How to Ensure an Effective Backup Line


A while ago, I was trying to come up with a subject for engine company training. I wanted something we had not addressed for a while and that was specifically for engine companies, as well as something that would be used more than a half dozen times in a career. I decided on the topic of backup lines. First, I did some research on the subject, since I could not remember the last time I had trained in or discussed the use and application of backup lines. I found very little written on the subject. Listed below is some information I did find, along with things I have learned over the years from fireground operations, classes, and trainings.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1410, Standard on Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations, 2010 edition, defines the backup line as follows: “an additional hoseline used to reinforce and protect personnel in the event the initial attack proves inadequate.” NFPA 1410-10 describes some training evolutions that use a backup line. Chapter 6 states that the total required flow shall be 300 gallons per minute (gpm)—100 gpm from the initial attack line and 200 gpm from the backup line.

Chapter 6 also states that the required performance for handlines shall consist of obtaining a water supply and placing one initial attack line into operation and providing immediate backup with another line. Section 6.1.1 states that an attack line and a backup line should be placed into service without delay.

For career departments, NFPA 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, 2010 edition, in Chapter 5, addresses backup lines under the initial alarm assignment. It states that for the initial assignment, the required flow shall be “300 gpm from two handlines, each of which shall have a minimum of 100 gpm, with each handline operated by a minimum of two individuals to effectively and safely maintain the line.” (

For volunteer departments, NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, 2010 edition, is a bit vague relative to the use of a backup line. It does state in Chapter 4.7, under “Sustained Firefighting Operations,” that the fire department shall provide for support activities for those situations that are beyond the capability of the initial attack (4.7.1). This could be interpreted as the need for a backup line.

What the standards reflect is that a backup line is required (at least for career departments), the backup line should be at least the same size as the attack line or larger, and the combined flow of those lines shall be at least 300 gpm.

Let’s look at this functionally. First, what is a backup line, and how should it be used? As the NFPA standard states, the backup line backs up the attack line. The attacking crew may need additional firepower or protection, especially if the initial attack crew has pulled a line of insufficient volume or length to control the fire. The backup line backs up the initial attack line. The backup line is also used to protect the egress of the attack crew, such as doorways, stairs, and the overhead area.

The backup team is a second set of eyes and ears for the attack team, looking for additional fire and hazards. The backup crew should extinguish any fire that the attack crew may have passed or that may have developed after the attack crew passed through. The backup crew is not a rapid intervention crew (RIC). The difference is significant. Any hoseline assigned to the RIC is for its use exclusively. The mission and responsibility of the RIC are different from those of the backup crew. The RIC is staged outside the fire building and is activated when there is an on-scene emergency involving the responders in the immediately dangerous to life and health area. That should be the RIC’s only assignment.




What the backup line consists of depends directly on what the attack line is made up of. Remember, per NFPA standards, the combined flow of the attack and backup lines needs to be at least 300 gpm. If the attack line is capable of flowing 150 gpm, a backup line capable of 150 gpm will satisfy the requirement. That is not to say that the backup line can’t be larger. In fact, it most likely will need to be a larger line according to the situation at hand. If the attack line is less than 150 gpm, the backup line will have to be larger than the attack line to meet the requirement.

This is just one more reason to increase the minimum flow rate for your interior attack lines to no less than 150 gpm. What if the attack line is a 2½-inch line flowing 325 gpm? The backup line should match or exceed the flow of the attack line. Would you want to be on that 2½-inch attack line and have a smaller line backing you up? If you have a preconnected 2½-inch line on your engine, do you have a backup line of the same size ready to be deployed to back up that initial 2½-inch attack line? Do you have a plan and the equipment on your engine to make up an additional 2½-inch line quickly? Most engines built and designed today have multiple 1½- or 1¾-inch preconnects but usually only a single 2½-inch preconnect. If this is how your engine is set up, how will you quickly deploy another 2½-inch line? You can hope that another engine is nearby and has a 2½-inch line ready to pull that is the same length and has the appropriate nozzle to supply the required volume, or you can plan ahead and have your engine ready for when the need arises. We will discuss later how a second 2½-inch line can be set up as a backup line.

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(1) Row 1 contains 200 feet of preconnected 2½-inch attack line. Row 2 contains 200 feet of 2½-inch backup line. Row 3 contains 100 feet of 2½-inch sections for extending the attack and backup lines. (Photo by author.)

