By David W. Kerr

Rural fire departments with limited water resources have improved their fire water supply capabilities by using larger-diameter hose, portable dump tanks, and larger tanker/pumper apparatus equipped with quick dump valves. All of these improvements, used with regional tanker task forces or shuttles, have allowed the delivery of larger volumes of water with reduced friction loss. Despite these improvements, rural fireground water supply is still vulnerable to delays, operational difficulties, and even unsafe practices and conditions.

Quick delivery and supply continuity are the primary objectives for the water supply sector. There is no substitute for good preplanning and drills at the departmental and regional levels and established standard operating procedures/standard operating guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) to manage rural water supply operations consistently and safely.


Several fire water demand models and methodologies are available to help the incident commander (IC) determine how much water is needed. In some rural departments, the increased use of standard Class A or compressed air foam systems (CAFS) has actually reduced water demands. In addition to the strategies and tactics used by the IC, the water supply sector must observe specific operational practices and procedures to ensure quick delivery and water supply continuity while ensuring fireground safety.

For many room-and-contents fires, directly supplying an attack engine using several tankers with on-board midship pumps may be a sufficient water supply arrangement. In larger and more extended fireground operations, setting up portable dump tanks and tanker shuttles is generally the preferred and necessary water supply method.

Below are several “simple practices” observed over several years of traditional rural firefighting that also incorporate some new fire service technology and innovations. I will not address the many aspects and considerations necessary for planning tanker shuttles and rural water supply operations. There are many other excellent reference resources and articles available to consult regarding this subject.


Always having a backup plan is one fire service rule that applies to all fireground and rescue operations. Identifying a secondary water supply source when making an aggressive interior fire attack is no exception. The IC must plan for and ensure that a secondary water source is accessible and sufficient to ensure safe egress of interior suppression crews if the primary water source is lost or is temporarily interrupted.

Many attack engines normally have only one piston intake valve on their steamer connections and smaller gated auxiliary intake valves that allow the connection of a supply line to the apparatus while the tank water is supplying the handlines. However, when the tank is empty or the first water supply is interrupted or when a secondary water supply is established, many attack engines can receive only the second supply through their smaller auxiliary intake valve or require shutting down before switching to the secondary supply.

Photos by author.

If the apparatus is not equipped with a secondary large-diameter gated intake connection, one way to avoid water supply interruption is to add a piston-intake or master-intake valve to each steamer connection (photo 1).

For tankers that serve as tanker/pumpers, these apparatus can initially lay out from the fireground (reverse lay), pump from their tank water, and then initiate a draft from a nearby static water source. If the apparatus is not equipped with a master intake valve, the apparatus may experience a delay in supplying water to the attack engine when the tank is empty and the steamer connection cap is removed to initiate the drafting operation.

Consider providing a master intake valve on the steamer connection(s) to allow the apparatus to pump off its tank water while simultaneously obtaining a draft. Historically, piston-intake valves have not been considered suitable for drafting operations because of the potential for leakage while achieving vacuum. However, newer piston-intake valve designs are reported to be suitable for drafting operations. Master intake valves can often be added to existing steamer connections and are great options to consider when designing a new or refurbishing an existing apparatus (photos 2, 3).


An attack engine in a rural situation will normally drop the forward hoselay at the end of a driveway and lay in. The next-arriving engine or tanker is usually assigned as the water supply apparatus and supplies the large-diameter hose lying at the end of the driveway. Once the second-in apparatus connects to this supply hose, all additional sources of water must pass through this apparatus. If a tanker is connected, the first tanker must completely disconnect before the next tanker can connect to the supply line. This can result in a delay and loss of water at the attack engine and the need for the attack engine to revert to its tank water. The assumption here is that the attack engine always replenishes its tank water gradually as soon as it is supplied from another apparatus.

