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

BY JEFF SHUPE

It’s 2:45 p.m. on a bright summer day. Your engine company has been dispatched with a full box alarm assignment for a reported fire in a building. You and your crew are now responding through the streets of your district. Fire Dispatch Center notifies you en route that you are first due. As you get within a couple of blocks of the reported location, you see a column of grayish smoke in the distance over the rooftops of the buildings. As your engine turns the corner into a block of commercial buildings, you see a medium to heavy smoke condition that is starting to bank down in the street. It’s a working fire in a one-story taxpayer. The smell of the smoke indicates involvement of contents and other things.

The fire building is on a main thoroughfare—there is plenty of room to maneuver fire apparatus into position. Water supply isn’t a problem either; hydrants are nearby and water mains along this street are large and will deliver more than enough.

Your engine arrives first and is spotted past the fire building—a stand-alone one-story mercantile measuring approximately 75 feet wide by 125 feet deep. It has a built-up flat roof of plywood decking supported by open-web bar joists. The exterior walls are concrete block on four sides, and the front wall has a brick and stone façade. The sole occupant is a business that sells and warehouses carpeting.

Your crew is starting to make its stretch to the building with a 200-foot, 1¾-inch preconnected attack line, equipped with a 100-pound-per-square-inch (psi) automatic nozzle.

The second-due engine has just arrived; its pump operator is running over to your engine to help your pump operator ensure a “secured” water supply to your engine. The second-due engine officer and crew members are now helping with your stretch.

(1)initial fire attack operations
(1) In initial fire attack operations, firefighters may make an offensive attack using an inadequate size hoseline. If the fire building contains a substantial fuel load and an appreciable volume of fire, chances are good the fire will take over and require changing to a defensive strategy. Taxpayer structural fire conditions can change quickly and put attacking firefighters in a survival mode. If an incident commander does not have adequate company or fireground staffing, not enough help will be available to assist firefighters in trouble, and the incident will deteriorate. Poor fire company staffing will require calling for help as the conditions change, and the incident commander then must play catch up—a dangerous gamble for firefighter safety. (Photo by Steve Nedrich.)

The first ladder truck is arriving on scene. Heavy smoke is now pushing out of the front showroom door as it is chocked open. Your attack line is flaked out, and you have just made the call for water to your pump operator—he acknowledged your call and is charging the line, pumping at 125 psi. It is static pressure as it reaches the closed nozzle. You and your crew are kneeling on the sidewalk in front of the entrance door and are now starting to don your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face pieces as water rushes through the hose to the nozzle. The three of you look at each other; you go on air and give your surroundings a last look as you ask your team, “Everything okay? Everybody ready?” They reply, “Yeah, let’s go!”

The nozzleman gives the nozzle a quick “bleed”—enough to get the compressed air out of the line and check the stream pattern. He adjusts it to the straight stream setting and then closes it. Staying on his knees, he starts to move into the building. Visibility just a few feet inside the door is zero. You are directly behind the nozzleman while your third member stays by the door to help advance the hose into the building. He is really only a few feet away, as your advance is slow and deliberate. There are several stands holding carpet samples just inside; behind them are rolls of carpeting, creating makeshift aisles. The second engine crew has now gone around back to look at conditions there.

(2)Building inspections and familiarization tours
(2) Firefighters must always be aware of how fire can spread in taxpayer structures. Building inspections and familiarization tours are important to maintain awareness of the building’s current fire load and any industrial processes occurring inside. Also observe any structural changes or alterations that have occurred over time. During fires, everyone must watch for changing fire conditions, including smoke volume, color, intensity, and movement. Read the building to spot any cracks that suddenly appear in exterior walls and when roofs are losing their stability. (Photo by Steve Nedrich.)

You get inside the fire building a distance that seems like a hundred feet; in reality, it is only about 15 or 20. The smoke is black and to the floor—no visibility. The heat is starting to bank down on top of you. You and your nozzleman are down as low as you can get without being on your stomachs, and you are unable to move. You are quickly becoming uncomfortable. There is the sound of windows being broken behind you—and yet, you cannot really tell where it is coming from because you have been disoriented by the thick smoke and heat conditions.

