The Nozzle: The Last Line of Defense


During a recent training session with career and volunteer firefighters from the East Coast, we asked a few policy questions. One pertained to daily checks for apparatus and the other to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). When the students were asked if their departments had a written policy on these subjects, every student’s hand shot up. This clearly demonstrated a commitment to being prepared.

Next, the group was asked if their departments maintained standard operating procedures (SOPs) mandating daily checks of nozzles on preconnected handlines. Only a few hands of the more than 100 students were raised. We used this response as an opportunity to bring the students’ attention to a common and dangerous oversight.

We have developed and instituted mandated department SOPs that dictate the thorough inspection of the apparatus that delivers firefighters to the fire and have a process for inspecting the breathing apparatus for entry into the toxic, possibly untenable, environment. It appears that the majority of our nation’s fire departments lack a policy and may forgo a daily check of the nozzle, the very important tool found at the end of every stretched hoseline. The nozzle is ultimately the last line of defense between the firefighter and the seat of the fire.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if we exposed our SCBA or turnout gear to what we expose our preconnected nozzles to each and every day (photo 1). Imagine seeing a fire engine running up and down the road with four SCBAs strapped to the outside of the apparatus. The preconnected nozzle is subjected to all the environmental elements of the seasons—road grime and salt during the winter, for example. What about the unsecured nozzle’s banging against the apparatus as you race from call to call? It would be safe to assume that if we treated our SCBA the same way as we treat our preconnected nozzles, we would at a minimum examine the SCBA after every run and check it extensively every day. Yet, as we discovered after discussion with the students, many departments do not have their firefighters check the nozzles. Most nozzles are not checked until the moment before they are deployed at the fire and then once a year during annual hose testing.

(1) Imagine the SCBA being stored on the apparatus and subjected to the same conditions as this preconnected nozzle. (Photos by Dan Shaw.)

We are summoned to fires every day and expect that we will arrive and quickly put out the fire to save lives and property. We achieve this by effectively completing numerous tasks, but ultimately we need to put water on the fire. If water cannot reach the seat of the fire and cannot flow from that perfectly placed hoseline because of a nozzle malfunction, have we really done the job to which we are committed?


It is clear we need to check nozzles. We need to determine a method of inspection and how often inspections should be done. Many departments use the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards as guides. Unfortunately, though, many firefighters do not have access to NFPA standards and may not be aware of NFPA 1962, Standard for the Inspection, Care, and Use of Fire Hose, Couplings, and Nozzles and the Service Testing of Fire Hose, 2008 edition, and NFPA 1964, Standard for Spray Nozzles, 2008 edition, and their recommendations.

These standards offer a schedule and process for nozzle inspection and flow accuracy. Although not every fire department mandates strict adherence to NFPA standards, it is in your best interest to use these guides as tools to implement and build your own policies. We also need to develop some basic considerations for nozzle care that any fire department can use.

Ideally, maintaining nozzles should be rather simple for career firefighters on a regimented schedule. At a minimum, all nozzles should be checked daily. Perhaps, the best time would be during the incoming shift’s morning check of equipment. Volunteer firefighters, who may not have a consistent schedule, should also check the nozzles daily, perhaps rotating around duty crew nights. The safest practice is to check nozzles daily along with the apparatus and SCBAs.

Once a schedule has been formulated for inspecting this absolutely vital piece of firefighting equipment, you must decide what and how to check the different types of nozzles you carry. All personnel must possess the same base of general information to assist them in properly checking the nozzle and in enhancing their skills associated with being a nozzle firefighter.


Following is basic information that all department members should know:

1 Be aware of the gallonage settings or gallons per minute (gpm) flow of your smooth bore and fog nozzles (photo 2). This knowledge enables you to accurately determine if the current stream and gallonage are sufficient to put out the fire.

(2) A simple twist of the gallonage selector ring can greatly affect fire flow.

2 Does the fog nozzle gallonage selector have a flush function? If so, small amounts of debris are able to pass through the nozzle. If you deploy and operate a nozzle at least once in your career, you will face the possibility of an obstruction traveling through your line and restricting the flow. As often is the case, it will happen at the most inopportune time. It is important to know how to mitigate this situation with the features included in the nozzle.

3 Know the number of clicks it takes to reach the flush setting in a zero-visibility environment. Zero visibility is the office in which we operate, so we are compelled to know all of our equipment by touch. Knowing that you have a flush function is only half the battle; you must be able to get to that position and then back to the correct gallonage when you can’t “see” the label.

