Tactical Safety for Firefighters: Who Moved My Hoseline

By Ray McCormack

“Who Moved My Hoseline?” is not the title of some cheesy fire service business book, but rather an exploration of fireground expectations. For firefighters to operate even marginally on the fireground, initial hoseline placement must be based on either egress protection or fire extinguishment. What extinguishment platform are your firefighters using? Are your citizens benefiting from it?

Fire extinguishment is the penultimate goal of an egress-based handline. For many fire departments, egress protection is the first hoseline-placement priority. Many incident commanders do not realize which hoseline-placement theory they use or why. When hoselines are not protecting the egress path because they were moved to remote interior or exterior locations, we have now created a delay in egress protection. The abandonment of egress protection through alternative hoseline placement is a very serious consideration and must affirm a viable life safety and extinguishment strategy.

Extinguishment-based handlines are not initially concerned with egress protection.

Hoselines are stretched to the edge of the fire area and decisions are made as to the next placement, typically inside. The time a hoseline spends outside beyond what is required to get it functioning is at least equal to or greater than the delay in final extinguishment. If we add into this mix the additional delay of hoseline guided or hoseline-protected search, then we will have a bunch of people idly standing by awaiting the line’s eventual return prior to building entry. Final extinguishment of most fires cannot be accomplished until said hoseline is inside. Trapped civilians are much harder to successfully rescue the longer they remain hidden from us because we are still outside.

Although some alternative hoseline placements occur in structural firefighting, the transition away from direct egress protection must be carefully considered. Although exterior fire knockback may be accomplished quickly, it only provides a portion of the extinguishment matrix. Is there a difference between fire knockback and fire knockdown? Yes, they are similar but distinct approaches to partial extinguishment. Fire knockback is done from the building’s exterior as a blitz or limiting tactic. Fire knockdown is done from the interior of the building and is more thorough because firefighters exist within the space. Fire knockback, operating a hoseline from the exterior into the interior without having direct access into that space, limits our ability to fully extinguish the fire. Fire knockdown is accomplished from the interior, where we are able to evaluate what remains of the fire, where it originated, its damage, and its extension to other areas. The seat of the fire is almost always accessible from the interior. Fire knockback must be supplemented by interior operations and may require two separate handlines.

Choosing an exterior knockback strategy reminds me of the age old question: “Do you go for the rescue or stretch the handline?” We need to understand that if exterior knockback is going to be used as the initial attack posture when rescue is also required, choosing the exterior knockback will typically delay the rescue. Direct handline entry and egress protection with interior knockdown allows crews to be right there and move in for complete extinguishment or to add enough water into adjacent space to gain a knockdown before moving on to the room of origin, which is unseen from the exterior. The presence of an interior handline provides the umbilical cord for additional firefighters to enter the structure in support of the rescue function.

Deciding on hoseline placement is arguably the most important tactical decision you can make on the fireground where seconds actually do count. Are your hoselines placed for egress protection or extinguishment? Let’s say we have a basement fire and the hoseline enters the home’s main level. You can choose to take it down the interior stairs to fight the fire or have it remain above the fire; both placements put egress protection first. If we take that same line in at the basement level and attack the fire, that line is performing extinguishment first.

Although putting the fire out accomplishes safety on the fireground, the fire must be fully extinguished, and that typically requires interior operations. Exterior knockback, while putting water on the fire and necessary under certain conditions, may be flipping your hoseline priorities. The decisions made on the fireground can taste sweet or be eternally bitter. Using an exterior knockback strategy as your primary focus is no more impressive than believing interior handline operations that safeguard egress and provide direct extinguishment are too risky for firefighters to perform safely. Make sure your hoseline is providing tactical safety for your firefighters and the civilians we swore to protect.

Next Tactical Safety: Quick, Aggressive, Violent!


Ray McCormack: Tactical Safety for Firefighters

RAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine.


  • RAY McCORMACK is a lieutenant and veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC 2009. He is the co-creator and editor of Urban Firefighter and the an FDIC International instructor.

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