Suddenly, there is a rush of superhot smoke and gases coming at you. You still don’t see any flames, but you are thinking, “The fire has gotta be around here somewhere!” There are all kinds of popping sounds and stressing noises around you. You want to drop the hose and put your hands over your ears, even with a hood and helmet ear flaps covering them. Your nozzleman hasn’t opened the nozzle yet because he waits to see flames—just as he was taught to do in basic fire training school! The heat is now unbearable, and you yell to him through your face piece, “Hit it, hit it!” You repeat yourself, only with a couple of adverbs and adjectives added.

(3) Firefighters demonstrate the proper technique for handling a 2½-inch handline
(3) Firefighters demonstrate the proper technique for handling a 2½-inch handline. When selected for offensive interior operations, this size hoseline will require assigning another company or crew to help with hoseline movement and management. Firefighters should be trained in this important fire attack evolution so they know what it takes to employ this line and make it most effective. This size line provides volume, reach, and penetrating power not found in smaller handlines but makes firefighters more effective in these situations. (Photo by author.)

Your nozzleman hears you and has opened up and is now moving the nozzle from side to side and all around trying to stop the fire’s growth and advancement; the stream is having no effect whatsoever. You hear the sounds of the stream bouncing off things you can’t see, without any reduction of heat. You quickly realize the two of you are about to be burned as you scream to him, “Back it out, back it out now!”

How and why did your members get into this situation? Right now, their firefighting and training are failing them. They are now relying on their turnout gear to protect them from serious burn injuries or worse.

PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES

In his book Firefighting Principles and Practices, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 1991), William Clark emphasizes strategies and tactics and that fire departments need organizational discipline—i.e., engines and ladders need to perform basic, vital functions for the different kinds of structural fires that may happen. He also makes clear that every fire has a critical flow rate and that firefighters must achieve that rate to take an aggressive approach to a structural fire.

Looking at our fire scenario, our engine company arrived and started initial attack line operations in a quick, efficient manner, as should be expected. The crew stretched a 200-foot, 1¾-inch initial attack line and had it charged with water to the nozzle within 90 seconds of arrival, as is done at most bread-and-butter operations. In residential operations, speed is a priority in getting control of a fire situation before it takes the building or occupant lives. To do this, you must have adequate fire company personnel. You also must have enough fire companies and personnel on the fireground early in an incident (first alarm) to accomplish all the necessary basic tasks for an aggressive fire attack.

However, this fire is in a commercial building. John Norman points out in Fire Officers Handbook of Tactics, Third Edition (Fire Engineering, 2005) that this is not a residential building and should not be handled like one. Different buildings like taxpayers and other commercial structures require different strategies and tactics. Once again, however, the American fire service in its quest for a one-size-fits-all style of firefighting can get itself in trouble with that mentality when a supposedly routine fire becomes complex. Could this problem also stem from improper training or inadequate or lack of discipline or fireground experience? Or, does it start at the top of a fire department?

BREAKING THE INCIDENT DOWN

Looking at our incident, we see the following:

  1. The weather was not a factor—it was perfect.
  2. The street was a wide thoroughfare, allowing apparatus to respond without any delays and to maneuver for proper positioning.
  3. Water supply was more than adequate since there were two large mains running along this street and hydrants were positioned every 150 to 200 feet in this commercial area.
  4. The fire companies had the proper staffing of an officer, an apparatus operator, and two firefighters—the box alarm assignment had three engine companies and one ladder initially.

The fire building was built in the late 1950s of Type II (noncombustible) construction, mainly concrete block and brick; the roof system was structural steel open-web bar joists with a wood roof deck. The showroom area of the building was wide open with tall ceilings, plate glass front windows, and a high fireload. The stockroom area was the same, except it had no windows and a higher roof with rack storage. The fire load of this commercial occupancy is much higher and different from that usually found in a house or an apartment building. Couple with that the building’s dimensions, and you have a chance for rapid heat buildup with poor air exchange—until a door is opened, a window fails, or a rear overhead door in the warehouse is opened, creating a little wind. Get the picture?

