The Modern Fire Attack

The mission is to save lives. In fire attack, speed increases the odds of meeting the mission. Any delay allows the fire to grow, produces toxic smoke, and increases the risk to our citizens. We can look to early editions of Fire Engineering for quotes like this one from Harry Marston in 19101:

“As fires are destructive in proportion to the time taken in getting at them, providing the same intelligence is employed in each case, the importance of attacking a fire before it has developed into a bad one is fully recognized by all firemen, and also by the insurance interests.”

The mission hasn’t changed since Marston made his observation. What has changed significantly is fire behavior. Plastics are ever-present, resulting in more rapid fire growth with exponential increases in smoke production and toxicity. Fire equipment has changed dramatically, adapting three apparatus—the chemical wagon, the hose wagon, and the steamer pumper—into the modern well-engineered and reliable apparatus known as the triple-combination pumper. Gas and diesel engines replaced horses. Water supply systems were installed and upgraded. Hose has vastly improved. The changes are dramatic, leaving us with the question: Given modern equipment and fire behavior, have our tactics evolved to emphasize speed of attack?


Today’s Evolving Fire Attack

First-Arriving Engine: A Progressive Fire Attack Plan

Modern Fire Attack: Room and Contents

Time from ignition to water application is the essence of our mission. Many factors influence the time from ignition to water application. Departments don’t control the time from ignition to notification. Departments should control and account for the time from notification to water application including call process and dispatch time, response time, prearrival layout, and arrival and tactical deployment. Although each element impacts the mission, this article focuses on delays caused by historic adherence to prearrival layout such as a forward lay vs. responding directly for tactical deployment.

This article will focus on fires in residential occupancies ranging in size from single-family to small multifamily occupancies up to three stories. Tactical deployment includes initial attack lines stretched from the first-arriving apparatus. Given these two conditions, we propose that the first-arriving engine should respond directly to the fire and begin fire attack with tank water. Later-arriving engines, ladders, and tenders support fire attack with a stable water supply, search, and additional attack lines. We contend that having the first-arriving engine stop at a hydrant and lay forward causes unwarranted delay in fire attack, thereby negatively impacting the mission.

The mission is to save lives. Experience, research, and history demonstrate that applying water to the seat of the fire as fast as possible gives trapped civilians the best opportunity to survive. We should evaluate our operations based on our mission and our performance relative to that mission. For fire attack, speed saves lives. The best plan results in arrival and tactical deployment without delay. The one-piece, two-piece, and three-piece attacks described here support the mission through quick and sustainable fire attack.

The Forward Lay and the Mission

Many fire departments require the first-arriving engine to perform a forward lay en route to a fire. In a typical forward lay, as the crew approaches a fire scene, they identify the hydrant on their route that is closest to the fire. They stop at the hydrant, dismount the apparatus, and deploy supply hose and the necessary tools to connect to the hydrant. Once the hose and tools are deployed, the crew remounts the apparatus and continues for arrival and tactical deployment.

There are two major variations of the forward lay. One requires leaving a firefighter at the hydrant to make the connection, which decreases staffing for the first line. This is likely to cause additional delay in fire attack, further damaging the mission. The second method is to secure the hose to the hydrant with a strap before proceeding for arrival and tactical deployment. Allowing the first arriving to secure the hose to the hydrant maintains staffing for fire attack. Regardless of which method is used, requiring the first engine to perform a forward lay delays arrival and tactical deployment. Delays negatively impact the mission.

The forward lay described above encompasses urban, and some suburban, fire departments that have hydrants. Where there are no hydrants in suburban and rural fire districts, the same forward lay techniques are generally used from the closest location that will provide enough room for tender operations. In this article, we will consider the operation similarly regardless of whether it is a hydrant or a tender location.

How long is the delay caused by a forward lay? It is reasonable to presume that the delay for initial fire attack for an average crew on an average day is at least one minute. It is often more. Think about the impact one minute will have on the mission. The victim is experiencing rapidly escalating toxicity and temperatures. His only chance at survival is your efforts on his behalf. Just one additional minute means heat levels that rise more than 500°F. One minute may be the difference between mission success and mission failure. A one-minute delay is not acceptable when we can adapt our tactics to more effectively accomplish the mission.

