RURAL WATER SUPPLY
Water supply needs and the fire department’s ability to deliver it are challenged in the light of rapid industrial and residential growth.
THE TERM “RURAL” used to call to the fire service mind an image of an old farmhouse with barns, coops, and livestock, situated with no exposure problems in sight—the middle of nowhere. Fire protection in this setting would typically consist of one or possibly two outdated 30-to-40-year-old pumpers with low-capacity positive displacement pumps being supplied from a tanker or drafting from a small pond. With only booster lines to attack the cinvolved structures, sometimes just the chimney and foundation would be left. Naturally, water supply was the primary concern.
In stark contrast to that image, the modern rural landscape is often studded with condominium communities, industrial complexes, and other environments where people gather. What has stayed the same is that water supply is still a primary concern.
The lack of immediate or ample continuous water supply impacts firefighting strategy and tactics, increases the risk factor, and produces less than favorable results. Booster lines do not provide ample water supply for attacking structural fires. Their use is a dangerous tactic. True, the less the flow (gpm), the longer the available water supply (booster tank) will last; however, depending on the fire load (Btu’s), the odds are that in today’s high fire-load environments, inadequate attack flow will result in prolonged burn times until enough fuel has been consumed to reduce the fire’s energy to a level that can be managed by your attack streams.
From that point on, effective extinguishment begins. By then, though, how many firefighters have entered the building, have been exposed to hazards, have been on the roof trying to ventilate, or have been stationed on ladders? An aggressive 1 1/2-inch or 1 3/4-inch attack hoseline may have knocked down die fire in a matter of minutes because the “cooling Btu’s” were immediate and equal to or greater than the energy of the fire load.
Wouldn’t the decision to launch an aggressive interior attack be made easier knowing that your efforts would be supported by adequate water supply? Simple math tells us that if we attack for a quick knockdown with 125 gpm, our 750-gallon booster tank gives us six minutes of water; two hoselines may reduce this to three minutes. Specific conditions make decisions judgmental, based on predicted risk analysis. This generally is your time to establish a water supply or retreat. Having an ample water supply available can support better tactics, reduce the margin of hazards, improve the confidence with which members carry out fireground activities, and reduce property loss.
RURAL WATER SUPPLY
Water supply problems appear to be increasing for the rural firefighter. As more and more rural land is developed for residential and commercial purposes, conditions become more serious. Many housing developments dig wells for domestic water but neglect water for fire protection. Many commercial developments and industrial parks present a similar problem. Perhaps very large commercial structures that support such business activities as light manufacturing, transportation, and warehousing can function with minimal water demands, and thus use a drilled well for a domestic water source, but these same types of occupancies also represent a significant fire load (due to contents more than construction type) and are essentially “sitting ducks” in the event of a fire—with insufficient water supply to fight that fire. Here, significant property loss is sure to occur—hopefully, exposures are far enough away!
In many housing developments where wells are used, the dollar magnitude of property loss may not be as great as in a commercial development, but life hazards present a significant concern and are certainly every fire department’s strategic priority.
Many residential developments of this type are comprised of large-area lots that tend to provide more separation between structures, and therefore lessen the exposure potential hazard. Unfortunately, this advantage is usuallyoffset by weather conditions and zoning setbacks. A zoning concept used more and more these days for residential housing (condominiums and townhouses in particular) is the “planned unit development” (PUD) or “planned development district” (PDD), in which structures are clustered together to provide greater open space around them. Again, many of these projects use wells or a well-source water supply system that does not always provide for fire protection needs.
NFPA 1231, “Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting,” indicates that different structures have different water supply requirements. Determination of water supply volumes takes into account occupancy hazards, construction classification, size of structure, and exposure hazards. This translates roughly into these considerations: type of use, contents, building materials, building volume, and proximity to exposures. The exposure issue significantly affects the quantity of water necessary for firefighting, sometimes increasing the volume of water in storage by as much as 50 percent. Generally, single-family structures could be covered by supplies of as little as 2,000 to 3,000 gallons; larger homes or apartment buildings could require up to 15,000 to 20,000 gallons. Each condition will be different and should be individually evaluated, especially commercial structures.
