The First-Arriving Engine at Externally Ignited Apartment Building Fires


In any department—volunteer or career—large fires in large buildings eventually bring many resources. However, in every one of those fires, a single crew, usually an engine company, arrived first. Often, the ability of this first-arriving crew to make an attack with forward progress on the fire is downplayed because it is, by itself, against a much larger enemy. What can the attack realistically do?

For example, fires that start on the exterior of buildings such as on apartment building balconies are a more common occurrence than we realize. I didn’t realize it until I researched those incidents in my department, where I learned that we had experienced eight in a three-year period. Of these eight fires, seven extended up the exterior of the building quickly, impinged on the roof line, and transitioned into attic fires, resulting in a multiple-alarm fire that heavily damaged the roof and top floor. These fires move quickly and, on the arrival of the first engine, the fire is either threatening to enter the attic or already in the attic.

To stop the forward progress of the fire early in the incident, the first engine must act quickly and decisively because by the time an overwhelming amount of additional resources arrive, the fire has control of the attic and the incident goes into the defensive mode.

Through his articles and classes, Brian Brush of Fire by Trade has recently introduced the fire service to the concept of “relative superiority.” He writes, “Admiral William McRaven, commander of the United States Special Operations Command, defines relative superiority as ‘a condition that exists when a smaller attacking force gains a decisive advantage and control over a larger, defending enemy. It is rare for an entire alarm (large force) to arrive on the fire scene simultaneously at the onset of an incident. More commonly, we see single engines, trucks, or rescues, which are ‘small attacking forces,’ arriving ‘early in the engagement’ to battle a ‘much larger or well entrenched opponent.’ The ‘longer the engagement continues,’ the more likely we will become reliant on increasing our numbers as the outcome will be affected by the will of the enemy.”1

(1) Photos by author.

In all eight of the external apartment building fires my department—the Omaha (NE) Fire Department—experienced between 2011 and 2014, we made the initial attack by taking a handline (usually a 1¾-inch) to the interior and trying to hit the external fire from the inside out. In seven out of eight instances, this tactic was unsuccessful; by the time the ceiling was eventually opened, the fire was in control of the attic, being fed by the still burning external fire, and was beyond the ability of the handlines to control it from below. All personnel were then withdrawn from the interior and the strategy switched to defensive.

We are often taught to find and apply water to the seat of the fire and then to check for extension in surrounding voids and spaces. In these incidents, the seat of the fire is on the exterior of the building and the extension is in the attic. So, this begs the question: How much can a single four-person engine company physically accomplish to knock down the external fire while immediately getting a line to the top floor of the apartment building and getting water into the attic? This question led to multiple timed practical experiments with different crews to see just how long this would take to create a baseline for future tactical training. Considering the crews did not practice the evolutions prior to the timed drills, the results were amazing!

The Experiments

We conducted experiments in and around a six-story training tower. The experiments were designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a first-arriving four-person engine company to initiate an external offensive fire attack with the apparatus-mounted deck gun (blitz attack) flowing 500 to 600 gallons per minute (gpm) (photo 1) for 10 seconds on a simulated fire area involving the second- and third-floor balconies of an apartment building with fire impinging on the roof line (photo 2), all while the following tasks were completed:

• The company officer’s size-up.

• A 2½-inch attack handline was advanced into the building and up the stairs to the third floor, where it was deployed and charged.

• The third-floor ceiling was opened (time simulated) and water from the 2½-inch attack line flowed into the attic area above the third-floor ceiling.

• A hydrant water supply line was deployed and established to the engine’s pump.

Photo 2

This sounds like a lot to ask of a single company and something that would take a lot of time to complete. The engineer/driver and one firefighter were initially dedicated to operating the deck gun and directing it onto the external fire. Following knockdown of the external fire, the firefighter then dismounted the top of the apparatus and hand stretched a five-inch supply line approximately 75 feet to a hydrant and made the connection. The officer did an initial exterior size-up and a quick interior recon to observe the conditions inside the stairwell. The second firefighter deployed a preconnected 2½-inch line to the front door (photo 3) and began to advance it upstairs dry, after ensuring conditions permitted, with the help of the officer. (Author’s note: In all of my department’s responses to external apartment fires, the interior conditions were very tenable, with conditions on the top floor consisting of light to moderate smoke but with the fire still on the exterior of the building. So, a dry apartment stretch to the fire floor was possible.)

Table 1 shows a side-by-side comparison of average times between the drills with and without the 2½-inch gate valve on the deck gun.

