Commercial Engine Company Operations: The First Line

The saying “as the first line goes, so goes the fire” has been around a long time, and it is as true today as it was decades ago. Line selection is one of the most important decisions a company officer or an incident commander (IC) makes at every fire. If you make the wrong call, there’s rarely a chance for a do-over.

Many departments have standard operating procedures (SOPs) that designate what size hoseline is required for fires in commercial buildings. Other departments leave the choice to the discretion of the company officer or the IC.

I am not a fan of hard-and-fast rules, but I have found it helpful in many departments to have these procedures in writing and a bit less flexible than those for other activities on the fireground.

When having this conversation in your firehouse, it is important to learn from past experiences and historic fires. The lessons learned will be a great guide.

Fires in commercial buildings cannot be fought in the same way as those in one- and two-family residences, condos, townhouses, and even compartmentalized high-rises. The average targeted flow from a 1¾-inch line is approximately 150 gallons per minute (gpm). When going into service on a residential fire with a room or two off and some hallway involvement, one or two 1¾-inch lines pumped at the appropriate pressures are commonly enough to handle the conditions. However, commercial buildings are a whole different challenge.

As we know, we need water to combat British thermal units (Btus). We talk about all of the new petroleum-based products burning in residential fires and all of the Underwriters Laboratories and National Institute of Standards and Technology testing that has been providing great scientific data about today’s fires as opposed to the fires of yesteryear, but what about the fact that the stores, office buildings, and warehouses into which we are stretching lines are full of these same products in great bulk? Maybe it’s time we focus on this challenge.

(1) Engine companies that train repeatedly with 2½-inch hoselines will be familiar with and comfortable operating them even when staffing is limited. (Photos by author.)

(2) Engine companies that train repeatedly with 2½-inch hoselines will be familiar with and comfortable operating them even when staffing is limited. (Photos by author.)

(1-2) Engine companies that train repeatedly with 2½-inch hoselines will be familiar with and comfortable operating them even when staffing is limited. (Photos by author.)

For some time, the fire service has pushed for lighter and faster tools and equipment. We saw this in self-contained breathing apparatus, hydraulic rescue tools, fire hose, and even nozzles. Now, there is the belief that “lighter” and “easier to maneuver” improve fireground efficiency, making our job better. This idea might seem true on the surface, but when it comes to buildings with large fire loads or potentially large fires, it has been proven time and again that the opposite is really the case as far as hoselines are concerned. Most smaller, lighter, and presumably easier-to-maneuver hoselines become easily overmatched by the challenges presented by commercial structure fires. We must understand the potential flows from our selected hose and nozzle combinations, not just know what we read in ads or hear from salespeople.

For example, many are pointing out that new versions of 1¾-inch hose with the proper nozzle combinations can flow much greater than 150 pounds per square inch (psi). These claims may be documented by very competent researchers producing solid studies. However, is that what’s on your rig when you pull up to the well-involved big box store in the middle of the afternoon with shoppers and employees scurrying out the doors? If that is the case, a firefighter or company officer who got only some of the facts regarding the effectiveness of 1¾-inch hose may be placing himself, his crew, and the occupants of that structure in serious peril. To prevent this, lead off with a 2½-inch line you know will provide at least 250 gpm when pumped at the proper pressure. It takes much of the guesswork out of the scenario and should ensure a quicker knockdown and extinguishment for the engine company.

Proponents of the 2½-inch attack line point to the increased Btu-cooling abilities, extended reach and penetration of the hose stream, and lower nozzle reactions as benefits of this choice. All of this is true and provides for an additional layer of safety. Detractors of using big lines claim that the line is heavy, bulky, harder, and slower to move into position in the structure and necessitates too many personnel to get it in place. As an officer who ran on a three-member engine company for a large part of my career in the career and volunteer fire service, I can unequivocally state that although these may be concerns, they are simply excuses! As with any other fireground task, training and preparation will give the engine company the ability and confidence to deploy and effectively operate the 2½-inch attack line inside commercial building fires (photos 1 and 2).

New Twists

Today’s commercial buildings present the same challenges they did decades ago, with some added twists. They are just as large, if not larger; they contain uncompartmentalized floor space with tremendous amounts of stock; and the contents can be extremely volatile when involved in fire. Although many of these buildings are alarmed and contain suppression systems, the potential for a well-involved and highly fueled fire is real and should be expected. Many older commercial buildings were sprinklered, but do you know how often the contents and fire load have changed since the suppression system was engineered? Is that system capable of containing a fire involving today’s contents (photo 3)?

(3) The fire in this well-involved high-school classroom was extinguished in less than one minute with a single 2½-inch hoseline.

(3) The fire in this well-involved high-school classroom was extinguished in less than one minute with a single 2½-inch hoseline.

As with any other fire, the key to effective extinguishment is to get the necessary water to the seat of the fire. By initially going with the 2½-inch attack line, the company gains better reach and stream penetration and the ability to combat the high heat generated by fuel loads. Additionally, the engine company can work from a safer location. Once the crew gets a good knock on the fire, handlines can be reduced to 1¾ inch for overhaul and final extinguishment.

As has always been the case in structure fires, the more water applied to the seat of the fire in an overpowering manner, the better the chance we have to halt the fire’s progress and live up to our mantra of saving lives and property. Building construction and fire loads continue to evolve, but sticking to the time-tested basics of solid engine company principles that have been proven to work is the key to a successful operation in a commercial building fire.

AARON HELLER began his fire service career in 1984. He is a captain in charge of training for the Hamilton Twp. (NJ) Fire District #9, a New Jersey level 2 instructor, a fire official, and an EMT. He is a past chief of the New Egypt (NJ) Volunteer Fire Company and served 15 years on the Plumsted Township (NJ) Board of Fire Commissioners. He is a senior instructor with the Mercer County (NJ) Fire Academy. Heller is the lead instructor of the FDIC International H.O.T. evolution “Commercial Fireground Operations” and lectures on the topic nationally. He is a founding member of the Jersey F.O.O.L.S. chapter of the Fraternal Order Of Leatherhead Society. He is the owner of On Scene Training Associates, LLC.

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