Big Fire, Big Water; Little Fire, Little Water

Firefighter performs horizontal ventilation during live-fire training.

(Photo by Tony Greco)

By Michael DeStefano

Time and time again we have heard the saying “big fire, big water.” What does this mean? Simply put, we need to provide enough water in the initial attack line to put out not the fire we see on arrival but rather the fire that we will potentially have by the time we enter the structure and put water on the fire. This is very common practice amongst many of our departments across America, as seen by the transition to the 1 ¾-inch attack line as the initial preconnect commonly deployed at residential structure fires. These lines are capable of providing more than 200 gpm with the correct nozzle attached. This would appear to be a non-issue in the fire service, but it seems we are forgetting the second task of the fire service: property conservation.

We live in a world where the latest technology is desired to provide additional comfort at the cheapest price possible. This extends far beyond the use of smartphones and 80-inch flat screen televisions. Our furniture, cars, mattresses, and even the structures that we live in are increasingly made up of synthetic materials. Synthetics are defined as a product or substance made by chemical synthesis. These synthetics contain high levels of hydrocarbons, which burn much more rapidly than their natural counterparts. A quick visit to the Internet will yield plenty of videos from Underwriters Laboratories on the speed at which synthetics burn faster as compared to older natural furniture; they also burn at higher BTUs. So what does this mean to the fire service? We are looking at fires that develop faster, burn hotter, and spread quicker. This again leads to the use of higher-gpm hoselines.

We have discussed why there is a need for higher gpm hoselines in working structure fires. And as noted above, this is common practice amongst many fire departments. But what happens when we have too much water in our structure fires?

Depending on the state that you work/volunteer in, there are varying ways of receiving the fundamentals of firefighting. Some states require a local community college or state-run school to teach and certify the firefighter in minimum standards or Firefighter I and Firefighter II. Other states require no certifications to be hired, and provide all the training during their recruit school. Either way, there are multiple aspects of recruit school that need to be covered to produce a rookie firefighter. The instruction consists of everything from fire behavior, ground ladder use and placement, ventilation, saws, ropes, search and rescue, etc. Another topic that is covered is hoseline management.

Hoseline management is a large topic in itself that is covered only minimally in recruit school. A rookie firefighter needs to learn how to deploy the preconnect line, efficiently flake out the line, provide enough hose at the door for rapid entry, and bleed the air out of the line. This is a 30-45-second task that takes a full day to train the recruits on as it is a necessary task to be efficient in on the fireground. The recruits then begin learning how to manage the charged hoseline inside the structure: working with a team around pinch points, moving the hoseline up stairs and around furniture, etc. This again is another critical, time-consuming training task to even make it to the fire. Once at the fire, the recruit learns to put the wet stuff on the red stuff. This is typically the extent of instruction that the recruit has on actual firefighting, beyond discharging the hose outside at various cones to simulate fire attacks.

Why does this occur? Simply put, minimum standards and costs. There are standards that are set forth by the respective state that require a certain amount of live fire training for recruits. The price to rent a certified burn building is costly and is done typically only for one or two days during rookie school to reduce costs. If the training center is lucky enough to have their own certified burn building, there is still the costs of material to burn and multiple extra Live-Fire certified instructors to be able to complete the training burns. With rookie classes in the range of 30+ students, each student is only allotted minimal time actually fighting fire. Our rookie firefighter may receive one burn while operating the nozzle and practice a quick “O” or “Z” pattern to knock down the fire and extinguish.


So here comes our young rookie firefighter as he joins the ranks of the fire service. We will call him Firefighter Smith. Firefighter Smith is assigned to Engine 1. Engine 1 is a busy unit that is motivated and progressive, training every shift they can. Firefighter Smith is becoming proficient in skills like extrication, ventilation, etc. Like many of our departments and units, Engine 1 runs a lot less fire than it used to. Six months on the job, Firefighter Smith responds to his first structure fire. It is a simple room-and-contents fire in the back bedroom of a two-story, 2,000-sq. foot residence. He is the backward firefighter. Firefighter Smith jumps off the engine and his training kicks in. Firefighter Smith deploys preconnect one with ease, pulls the line to the door, bleeds the line, and checks for kinks. Firefighter Smith masks up and forces the door with his lieutenant flawlessly. The crew of Engine 1 advances the 1 ¾-line to the back bedroom on the second floor. The bedroom door swings open and there is the mattress and nightstand on fire. Firefighter Smith is thrilled to see what he learned about fire behavior in action. The flames are creeping up the wall and beginning to crawl across the ceiling toward the crew’s fresh-made flow path. The lieutenant follows his standard operating guidelines and calls for horizontal ventilation of the room, and the crew attacks the fire aggressively once ventilation is achieved. Firefighter Smith opens the bale and begins using his “O” pattern, quickly knocking down the fire and extinguishing the fire. A good firefighter knows that your task isn’t completed until the fire is completely out. So, after a short two to three minutes of flowing water, the crew begins to check for extension into the ceiling and walls. Everyone high-fives and Firefighter Smith is tasked to buy donuts on the way back to the station to celebrate his first fire.

