Getting on a Positive Water Source

By Daniel P. Sheridan

I had just come into work for the night tour last night, and as soon as I changed into my work duty uniform, we received an alarm for a fire in a commercial building. I went to my chief’s car and waited for the engine and the ladder to leave quarters. We followed them out of quarters to the alarm location. I noticed that the engine was leaving a trail of water behind it as it responded. This was not a small leak, but a large amount of water pouring through a crack in the 500-gallon booster tank. With the tough economic times we are facing, repairs to apparatus may be slow coming. A leak like this may seem insignificant, but it could have a major impact on the companies at a working fire. It brought to mind a fire we had last week in a three-story attached private dwelling. 


The other day we responded to a reported house fire in the middle of the afternoon. My response ticket showed that I only had two engines and one ladder; I was going to ask the dispatcher for the full assignment because I had a gut feeling that we were going to have a working fire. En route, the dispatcher notified me that they were receiving a second source and filled out the rest of the assignment with three engines and two trucks. My normally assigned first-due ladder was relocated to another part of the city to cover for a ladder that was at another fire. 

As we neared the scene, I could see the plume of smoke in the distance. At the same time, I heard the first-arriving engine transmit a signal for a working fire. The building was a three-story, flat-roof private dwelling attached on both sides to similar types of buildings. I have had fires in these buildings before, and I am sure that the cockloft is divided by a fire wall, but you never can be too sure. The fire was on the top floor.
At a fire such as this, I would normally like to assign a ladder company to both exposures, just to be safe. At the same time as the first-due engine transmitted the signal for a working fire, the relocated ladder company that is housed with it came on the radio and advised the dispatcher that it was “available.” The dispatcher then assigned it to the fire and advised me that I now had an extra ladder on the assignment. This was great, I thought, because I had a top-floor fire and it was nearly 100◦ outside with 90 percent humidity. I stood in front of the building directing the units. I assigned my second-due ladder to the most serious exposure, the 4 (D) side. I planned to send my extra ladder to exposure 2 (B) as soon as it came; after waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the extra ladder never materialized. It eventually showed up after the fire was knocked down.
It dawned on me what actually happened after the fire was over. I know, because I have been there myself many times. We hear a fire come in our first-due response area, and we don’t want to miss it, so we tell the dispatcher that we are available and are very nearby even though we are not even close. The dispatcher either will assign us or tell us to stay in service. When I was a probie firefighter, we were once assigned to a fire in Harlem; the dispatcher asked our officer where we were, and he responded that we were a few blocks away from the fire, so dispatch told us to continue in. In reality, we were barely out of quarters.
As a chief, I see the other side of the coin now. I am making plans based on my units coming in in a timely manner. As much as it hurts to miss a fire in our response area, we need to consider the fact that the chief may actually be expecting you to be there and has an important task for your company. Fortunately, at the fire last week, we knocked it down quickly, and there was no extension in the cockloft.
Another issue at this incident brings me back to the point of the booster tank leaking. The first-due engine chauffeur was having some issues getting a supply line going. The normally assigned second-due engine was out, so the third-due engine was coming from a distance. The first-due engine got the line in position very quickly and was ready for water. The engine chauffeur was still trying to hook into the hydrant, so he ran back to the pumper and gave the engine firefighters booster water. I am fine with that. If the engine officer feels that he can get a good knockdown with the 500 gallons of water, I say go for it. After giving the company booster water, the chauffeur went back to hooking into the hydrant. After he was hooked in and turned on the hydrant, I noticed water coming through the cracks in the sidewalk. At the same time this was occurring, I heard the engine officer say that the fire was knocked down. That was a major relief, and calling for the booster was a great call. Fast water on the fire prevents fire spread.
When I was a new lieutenant, I was working a night tour in a very quiet residential part of the Bronx. We received a call for a report of a house fire around four o’clock in the morning. We were a single engine company; the next closest units were an engine and a ladder that were a good distance away. We arrived on scene, and the occupant was standing by herself in the middle of the street pointing to the fire coming out the bedroom window on the second floor. I jumped off the pumper and ordered the firefighters to stretch a 1¾-inch hoseline to the second floor. I made my way up to the bedroom on fire and attempted to close the door but couldn’t because the fire was too far advanced. No problem–the guys were right behind me with the hose ready to extinguish the fire. I radioed the engine chauffeur to start water. I waited and got no reply. He advised me that he still had not hooked into the hydrant. I told him that it was not a problem; send me booster water, and we could knock it down. Think about it, 180 gallons a minute is nearly three minutes of good water; we can put out a lot of fire in three minutes.
I waited at the top of the stairs, and still no water. The fire had now gotten out of the room of origin and was rolling down the hallway into the front bedrooms. I had to back down the stairs because the heat was getting pretty intense. Again, I asked for water and got no response. I then ordered one of the firefighters whom I had known from working in the ghetto to go see what the problem was. Finally, after waiting for what seemed like forever, I saw the water snake through the line and into the nozzle. We extinguished the fire with no problems. Afterwards, I spoke to the chauffeur and asked him what happened. He had about 30 years on the job, and I had about 10. He told me that he never gives booster and always needs to be on a positive water source. What could I say? He was a senior man, and I was just there covering for the night.
I am a firm believer in always having a positive water source, especially if firefighters are searching above the fire. If, in your opinion, you can handle a situation with 500 or 750 gallons or whatever you carry in your booster tanks, I say go for it. The only thing is that if you need to let everyone know that you are on booster water and when you get on hydrant water, you then need to let everyone know that you now have hydrant water. That engine that was parked there that night with a major leak in it definitely affected my thinking about tactics if we were to get a working fire that night. I would have been doubly sure that my second-due engine got with the first-due engine and obtained a positive water source.
We are very fortunate here in New York. We have a great hydrant system, but we also have our problems sometimes as well. In the summer when it is very hot, it seems like every hydrant in the Bronx is on full blast, creating water pressure problems. We take readings in May right before the summer to get an idea of what the normal hydrant pressure should be, usually between 40 to 65 pounds. Sometimes in the hot summer days and nights, we don’t get anything close to that. In the winter, we deal with a whole other problem–frozen hydrants or hydrants buried by snow. This is why it is so important that we know how to deal with fires if we don’t have a positive water source.
Firefighting is all about the little things. A simple thing like a leaky booster tank could potentially turn a one-room fire into a second alarm in no time flat. If the second-due engine is out on a medical call and there is a fire in one of the many factories or warehouses that we have here in this part of the Bronx, we could have a major problem if we happen to hit a bad hydrant. The first-due engine would not have enough water in its booster tank to make a good knockdown, and there would definitely be a delay in water. In my time on the fire department, at every big fire that I have ever been to, if you boil it down to why it went bad, 99 percent of the time it was some sort of water problem  

Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief iassigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for

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