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by Robert Avsec

Should all fire trucks carry water?

While there is no one, clear answer, foam applications can bridge the gap

By Robert Avsec

The recent fire tragedy in Philadelphia has reignited the debate about whether or not truck companies — ladder trucks, elevating platforms, etc. — should be equipped with a pump, water tank and hose.

This discussion is about more than just how a piece of fire apparatus should be designed and built. The discussion includes a department's operational requirements, its staffing levels and its operational culture.

The general public doesn't know the difference between an engine and a truck. They just know that they've called 911 to report a fire. And when that first piece of fire apparatus appears on scene, they expect that firefighters are going to start applying water to the fire. 

Perception is reality.

"It is additive [sic] to have a water supply and cross-lays on a ladder truck. As in the case of the recent Philadelphia fire, the engine company from the same house was already responding to another call," said Bill Green, a fire and safety consultant. "This left only a ladder company, without tank water to respond. Having a few minutes of water available while you catch a hydrant can make a lot of difference on initial knockdown."

Aids rescue
It is certainly a plus for a department to have fire suppression capabilities available from all of its fire apparatus, if for no other reason than to minimize the public relations risk of having the first-arriving piece of fire apparatus be one that is incapable of putting water on the fire.

Having fire suppression capabilities on a truck also reduces the risk to those staffing the unit. If faced with an occupant rescue situation and no engine company on scene, the truck crew could stretch a line to protect themselves and the occupants during the rescue operation.

Newer apparatus designs, newer pump technologies that require less space like PTO pumps, and newer water tank hose designs have made the option of a truck with a pump and water a more viable. Adding fire suppression capabilities in the design of a piece of aerial apparatus doesn't necessarily have to result in a bigger and heavier piece of apparatus.

Cost and staffing
One negative aspect is certainly the additional cost of adding a pump, tank, and hose in the apparatus design phase, a critical factor given the cost of fire apparatus today. Although cost can be reduced using the aforementioned advances in apparatus design and technology, this is still a significant issue for many jurisdictions.

Many departments are struggling to maintain their present staffing levels for fire apparatus, while many others have seen significant staffing reductions as local fire suppression budgets have been slashed in recent years.

In many of those localities, the staffing levels on truck companies have taken the biggest hit; departments have been forced to reduce their truck company staffing below a desire four-person complement with many staffing their trucks with one or two firefighters.

Those staffing reductions make it difficult, if not impossible, for a truck company crew to carry out multiple tasks on the fireground. For example, if the truck crew stretches a hoseline for fire suppression because it was the first arriving piece of fire apparatus, who's going to conduct the necessary truck company functions?

Like a supermarket
Jonathan Smith is a captain with the Stockton (Calif.) Fire Department, which has studied the use of quints in their department.

"A quint is best described in an analogy. Your fire department is like a grocery store," Capt. Smith said. "You have a produce department and meat department. You decide to outfit your green grocer and butcher with the same knife to do two different jobs.

"The knife is your quint. The knife is not a butcher knife or paring knife. It is a Leatherman tool. That is a quint to me.

"Add one more thing in this grocery store. You don't have a [designated] butcher or green grocer. You move them around each day. One day they are a butcher, one day they are a green grocer, and next day Sally calls in sick and they are a checker."

Dual training
Another staffing-related issue is that of training and maintaining operational proficiencies for both engine company and truck company operational tasks. Both disciplines have a body of knowledge and skills that only continue to grow and evolve, especially in light of recent fire research results — transitional fire attack (hitting it hard from the yard) and the impact of airflow paths on fire behavior. 

Captain Smith's comments speak to this potential constraint when discussing truck companies equipped with a pump, water tank and hose. It's not enough to just have the equipment available on the apparatus; personnel staffing the apparatus must be skilled and practiced in its use. 

This can be a significant challenge, particularly for those departments that are operating with reduced staffing levels that require a high degree of workforce mobility, such as moving staff to cover positions vacated because of scheduled leave, illness, or worker's compensation-related injuries.

The foam alternative
Forget the pump and the water tank. There have been great advances in the performance of stored energy Compressed Air Foam Systems and their ability to more effectively suppress fires in a variety of environments.

CAFS use in first-line emergency response is being adopted by fire service organizations globally. These portable CAFS units use compressed nitrogen gas as the propellant for the extinguishing agent and come in a variety of sizes and capabilities that enable their installation in a compartment on the fire apparatus.