Let’s look at some considerations that might help our firefighters.

(4) A newer one-story taxpayer under construction
(4) A newer one-story taxpayer under construction, built completely of lightweight materials. When occupied, the building will offer a large, wide-open commercial area in the front and an unobstructed storage area in the rear. The ceilings are high and the roof construction features are combustible materials. Firefighters operating at these buildings should always be suspicious of fire entering the roof or cockloft space early in an incident, burning the concealed trusses to the point of collapse while members are inside. (Photo by author.)

ROLL CALL

Begin your tour/shift with a roll call—a formal shift change. I know, I know! You’ve heard it before! But it needs repeating. The day begins here, with our formal exchange of departmental information between shifts and company members. Pass along any department or company business here.

For officers/acting officers, this is where your accountability begins. Make sure you know your crew—who they are and their knowledge, experience, and capabilities. You can discuss things or ask questions of each other related to company performance/expectations. Do this in an informal, relaxed manner; afterward, you can discuss last night’s baseball game!

Go over your personal protective gear, apparatus, and equipment together as a team right after roll call. If one person misses something, likely someone else will catch it. Everyone on your apparatus should make sure they have a radio and a light that works.

Note that volunteer or part-time fire departments most likely do not have roll calls and do not know who will be available to respond to the next fire call. That alone is reason enough that regular fire-oriented, hands-on training is necessary for all department members. Each member needs to be proficient in the different duties that may be required of them. All departments, regardless of type, should have position or job assignments spelled out and noted, perhaps by seating on the apparatus, to stop any confusion about who does what at the scene of an incident.

(5)wood truss roof assembly system
(5) The interior of the same building features a wood truss roof assembly system with no interior supports or bearing walls. If fire occurs and extends into the truss roof area, burning will be unimpeded if no fire suppression systems or fire stopping is in place. The weight of the roof trusses and any air-conditioning equipment on the roof will put a strain on the gusset plates, and gravity will cause the roof to collapse. Firefighters should inspect these buildings in the early construction phase to spot any potential life safety threats or structural instabilities during firefighting or other emergency operations. (Photo by author.)

DISPATCH AND RESPONSE

When the tones go off, everyone needs to stop what they’re doing and listen when being dispatched— you need to know where you are going and what you are being sent to.

Size-up begins now; everyone should start putting together their own. And, now is the time to get into the right “frame of mind.” This is where your own preincident information or prior knowledge comes in. Sometimes you’ll hear firefighters giving some information about locations or addresses being dispatched. Some members might have prior knowledge of some unknown hazards in the area. Perhaps your apparatus mobile data terminal has come up with specific data about a street, a neighborhood, or the building address.

In any case, firefighters need to share information and communicate with each other. Everyone should have their portable radio turned on and tuned to the right channel. Listen for any instructions the officer may have. Look out for each other.

ARRIVAL

As your engine nears the fire scene, remember, slow down! Rushing up to a burning structure and expecting everyone to jump off the engine and squirt the fire out in a matter of seconds only create unnecessary stress, especially when the fire doesn’t go out!

When arriving first at a fire scene, observe all conditions and look for your water source—just in case the second-due engine is delayed or unable to respond to the incident. (That’s just another reason for having at least three engines dispatched on first alarms!) The first engine company officer should make sure the engine apparatus is positioned properly, especially with ladder company placement in mind or if a deck gun or other appliance is to be used.

Sometimes, engine placement takes priority over truck placement. This is especially true when on arrival your engine finds heavy fire conditions, a fast-moving fire, or a wind-blown fire with exposure involvement. Use the engine’s deck gun. This necessitates positioning the engine deck gun to cover both fires—the main body and exposures.

The engine’s goal in these and other scenarios like this should be to establish a water supply and develop a quick, heavy stream to knock down the heat and extinguish as much of the main body of fire as possible.

To perform this simple operation might require a forward lay into the fire scene from a dependable, close hydrant. The benefits from this evolution are an established continuous water supply, the ideal engine apparatus positioning for best use of appliances and hoselines, and quick application of a large-volume appliance.

