The water tanker shuttle is the cornerstone of water supply operations for a large part of our country’s fire service. For many fire departments, a hydrant on every corner is an unheard of luxury. Alternative water supplies, including tanker shuttles, are the standard procedures.

Experience in water supply operations is the best teacher. It is also the most expensive teacher. For the fire service, this often translates into lives lost; firefighters injured or killed; and thousands, maybe millions, of dollars of property lost.

Training is the second best teacher. It is very low cost in terms of outcome-little lost or risked and much gained. However, training often is presented in textbook terms and situations. Presented here are 10 practical, real-world rules and considerations for successful water tanker shuttle operations based on 30 years of fireground experience.

(1) On arrival it was apparent that the limited city water system would not provide the volume needed to protect three exposures (B, C, D) and for master streams for an exterior operation. The chief initiated a hydrant and a tanker shuttle operation to counter the very real possibility of extension by wind-driven flames and brands. (Photo by Andrew Zangl.)

The stimulus for this article came from a friendly challenge laid down by James Rohner, deputy fire coordinator, Orange County, New York, at the conclusion of our second working fire in two days. Both fires included successful large-scale tanker shuttle operations. He challenged me to put into print some of my life experiences as a water operations officer.

A recent fire will help illustrate these lessons. On January 27, 2005, at 4:03 a.m., Port Jervis (NY) Chief Don “Ozzie” Devore was just wrapping up a sprinkler system flow alarm when he received a report of a possible fire in the Riverside area. A quick look over his shoulder confirmed the bad news-smoke looming up in two structures involved. The initial fire building was in the middle of a block with primary exposures on B and D sides. A residence was on the left (exposure B), a warehouse was on the right (exposure D), and there were some additional exposures to the rear (Exposure C). Realizing the potential for rapid fire spread, he immediately requested the remainder of his seven-company firefighting force along with mutual aid. At this fire, the weather would be a factor, 0°F with a stiff wind from the north, making the wind chill nearly 15° below zero.

(2) The view from the rear of the fire building. Extension to other wood-frame dwellings and garages was very likely. (Photo by Andrew Zangl.)

As a first assistant chief for the Sparrowbush Engine Company (SECO), this mutual-aid call brought me quickly into the command structure, along with a pumper from our Main Street station. Whenever possible, Carl Van Horn, chief of SECO, recommends that we respond a chief officer to the mutual-aid scene before arrival of the apparatus. The on-scene chief can determine exactly what is happening and how best we (mutual aid) can support scene operations quickly and effectively.

The four-mile drive put me at the Port Jervis command post, where Chief Devore and Operations command, Deputy Coordinator Rohner, were assigning the various incident command system positions. I was assigned to establish a tanker shuttle, under Operations, to augment the city hydrant supply. At this point, it was doubtful we could hold the fire to the building of origin and the next immediate structure. Wind conditions provided more than adequate oxygen to the fiercely free-burning fire building and drove embers and flames onto exposures. A voluminous water supply was planned because of the rapid potential for ignition of the exposures caused by radiant heat and secondary fires from embers.

Although Port Jervis has an adequate hydrant system for most fires, city fire officials have had the foresight to use tanker shuttles within the city boundaries. This is practical for four reasons:

1Although the water distribution system has been recently updated, there still are some limited areas of flow, especially when using major flows.
2The city is located between the banks of the Delaware and Neversink rivers, and excellent tanker-fill sites are accessible.
The city is surrounded by rural departments that have become proficient at tanker operations.
4The city water treatment plant is a state-of-the-art facility, with pumps and a substantial holding tank, but water supply for a major fire can easily surpass availability because there is no method for directly pumping nontreated water.


Following are 10 rules for successful tanker shuttle operations.

Rule #1: Control traffic into the area of operations as soon as possible.

This is the absolute first step toward success. Several major obstacles can interfere with or even shut down tanker shuttle operations. In this case, narrow streets made smaller by highly banked snow, a small work area (a two-block by four-block square area), an active Metro North NJ Transit commuter rail line on the north, the Delaware River on the south side, and streets dead-ending at a park to the east. The only two entrances to the fire scene were on the west side.

Further complicating establishment of the shuttle routes were private vehicles from responding firefighters and, of course, curious civilians parked along the two main entrances to the fire scene. You want and need your responders at the scene; however, remember they are not thinking about the tanker shuttle you were assigned to establish and make run; they are focusing on a rapid response to the fire scene.

It is generally a police function to establish a perimeter around the scene; however, often there are more ingress routes than officers to cover them, and they may have other policing duties. You may have commercial traffic, utility company, press, and other vehicles clogging up your scene. Consider using your fire police to limit access to the scene. Many departments have this valuable resource responding with the first alarm. If your fire company does not have fire police or if you need additional assets, use mutual aid. A good written standard operating procedure (SOP) for your members may help reduce the problem.

