is also the reason I am a big proponent of stretching a backup line. Sometimes, a burst length may not be immediately recognized. The operator will see no change in his gauges. It is only when the nozzleman starts noticing a water loss that the situation is fully realized. If there is a burst length, you must alert all members; give an urgent message. As soon as possible, back out of the area. Don’t turn your back on the fire, and get control of the door. Get a backup line in place as soon as possible.

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(7) This hose in front of the fire building resembles a bowl of spaghetti.

I experienced a burst length one time when I was a lieutenant. The engine companies were all very good companies, very busy outfits. When we lost water, it was like clockwork, we backed out, the next engine took over, and we fixed the problem and then proceeded to back them up and eventually went to the floor above. It went so smoothly that it was hardly noticed. This is where having the extra length came in handy, and the reason I am a proponent of it. We simply shut down, took out the bad length, reconnected the hose, and recharged the line. Companies should drill on this often.




Shaft fires basically are outside fires that cause exposure problems. Many buildings in our city are very close together; most times you will find an air and a light shaft in the middle of the building that is not visible from the street (photo 8). People over the years have thrown garbage into these shafts, which usually have large accumulations of rubbish. Our policy is to get water on the fire in the shaft as fast as possible. It usually means stretching to the second floor but having enough hose to cover the whole building.

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(8) An air and light shaft between two multiple buildings.

I once responded to a fire in a shaft between two tenements. The fire had started in a store on the ground floor. I waited until the ladder company located the fire before I committed the line. The lieutenant radioed to me that the fire was on the second floor, so I ordered the firefighters to stretch to the second floor, bypassing the store. We got the line to one of the windows on the shaft and were able to keep the fire out of both buildings. Afterward, the firefighters were upset that we didn’t get to “put the fire out” in the store. I based my decision on the fact that the fire was extending into all the windows in both buildings.

The same principle would apply to any building that contains an interior entrance to a cellar or a basement. In brownstones, row frames, private dwellings, and some older tenement buildings, our SOP states that the first line goes to the top of the interior stairs that lead to the basement or the cellar to protect them. If conditions allow, then the line can proceed down. I was at a private dwelling fire once where the engine came in the back door and started to operate; the firefighters put out some fire, but they also pushed it up the stairs to the first and second floors. Another example would be a fire in a garage inside a dwelling; the first line should go to the door that leads to the house.

My department has a long tradition of aggressive interior firefighting. I am always amazed when I read old magazine stories of firefighters who were injured or died of smoke inhalation as a result of advancing hoselines into cellars and subcellars in New York City. Today, we have bunker gear, hoods, firefighting gloves, helmets, and self-contained breathing apparatus. I was taught, and learned very early in my career, that the fire will go as the first line goes. With proper training, we have the ability to fight most routine fires from the interior these days. Fire departments in a country I once visited had an SOP that said if fire was visible from the windows on arrival and was within the reach of the deck gun, the fire was to be fought from the exterior. In another country, I got into a debate because the chief saw no problem with using an exterior line as the first line in a fire-resistive multiple dwelling. Bringing a line from the outside will only compound your problem by pushing fire and products of combustion throughout the rest of the building. I am not saying that we are never to use an outside stream. We are now learning that in some high-rise fires we may have to use outside streams because of wind and other variables.

There are other times when large amounts of fire in nonfire-resistive multiple dwellings will necessitate an outside stream. Many times I responded to fires where we would use a tower ladder just enough to “knock down” heavy fire and then move in with a handline, but these actions were a last resort. We must keep in mind why we are stretching through the interior: to protect the interior stairs so people can escape and our forces can search the floors above.




Take the time to look at the buildings in your response area, and plan with the other members in your company how you would stretch a line in that building. Make it a habit to stretch at all your calls that can potentially be a real fire. I once made the mistake of telling the firefighters at a fire when I was a young lieutenant to hold the line. I was so proud that we were able to get the fire with a few 2½-gallon extinguishers and some pots of water that I thought that when we got back to the station the crews would be happy that I saved them the work of stretching a line up to the sixth floor. Well, they were not at all happy, and they let me know about it. Lesson learned: We can always repack the hose, and we all certainly can use the practice of stretching it.

DANIEL P. SHERIDAN is a 23-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he is a battalion chief. He has worked in Harlem and the Bronx for most of his career. He is a national instructor and the founder of Mutual Aid Americas, an international nonprofit training group that assists firefighters. He has published many articles on a variety of fire operations issues.


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