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From the Fireground
by Jason Hoevelmann

Fire attack: Keeping the proper distance

Being too close or too far from the seat of the fire can compromise firefighters' effectiveness and safety

By Jason Hoevelmann

We have been discussing the different roles of the attack team and how they contribute to the success of extinguishing the fire. All positions on the attack line play an integral role in moving the line quickly and efficiently. Doing so provides for a timely attack on the fire, which allows for conditions to improve for our firefighters and any trapped victims.

In the time since posting these different articles the question has been posed about how close we should be before we actually put water on the fire. This is an interesting question and one that has more than one answer and one that requires some decision making on the part of the company officer.

When I teach recruit classes, we discuss natural cover fires. Although we don't have the massive, fast moving fires that they have in other parts of the country, we still deploy certain tactics to deal with those fires.

No, this article is not about natural cover fires, but there is an important parallel between how we handle natural cover fires and structure fires. 

Cover fire lessons
New firefighters, when dealing with natural cover fires, will try to get to the head of the fire and make a direct attack on it. This creates a hazard for the firefighter and causes them to work extremely hard, dealing with heat, smoke and blurry eyes. But, when attacked from the flanks or the burned side, the job is much easier, safer and effective.

This relates well to attacking fires of any kind. Every situation is different and officers must use experience and training to make the best decision on how to attack a fire. 

In the fire service there is not a "one size fits all" tactic for every situation. The sooner we understand that, the more effective and dynamic we will be when handling incidents.

Smoking helmets
I have witnessed live burn scenarios where the students were shoved as close to the fire as possible and sat down to watch the fire's behavior. Helmets come out smoking and deformed and face shields melted. There is no need to get that close to or expose firefighters to that kind of heat.

First, the behavior is not the same. The burning materials are much different and the interior environment is much different. In addition we are teaching our firefighters that this is how we make our attacks, which is not always the case.

On an interior attack on a building fire, we move towards the heat, sound and sight of the fire. We should have already done an exterior evaluation of the building trying to identify the source of the fire.

As we move to the fire, conditions will likely worsen. More heat and black, thick smoke may present itself, making our push more difficult.

Ensure that the nozzle is set appropriately before making entry. And, understand the capabilities and limitations of the type of nozzle. With that information we should know what kind of reach we have and the depth of the penetration. This is critical to make an effective attack.

Wet stuff on hot stuff
The attack crew should begin flowing water once they see the body or seat of the fire. There is no reason to move right on top of the fire before opening the nozzle.

We also should not be indiscriminately flowing water without a reason. The flow of water has to be meaningful and directed at the known body of fire.

Moving too close to the fire puts firefighters at risk for no reason. Temperatures increase as we approach the fire; keep in mind that the weakest link in personal protective equipment is the facemask. Temperatures between 350 and 400 degrees F can cause face shields to fail.

Firefighters can also miss critical information by moving in too close. We don't want to overlook any fire spread by getting tunnel vision and moving in too close to the body of fire that we see.

Conditions can change and the structural integrity at the main body of fire could be compromised. Moving in too close could expose firefighters to floor failure or ceiling collapse if structural members have been exposed to fire.

Use the nozzle's reach and penetration power to make an effective attack from a safe distance that is effective. There is no determined distance that is desired. The bottom line is to attack the fire when you find it and see the body of it.

Experience as a teacher
Are there times when you may have to cool ceiling temperatures above your head? Absolutely, and you may not see fire when doing this. This is where experience and quality training become so important.

Firefighters must understand building construction and fire behavior in order to put an effective attack on the conditions they observe.

Sometimes we may have to pull the reigns back on some hard-charging, young firefighters. That is part of their learning process and how they gain experience. Use appropriate tactics for the situation at hand and share your knowledge.

Keep training and thanks for reading.

About the author

Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. His experience spans more than 20 years and he has been an instructor for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and is a State Certified Fire Officer II. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor's degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is currently a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative, a Board Member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the technical committee for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications for NFPA. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.