4 Know which way to rotate the fog nozzle in zero visibility to ensure you are using a straight stream (all the way to the right = straight). If the nozzle is on an incorrect stream when you enter a fire room, the stream may endanger your crew and any potential civilians. When you are the head hydraulic engineer (i.e., nozzle firefighter), you must know how to handle this tool. Do not arrive at a fire and “steam” an escaping civilian or fellow firefighter because you could not remember which direction was straight stream. There are many memory triggers to help—for example, left = lobster. Adapt one, and remember it!

5 Do you have a personal or department procedure for a nozzle malfunction? Keep a quick mental checklist to run through to diagnose and mitigate the situation (i.e., can I use the flush function to clear this obstruction, or can I remove the fog tip of a breakaway nozzle, passing the obstruction through the smooth bore slug?).

You cannot just retreat when you suffer a nozzle malfunction. Members will most likely be conducting their primary search and are relying on you to provide a measure of safety. So, have an established procedure in place prior to the incident that clearly provides a checklist—a rapid and focused checklist to diagnose and mitigate the situation so you can do your job and put water on the fire. For instance, if you suffer a restricted stream, do the following:

  • Notify your officer, who can notify the incident commander (IC) and request a backup line immediately.
  • Rotate the nozzle to the flush function to observe (see or hear) an obstruction passing.
  • Rotate back to “fireground gallonage.” Is the stream correct?
  • If not, close the bail, remove the tip, and reopen the bail to see/feel if an obstruction passes. If successful, place the tip back on, and resume firefighting.
  • If the flow is still restricted through the nozzle, then you must retreat to an area of refuge and have the backup line replace you.


6 Decide if this obstruction/nozzle malfunction constitutes a Mayday/Urgent radio message in your department. Water loss on the fireground is critical information that all operating firefighters must hear. Plan for and have a policy that dictates what must be transmitted over the radio when a water loss issue is encountered.

7 The smooth bore nozzle is very effective, but the operator and officer must know the capabilities of the flow and have an accurate assessment of the fire load.

If you are committed to the smooth bore, then you should carry spare tips in your turnout pocket. The experienced operator will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the current tip and flow and adjust to smaller or larger tips if necessary.

The smooth bore’s gpm is limited to the diameter of the nozzle tip (e.g., 15⁄16-inch tip = 185 gpm).

As with the fog nozzle, the change in tip size and, therefore, the change in flow must be communicated to the pump operator. Pump pressures may need to be adjusted.



Fog Nozzle Daily Checklist

The minimum that must be checked for fog nozzles, regardless of the brand, is the following:


Overall Condition/Appearance

Evaluate the extent of damage caused by environmental conditions. Is the appearance tattered and worn so that the structure is affected, or are the changes only cosmetic?

  • Take off the nozzle and flush it with clean water to remove any surface grit or grime. Check the condition of the threads.
  • Check for broken “turbine teeth or fins” and for adequate spin of the fog nozzle ring found on the outer edge. These “teeth” aid the fog nozzle in producing an effective fog pattern. Most manufacturers recommend that if more than one-quarter of the teeth are missing or broken, the turbine teeth ring should be replaced.
  • Check for the presence of debris or any damage to the interior screen area, if applicable.


Condition of the Washers


  • Expose every washer in the nozzle assembly. There should be washers at each connection point (photo 3).
  • Evaluate the condition of each washer. Washers can dramatically affect the nozzle’s flow and efficiency. Remove the washer and squeeze it between your thumb and forefinger. If the washer quickly returns to normal shape and is not cracked, it is okay. If not, replace it immediately (photos 4-8).


(3) Personnel should be familiar with all types of nozzles carried on their apparatus.
(4) To properly check the washer, place it between your thumb and forefinger.
(5) Squeeze the washer. Look for cracking and separation.
(6) If the washer is in poor condition, it will snap and must be replaced.
(7, 8) If the washer is in good condition, it will return to its original shape, unlike the washer at the left in photo 7 that broke into two parts on inspection.

Free Movement of Movable Parts

Movable parts include shutoff/bail couplings, gallonage selector, and so on.

