Redefining and Preparing for “Water Emergencies”

BY MARK WATERS

Every day somewhere in the United States someone dials 911 to report a water emergency. Depending on the section of the United States in which you are located, a water emergency can be classified as someone drowning, a boat in distress, a water leak in a wall, or raging floodwaters swallowing homes and businesses. At the end of March and the beginning of April 2010, southeastern Connecticut, along with most New England states, redefined what we would consider a water emergency.

Historically, most of southeastern Connecticut would have defined a water emergency as a broken sprinkler pipe, water leaking through a ceiling, or water in a basement. During the month of March, specifically the last week, many parts of Connecticut experienced more than 12 inches of rain. That was an unbelievable amount of rain for this area, and it produced what has been referred to as “the historic 100-year flood” for Connecticut. Many emergency acts of heroism took place during this historic flood, including rescuing people from their homes, cars, and even swollen rivers. Swift water rescue has not been an event common to Connecticut, but for the first time in my career I witnessed a swift water rescue while off duty.

On my arrival at work the same night as the swollen rivers were threatening many communities and had taken out a few bridges that are on my way to work, I gained a new outlook on the definition of a water emergency. Our department averages a few calls per month that are dispatched as “a water emergency.” Many times these calls turn out to be a pipe that burst because of a spring thaw after a long winter or a vacant house where the previous occupants left the water running and the basement became flooded. Often these calls are handled routinely by securing utilities, securing the water, and then removing the water with some type of device—i.e., a pump, a wet/dry vacuum, and so on.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

However, on this particular day, I arrived at work for the night shift and waited for the engine to which I am assigned to return from what would probably be one of the busiest periods of the department’s history. I was in quarters waiting for the engine to return and looking at three empty bays where three pieces of apparatus are normally parked. In the half hour I waited for them to return, I ran over in my head my action plan for the evening. The engine arrived back at quarters, and I noticed the crew members looked as if they had experienced a rough day. I soon realized that they had been extremely busy with all sorts of calls—a car fire; emergency medical services; and, most of all, severe flooding everywhere in the city. So again I asked myself, What defines a water emergency? Does a foot, two feet, three feet of water constitute a water emergency?

I thought back to reading Frank Montagna’s book1 on responding to “routine” emergencies. The book is an excellent resource for the calls to which firefighters commonly respond, including water incidents. I soon relieved the off-going lieutenant, who briefed me on all of the “water emergency” calls and pending calls.

I logged into the computer system on the engine and brought up the computer-aided dispatch (cad) program that soon went wild with calls pending on the screen. I had never seen incidents increasing so quickly on the screen as that day. I soon counted more than 200 pending calls.

We were operating with our standard complement of personnel at that time. I began to wonder where I would start. The crew soon arrived, and we were off to save the world with a few electric pumps. We had water emergency calls pending all over the city; the shift commander, the on-duty battalion chief, directed us to start taking care of all the calls on the list. The word “triage” came to my mind. The calls had all been entered by our overwhelmed dispatch center and contained the very basic information such as “water in the basement.”

After arriving at the second water emergency, I devised a list of the following questions in my head:

  • How much water is in the basement?
  • What calls should come first?
  • Do we stay in our first-due area?
  • Are utilities involved?
  • How are we going to handle all of these calls? 

We responded to call after call that night: EMS, smoke in the building, and countless water emergencies. We had been pumping out basements all night long in between other calls. My crew witnessed some unique situations that night, including furnaces and electrical panels completely under water and finished basements destroyed by several feet of water.

At the end of the shift, I briefed the oncoming lieutenant and proceeded home for some rest. All the way home, I thought about what constitutes a water emergency. I arrived back at work that night to find the engine out once again. It soon returned, and I relieved the off-going lieutenant. I logged into the CAD system. I stopped counting after the 250 “water pump-outs” came up on the screen. I noticed that water emergency had been reclassified as “water pump-out.” We once again hit the road to take care of the pump-outs one by one. Sometimes each engine or truck company would handle three or four incidents at once by bouncing back and forth to check on the progress of the water’s removal.

ANALYSIS

In reality, what we found in some cases during that flooding event were authentic “water emergencies.” For this article, a water emergency is defined as an incident that involves water problems within or around a building. Is it a life-threatening emergency? In most cases, no; but it was an emergent one in many cases. In the first 48 hours of the flooding, our department responded to more than 550 incidents, only a few less than the number of calls we average in an entire month.

The potential emergency in these incidents is associated mainly with the hazards related to utilities. During this flood, my crew saw homes in the city that had never had water inside them; now some had up to four feet of water inside. The stories were endless and incredible. In some homes with one or two feet of water in the basement, the furnaces and electrical utilities were affected.

One issue we encountered during this flooding emergency is that we did not know how much water people had in their basements when we responded to their calls for service. In the future, we should obtain this information when the call is received and use it as a factor in evaluating the awaiting responses. Throughout those two nights and for the next few days, many homes had more than two feet of water. In one home, the furnace and electrical panel were entirely under water. The homeowner told me that his son had been playing in the water earlier in the day.

The term “triage” came to mind. I wondered how the fire department could triage incidents in a potential catastrophe as this flooding event to ensure protecting the greatest number of lives and property.