This evolution might bring an out-of-control situation under control quickly, especially in understaffed operations. Remember, when using large-volume appliances, don’t just throw water into the air (like a curtain) thinking it will stop the heat or flames—it won’t. You must attack the flames and keep exposure surfaces cool and below their ignition temperatures.

ON-SCENE SIZE-UP

Every fire incident needs an initial arrival report. This should come from the first unit on the scene. As stated before, when approaching the fire building, slow down your response so you can see things more clearly instead of running by them or missing them altogether. You might see something that’s critical that you should put in your initial report.

There will be times when conditions on arrival are so demanding that the company officer must go right to work with his crew and is prevented from making a radio report. In such cases, perhaps the apparatus operator can make the report.

Regardless, the first unit on the scene should give an arrival report that paints a picture of what conditions you have. Don’t just yell into the radio, “We’ve got a working fire in a two-story frame!” That doesn’t tell anyone anything except that the first-due company officer sounds excited and beyond control.

Composing a clear message doesn’t take long. A good initial report will alert other responding companies as to what is going on and what may be expected of them when they arrive. Some departments teach their members how to develop effective radio messages and what to listen for from initial reports about their incident.

Make an effort to mentally compose your message first so it contains information such as your company marking on the scene; the building’s height, size, and dimensions if possible; the occupancy type; occupied or vacant; fire/smoke conditions and location in the building; and any important things to add such as “people outside waiting for us” or other information. Try to do it with a calm, controlled voice.

INITIAL ACTIONS

An old American fire service adage goes, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire!” This was true many years ago, and it still holds true today. In most cases, an engine company will be first to arrive at a fire and start attack operations. What that first engine does can set the tone for the rest of the fire.

A company officer (or acting officer) must have accumulated fireground experience (not just years on the job, time in a classroom, or certificates) to know how to read a fire building and its situation and to know what needs to be done and how to do it. These are skills gained over time. All officers and firefighters should be “fire conscious” and suspicious and always remember that fires don’t stay in nice neat little boxes but will travel. (These suspicions and experiences are learned over time and should be passed on from one generation of firefighters to the next so that the next group of fire officers will be better prepared for the job.) Some firefighters and officers have good, natural fire intuition; others don’t—that’s a fact.

In this fire, selecting the 1¾-inch hose coupled with a 100-psi nozzle was incorrect, especially when looking at the pump pressure used. The volume of water was inadequate for the job because of the following: (1) The 125-psi pump pressure was too low and was not increased when water was flowing, so the volume discharged might have been around 80 to 95 gallons per minute (gpm), depending on hose quality and other things. (2) The interior size (cubic volume) of the building and the fire area, the lack of compartmentation, and the amount of combustible stock were far more than what any 1¾-inch line could handle, even under the best conditions. Commercial buildings can make big fires—plan your attack accordingly.

The officer should have stopped the stretch and called for a bigger handline with a low-pressure, high-volume nozzle. This interior operation needs an initial fire stream of at least 300 gpm. This is doable with 2½-inch lines and 50-psi nozzle tips capable of discharging that volume or more. The total pump pressure for a layout of 200 feet of 2½-inch hose and low-pressure nozzle requires only approximately 75 to 80 psi. These firefighters are entering a fire area without enough water to keep them safe, let alone attack the fire and control it.

In the officer’s defense, if this is the only way this fire department does business, then the officer can only be held accountable to make sure things go as planned. Then it is business as usual, no matter how severe the fire situation!

Note there is hesitation on many firegrounds to call for a 2½-inch handline for offensive operations, probably because of lack of hands-on training along with inexperience in using this size line for offensive operations. Perhaps there’s some trepidation: “There’s a heck of a lot more fire in there than my 1¾-inch handline can handle, and that’s what we’re used to using!”

NOZZLE PLACEMENT

Where handline attack is taking place, the company officer is responsible to ensure that firefighters select the appropriate size of hoseline and nozzle for the job and guide the team where needed. In many cases, good, knowledgeable firefighters know what size handline they need to pull at a fire and from where it should start operations.

