Firefighter Operational Guide: Responding to Water Main Breaks

By Frank Viscuso and Michael Terpak

In their new book, Fireground Operational Guides (PennWell 2011), Frank Viscuso and Michael Terpak provide readers with a universal tactical worksheet that could be used at all structure fires and 70 operational “field” guides for incidents such as multiple-alarm structure fires (at various construction types and occupancies), water emergencies, natural gas emergencies, electrical emergencies, carbon monoxide investigations, outdoor fires, wildland-urban interface fires, vehicle fires, engine company operations, ladder company operations, hazardous material incidents, non-fire emergencies, general operations, and more. The operational guides featured in the book are designed to serve many purposes. They can be used as field guides, drill templates, standard operating procedure (SOP) formats, and study guides for firefighters interested in advancing their career to the officer level. The following is an excerpt from chapter 6, Water Emergencies. In this chapter, Viscuso and Terpak cover the four most common types of water-related incidents, water main breaks, broken water pipes, flooded roofs, and flooded basements.

Water Main Breaks

Water distribution systems are comprised of a complex grid of underground piping that eventually leads into our homes and businesses. Many of these grids are old and prone to failure. Aging grids and careless excavators are the two biggest reasons for water main failure, but even the simple act of firefighters closing a hydrant, if done too quickly, can create a water hammer that can cause a water main to fail. The broken water main may become immediately noticeable, but it may also begin to secretly wash away the soil under the concrete and asphalt without tipping anyone off that a break in the system exists and/or the fact that serious damage is occurring. The result can be the eventual collapse of a crowded sidewalk or busy street, and there’s no way to predict when this failure will occur.

The responsibility of firefighters who respond to water-related incidents is to ensure safety and prevent damage. At a water main break, we can accomplish these two goals by establishing command, identifying the source of the leak, calling in the proper resources, searching all nearby exposures for civilians in danger, establishing safety zones, and helping to stabilize the incident by assisting the water authorities (water department), who will be responsible for shutting down the main and making the necessary repairs.

The operational tips that follow provide firefighters with simple steps to take when responding to water main breaks. It is advisable that fire departments contact their local water authorities to help establish an standard operating procedure (SOP) for your department to follow when these situations occurs.

Operational Guide for Water Main Breaks:

1. Approach the scene with caution and park at a safe distance:

  • Approach slowly and look for possible collapsed roadways resultant from the ground washing away, underneath the pavement.
  • Beware of manhole covers/lids that may have become dislodged; beware of possible open manholes that may be hidden under the water.  
  • Exit the apparatus, and walk cautiously toward the affected area.
  • Do not walk blindly into water puddles, pools, or flooded areas.
  • If you must walk in flooded areas, use a tool (such as a pike pole) to test for solid footing.
  • Collapse may be imminent, even to firefighters who are out of their vehicles.
  • Conduct a thorough size-up as you survey the scene.

2. Establish command:

  • This should become a Unified Command with a representative from your local water authority and law enforcement.

3. Identify the source of the leak:

  • Water coming from the street is an indication of a water main break.
  • If the flow is coming from a sewer grating, the sewer may be backing up. Notify your local department of public works or street department. This is their responsibility.
  • If water is flowing from a building out onto the sidewalk and/or street, this normally indicates a problem from within. Firefighters should enter the structure and attempt to stem the flow by shutting the water supply to the building to avoid further damage. Advise owners to contact a licensed plumber to repair the problem.
  • Typically, the local water department is responsible to shut the water supply and repair all leaks occurring on town-owned water lines, however, property owners must address leaks that occur on water lines located on private property.
  • Determine the extent of the leak and the area affected.

4. Call the appropriate water authority (water department):

  • Communicate the situation through your dispatcher, and provide them with information regarding the location and extent of the leak.

5. Call additional resources when needed. This may include the following:

  • Raise additional alarms, if additional staffing is needed for operations or command staffing.
  • Request the utility company to investigate for endangered gas lines.
  • Request law enforcement for pedestrian and traffic control.
  • Contact the Red Cross for displaced occupants.
  • In cold weather, when ice is on the roadway, call a municipal agency and request a salt/sand spreader to help avoid slipping/sliding hazards.


6. Search for civilians who may be in danger:

  • Conduct an extensive primary search of all areas affected by the water main break, including exposures (inside and out).
  • Search large puddles, collapsed roadways, flooded areas, under bridges, inside voids, nearby vehicles, nearby basements that may be flooded, and any other areas within the danger zone for civilians who may need assistance ,and remove them from danger.
  • Direct ambulatory civilians to safe areas.
  • Initiate rescue efforts if needed.

7. Establish a safety zone:

  • Secure the area and ensure that firefighters and civilians remain at a safe distance.
  • Use caution tape to set up your safety zone and secure the area and keep civilians away.
  • Do not let people walk or cars drive over the area.

8. Conduct periodic checks of exposures:

  • Check nearby buildings/basements for any developing hazards, such as rising water lines threatening utilities.
  • Shut down utilities if necessary.


9. Do not leave the scene until the danger has been removed.

  • Once the water authority stops the flow and the incident is stabilized, fire department personnel should transfer command in an orderly fashion to law enforcement or to the water authority. They will focus on repair and cleanup.

10. Ask the water authority to provide you with a list of hydrants that will be out of service until the main is repaired.

  • Ask them to notify the fire department when the hydrants are back in service.

Fireground Operational Guides is available at

Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is a member of the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is a certified New Jersey Fire Instructor and co-founder of Frank is the author of the book Common Valor: True Stories from New Jersey’s Bravest, and co-author of the book Fireground Operational Guides.  

Deputy Chief Michael Terpak, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, is a member of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department. He is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey-based consulting firm designed to prepare firefighters and officers as they study for promotional exams. He has authored the books Fireground Size-Up, and Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics and has co-authored the book Fireground Operational Guides.

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