Since these various quantities of water are not that large, doesn’t it appear reasonable that, in the absence of a municipal water supply system, water for fire protection could be stored within the confines of a rural housing development or on the site of a commercial complex? Understandably, the cost of building fire protection volumes and flows into a residential water system can be prohibitive—and that’s all the more reason to give serious consideration to developing alternative solutions for the problem of getting water on the rural structure fire.
Several methods for storage are available for surface and belowground facilities. Many municipalities are implementing “stormwater management plans” to control rainfall runoff from developed sites. In these plans, a detention or retention oasin is usually required for temporary storage of stormwater. Either by designating a volume area to remain flooded or by using a separate flooded pre-stormwater management area pond, free water could be used for fire protection water supply. Use of springs or ground water sources are also options.
I was recently involved in the concept engineering of a PUD project that clustered together four wood-frame, wood-sided apartment housing units 25 feet apart. A stormwater management plan was required and a holding basin would be needed on the site. Using NFPA 1231, some ISO standards, and general fire service practices, a needed fire flow and water supply volume was calculated; this figure was less than onesixth of the basin’s total capacity. However, soil made it necessary to install an impervious lining to hold in the water for fire protection. Due to the added costs, the developer chose not to consider this option. This is a common reaction. End of story.
This raises the issue of which agency should or could require and enforce a practice of providing rural water supply for firefighting. Naturally, builders will not go for the added expense unless it’s mandated that they do so. Does the responsibility fall into the laps of local municipal governments? Should they amend their zoning and planning regulations? Possibly so. Will the local fire department be involved? Are many fire departments today involved in the plan review process of new developments? Not always. Probably very seldom.
The solution is not obvious or simple, and the problem does not go away. Apparatus that carry large volumes of water aren’t getting any cheaper. Holding ponds, under certain circumstances, would be an obvious solution to rural water supply, but some possibly negative factors go along with this simple idea, unsightly growth conditions if not maintained, stagnant water that may develop odors and insect problems, and potential for drowning incidents if security is not considered, just to name a few.
But if these factors can be overcome, why not provide a rural water supply for fire protection? The cost of providing this protection would be “peanuts” in most cases, especially when considering property values. If the possibility exists that a reduction in insurance rates can be obtained, or some other dollar incentive exists, then, surely, any property owner would consider a small investment that could pay for itself while improving overall fire protection coverage.
Fire protection water supply should at least be investigated for rural developments, and a simple economic feasibility study should be performed. It’s apparent, though, that even the investigative step will not be taken by developers unless so required by planning regulations or some other regulatory instrument.
Dwellings that are constructed in suburban areas with municipal water systems and hydrants are the same types of buildings that are constructed in rural areas. There is also no distinction between rural and suburban commercial structures. But the rural firefighter is limited in his decisions and tactics when adequate water is not available. Aggressive attack strategies must be carefully evaluated. The factor of risk seems to be minimal if defensive tactics are chosen and at a substantially high degree if an offensive attack is executed. Without a water supply, there is very little “in-between.”
This article is not intended to present all the details or problems of the rural water issue, but rather to raise some questions and awareness. Many environmental factors may need to be considered for any type of rural water supply before it is developed. Dollar paybacks, property values, and, most of all, life safety of civilians and firefighters must also be considered.
As firefighters, we need to be on top of changes taking place around us. Most of us must do this on our own as best as ⅜ possible, because we are not involved in the town or village planning procedures. The rural firefighters may generally have a tougher time in “keeping up” due to the large area of fire districts. If we could become involved in planning and preplanning within our fire districts, it’s a good possibility that most problems could be identified well in advance of the emergency, instead of at 3:45 a.m. in mid-February while arriving at a fully involved structural fire. Even if all the water supply problems cannot be addressed with an immediate solution, at least the awareness is there and preplanning with mutual aid can be performed around the known limitations. As firefighters, we have learned that we must stand together and protect ourselves and the public. Awareness is the key!