Where to place the backup line should depend on incident conditions. Place it in service as soon as possible; delay only until the pumper has secured a water source. For most residential structure fires, the backup crew will assist the attack crew or protect the attack crew by guarding the egress and extinguishing fire, as stated above. In buildings with large public hallways, the backup line should stage at the point of entry to the fire room just behind the attack crew. Fire in the hallway of a large building may necessitate a coordinated side-by-side attack. For large buildings with a center core design with fire in the hallway, the backup crew positions at the point of entry in the hallway to prevent the fire from wrapping around on the attack crew. Make every effort to prevent opposing hose streams in this situation. Good communication with the attack crew will help prevent this.

If fire is in the basement, the backup crew is positioned at the point of entry at the top of the stairs, protecting the egress. Again, the backup line is a second set of eyes and ears for the attack crew. Backup crew personnel should be looking for heavy objects over the fire area and signs of floor sag, pooling of water, or any other indications of impending floor or structure compromise. If you see something, say something.

For fires above ground-floor level, the backup crew should position to protect the stairways and stay in communication with the attack crew. Once the fire has been darkened down, the backup crew can move to the floor above the fire and address any extension issues.

Who makes up the backup crew? That will depend on your department standard operating procedures and standard operating guidelines. Does your department have them in place? The second-due engine would be the fastest and make the most sense. If your second-due is a mutual-aid engine, what does it use for its attack lines? What size and length lines does it carry? Do these firefighters know how to deploy the hose loads on your engine? Do you know how to do this on their engine? Ideally and whenever possible, pull the backup line from a separate engine on a separate water supply in case of a failure at the attack engine. This is, of course, in a perfect world. More often than not, the backup line will be pulled from the attack engine. In either case, preplanning and training are essential for successful operations.




Nozzles. Nozzle selection is very important. Nozzles are designed with different pressures and flow rates. Solid-stream handline nozzles operate at 50-pounds-per-square-inch (psi) nozzle pressure (NP); combination nozzles are designed to operate at 50-, 75-, or 100-psi NP. In addition to the nozzle pressure, gpm for solid-stream nozzles is determined by its orifice size and for combination nozzles by their internal diameter and the nozzle’s baffle design.

I recommend if you are using combination nozzles, especially if they are automatic, that you test them on an annual basis with a flowmeter. The stream and reach may look fine, but they may have a reduced flow. You won’t know this unless you test them. Regardless of what type or style of nozzle is used on the attack line, consider using a solid-stream nozzle on the backup line for two reasons: (1) Typically, solid-stream nozzles flow more gpm than combination nozzles for the same size hoseline; and (2) there is less chance of driving heat and steam down on the attacking crew when operating a solid stream behind the attack crew as compared with a fog pattern.

Hose. Attack and backup lines should be the same length. Imagine that you are on a 200-foot attack line and need help, but your backup crew is stretching a 150-foot line to come to your aid. They could be 50 feet short of reaching your crew. This is not to say that the backup line can’t be longer, but if the backup line is longer, all personnel should be trained in which line is assigned as the attack line and which is to be the backup to avoid the situation mentioned above.

As mentioned earlier, most engines have at least two 1½- or 1¾-inch preconnected lines, so deploying a backup line of that size usually isn’t too complicated. However, if your attack line is a 2½-inch preconnect and it is your only 2½-inch line, it will take some planning. In photo 1, you can see the preconnected 2½-inch line on the left side of the hosebed. Next to it is a 2½-inch hoseline set up in the same load except that it is not preconnected. When deploying this line, the pump operator grabs the female coupling from the top of the hose load, a minuteman load in this case, and connects it to the pump panel before the firefighter advances the line into position. The third stack of 2½-inch in the photo is made up of two stacks of 100-foot lengths each. They are used to rapidly extend either or both of the 2½-inch loads. We have trained with this system and have found it to work very well. As with any change in operation, the key is training, training, and more training until it becomes second nature.

BOB SHOVALD is a 16-year veteran of and a captain with the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department, assigned to Station 2. He is certified in Idaho as an EMT and a hazmat technician and is an instructor for driver operator, rapid intervention teams, and hazmat response. He also serves on Idaho’s Task Force 1 as part of the state’s All Hazards Rescue Team.


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