Firefighter Smith has a dozen or so similar fires, some smaller, some larger in the next five years of his career. Firefighter Smith sits for the promotional process and becomes a company officer. The process continues with our next round of rookie firefighters.

So what went wrong in the above story? Firefighter Smith responded to a small fire that required very minimal water. While we all agree that it is correct to pull the line that provides enough gpm for the potential fire we may face, how we use that same line makes a huge difference. Firefighter Smith used approximately 400-600 gallons to extinguish a fire that most likely could have been extinguished with less than 50 gallons. This excess water then flooded the second floor, causing significant water damage to the entire structure. What should have been $5,000 in damage has become $50,000 in damage to our tax-paying customer.

The fire department mantra is “Life safety and conservation of property.” So why is it that the second task has become such an afterthought? One potential reason is the fact that the fire service as a whole runs much less fire than it used to. When we calculate our own budget at home, we typically place things in two categories, “need to have” and “nice to have.” Life safety is a “need to have” mentality, whereas property conservation is the “nice to have” mentality. We train over and over again on the “need to have,” and, if we have time, partake in the “nice to have” training. This means that when the call comes in, our actions revert back to our training.

We are professional firefighters who need to perform all the services that we provide efficiently. This includes the “nice to have” services such as property conservation. This task is completed both after as well as during the fire.


So how do we teach less water on little fires while running fewer and fewer working structure fires? Training.

When we complete live-fire training, we need to incorporate fire behavior training that not only consists of watching the phases of fire growth but also includes fire behavior changes based on human intervention. The firefighter should see the changes that occur to a fire when a new flow path is created, when horizontal vs. vertical ventilation has been performed, and, most importantly, when water is applied. Having the student firefighter apply different strategies and tactics allows knowledge of how the water directly effects the fire and the environment.

A typical fire behavior live burn for a company should consist of the following. The crew arrives on scene, deploys their handline, forces entry into the structure, and makes their way to the fire room. In a normal company burn, the crew would open the door and inundate the fire with hundreds of gallons of water while other crews completed the searches and performed smoke evacuation. This type of scenario is completed with very little learned.

Instead, at the critical point where the crew has made it to the fire room, stop them. The live fire instructor that should be with the crew now has the opportunity to teach the entire company (officer and crew) valuable knowledge.

  • Have the company explain why they know it is the fire room. Add into the conversation the use of the thermal imager to find the fire room or the use of a gloved hand on the door starting from the bottom and moving upward to feel for increasing heat.
  • Have the officer crack the door and view the room for conditions using his or her eyes as well as the thermal imager and allow the crew to see the current environment. Close the door.
  • Explain the reality of a live victim within that environment. Is the room no longer hospitable to life? If so, the tactics we employ will be different from the tactics if the room is habitable.
  • Have the officer again crack the door and have the nozzleman pencil the ceiling three times, one in each corner and in the center of the room. Close the door again.
  • Explain to the crew that you just introduced a small amount of water in critical areas of the room based on heat and fire spread. Have the officer crack the door again and view condition changes with eyes and thermal imager. Close the door.
  • Have the officer request horizontal ventilation from our outside vent crew. Once ventilation has occurred, open the door, observe again the changing environment, and have the crew begin to enter the burn room.
  • This is where we begin to teach water conservation. Have the nozzleman locate the fire and give it a short blast from the line to knock down the fire a bit. The crew then advances closer to the fire before hitting again. Continue this process until you are close enough to see exactly what is burning or the fire is extinguished.

The above simple training points teach the student firefighters and the student officer how to use the appropriate amount of water when attacking a fire. This training also provides a great view of how our human intervention alters the fire environment as well as the fire itself. The simple instruction of what to do at a fire as opposed to why we are doing it is unacceptable. Our firefighters will be the ones that promote to company officers, and eventually to chiefs who will lead our organizations. Breaking the cycle of the task-oriented firefighter is critical to increasing knowledge of tactics.

The fire department has seemingly forgotten one of its founding principles regarding life safety and property conservation. The mantra of “big fire, big water” needs to add in the concept of “little fire, little water.” Professional firefighters fight fires efficiently and effectively. Applying the appropriate amount of water necessary to extinguish the fire will save more property than salvage and overhaul combined.

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Michael DeStefanoMichael DeStefano is a lieutenant and currently assigned to the training division with Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his career in 2004 at a small three-station paid department in Winter Springs, Florida, as a firefighter/EMT-B. In 2005, he moved to Brevard County, taking on the role of firefighter/paramedic in 2006. He has an associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College in fire science and a bachelor’s degree from Barry University in public administration.

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