This new generation of portable CAF systems comes in 21-, 30- and 60-gallon capacities with discharge capabilities ranging from 50 feet (21-gallon model) to 75 feet (30- and 60-gallon models).

Another option is the Macaw, a totally independent compressed air foam backpack from Intelagard. The Macaw multiplies its five gallons of stored water into as much as 350 gallons of finished foam along with the capability of delivering a stream of foam to the target up to 40 feet away, thus enabling the user to maintain a safe distance from smoke, flame or heat.

Place a couple of these units on a truck company and you'll have provided the crew with the capability to make a quick initial knockdown of a fire or protect their rescue path if an engine company is not already on scene.

About the author

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert at

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Irvin Lichtenstein Irvin Lichtenstein Tuesday, August 26, 2014 4:36:23 PM We once called these chemicals-- a really big soda acid extinguisher on a chassis. Some airport or refinery rigs still have twin agent systems based on chemical extinguishing agent and compressed gas for delivery. Using class A foams is an option to extend a water suplply(we use Class A cans instead of water only on all our apparatus for instance) but it doesn't solve the problem-- how do you do traditional truck stuff, and traditional engine stuff with one apparatus and crew small enough to fit in old cities with career personnel and also be useful in volunteer areas with equally challenging response routes. This is the question--how do we prevent or extinguish without loss of life in responses that don't allow for lots of apparatus to park in front, behind, and on each side of an involved structure. Having water may help, but you still need to get there, be close enough to use a line quickly, and have enough resources to safely accomplish the rescues or containment.
Rick McCurdy Rick McCurdy Wednesday, August 27, 2014 7:15:53 AM I am a retired Captain/Instructor for a medium sized department in the Mid-South. Over the period of my employment we went from a "Snorkle", with 300 gallons that was a "call only" vehicle. When used, usually was manned with a driver and if lucky, maybe a firefighter. That was the only seats on it. It very seldom used it's water. A few years later we purchased our first "quint' with 500 gallons of water and a 1500 gpm pump. This apparatus was classified as the "first out" unit at our HQ station and responded to the entire city. We all trained on the tandem task of being not only attacking the fire but, also the duties that came with having an areal. Over the years our city grew as did our department. Manpower increased to 3 man and sometimes 4 man companies on all apparatus. Other "quints" were added. A transition began to happen. The quints were task with specialized rescue. Auto extrication was first, then high angle, next swift water, trench, confined space, and so on. This promoted the idea of engine companies vs. truck companies. The final transition was the purchase of a million dollar "Bronto". 110 ft articulating boom truck with no water or pump. This was the final transition to "hose jockeys" and "truckys". The wonderful think when it comes to training new firefighters, is they all start out on a engine and should become proficient with that job. If they then choose to work on a truck, they should only then, start training for all the truck duties and technical rescue that is expected from the job. The city now has 2 truck companies and 1 quint that is manned 24/7. All trucks have "water cans" on them and is used quite frequently. I like the idea of the portable CAFS and would recommend them now to replace the "cans". As an instructor my first encounter with a CAFS, was on a first out truck with a volunteer department I was teaching at. Now, that I am involved as the training officer for a local rural volunteer department, we have a "stat" truck that is primarily a CAFS unit and I love it. I truly like the idea of truck companies having water on there truck. But if they don't, consider carrying portable CAFS. As for being trained to do both jobs, I feel that all new firefighters need to start on an engine. Only after they become proficient on the engine should they start working toward gaining skill to work on a truck. If this is the case, they will have the skills to perform as a quint company. This is my personal opinion, which is great to be able to express being retired.
Joe FireTruck Joe FireTruck Wednesday, August 27, 2014 6:52:31 PM I carry 10 plastic 2 gallon washed out detergent bottles full, just in case
Albert Horne Albert Horne Thursday, August 28, 2014 6:02:26 PM minimum of 500 gallons with either a built in pump or a portable, and a 5 gallon can of foam, this will be enough to start any type of attack, if you don't use it, oh well, but better to havve and not need than to need and not have, it is just that simple, even a rig responding to a medical call should have a variety of extinguishers on board somewhere, they work well against bees as they do a fire
Hemant Chodankar Hemant Chodankar Saturday, August 30, 2014 12:41:11 AM Robert Avsec did mention about the complete alternatives sighting the examples in a systematic way, but could have added about mist technology rather than CAFS. Its my view. As per my knowledge, Mist technology uses the minimum amount of water.

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