Chief Hoevelmann can be contacted via e-mail at

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Marvin Salgado Marvin Salgado Monday, October 22, 2012 6:06:41 PM great article
Pete Gravell Pete Gravell Tuesday, October 23, 2012 6:20:22 PM I agree 100% Excellent Article, it points out another old Mentality of getting right on top of a situation we don't need to do. I don't know what the exact reach is, but with our new Task Force Mid Force nozzles on an 1-3/4" hose, the reach on straight is astounding and penetrates, can smack any fire from any angle of a single family dwelling once you see it, very effectively. The Nozzles today are so much better! (Case to bring back the straight bore?) And you touched on the recent tide of face mask failure. AND it hints the importance of staying low, (Cooling over your head) Great read! well written!
John Kurtak John Kurtak Tuesday, October 23, 2012 7:12:57 PM I definately agree. I have watched academy instructors burn students, by telling them to get closer, when they were already on top of the fire. Then it is up to the rest of us to retrain these young firefighters to keep some distance and be able to come out alive. At this point I like taking them inside the room next to the burn room, let them see thermal layering, how the smoke and heat move. Then move them around the room, and show them the difference of being in the right place. Pete, our TFT midforce nozzle are hitting around 90' at 125gpm. Something I try to make them understand, you don't have to be on top of the fire to effectively knock it down.
Thomas Callaway Thomas Callaway Wednesday, October 24, 2012 2:41:47 PM When training I tell my firefighters that the nozzle has reach for a reason. Getting up close and personal with the fire is macho and all, but it removes your ability to fully be aware of the situation. Hit the fire from as far as reasonable and move in to extiguish. This is especially important in ARFF were running stright up to the fuselage or engine is just plain stupid. Use the nozzle to is fullest.
Jason Hoevelmann Jason Hoevelmann Friday, October 26, 2012 2:37:58 PM Thanks for reading and the comments.
Jason Hoevelmann Jason Hoevelmann Friday, October 26, 2012 2:38:24 PM Thank you!
Pete Gravell Pete Gravell Friday, October 26, 2012 3:16:13 PM Thanks for the range info John, we got the 200GPM max ones on our lines, so I wonder if that is what we are getting also out of our lines after friction loss is 125GPM, which is still good, especially if reaching 90 feet. or did you mean 125 PSI at pump? The 2-1/2 I noticed of any Auto Nozzle, is more for close up and personal work as for it's straight range. Probably half the distance at best and not very tight.
Pete Gravell Pete Gravell Friday, October 26, 2012 3:16:41 PM And thank you for the excellent article. Looking forward to more from you! :)
Rich Flankey Rich Flankey Friday, October 26, 2012 11:54:55 PM Excellent read John. Brings to mind that I need to go over our nozzles settings and reach possibilities with our new guys. And play with our nozzles a little more during trainings.
John Kurtak John Kurtak Saturday, October 27, 2012 6:51:35 AM Pete, we have them both on our engine attack lines and some of the attack lines on our T-3000 ARFF trucks. We are required to do time and distance testing on the ARFF trucks annually. I do the that testing, the pressure is preset by the manufacturer so that the handlines see 125gpm. It comes out usally to about 125-130gpm on all 4 of our trucks. With winds less than 5 knots, and the nozzle at 30 degrees is how we measure it out. I then measure from the nozzle, to the center of bulk of water. I had recieved minor burns at an academy, cause of instructor stupity. Had prior fire experience so I knew how to keep my self as cool as possible by changing back and fourth which side was exposed to the fire. The instructors kept yelling get closer even though I was bouncing the nozzle off the burner(kept it way out in front of me). The guy doing the igniting kept relighting it, till he cooked the other instructor. My burns were only to the extent of a light sunburn. I knew from my prior experience what was the right way, and have continued to train new firefighter to be agressive but ever since I started training them. Keeping these young firefighters safe is our job and making sure we don't give them bad habits to start.