TRIAGE PROCESS 

Size-Up

The size-up of a reported water emergency should start well before an incident is reported. Certain questions should be answered: What are the utilities in the area—natural gas, oil, sewer, and electric? What are the flood zones within your district? What resources are available to your department—pumps, sand bags, vacuum trucks, barricades? What will be the best route of travel under flooding conditions? Once an incident is reported, the first thought should be about firefighter safety. Often, we think of this emergency as a routine response. There is really no such thing as a “routine” response. Each incident is different. Even if there is a foot of water in one basement without any electrical hazard, that may not be the case for the next incident. When responding, gather as much information as possible; try to determine what type of water emergency exists at the location to which you are dispatched. On arrival at the scene, complete a 360° walk around the building to locate any utilities or other hazards outside. Interview the occupants relative to what the emergency is, what actions they have or have not taken, what utilities surround the area affected, and from where the water is coming. Conclude the size-up with your own observations.

Action Plan

Once the size-up is completed, develop an action plan. The location and nature of the situation will dictate what actions should be taken—for example, a pipe break in a wall would necessitate that the water lines be traced to the nearest shutoff or the main shutoff, whereas water in the basement would require a more in-depth investigation. If the incident is water in the basement, devise an action plan after the size-up to determine what utilities are affected, if any need to be secured, the best means for removing the water, from where it will be removed, and where you will divert it. Then determine what equipment will be needed to complete the job. Remember, many times this is a great way to provide customer service to our residents. Most water emergencies occur quickly and without much warning. Handling them properly creates a winning situation for the fire department.

Equipment

Once you have completed your size-up and formed your action plan, gather the equipment needed to take care of the emergency. If utilities need to be shut off, have the proper tools available to secure natural gas, oil-fired furnaces, and tanks. Notify representatives from the various utility companies to ensure the utilities have been properly shut down and their records are updated to reflect the changes in status. Electrical power may have to be secured from the outside of the home or business, in which case the local power company should respond. Once the utilities have been secured, you can use various water-removal devices.

Pumps can be used for removing water from the basement, depending on the amount of water. Ensure that sewage or oil is not in the water prior to pumping. If the water is higher than two feet, use a gas pump; set it up in a well-vented area (photo 1). A smaller electrical pump or more than one electric pump (sump pumps) can also be effective, provided they are free from debris and able to be discharged away from the structure (photo 2). Keep in mind that some basements have a sump hole, but a minimum of two inches of water is needed for most electric pumps to work. In general, electric pumps should be set up outside the basement area and then moved into the basement into a location where they will be most effective. Monitor pumps that have been deployed to ensure they are not cavitating or getting clogged with debris. Once the water gets down to a level where the pump will no longer work, remove the pump and clear the remaining water with a water vacuum, a wet/dry vacuum, a squeegee, or towels.

(1) Photos by author.
(2)

If the water is leaking from the ceiling or a wall, secure the water at the nearest shutoff or the main shutoff. The shutoffs are often in remote areas of the house; the main shutoff is generally in the basement, if there is one, or somewhere on the outside of the building where the water meter is located. Notify the local water utility if you are securing the water. If you can’t shut off the water, call a representative of the utility to the scene. Once the water has been secured, thoroughly investigate to ensure that electrical devices such as ceiling lights have not been affected. If they are involved, secure the power to the affected area by removing the fuse from the electrical panel or turning the electrical breaker to the off position. If you are not able to secure the power, call the local utility company and have it disconnect the power from outside the building. After the power is off, remove the water by the most efficient means. You can also divert water by using a water chute (photo 3) or a catchall (photo 4). If you cannot secure the water quickly enough, you may have to construct a water chute to divert the water out of the building or a catchall to assist in catching the water from an affected area.

(3)
(4)

If water is leaking from a pipe in the street (a water main leak), immediately summon the local water department agency and utility company, evacuate the affected area, prepare to divert the water with sand bags if necessary, and activate your local emergency plan to relocate affected residents or businesses. Monitor changing conditions, including potential sinkholes or objects washing downstream. Once the water has been secured, recon the area and determine if any buildings will have to have water removed. Follow the same procedures for this situation as for water in the basement. Make sure that utilities have been secured and the areas are safe to enter.

In any of the above “water emergencies,” the fire department should not turn on utilities that had been secured to make the scene safe. This is the responsibility of the owner of the home or building.

LESSONS LEARNED

The historic flood that southeastern Connecticut endured earlier this year is a great example of the need for training. Many times fire departments train on firefighting techniques, rescues, and EMS incidents, but they fail to train for incidents such as “water emergencies.” These incidents can pose risks to the public and firefighters if they are not handled in a safe and efficient manner.

  • Establish a triage system, and form recon teams to quickly investigate and prioritize water emergencies. The team should be comprised of at least one firefighter and one officer and should quickly investigate the reported water emergency and then prioritize calls based on the information received.
  • Have enough equipment within your city or town to handle the potential incidents during an emergency like a flood. Many times departments rely on mutual aid. This emergency provided an example of one reason you cannot always rely on mutual aid. Those departments are probably responding to the same types of calls as your department and may not be available.
  • Train your dispatchers in the importance of getting as much information as possible when entering the details of the call related to a water emergency. Responding companies can review this information to determine if the call is a higher- or lower-priority incident.
  • Take care of your responders. A heavy rainfall, flood, or water in the basement call can turn into an extended incident. Have a plan in place that ensures that your firefighters will have the necessary equipment, food, gear, and crew rotations.

 ••• 

During the floods of 2010, southeastern Connecticut was lucky overall. Although many homes, businesses, roads, and bridges sustained damage, the area was spared the more severe damage that occurred in nearby states. In fact, we were extremely lucky that there were no fatalities or large fires locally as a result of the floods.

Endnote

1. Montagna, Frank. Responding to “Routine” Emergencies.Fire Engineering, 1999.

MARK WATERS, a veteran of the fire service for more than 20 years, is a career fire lieutenant with the New London (CT) Fire Department. He is also an adjunct instructor for the Connecticut Fire Academy. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Officer Program and has an M.S. degree in executive fire service leadership.

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