Rule # 2: You may get only one chance to spot portable ponds and pumpers to forward water to the scene.

Obviously, the ideal situation is to have at least two sites, one on each side of the fire scene for supplies of water. A round-robin situation, where tankers can enter from one or more locations and exit by a different route, is generally the best traffic pattern for keeping traffic mishaps to a minimum. Many times, the ideal is not possible, as was the case in this scenario. Because of congestion caused by parked vehicles, only one street was available for limited use, and even that street had parked obstacles. Therefore, only one pond could be set up; tankers to the dump site were backed up two blocks. Be selective about where you place the portable ponds because, once in place and filled, they will undoubtedly stay in place because of freezing conditions, the weight of the water, and so on.

Rule #3: Request enough tankers early to maintain your required flow.

You can always return tankers to their home stations, but you will be playing “catch up” for the duration of the fire if water demand exceeds your initial capability. At this fire scene, it was a close call, but we remained just ahead of the demand curve. Call for tankers; put them in a staging area. Keep a few extra to maintain your desired/demanded flow to the scene. Anticipate and plan to overcome mechanical breakdowns, accidents, and other problems.

Rule #4: The water operations officer must have good communication with all tanker shuttle stations and apparatus.

In our area, we deal with fire assets from three states: New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, which use a mixture of low- and high-band radios. It is critical to have common high- and/or low-band frequency for communications. At this fire, high- and low-band were used simultaneously to keep tabs on water assets. When possible, use band(s) that are separate from fire operations so you are not stepping on important fireground communications.

Communicating with operators of the shuttle is important as well. Put a dependable person in the staging area to set up incoming tankers and brief drivers. In this case, a deputy county fire coordinator was used to stage and advise tanker drivers to turn their apparatus around and be prepared to back down the street once the outward-bound tanker had dumped its load of water and cleared the street. This was a very precise and stressful operation in that not a moment could be lost as one tanker cleared and the other started its run in to the dump site.

Rule #5: Tanker shuttle operations are supported by personnel and equipment; these crew members may need rehab in the same proportion as others on the fireground.

3) Dump tanks become fixed obstacles to every vehicle on the fireground and in the shuttle once they are placed. Spot tanks carefully so they do not interfere with tanker movement and ingress/egress of critical emergency equipment such as ambulances, medic trucks, police vehicles, and other units. (Photo by Sharon Siegel, Port Jervis Fire Department photographer.)

The health and welfare of your firefighters staffing the shuttle operation are important considerations. At any given time, personnel can encounter problems. Bitter cold weather or hot, humid weather can accentuate problems, but common factors such as sleep deprivation, lack of nourishment, illness, and so on, can deprive you of the services of important individuals. Often, firefighters at the fill site feel extreme pressure to get the water moving as soon as possible. The stress of directing vehicles, wrestling with hard suction lines, and the physical effort of setting up portable tanks is as demanding as holding a hoseline. At this scene, dealing primarily with 0° temperatures, we made it a point to rotate water personnel through the warm cab of a pumper and keep them hydrated.

Rule #6: Accountability of personnel is important since tanker shuttle operations may be spread out over several miles and encompass many sites, apparatus, vehicles, and crew members.

There is nothing worse than coming to the end of an operation and finding out that firefighters are missing. Did they get run over by a tanker backing up at a remote location? Did they fall in the river and drown? Did they just slip out for a hot cup of coffee and dry boots? At the least, it is embarrassing; at the worst, fatal. So, be certain that if anyone has to leave the scene, they make it a point to retrieve their accountability tag and check out with the officer in charge-especially during the winter months when individuals may get wet and cold and need a change of clothes. During this operation, one of our participants felt ill and requested permission to leave the scene and return to the fire station. He advised our accountability officer before leaving, so there was no question of where he was going.

Rule #7: Monitor the efficiency at the fill sites.

This does not mean you have to maintain direct radio communications with the crews, although this is a good thing, if possible. You can monitor by listening to the fill site chatter or having each tanker returning from the fill site call into the staging radio net. Remember, you do not want to wind up with a shortage of tankers returning to the fire scene! At this scene, we had initial problems at both fill sites, which is not unusual when the weather is bitter cold. However, the talented firefighters at both sites were able to substitute an additional fill site and get it up and running quickly. If you have more than one dump site, closely monitor the flow of tankers so the tankers are evenly distributed among the various dump sites. In some cases, with the flow and ebb of conditions at the fire scene, it may be necessary to constantly adjust the flow of returning tankers to each dump site. In winter conditions, you may need to call in the state, county, town, or city (or a mixture of all) Department of Public Works to sand the area leading to and from the fill and dump sites.

