The “ABCs” of Getting Water on the Fire

The Underwriters Laboratories (UL) report “Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction” states on page 289: “… fire attack should be coordinated.” The importance of this advice cannot be overstated. The report continues: “If air is added to the fire and water is not applied in the appropriate time frame, the fire gets larger and the hazards to firefighters increase.”

Unfortunately, far too many fire service personnel do not understand how to coordinate an attack to “get water on the fire.” The reason for this is that training scenarios conducted in accordance with National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, focus on advancing a line into a concrete structure with class A combustibles burning in a corner (or some other simulator that uses a compressed gas). Generally, it is the same corner for every evolution. Hence, we are training our personnel in a static environment and then expect them to perform in a dynamic situation.

Size-Up Components

We must train personnel to properly size up the scene and apply the appropriate tactics for the situation. Training should include a size-up that identifies the proper line size, proper line placement, advancing the line, and coordinating line advancement with truck company operations. An engine company officer should consider the following items when developing a plan to get water on the fire:

A six-side size-up. This information will come from a walk-around, depictions from the roof, and images from your thermal imaging camera on the outside and inside of the building. Read the smoke, and notice where fire is showing.

Building construction and occupancy type. There is a direct correlation between fire spread and building construction. Construction will help you to recognize fire and smoke spread, estimate the capacity of the structure to add to the fire load, and assess the building’s collapse potential. Life safety is the first tactical priority of line placement. In residential construction, you must place handlines to protect egress routes and facilitate the protection of search crews. Residential construction tends to offer more compartmentation, which can slow the spread of fire; however, it also creates more bends the line will have to make to reach the seat of the fire.

Square footage of the building. Multiply the building’s length by its width. This information will help you to select the handline and the methods for stretching it. If you have to make a difficult handline stretch and have only minimal staffing, you may have to use an outside stream to hit the fire initially (referred to as “transitional attack”) and then stretch the line to the interior.

Occupancy type. This provides information on the building’s life hazard and contents—specifically, the fire load from the contents, hazardous materials, and so on.

Floor plan and room arrangement. Is this a commercial floor plan or a private dwelling? This information will allow the officer to estimate the number of personnel needed to overcome obstacles such as corners.

Fire floor. On what floor is the fire? A fire on the lower floor of an occupied multiple dwelling is different from the same fire on the top floor. Officers must consider the fire’s location as it relates to the building’s interior stairs. Engine crews must be well-versed in stretching lines up the stairs, up the outside of buildings, up ground and aerial ladders, as well as from additional stairwells. Engine crews must know the procedures for advancing lines up open walkways using a ceiling hook and passing the line up. This method works well up to four floors, depending on staffing.

Location of trapped occupants. You may be able to determine the location of victims based on what is seen, reported, or anticipated. Regardless, the first tactical priority is for handlines to protect occupants in addition to the firefighters searching for them. There must be effective communications between the engine and truck company personnel.

Fire location. The location and volume of fire will impact your speed and maneuverability. At times, the best choice may be to “soften the target” for 15 to 20 seconds. In multistory buildings, this may not be an option.

Flow path. Once the location of the fire is determined and there is water to the nozzle, create/increase the flow path opposite the push of the hoseline.

Water on the fire. Emphasize the requirement for water on the fire. Once this benchmark has been achieved, the incident commander can begin to assess whether the attack will be successful.

Tactics Must Fit the Situation

Successful company officers and chief officers must foster and implement the applicable tactics for the situation presented. Implement a plan of action for the situation; don’t attempt to make the situation fit a preconceived plan. Those who argue that we must use the transitional attack are attempting to develop a plan for all situations; likewise, those who argue the transitional attack should not be used are advocating the same. Having one plan for all situations is like attempting to drive a square peg into a round hole: It is fruitless and dangerous.

The following fundamentals will help you to correctly evaluate and size up the situation and confirm that the plan is suited to the situation.

Ventilation. Direct and coordinate ventilation with the advancement of the engine company. If you do not coordinate or conduct ventilation properly, the engine company’s advance will be delayed or impeded and personnel will be endangered. Consider those factors that will negatively impact the growth of the fire, including wind speed and direction.

Egress. Protect the building’s primary means of egress, the interior stairs. Although every situation may be different, some things do not change: Life safety is the number-one tactical priority. Place a properly selected handline between the fire and any endangered occupants. Protecting the primary means of egress within a building enables firefighters conducting searches to remove victims by the quickest route.

Handline. A properly selected and well-placed handline operated rapidly and maneuvered properly will generally extinguish the fire. Most fires are controlled safely with one line. Extinguishing the fire has the single greatest impact on life safety.

Water. Operations to get water on the fire must follow a logical order. Locate the fire, and communicate this information. Confine the fire with handlines to give truck company personnel time to conduct searches. Deploy sufficient resources to safely and effectively extinguish the fire. Depending on staffing levels, building construction, and so on, this may necessitate applying water from the exterior before entering to decrease the amount of energy. In other situations, the interior attack may be warranted. In either case, the goal is to get water on the fire quickly and in a coordinated effort.

All of these tasks and skills are vital for controlling the fire. Removing victims from the building depends on our ability to protect and control the exit paths. Safety and survival techniques are needed only when we cannot control the fire. Providing emergency medical service care for the victims can be done only after the fire has been controlled and the victim has been removed from the building.

This information is shared in the same spirit as in the UL report mentioned at the beginning of this article: “These tactical considerations are not meant to be rules but to be concepts to think about, and if they pertain to you, by all means adapt them to your operation.” Apply strategies and tactics for fires based on the needs of the situation. The single most important function at a structure fire is, always has been, and will always be, to get water on the fire.

Steven Woodworth, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, is a training officer for the Fayetteville (GA) Fire Department and has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering. He is an Operations Section chief with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Area 7 Type III IMT. He was co-author Fighting Fires with Foam.

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