Modern Fire Attack in the Context of Urban, Suburban, and Rural Departments

The following descriptions of urban, suburban, and rural are not universal. They are common ground for us to consider the impacts of the three types of fire attack; supply operations; and, most importantly, the mission of saving lives.

Urban fire department. Generally, urban department engines have, at a minimum, a 500-gallon tank and full-time staffing of three to four personnel. Urban departments with full-time firefighters and 500-gallon or larger tanks typically have a robust hydrant supply system. Most cities follow the American Water Works standard requiring hydrant spacing at 500 feet or less in residential zones. The result is often hydrants at every intersection and commonly midblock hydrants. Even in urban areas, there are a small number of locations with long distances between the fire occupancy and the nearest hydrant, which will be addressed later in this article. However, most of the time, the first-arriving engine in the urban setting brings a 500-gallon water supply to the fire, the nearest hydrant is within 250 feet, and additional apparatus and personnel will be on scene quickly to provide support.

Suburban fire department. A suburban fire department engine will generally have a tank capacity of a minimum 750 gallons, often more, and staffing of two or three firefighters. Suburban departments typically have a mix of areas with and without hydrants. Hydrant spacing is not as reliable in suburban areas, and distance to a hydrant can easily exceed 500 feet. These departments must have initial operations supporting both hydrant and tender supply. Typically, a suburban department will need two engines at the fire location to support an interior fire attack. Although initial operations occur with on-duty personnel, additional support is likely to be volunteer based.

Rural fire department. A rural fire department is typically all volunteer, though some limited staffing may be on duty during normal business hours. Engines have 1,000-plus-gallon tanks and respond from the station typically when three or more firefighters have reported in. Hydrants are the exception in rural areas, and most operations rely primarily on tank water with tender support.

Modern Evolution of the One-, Two-, and Three-Piece Attack

One-piece attack. The modern one-piece attack mirrors the immediacy and effectiveness of the chemical wagon attack. The first engine focuses on the mission, to save lives, by establishing fire attack as quickly as possible. Delay in arrival and tactical deployment of the initial attack line is contrary to the mission. Do not stop at the hydrant on your way to fire attack. Do not leave a firefighter behind for some other task. Operate in a safe and professional manner, but do not take any action that delays the initial application of water to the fire.

The first engine should arrive and begin fire attack without delay. It is supported by later-arriving companies building a system of two- or three-piece attack. A recent Underwriters Laboratories (UL) study—”Analysis of the Coordination of Suppression and Ventilation in Single-Family Homes” (page 366)—(Figure 1) clearly demonstrates that one- and two-room fires in single-family residential occupancies require less than 250 gallons of water to bring under control. An additional study of multifamily occupancies (page 274) demonstrated the same for single-unit fires in multifamily residential occupancies (Figure 2). This is just more than half the tank water carried on the smallest of modern engines. Now, let’s talk about how support for an aggressive, mission-focused, tank fire attack without delay is supported by later-arriving companies.

Figure 1. Fire Attack Volume in Single-Family Residential Fires

The volume of water used for fire attack in 20 acquired structure test fires. The lower, bolded bar is the volume used for initial fire control in a residential setting. The maximum volume used for initial fire control was 243 gallons.

Source: Reagan, J., Bryant, J., Weinschenk, C., Analysis of the Coordination of Suppression and Ventilation in Single-Family Homes, March 19, 2020, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, Columbia, MD 21045,

Two-piece attack. In the urban setting, additional companies generally arrive close behind the first. Hydrant spacing is generally a maximum of 500 feet, often less. In these conditions, the first engine focuses on arrival and tactical deployment for fire attack. The second arriving focuses on water supply as the initial tactical objective. In the urban environment, the first two engine pump operators will generally be able to complete a supply without additional assistance. This leaves the second-arriving officer and remaining crew available to assist in fire attack. Occasionally, the pump operators will need some of the second-arriving crew to stretch supply hose. This will decrease overall time to a supply while only moderately impacting the time until the entire second-arriving engine crew is involved in fire attack.