Rule # 8: Clearly identify the water supply officer.

With the multitude of firefighters at the fire scene, it is often difficult to determine who’s in charge at the dump site. Clearly identifying yourself with a reflective vest or any other suitable means helps the drivers to know with whom they are dealing, especially if they have to deliver some critical information to you. Remember that in major operations, many drivers may have no idea of who you are.

Rule # 9: Set a professional tone, and act with unwavering calmness.

A successful water supply consists of many moving parts. Timing the movements of large tankers and managing fill and dump stations must be done in a calm, professional manner. Although problems will always arise in any given situation, try to work toward a successful conclusion in a professional manner. You are working in a stressful environment; if you, the water operations officer, set the wrong tone, things can decline rapidly and negatively affect the entire fire operation.

Rule # 10: Always plan ahead.

Water shuttle operations are always changing. Just when you have the rotation going smoothly, a rig will break down, a fill site will malfunction, or some other situation will arise. Plan ahead as often as you can, in as much detail as you can. Plan ahead when things are going right and you have the time.

Monitor the volume of water you’re flowing from the portable ponds and, in conjunction with Command or the Planning Section, determine how you may need to increase or decrease your tanker assets.

Plan for demobilizing your resources as well. Plan how best you can reduce your tanker assets in an orderly fashion as the demand for water at the scene diminishes. Sometimes it can be as easy as first in/first out, but in other cases-because of the tankers’ load capacity and the distance traveled, you may have to be innovative.


Textbook evolutions rarely occur, especially with tanker operations. Here are a few important things (not in order of importance) I have learned through experience.

• When you place that portable pond, plan on its being a somewhat permanent structure at that location for the remainder of the operation. Be certain the pond can drain properly, or you may be there for a long time after everyone else has left-especially if the designated pumper for flowing the water from the pond to the fire scene has packed up and left the scene before you discover that you need it to pump the level of the pond down to manageable levels.

• If you call a tanker to the scene, try your very best to use it. Fire folks are pretty flexible people, but there is nothing worse than being called to the scene, traveling a long distance, and then not be used.

• Make every attempt to keep ALL your fill sites plowed and accessible in the winter. The day of the “Big One” is not the proper time to discover nothing has been plowed or, worse yet, the snow from the two previous storms is frozen in place forming an eight-foot-thick sheet of ice on which you cannot drive rigs. If it’s spring, summer, or fall and your fill sites are on rivers, brooks, and lakes, keep them clear of debris, for easy access, and consider back flushing dry hydrants, if suitable.

• Do not-I repeat, do not-send a pumper crew inexperienced in drafting or using a dry hydrant to the site. Drafting is a difficult chore in itself; throwing into the fray a pumper crew that is not familiar with the site or drafting procedures is tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot.

• Whenever possible, try to establish a traffic flow that will allow fully loaded tankers to make the run into the scene on level ground and have empty tankers exit by a route that may involve some uphill climbs, instead of the other way around.

• I have encountered pumper failures at fill or dump sites at the most inopportune times. For additional reliability and personal confidence, add an extra pumper/tanker into the shuttle so that it can be rapidly switched into a replacement role, if needed.

• Plan ahead to avoid the following situation: Your dump site pumper is in position and ready to hook up to the supporting hose structure, manifolds, that will be feeding the scene, and you suddenly find that the proper adapters, hose connectors, and so on, are on another pumper or back at the fire station. In advance, try to outfit each pumper and tanker for any situation you may encounter. Plan ahead, and train to your plan.

• If the local utility power company crew arrives while you are in the middle of your planned tanker shuttle route, consider holding them out for a few minutes or putting them into the rotation that will allow them rapid access to the scene at the same time as the tankers; this will not interfere with the rotation of tankers. If staffing permits, assign a firefighter who understands the shuttle operation to the utility company truck crew.

Tanker shuttle operations require skilled and knowledgeable members, apparatus drivers, and officers. Establishing a reliable water supply using tankers takes an experienced officer who can plan and think ahead. Assigning a wter supply officer will help Command establish the required fire flow while not diverting Command’s attention from thinking strategically. The officer may consider assigning others to key points in the shuttle operation: fill sites and dump sites, staging areas, and those critical traffic-control points to keep ingress and egress routes viable.

Reading about it, talking about it, and doing parts of the operation are all good. There is, however, no substitute for practicing the entire operation a few times each year.

JOHN (JACK) FLYNN is a 34-year member and first assistant chief of the Sparrowbush (NY) Engine Company (SECO) and immediate past chief of the department. He is a former career fire chief, with experience in structural and aircraft crash/rescue. He is also the volunteer director of emergency management for the Town of Deerpark (NY) and an employee of the federal government. His articles have been published in fire service-related publications.

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