Once you make the hydrant connection, the deck gun/hydrant firefighter can help advance the 2½-inch line up to the fire floor. Once on the top floor and in the apartment under where the fire is impinging on the attic space from the exterior, pull the ceiling quickly and evaluate the situation for fire conditions. If fire exists in the attic, flow water to knock it down quickly. Although things such as hydrant location and apparatus access to the building can vary and complicate this operation (normally firefighters would be using self-contained breathing apparatus while advancing the line to the interior), we were trying to set a baseline to see what was physically possible and how long it would take to accomplish it.

We then ran a second comparison set of drills identical to those described above; the only difference was that a 2½-inch shutoff valve was placed on the deck gun to allow us to open and close the stream from the top of the engine while directing the deck gun. Normally, a four-person engine company must dedicate one person—the engineer/driver—to operate the pump while another firefighter mounts the top of the apparatus to position and direct the deck gun stream. Using the gate valve allows the engineer/driver to put the pump in gear, charge the deck gun, build the appropriate pump discharge pressure without flowing and wasting water from the deck gun, mount the top of the apparatus to position the deck gun, open the gate valve to flow water, and direct the stream as needed. This allows the other firefighter to assist with other tasks such as securing a hydrant water supply or advancing an attack line into the building and up the stairs.

The time for each drill started when the engine pulled up and stopped in front of the building. We noted the time for each milestone achieved during the drill, and the time was stopped when all tasks were completed and water was successfully flowed into the attic above the third floor.

Without the use of the gate valve on the deck gun, crews averaged a total time of 296 seconds, or less than five minutes (4 minutes, 56 seconds) to accomplish all of these tasks, which is impressive. However, crews that used the gate valve on the deck gun were able to complete all of those tasks in an average of 201 seconds (3 minutes, 21 seconds), which was more than a minute and a half faster!

Whether or not you choose to use a gate valve on your deck gun to facilitate an initial blitz attack at a fire, the bottom line and overall message here are that a small number of firefighters arriving on or with the first engine have the potential to be a powerful force.

Photo 3

No Apparatus Access?

So, what about those instances when the external balcony fire is on a side of the building with no access for apparatus and attacking the fire with the deck gun is not possible? Look around your district and see how many apartment buildings have areas with no access for apparatus or have center courtyards with balconies. The objective remains the same: to attack the seat of the fire on the building’s exterior quickly with as many gpm as possible while getting a line to the top floor, pulling ceiling, and getting water into the attic space as quickly as possible.

Along with the deck gun blitz attack tests, we also conducted tests simulating this situation. To get water onto the external fire in an area where we couldn’t use the deck gun, we deployed a 2½-inch line around the side of the building to the inaccessible area. Now, you may be thinking, “Pulling up and hitting it with the deck gun is one thing, but stretching a 2½-inch is a whole different animal. How many people and how long will that take?” The answer may surprise you.

This set of experiments tested the ability and effectiveness of a first-arriving four-person engine company to initiate an external offensive fire attack by deploying a 2½-inch attack handline with a 1¼-inch tip around the side of the building to flow 320 gpm for 20 seconds on a simulated fire area involving the second- and third-floor balconies of an apartment building (photo 4) and then impinging on the roof line, all while the following tasks were completed:

• The company officer’s size-up.

• A 1¾-inch attack handline was advanced into the building and up the stairs to the third floor, where it was deployed and charged.

• The third-floor ceiling was opened (time simulated) and water from the 1¾-inch attack line flowed into the attic area above the third-floor ceiling.

To facilitate an easy deployment by one firefighter, the 2½-inch line is preconnected with 200 feet of hose. Pull-out handles are set up at 100 feet so when the firefighter pulls the load, he will have 100 feet on his shoulder and 100 feet remaining to walk away from the apparatus. This 200-foot preconnect lies on top of an additional 400 feet of 2½-inch line you can use to extend the preconnect quickly, if needed in any situation.

The 1¼-inch smooth bore nozzle allows for 320 gpm, with a lower 50 pounds per square inch (psi) nozzle pressure and 36 psi friction loss, which equals a lower pump discharge pressure (86 psi) and, therefore, less nozzle reaction. It would also be appropriate to use a 11⁄8-inch tip flowing 260 gpm or the new 13⁄16-inch tip flowing nearly 300 gpm, depending on your department’s needs and wants.

Some may advocate the deployment of a portable ground monitor in this situation, whatever its length, but how many members would it take to deploy, supply, and set up a portable monitor? An appropriate balance of power, speed, efficiency, and effectiveness are the keys to success here.