Consider adding a clappered jumbo siamese to the end of the forward hoselay (photos 4, 5). In some areas, this is referred to as the “rural hitch.” In addition to serving as a good hose anchor and marker, this device allows two apparatus to connect to the supply line at the same time. Although only one apparatus can supply water at a time, this arrangement prevents any delay of water to the attack engine when changing over between supplying apparatus. This arrangement also allows tankers to supply one side of the siamese while a second-in engine can lay out using a reserve lay to a nearby static water source. If additional tankers are required, another manifold and short length of hose can be added to accommodate additional tankers staged as part of the water supply sector.


In many rural settings, roadways are narrow and have open and deep drainage ditches on each side of the paved surface, leaving little room for accessing or setting up accessory equipment (photo 6). Installing hydraulic lifting devices for portable dump tanks on the side of the apparatus is a great safety and efficiency improvement, provided that personnel can safely access the portable dump tank. For new and existing apparatus, consider locating the portable dump tank on the driver’s side. Personnel can then remain on the paved road surface to remove and handle the portable dump tank (photo 7).


A standard feature of many tankers today is the quick dump valve that allows the full contents to be dumped into a portable dump tank in one to two minutes. The quick dump valve allows tankers to quickly leave the fire scene and return to the water fill site. The objective of any tanker shuttle operation is to maintain a sufficient level of water in the portable dump tanks and to ensure that tankers return before the level drops too low. Several factors affect the rate of tanker replenishment, including the apparatus fill rate and physical setup of the tanker fill station at the water fill site.

Many tankers that have 10-inch quick dump valves often have only one or two 212-inch fill lines located chest high on the rear shell of the tank. Consider adding a large-diameter (four- or five-inch) fill valve connected directly to the tank. This will allow the tanker to be filled as fast as the water fill site can accommodate. The fill connections should also be ergonomically designed and located to allow personnel to make the coupling connection without climbing or reaching above waist level. The addition of a larger four- or five-inch fill valve will necessitate assessing the tank’s shell strength and venting capacity. This is a great idea to consider when designing a new or refurbishing an existing apparatus (photo 8).

A second factor affecting tanker water fill rates is the type and number of fill lines available at the water fill site. If the supply engine is drafting from a good water source, several fill lines should be set up to allow for the filling of several tankers simultaneously or to allow tankers to connect up while others are filling. Use a short section of five-inch hose and a manifold or gated wye with several short hose sections, five-inch or three-inch, to allow for the simultaneous or consecutive filling of several tankers (photos 9, 10).


Rural roads often are not level or are crowned in the center. When setting up a portable dump tank, it may be difficult to find a level section of ground or roadway. Add a few pieces of cribbing to your tanker to help level the corners of the portable dump tank. Just a few inches of elevation difference can result in losing several hundred gallons of portable dump tank capacity (photo 11).


Do not ignore safety during water supply operations. Rural departments frequently have limited personnel assigned to the water supply sector, which may be some distance from the fireground. In addition to apparatus maneuvering and hazards from passing civilian vehicles, several dangerous activities are associated with accessing and handling suction tubes. Falls or back or overexertion type injuries can occur when removing and handling suction tubes when personnel are limited. For quicker and safer deployment of suction tubes, include using lightweight tubes (not for pressure), hydraulic equipment lifts (photos 12), and suction tube tunnels (photo 13) in hosebeds.

Using a hook-and-loop strap (photo 14) in place of the traditional spring-loaded suction tube clamps (photo 15) is another way to handle suction tubes more safely and efficiently. Each of these simple modifications can make accessing and maneuvering suction tubes with limited personnel safer and more efficient.

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Review your SOPs/SOGs and rural water supply equipment to determine if any of these “simple practices” might help to improve the delivery, continuity, and safety of your rural water supply operations.

DAVID W. KERR is captain and training officer for Point Pleasant (PA) Fire Company No. 1 and has served in the industrial and volunteer fire service since 1976. He is a Pro Board Level I and II fire instructor and has a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in safety and environmental management from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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