Figure 2. Fire Attack Volume in Multifamily Residential Fires

The water volume used for fire attack in apartment fires contained to a single living unit. Note that the maximum used was in experiment 1B at 264 gallons except that scenario 5 simulated a below grade fire that required both interior and exterior fire attacks and therefore used significantly more water.

Source: Stakes, K., Analysis of the Coordination of Suppression and Ventilation in Multi-Family Dwellings, June 23, 2020, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, Columbia, MD 21045,

In the suburban or rural environment, where hydrants are spaced farther apart or tenders will be used, the second-arriving engine should perform a forward lay dry, position near the first-arriving engine, and provide tank water in support of fire attack. This provides a minimum of 1,500 gallons to support fire attack. If necessary, additional units provide support in a three-piece attack.

Three-piece attack. This attack is implemented when there is a significant distance to the nearest hydrant or tender operations are required. The first engine commits to arrival and fire attack without delay. The second engine lays supply hose dry from the hydrant or tender operation area. The third-arriving engine connects to the hydrant and pumps the dry forward lay to supply water. A tender connects directly to the dry forward lay supply hose left by the second arriving. For areas where tenders are used, the third arriving sets up the supply using tenders, portable tanks, or some other combination with the goal of providing an uninterrupted supply.

Historical vs. Modern Hose and Hydrants

Historically, there was good reason to require a forward lay, as hydrants and hose were notoriously unreliable. System failures caused fire departments to require the first-arriving engine to lay forward. Equipment was unreliable enough that some departments required the second-arriving engine, or every engine on the first alarm, to do the same. These were sound procedural responses for departments with poor hose and poor hydrants. The days of unreliable hose and hydrants are largely gone.

Even as recently as the 1980s, supply hose was susceptible to failure. When supply hose failed, it often failed catastrophically, with complete separation and loss of flow. The need to create supply standard operating procedures (SOPs) that mandate significant redundancy was a result of this experience. If hose was likely to fail, then it was wise to have multiple supply lines so a single point of failure did not impact fire attack. Today, supply hose has a much lower, miniscule even, likelihood of a complete rupture with complete loss of supply. Partial supply hose ruptures do occur, though they rarely decrease overall flow enough to impede successful fire attack in the residential environment.

Hydrant systems are much more reliable. Most water supply systems are robust enough to support a residential offensive fire attack from any single hydrant within the system. This does not mean there are not outliers within a system that should be identified. What it does mean is that hydrants are reliable enough that the SOP for the first-arriving engine should provide a response directly to the fire location, initiate fire attack with tank water, then begin supply operations.

Moving Forward

The mission is to save lives. Rapid arrival and tactical deployment best meet the mission. If your department requires the first-arriving engine to perform a forward lay, consider whether that requirement best meets the mission. There may have been good reasons in the past to require a forward lay, but ask yourself, “Do those reasons exist today?” It is not good enough to rely on what we have always done. Departments should be looking to continually improve. A sound strategy supported by sound tactics codified with good SOPs will ensure we meet the mission and save lives to the best of our ability.


1. Marston, H.L., Fire Engineering, Issue 14, Volume 48, October 5, 1910, Retrieved from

Phil Jose is a deputy chief (ret.) with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department. He was a shift commander and training division chief with more than 30 years of service. He teaches the Art of Reading Smoke, Tactics, Decision Making, Air Management, and Instructor Development. He has been an instructor at FDIC International since 2004 and is a recipient of the FDIC Tom Brennan Training Achievement Award.

Dennis LeGear is a captain (ret.) from the Oakland (CA) Fire Department. He has an AS degree in fire science and a BS in vocational education. He is a technical panel member for the UL studies “Impact of Fire Attack Utilizing Interior & Exterior Streams on Firefighter Safety and Occupant Survival” and “The Coordinated Attack Study.” He is the owner of LeGear Engineering F.D. Consulting. He authored the Water Supply and Hose/Appliance Chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and is an FDIC H.O.T. and classroom instructor.

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