BY RAY McCORMACK
Usually when we hear the term “urban wildland interface,” we think of forest fires encroaching on residential areas. In post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, we had a different mix of these terms. Members of the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) and the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), Illinois firefighters, and U.S. Forest Service firefighters from the Midwest and West Pacific worked together in an unprecedented urban environment. This group of dedicated firefighters formed an engine company tanker task force that worked around the clock to provide a reliable water source for firefighting in the damaged city.
Hurricane Katrina struck the NOFD hard, affecting overall department operations and its firefighters. Many firefighters we worked with had lost their homes and were struggling to deal with the displacement of family members while working their regular shifts at the fire station. FDNY firefighters, having gone through 9/11, understood how the horrific events and natural disasters were stretching NOFD firefighters to cover work and personal responsibilities. Although the two events are different, the NOFD, like FDNY, now had to work with a lot of new challenges.
Lead pumper NOFD Engine 8 staged at an intersection setting up a water relay. (Photos by author.)
The water tanker task force I worked with had Engine 8, an NOFD engine company, as the lead pumper; a special drafting pumper from Illinois; and six additional tanker pumpers normally used for forest firefighting. This task force was staged at the NOFD central fire station at the edge of the French Quarter. Other FDNY officers and I were assigned to Engine 8 and rotated as the officer in charge of the task force. Crews from FDNY and Illinois worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off throughout our deployment. The tanker crews worked shifts every day. NOFD members worked four 12-hour shifts followed by eight days off during a portion of our deployment. This, of course, was a departure from their regular shift schedule and was developed so they could have additional time to visit with family and try to get their affairs in order.
Because the task force could respond anywhere in the city, Engine 8 was always staffed with a regular assigned operator and at least one other NOFD member. This greatly assisted the task force in responding, since the rest of us had no working knowledge of the city. Portions of the city did have working hydrants; others areas, like the lower 9th Ward and the East End, had to rely solely on the tankers for water. Drafting from natural bodies of water was not an option for firefighting because of environmental factors and water pollution after the flood. Although our task force was not the only one operating in the city, it was the largest, capable of providing approximately 20,000 gallons of water in a single drop.
Task force staging adjacent to the French Quarter.
Because the city’s hydrant system was not functioning at full capacity, it was a prudent allocation of resources to assign the task force to all working structural fires. If a fire demanded several handlines and a large-caliber stream, the hydrants near the fire, often on the same main, could be pushed to their limit. New Orleans, like most urban areas, has a mix of housing stock and commercial buildings. The vast majority of the buildings were single-family residences of wood-frame construction; many were spaced close to each other. The risk of multiple-building fires was always present, and these fires had already occurred. Having the task force on scene gave the NOFD incident commander a reliable backup water source should hydrants fail or the system be overtaxed.
A typical task force shift began at 7 a.m. All NOFD and FDNY members met at the fire station and received a daily briefing from the chief in charge. An accountability system, similar to that used by FDNY, was used to list and keep track of members working that shift. The new crew relieved the previous crew, exchanged radios, and were briefed on any new developments. Each FDNY officer carried two portable radios. FDNY handheld radios were used for short-distance communication on the fireground; NOFD portable radios were used to talk to the dispatch center and for fireground operations. The NOFD multiple-frequency portable radios worked extremely well over long distances. The Illinois pumper and the lead task force tanker carried NOFD radios.
Lead pumper NOFD Engine 8 supplying handlines.
Because New Orleans, like many cities, has more than one style of hydrant operating nut, the task force needed several NOFD hydrant wrenches. One style of hydrant used a standard nut, which could be opened with an adjustable wrench if necessary; the other was a security type “Intimidator” and required a special wrench. The availability of this combination hydrant wrench, designed to work both types of nuts, was in short supply. Many of NOFD’s tools had been displaced over the course of several weeks; finding additional tools was almost impossible. However, we were able to get the wrenches we needed after a dedicated search. Because thread sizes are not always standardized, modifications had to be made so that NOFD Engine 8, the drafting apparatus, and the lead tanker matched. This task was job one for the task force. Once this problem was solved, it was possible to supply water to any apparatus.
As with any water tanker operation, refilling is a major concern. In New Orleans, refilling the tankers became a logistical problem because the hydrant system in some locations was inoperable. The tankers would use one member as a scout to find a water source capable of a timely refill. When a working hydrant was located and refill times were more than expected, the tanker crews would select multiple hydrants for refill to get the task force back in service in the shortest time possible.
The task force plan for a working fire was to drop a five-inch supply line at the street intersection and lay out as we proceeded toward the fire. Engine 8 would spot a short distance from an attack pumper and supply water to it. The drafting pumper would stage at the intersection, allowing room for the tankers to make their drops and still be able to exit the area. This system worked very well; often two pools would be set up within easy reach of the drafting pumper.
Initially, we used 100-foot lengths of five-inch supply hose and then changed to NOFD standard 50-foot lengths. The primary reason was the weather and its impact on the firefighters. Because of the daily 90°-plus temperatures and a matching humidity, draining hundreds of feet of 50-foot hose sections was a lot less taxing.
Drafting pumper supplying water from portable tanks.
Because there was virtually no traffic within the city, travel time to fires was relatively quick. Overall, the task force worked extremely well and solved the lack of a water supply for firefighting operations. The stretching of the supply hose and deployment of the tanks went very quickly, a tribute to the professionalism of the firefighters involved.
NOFD Engine Company 8 members, “The Buffalo Soldiers,” whose fire station was destroyed by the flood waters, were very gracious and helpful to the FDNY officers and firefighters who worked with them. The firefighters from Illinois who staffed the “Sullivan Pumper” greatly assisted the task force with their drafting experience. The members of the tanker nicknamed “Water Wizards” were just that-their knowledge and self-sufficiency were tremendous assets. Firefighters from different areas of the country came together and created a task force that always got water quickly. What more could an IC ask for?
RAY McCORMACK is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, serving as a lieutenant on Engine 69 in Harlem. He is a New York state-certified fire instructor and a H.O.T. instructor for the Fixed Burn Building Instructor program at FDIC and has lectured on engine company operations at FDIC and FDIC East. McCormack is a lead instructor for live burn training.