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Case studies: Establishing fireground water supply

Whether using hydrants or tank dumps, pre-incident planning is critical to making sure there’s enough water for any fire


I’ve recently been to two structure fires, both at night, where homes sat between 800 to 1,200 feet off the road and even farther from the nearest water source.

Water onboard the first engine or combination engine/water tender is critical until a sustained water supply can be established. However, in both cases pre-incident planning was a key to successful fireground operations.

The first fire involved a residence in subdivision built within the past 10 years. The private drive extended for roughly 1,100 feet off a well-traveled county road. Eleven homes, each with separate driveways, were built on the parcel that once was part of a larger tract of woods and farmland.

This configuration gave each home a more remote setting and no direct line of sight from house to house. Since this was a newer complex, the developer had been required to place one fire hydrant midway along the main drive.

Fire 1
The fire began late on a very rainy night. Electric power had been lost at the residence about 90 minutes prior to receiving a call reporting the fire; the residents had lit candles in at least two of the second floor bedrooms for light.

One occupant indicated that when the power came back on she extinguished her candles and went to bed. She awoke about a half hour later to find her bedroom filled with smoke and the other occupant stretching a garden hose to his bedroom in an attempt to control a fire. She then reported the fire.

Using the computer-aided dispatch, the dispatcher realized this was a location requiring a special layoff for both the first and second engine companies and gave the pre-plan number associated with this address range.

The first-due engine took the hydrant midway on the private drive with a 5-inch supply line and proceeded up the residential driveway approximately 700 feet to the home that was surrounded by thick woods. With a 360-degree size-up by the company office, the fire was confirmed on the second floor in at least two rooms on C and D sides.

Fed by their tank water, an initial 1¾-inch attack line was taken up the main stairs where fire was blowing down the hallway. A quick knock down occurred using roughly half of their tank water; extinguishment continued after the transition to hydrant water.

Following the pre-incident plan, the second-due engine laid out an additional 1,000 feet of 5-inch from a street hydrant on the main road to establish a secondary water supply.

Fire 2
The second fire had some similarities and some variations. This older residence sat across a private bridge from the main road and at the end of a very narrow 1,200-foot hillside drive that included a 250-foot change in elevation.

The fire began in a late-model SUV parked about 3 feet from a detached two-car wood-framed garage. The fire quickly spread to the garage that was situated about 8 feet from the residence.

Again, dispatch alerted the responding fire companies of the pre-plan number that had the first-due engine and water tender proceed up the drive to the structure fire while the second and third engines combined to lay 1,700 feet of 5-inch supply line to the closest hydrant on the main road.

The first-due engine parked at the base of the garage driveway while the water tender parked off the private drive in a neighbor’s driveway to provide additional water before the hydrant supply was established.

The company officer quickly determined in his size-up that the SUV was beyond saving. Therefore, initial fire crew pulled two 1¾-inch attack lines to cover the fire and the residential exposure. The rescue company pulled a third line.

With the engine’s tank water and that in the water tender, an aggressive attack by these fire lines quickly knocked down the garage fire and its contents as well as controlled the fire in the SUV. The supply line, while fully laid to the hydrant, never needed to be charged. The residence itself received no damage from either the garage or SUV fires.

Start with a plan
These fires concentrated on either long lay or water tender operations for their water supply. However, even in a more urban setting knowing the layout of the water supply system is critical.

Take, for example, a structure fire in an apartment complex off a private lane served by private fire hydrants.

It’s not enough to know if there are hydrants within the complex. Knowing if these hydrants are on a dead-end or a looped water main can make a critical difference in how much water you can quickly bring to bear on the fire.

Earlier in the year, the arriving companies to a structure fire in a 20-building apartment complex found a well-involved eight-family building near the back of the complex. The pre-incident plan showed that the 6-inch water main serving the complex was looped so that water could flow into the hydrants from two directions.

This allowed the initial crew to set up operations and subsequent companies to take additional hydrants for use in the fire attack with the confidence they were not robbing the volume of water being pumped by the first engine company.

Planning your water supply in difficult areas is essential to smooth fire ground operations. It means going to private drives, special hazard locations and apartment or industrial complexes to mark off the drop off points for each engine in a reverse lay to the hydrant or where to set up for sustained water tender operations.

Any plan needs to be a 360-degree operational assessment. Don’t forget to look if the private drive narrows or if there is soil erosion that could collapse the drive. Look for obstacles such as low hanging electric or cable wires that could snag an apparatus and stall or cancel your best-laid plans.

Pre-incident planning also means that each of these plans must be available to every responding fire company either from the primary fire department or those responding on automatic or mutual aid. It also may require a water supply officer very familiar with the plan.

Most assuredly pre-incident plans require time, energy, a surveyor’s distance wheel, pencil, paper, the installation of special lay off signs, and above all, determination. The results, however, will pay dividends for your effort when the tones drop.

Stay safe.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.