Initial Attack: One Chance to Succeed

Article and photo by David DeStefano

The first-in engine company stretching the initial attack line on an offensive fire attack has one chance that can make or break the success of the operation. A series of quick decisions by the company officer based on rapid and accurate size-up, combined with skillfully employed evolutions by the firefighters, is often the key to an efficient knockdown.

The decisions the officer makes en route to the incident are often the result of prior knowledge of the district and the building to which the company is responding. The engine company’s approach route and access to the building must be based on considerations that include ladder company placement, water supply access, and position of best advantage for stretching hoselines.

Once on scene, all members need to size up from the perspective of their function in the company. Although the officer is responsible for the initial size-up report, each member should size up the probable location and extent of the fire, as well as the construction of the building and the best access route for the initial attack line. Experienced engine members can estimate the length of the stretch and prepare the proper preconnect or bundles of hose for standpipe operations. After confirming the size and length of the line to be stretched with the company officer and verifying the route into the building, the company can begin the attack. In cases where the location of the fire is unclear, the engine company may hold fast in a neutral position while the truck company begins its search for life and fire. A proper stretch to the seat of the fire is key to efficient suppression. Not only must the optimal route be used, but the line must also be of sufficient flow rate (gallons per minute (gpm) and length to work the fire area and immediate interior exposures if possible.

(1) The first-in engine at this small multidwelling has pulled past the front of the building. In this case, overhead wires preclude roof access on side A. However, access via side D across the vacant lot is available since it sits at a corner. The engine company positioned in this location to allow easy access to the side-D door. Members know that this type of building features a door on the side or rear with access to the cellar and all three floors. In this case, a fire was reported on the third floor. Note the balcony on side A that may be used for an outside stretch or vent-enter-search (VES) operations during a second-floor fire. 

Hoseline Selection

In many departments, the diameter of hose to be stretched is specified in standard operating procedures based on several factors. Company officers should consider the size of the building and type of construction as well as occupancy and staffing when determining the size line they will deploy. The 1¾-inch handline is easier to stretch and is more maneuverable for companies working shorthanded, but for large volumes of fire, the open areas common to commercial buildings, and where there is the potential for fire to overwhelm companies operating in public hallways, the 2½-inch line, with its higher gpm delivery and reach, is usually the best option. When in doubt, always stretch the larger line. It can always be wyed off or reduced as needed. If the initial line proves too small, forward progress on the fire stops and members may be forced to withdraw or may be overwhelmed by fire.

In addition to determining the size line to deploy, the engine company usually only has one good opportunity to select the correct length and route to the fire. Companies that stretch short or take their line to the wrong floor have a difficult time recovering from this misstep. The fire is continuing to gain on them while they piece in a length or redeploy the line down a flight of stairs. Prior knowledge gained through preplanning or familiarity with common types of building in the district help the company officer use a rule of thumb when estimating the amount of hose needed for an initial attack. In cases where the officer is initially unsure about the length, breaking up the stretch into manageable components will help you arrive at a good decision. The distance from the rig to the door can be estimated with good accuracy. Based on the size and layout of the building, you can determine the amount of hose needed to work the fire floor. This may range from one length in single-family and small multidwellings to three or more lengths in compartmented office or apartment buildings. The route from the entrance of the building to the fire floor may vary widely. The most direct route may be an outside stretch via a window or balcony, or hose may be pulled up or dropped down an open stairwell. A longer stretch may require hose stretched up the stair treads with numerous turns that require extra line to avoid kinks.

No matter what the scenario, the first-in engine company conducting offensive operations must get the proper size and length hoseline to the fire without delay. Firefighters must then operate it in an aggressive manner to control fire and heat conditions. This action will allow safe and rapid searches by the truck company and will give any trapped victims their best chance at survival.

The keys to a selecting a successful initial attack line is knowing your water supply, building layout, occupancy, and construction. This knowledge, along with determining the location and likely extent of the fire, will help decide the diameter and length of hoseline and the method used to stretch into position. Finally, the ability of a well-trained engine company to rapidly employ information and experience along with an aggressive posture will ensure the best possible outcome for the initial attack.

David DeStefano is a 22-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at    


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