For offensive operations, stretch the line and place the nozzle where it has access to the fire area, keeping in mind to protect and save what you can. Interior operations call for the nozzle to protect valuable areas that include contents/stock or to cut off fire spread and protect other valuable parts of the structure.

If occupant lives are at stake, they take priority over all other things, and you should position the nozzle between the people and the problem. Where life safety is an immediate issue along with time and resources, the quickest route to the fire is best for quick knockdown and control. If life safety is not an issue, consider the interior exposures next. The third priority is positioning the nozzle to stop or cut off fire spread/extension from one structure to another. This type of fire calls for immediate heavy line usage. Today, there are special appliances that allow firefighters to put heavy streams in service quickly.

Note: Crews that work together over time get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. However, when working with different members, you will run into different skills, experience levels, and thinking. Officers should never take for granted that all firefighters have the same experience or knowledge and that things will always go smoothly. The company officer is responsible for makinge sure things go properly and according to plan or procedure. Firefighting is circumstantial and subject to change in a flash. The company officer is responsible for what happens and for correcting things when they don’t go right. That’s one of the reasons for having officers or acting officers in command of a company or crew. What training and experience do you and your members possess? Again, this is something that you need be consider at roll call every morning. Perhaps engines need to have wet drills to build team operations and ladders should perform hands-on tool and ladder evolutions. Engines and trucks in the same house should cross-train.

WATER DELIVERY AND APPLICATION

Many firefighters have been in offensive firefights where their hoselines couldn’t handle it—most likely because not enough water was flowing to bring the heat down because the hoselines were too small. There might also have been other contributing circumstances such as poor ventilation, low pump pressures, hoseline kinks, or applying water from only one location and barriers prevented water from getting to the flames. Regardless of fire situations or the kind of fire department you’re working with, water delivery has always been and will continue to be the most important factor in Class A fire control.

It doesn’t matter how you try to change or alter it. Good, aggressive firefighting comes down to putting enough water on a fire quick to knock it out or control it. It’s that simple.

To be able to do this, fire departments need to look at their community fire potential and their fire forces and determine what it takes to give their firefighters the water they need to take into a fire with them. Always remember that truck company operations complement engine fire attack and make them most effective by providing ventilation and other supporting services at structural fires.

In today’s American fire service, it is easy to become confused about what is the best method to control an out-of-control fire situation. It seems that with the many other things in which the fire service is involved, it is easy to understand why firefighters have forgotten the basic principles of water and attack.

The most important phase in a young firefighter’s career is the first year on the job. In this time frame, firefighters are expected to go through cadet or probationary fire school and learn the methods or principles that they will take with them throughout their career. There may be a time in those young firefighters’ futures when they may have to reach into the “brain bag” to remember something learned from basic training that just might save their lives or those of fellow firefighters or civilians. And don’t forget, these firefighters could be future officers.

LARGE-VOLUME HANDLINES

In buildings like this where there are large, uncompartmented areas with high ceilings, the amount of heat and gas built up overhead can be great, and yet firefighters—in complete bunker gear and staying low—may not be aware of these conditions. With no water being applied to this area because no flame is visible and no roof ventilation taking place, the stage is being set for a disaster. This fuel needs to be cooled below ignition temperature. Don’t be afraid to throw water up into smoke when these conditions are showing.

For commercial and taxpayer-type structures with heavy fire conditions and an offensive attack strategy, use 2½-inch handlines with low-pressure, high-volume nozzles. This size line can produce a heavy stream with heat-absorbing water and penetrating force and reach. Your fire stream needs to hit the underside of the roof deck and deflect to cool gases overhead before they ignite. The open space of this ceiling area is a fuel reservoir and can turn a showroom area from smoke to flame in a matter of seconds. Without a powerful large volume of water to bring these upper-level temperatures down, you are in trouble.

Make no mistake, a 2½-inch line is heavy and not very mobile, but you can increase its mobility by marrying companies together or putting enough firefighters trained in its use on the line. This is a local fire department issue—one where a fire department must make a commitment to train and operate this hoseline offensively when necessary. It is a different scenario altogether when a large handline is set up on a street corner with a hose loop and used in a defensive operation where one person sits on it the rest of the night. Recently, some newer fire attack technologies that increase flows have been developed, and they are less taxing to firefighters.