Pete Gravell Pete Gravell Saturday, October 27, 2012 12:19:06 PM Ah, so it is 125 GPM at the tip, nice. Now I know! Thank you for sharing. As for the instructor, got to love them kinda idiots. Not!
Russ Gregston Russ Gregston Saturday, November 10, 2012 8:13:13 AM At a recent tractor trailer fire I observed an inexperienced firefighter get right on top of a burning fuel tank where the top of the tank had already melted away. He was about to hit the burning fuel with a solid stream less than 3 feet away! Had I not stoped him I feel he would have splashed burning diesel all over himself.
Greg Giddings Greg Giddings Tuesday, May 28, 2013 7:32:00 PM Risk little to save little. What are you saving when it's already a loss protect your exposures
Blake Mayo Blake Mayo Monday, June 03, 2013 8:22:34 AM This is a great article. Thank you sir. One of my issues is to let the water make entry into a hot area BEFORE we do. There are several reasons why I preach this. And you have hit on some of them. Thank you
Steve Cook Steve Cook Thursday, October 31, 2013 6:27:25 PM I put water over my head only once in 26 yrs. What came down was not very comfortable. Its kind of what a lobster must feel like and I never did it again!
David Grubbs David Grubbs Friday, November 01, 2013 4:12:40 PM Pete Gravell One of the hardest things for me to comprehend in the fire service is that PSI has nothing to do with GPM. (Well it does, but not in the correlation you would think.) The design and rating of your nozzle make as HUGE an impact on the system as the friction loss. low vs high pressure, automatic vs fixed, etc. (Again, in a different way, but just as important.) Also figured into that is the type/length hose you use and the friction loss ratings on it. 1.5 vs 1.75 vs 2" make a massive difference. It wasn't until about 10 years into the fire service after I got my FL Pump Ops cert and started teaching the 40 hr hydraulics regularly that really started to understand how technical it can be just to get the CORRECT AMOUNT of wet stuff on the red stuff and the effect that extra 30-40 gpm can make on an attack!!! I'm not sure if this will let me put my email, but I will try. If you send me the brand / model of your nozzle and the brand / type hose you are using, I will be happy to do the math for you and give you the theoretical numbers you need to make sure you are getting the proper GPM out of your nozzles. If you can get your hands on a good flow meter, that is the best option in my book... but there are some cheaper options too. I went through and flowed all the pre-connects on all of our trucks and then marked the pressure that gauge read directly on the gauge itself. Remember to snake the hose around a good bit like it would be in real life that "sinuosity" effects your friction loss more than you would think. That way, especially in older trucks, you take gauge calibration out of the picture. If you know where the needle sits when your 200 GPM nozzle is flowing 200 GPM, then short of elevation gain/loss that is where you want the needle when fighting a fire!!! (Assuming you don't add hose, etc...) NOTE: Yes, I know there are so many variables to things, and there is a lot more to it than this. I'm just trying to cover the basics. But for everyone out there (like me) reading this that thinks... "yea, but..." I know, I know... but I'm not writing an article here!!! LOL
Jason Hoevelmann Jason Hoevelmann Tuesday, November 19, 2013 8:11:20 AM Steve, I'm curious, what type of stream did you use and what were the conditions?
Martin Gill Martin Gill Tuesday, April 29, 2014 2:07:07 PM Something I bring up in conversation all the time. It seems that machismo and ego always run high at fire control live burn classes and the instructors always seem to have 'special' helmets they wear to classes, you know, really peppered with some deformity and obvious heat damage. The young guns all see this and try hard to outdo each other with new heat damage when they go in. Just the wrong attitude. I have even seen a guy bragging about the mushroom he grew out of th etop of his helmet due to ignorance and improper water application. Guys, this isn't a game! More articles that point out safe practices instead of cool stuff is the way to go.

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