Although the 2½-inch line is being deployed and attacking the external fire, the officer completes a size-up and possibly an interior recon to assess conditions. The second firefighter deploys a dry 1¾-inch line into the building and takes it up to the third floor. The officer, carrying a tool to pull the top-floor ceiling, assists with getting the interior line to the top floor and flaked out before calling for water. The fourth crew member—the driver—operates the pump and supplies water to both attack lines.

We advanced a 1¾-inch instead of a 2½-inch line into the building in this set of tests because the only preconnected 2½-inch line on our apparatus was already deployed to attack the external fire. If your apparatus has a second 2½-inch preconnect you can deploy quickly, I highly recommend that this be the line that goes interior. If, as in our case, the 1¾-inch goes interior, back it up as quickly as possible by advancing an additional dry 2½-inch line to the top floor when additional resources arrive. Although we are talking about line selection, some may want to use a preconnected 1¾-inch line on the exterior fire. Will a 1¾-inch knock down the exterior fire? Maybe; but remember, you have one chance to try to knock out this fire before it takes control of the attic, so go after the “big fire with big water.” You’ll kill the fire faster and probably use less tank water.

Photo 4

Water Supply

You’ll notice that a water supply has yet to be addressed because all four personnel are occupied. Options for establishing a hydrant supply include the following:

• Once you knock down the exterior fire with the 2½-inch line, leave the line in place so that firefighter can either help secure a hydrant if one is near enough to hand stretch or help advance the interior line upstairs.

• The driver can secure a nearby hydrant after supplying the two attack lines.

• A second-arriving engine can catch a hydrant and lay into the first engine.

• The time for each drill started when the engine pulled up and stopped on one side of the building. The time was noted for each milestone achieved during the drill, and the time was stopped when all tasks were completed and water was successfully flowed into the attic above the third floor. The average time in which each task was accomplished during the drill follows:

• A 2½-inch line deployed and water applied to external fire: 86 seconds.

• A 1¾-inch line advanced to the front door of the building: 36 seconds.

• A 1¾-inch line reached the third floor: 127 seconds.

• Water was discharged into the attic: 151 seconds.

The total time to accomplish all these tasks—2 minutes, 31 seconds—was impressive for a four-person engine company considering crews did not practice these drills beforehand. How good could we get if we trained on this tactic?

You can also apply this tactic to externally ignited house fires such as those that start in the rear on the back deck from a turkey fryer or a grill and, on arrival, are extending up the exterior and impinging on the attic. Deploy a 2½-inch line to the rear to overwhelm and knock down the external seat of the fire quickly, then advance a coordinated line to the front door to access the interior to check for and extinguish any fire on the interior and in the attic.

As with everything we do in the fire service, we achieve success not when we arrive but in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years before the fire call comes in. Whether you are using a quick attack with the deck gun or a 2½-inch line, training, practice, and preparation are the ONLY ways to create an aggressive and powerful engine company that can, as Denver (CO) Fire Department Assistant Chief Dave McGrail says, “overwhelm the enemy with disproportionate force!”

There is no one cookie-cutter tactic, solution, policy, or standard operating guideline for every situation. Prepare your personnel to improvise, adapt, and overcome by empowering them to think and act. Effective fire service leaders will ensure that their personnel have the following:

• The knowledge to quickly assess and understand the situation as accurately as possible.

• A realistic understanding of the capabilities of the resources at hand.

• Enough trust between them and the organization’s leaders that will allow them to adjust and adapt appropriately to make the right decisions based on the two points above.

• The training and resources to make it all happen.

Train your personnel to assess and evaluate the situation found, understand the capabilities they have with the resources at hand, and prepare them and their equipment to be able to arrive and pack a powerful punch. If you believe they can, they will believe they can and, more importantly, they will do it!


1. Brush, B. (2012). Gaining Relative Superiority—The 2½” Line. Retrieved on Nov. 18, 2014, from Fire Service Warrior:

CHRIS LANGLOIS is a 30-year fire service veteran who has served in combination and career fire departments in Louisiana and Nebraska. He is a battalion chief with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department (OFD), where he has served for the past 17 years, as well as a battalion chief for the Training and Special Operations Division. Langlois was the 2014 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors Instructor of the Year and was an FDIC International instructor in 2013 and 2014. He is nationally certified as firefighter II, instructor II, officer II, driver/operator, incident safety officer, and NREMT-paramedic. He has an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public fire administration, and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership. He is a certified National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer.

Chris Langlois will present “The First-Arriving Engine at Externally Ignited Apartment Building Fires” at FDIC International in Indianapolis on Thursday, April 26, at 1:30 p.m.-3:15 p.m.


Outside-In Fires: Effective Response

Outside/In Fires: Two Incidents, Two Outcomes

Interior or Exterior Attack Strategy?


No posts to display