  • Ensure that anything that moves and is essential to the delivery of water is operating freely.
  • The shutoff/bail should open with a reasonable amount of resistance—not too hard that it can’t open and not so loose that it will accidentally open or shut off.
  • Evaluate the condition of the shutoff/bail and the attachment nut.
  • Virtually all of the nozzle shutoff/bails used today are plastic and can be easily damaged or cracked and can fail. We have witnessed plastic bails breaking off during fire operations; thankfully, they failed in the open position. Check for stress fractures and hairline cracks along the bail to guard against their failing while in battle.


The Gallonage Selector Setting


  • Make sure it is on the correct setting.
  • Discuss the setting with your personnel. It should be based on the fire load in your first-due area and stream capability. If your first-due area has all single-family dwellings, the setting may differ from a company situated among all commercial high-rises.
  • Since you may need to change the gallonage in the middle of the firefight, ensure that the selector moves freely and clicks appropriately.



Check the following, at a minimum, for a smooth bore nozzle, regardless of the manufacturer. (Note: Smooth bore nozzles have fewer moving internal and external parts. There is no variation in the gpm flow; flow is regulated by the opening size of the nozzle tip. However, whether you have smooth bore or fog nozzles, apply the same basic inspection format.)

Overall Condition/Appearance


  • Evaluate the extent of the damage caused by environmental conditions. Is the appearance tattered or worn, cosmetic, or structural?
  • Take it off. Flush it with clean water to remove any surface grit or grime.



Condition of the Washers



  • Expose every washer in the nozzle assembly. There are washers at each connection point.
  • Evaluate the condition of each washer. It can dramatically affect the nozzle’s flow and performance. (See above for Washer Inspection.)
  • In addition to the washers in the nozzle couplings, smooth bore nozzles have a washer for each of the removable tips.



Free Movement of Movable Parts


  • Movable parts include shutoff/bail, couplings, and so on.
  • The smooth bore nozzle has fewer moving parts to inspect.
  • Check the shutoff/bail and couplings to ensure anything that moves and is essential to the delivery of water operates freely (as stated in the fog nozzle shutoff/bail assessment)
  • Check for stress fractures and hairline cracks along the handle of the shutoff/bail. Plastic may show stress fractures near the attachment points prior to failure.


Condition of the Outer Tips


  • Check that the tips are securely fastened and in place.
  • Make sure they are not out of round (photo 9).


(9) The preferred method for checking the tips is to remove them before inspection.


Our nozzles are truly our last line of defense. It is in our hands when we mount the interior attack; it allows us to put water on the fire. It is where it all begins and where it all ends. To make sound tactical decisions with our nozzles, we must demand that personnel are aware of the functional operation, capabilities, and limitations of this tool. To be truly combat ready, firefighters must be vigilant in performing a thorough check of the nozzle to ensure it will operate efficiently.

It is incumbent on engine company personnel to foster this dedication to professionalism by discussing hypothetical tactical situations with their company. Develop plans for potential nozzle malfunctions, and propose solutions to ensure that fire suppression can continue. Discuss the strengths and limitations of the fog and smooth bore nozzles. Often, the choice of nozzle is based on your first-due area, your staffing levels, and your company’s level of experience.

As with all training, conduct drills with personnel in the environment in which they work, zero visibility. A method to simulate real-life situations is to black out the firefighters’ face pieces, have them wear full personal protective equipment including firefighting gloves, and ask them to describe each nozzle part. They should be able to determine the direction of rotation for a straight stream, how to recognize the distinguishing characteristics of the nozzle (i.e., raised lugs for selectable gallonage, gpm selector knobs/dials, flush function, and so on), and how to remove and clear a nozzle obstruction.




Part of the commitment to completing our job is demonstrated through ensuring that you and your equipment are ready to go when the bell rings. Develop and enforce a policy on checking your nozzles, learn about their capabilities and limitations, and train for the unexpected with the nozzles in the environment in which you operate. Knowing our tools and how they work will keep us and all those operating on the fireground as safe as possible.

DANIEL D. SHAW, a captain in the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department, is an 18-year veteran of the fire service. He has an associate degree in fire service supervision and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Maryland. He is a graduate of the West Point Leadership Program, USMA. He is vice president of Traditions Training LLC, has been an instructor for FDIC, and is an editorial contributor to Fire Engineering.

DOUGLAS J. MITCHELL JR., a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York, has been in the fire service for 17 years. He previously served with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency health services from the University of Maryland and is working toward a master’s degree. He is vice president of Traditions Training LLC and an FDIC instructor.

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