On the Line: Fast and Effective Water

Firefighters operate a hoseline

By David DeStefano

At the most fundamental level, the functions of an engine company are to supply water to the scene of a fire, apply water to the fire, and sometimes to accomplish both at the same incident. Although these duties are relatively straightforward, they may not be easy to accomplish. The speed and efficiency with which an engine company carries out this mission ultimately determines the success of a firefight. For this reason, firefighters must take every opportunity to leverage their policies, equipment, and training to tip the scales in their favor.


All companies need a clear understanding of their fireground responsibilities. Using operating polices to predetermine roles of responding companies during likely incident scenarios is a major advantage to help achieve efficient operations. Simply determining which company will be responsible for water supply will alleviate many issues during a response. Preassigning responsibilities also allows the responding companies to focus more carefully on size-up of their assigned role.

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Standard polices concerning when the first-in engine company supplies its own water or lays a dry supply line will also help the incident commander and other units execute appropriate water supply for differing fire conditions. Some jurisdictions may require the first-in engine supply its own water if the nearest hydrant is within close proximity to the apparatus or if fire is showing before passing the last hydrant. Another policy may include the first-arriving engine laying a dry supply line and the second arriving engine making the connection and starting water.   

A practice geared toward maximizing water supply may provide that, during major fires, each engine company must secure its own water supply and lay in to provide master stream support. Fire departments should also address which arriving engine company is responsible for augmenting a sprinkler system. This is an important task that should be assigned to an engine company on the first-alarm assignment, if possible.

Standard operating policies or guidelines should also address the manner in which attack lines are stretched and operated. The first-arriving engine company should always have a plan to stretch and operate an attack line at any point in the building, even when they are in the investigative mode. The time to engineer complex stretches is before they are required. If some areas are not reachable with a preconnected line, members must bring in bundled hose and plan a standpipe or outside stretch, if necessary.

To help ensure rapid deployment of attack lines in the proper sequence and location, policy should guide which arriving company completes certain stretches as well as the intended objectives. For instance, the first engine is normally tasked with stretching and operating a line to the seat of the fire. The company officer must consider the proper length, diameter of hose, path to the fire, and safe point of operation and advance. The considerations for placement should include direct confinement and extinguishment of the fire as well as protecting occupants and means of egress such as corridors and stairs. Interior exposures for offensive fires and exterior exposures for defensive firefights are also important considerations.

Responsibility for stretching and operating the second and third handlines should also be assigned to achieve rapid deployment of those resources. The second line should be a backup line for the initial attack line. Ensuring that this line is stretched automatically at all working fires unless otherwise specified is critical to firefighter and civilian life safety. Stretching a diameter equal to or greater than the initial attack line and at least one length longer is a widely accepted guideline. This helps to provide the anticipated flow requirements and will help compensate if the first line is slightly short. The backup line should follow the path of the first line. However, unless called into operation, members should remain far enough back from the initial attack line so as not to impede movement of the line or the members advancing toward the fire. 

The third handline should also be stretched by a company based on arrival order and availability. This hoseline should also be equal or greater in diameter to the other lines but should follow a different path into the building so as not to overburden or impede stairs, fire escapes, and corridors. This handline should be one or more lengths longer than the initial line, based on the size of the occupancy and location of the fire. The potential area of operation should include lateral interior or exterior exposures, as well is vertical exposures (floor above the fire). After deployment of the initial line and backup, the third line should be stretched automatically by an engine company per policy unless countermanded by the incident commander.

Engine companies must also be prepared to deploy and operate 2½-inch hoselines. In lightly staffed companies this evolution can be challenging. Jurisdictions may specify that large hoselines be stretched for commercial building fires, advanced fire conditions, or situations where the extent of the fire cannot be easily determined. Although two firefighters can operate a stationary line in a defensive posture, additional personnel are required to operate an interior line that may require mobility. This evolution may be specified in a policy that requires the 2½-inch line be deployed to a safe position by the initial company; then, with support from another unit, the line may be moved to a more suitable point of operation.


Policies may help clarify and assign tasks on the fireground. However, companies must be equipped with the appropriate equipment to ensure efficient delivery of water to the fireground and then apply that water to the fire. The engine company’s response area will be a prime factor in determining the quantity of supply hose. In addition, a setup for the driver/operator to self-supply water from a nearby hydrant will help secure water supply rapidly. Short lengths of large-diameter hose or a static bed of 3-inch hose that a driver/operator may use to make a hydrant connection may be the difference between supporting a sustained interior attack or running out of tank water while waiting for a supply line.

The task of efficient application of the correct gpms to the seat of the fire may be conducted more smoothly by equipping an engine company with appropriate-length preconnects for their response area, as well as options for extending beyond the preconnect when necessary. Giving the company officer a choice of several length attack lines and using a hose load convenient for deployment with the expected number of personnel will help decrease the timeframe for “water on the fire.” Hose loads such as the “minuteman pack” allow relatively long preconnects to be stretched with two members. These stretches may at least get the line moving to the fire during the time necessary for additional members to arrive.

Many jurisdictions face the need to stretch attack lines beyond the useful length of a preconnect. These may be long horizontal stretches around buildings and through alleys, or vertical stretches above the ground floor in garden apartments or other occupancies that are not equipped with standpipes. Preplanning policies and equipment for these scenarios will help ensure rapid water on the fire. The use of a static bed of 3-inch hose can extend an attack line vertically or horizontally. In vertical deployment, the engine officer can radio the driver/operator to stretch the 3 inch line near a specific window. The engine company firefighters can then drop a portion of attack line to be connected to the 3-inch hose via gated wye. Another option involves deploying a rope to hoist the – inch hose into the window. In either scenario, engine company members should bring enough bundled hose to with them to connect from a safe point and reach the fire.

Some incidents require a master stream to achieve rapid knockdown or prevent fire spread to exposures. Engine companies must be equipped to deploy these appliances rapidly to meet tactical objectives. Store a portable monitor that may be quickly connected to a 2½-inch preconnect or keep the appliance already connected to help ensure ease of use and viability as a tactical option for the engine company officer.


To achieve efficiency in any fireground operation, training and repetitive drills are required to learn the procedures and optimize performance. All firefighters should drill for proficiency in engine company operations. Skills that are seldom used in certain jurisdictions should receive attention to maintain competency. Some driver/operators seldom have the need to draft from a static water supply, whereas others may have never pumped a fire department connection or taken part in a relay pumping operation.

Company officers should be sure their members are proficient in self-supply of water to a pumper, dropping a dry supply line, and stretching preconnects in the types of occupancies most often encountered in their districts. All members of the company should know their role as the nozzleman, back up firefighter, or driver/operator. In addition, your firefighters must be familiar with the role of each member in more complex stretches and the commands the officer will issue to initiate these stretches to achieve fast and effective water on the fire. To help compensate for the dynamic environment of the fireground, members should also practice all evolutions shorthanded to understand realistic goals and the timeframe required when firefighters are required to address multiple concerns.

As the fundamental unit in the fire service, an engine company is tasked with performing multiple roles every day. While providing EMS, responding to hazmat incidents, auto accidents, service calls, and supporting specialty operations, the engine company must be able to perform its core mission flawlessly. To achieve the best possible outcome at a fire, we must have fast and effective water.   


David DeStefanoDavid DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.

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