Many years ago, David P. Fornell wrote Fire Stream Management Handbook (Fire Engineering, 1991). Along the way, he also penned articles on hoselines and flows, in particular, the two-inch attack handline with a solid bore one-inch tip.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some fire departments looked to change their fire attack hardware so firefighters could flow more water with less stress and weight. Many fire departments moved to the two-inch hose but used higher pressure automatic fog nozzles, because they had been promised flows similar to 2½-inch handlines. It didn’t work as planned.

What it seems happened is that the hose was capable of flows close to that of the 2½-inch hose only to a point. To overcome the friction loss created by the larger flows, higher engine pump pressures were needed to push that volume through the smaller hose. Coupled with the 100-psi nozzles, it created too much pressure for firefighters to control safely and effectively. Remember, you were trying to move a big amount of water through a small conduit! The laws of nature and physics took over.

Nowadays, with newer hose lining materials, friction loss is very minimal and hose is easier to manage. This reduced friction loss allows an effective discharge/flow with engine pump pressures set where firefighters benefit from increased flow and better hose manageability.

Now, on the other side of the technology equation is the nozzle. As stated before, using lower pressure nozzles is a top priority for attack lines. Lower pressure (50 psi) fog nozzles are available along with break-apart features. So, now we have the better quality hose and nozzles together that allow larger volume of water discharge at lower pressures!

Also, 11⁄16-inch solid bore tips are available. Coupled with full-flow ball valves, newer two-inch hose will allow firefighters to flow around 290 to 300 gpm. Results may vary, depending on the hose’s age, quality, its liner materials, and so forth. I recommend you flow your own equipment with a reliable metering device to see what volumes you are flowing and what pump pressures are necessary to achieve them.

In the above fire, a 2½-inch attack line should have been mandated as a minimum. Nowadays, perhaps a two-inch hose with a low-pressure solid bore nozzle can make the attack providing similiar flow, better hoseline management, and ease in moving in on this kind of fire. Maybe this newer “old” size line with more flow capabilities will see increased use with higher flow nozzles, since its weight and characteristics are similiar to those of a smaller attack line but a lot safer to have with you in case things go bad.

•••

As time goes on, society and technologies change. The American fire service must keep up with these changes and how they impact firefighting to keep members safer and more efficient. We must always learn from the past to teach the future needs to our people. Good fire service leaders foster initiative in their people. They are not afraid to have them think about how to improve things and make things better for the team.

At incidents where you need to stretch a large handline and use it offensively, a smart company or incident officer will double up or “marry” fire crews to advance the line. This guarantees enough firefighters on the line for management and replacement and rotation of personnel if needed. “Marrying” is something that department members need to be trained on formally and departmentwide so that when the time comes for this evolution each member will know what every position on the hoseline requires, how to position to make a bend around a hallway corner, and how to ensure that no one is pushing or pulling and that everyone is working as a team member.

Again, fire departments always need to look at the changes in tools and equipment from the past to the present. In particular for fire attack, the two-inch hose should be evaluated for use, but only if a proper low-pressure, high-volume nozzle is considered also.

Don’t change just for the sake of change! Back in the 1970s, we saw change coming. Some of it was good and well thought out. Other changes were not so good and, unfortunately, it took a long time to get rid of the bad changes. Some of them still exist.

Do your homework. Make sure the firefighter is going to benefit from changes and be safer and more efficient. When firefighters are down to their turnout gear for survival, it is the last thing and the worst thing because nothing else is working at that point.

JEFF SHUPE is a career firefighter with more than 38 years of service. He was a division chief with the North Myrtle Beach (SC) Department of Fire and Rescue and retired in 2011 from the Cleveland (OH) Fire Department. He has also served as a volunteer firefighter. He is an Ohio certified fire instructor and has been a field training officer for the Ohio Fire Academy since 1987. He has an associate degree in fire technology and attended the University of Cincinnati fire protection engineering program. He has been an FDIC HOT Engine Ops instructor and classroom presenter for many years.


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