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How the first high-pressure pump changed firefighting

Learn about the industry’s first high-pressure water pump innovation and how it evolved into today’s MARK-3 portable pump from WATERAX.


The MARK-1’s detachable 4-Stage centrifugal pumping apparatus was patented in 1958.


The following is paid sponsored content by WATERAX

By Robert Avsec for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Shortly after the dawning of the 20th Century, the first high-pressure pump was developed for use in wildland firefighting.

Though the name of the pump itself may not have gained lasting fame, it led to some of the greatest innovations that changed firefighting operations then and now.

The first high-pressure fire pump

In the 1920s, the initial high-pressure fire pumps let seven men using water accomplish the work of 70 men using dry methods for firefighting.

“So instead of using dry methods to fight those forest fires it was shown you could go use that high-pressure pump and be 10 times more effective,” Lefrançois said.

Like any new technology, version one of the high-pressure pump wasn’t perfect.

The first high-pressure fire pump was a gear pump, which made it fragile so it could break down during operations.

“Which is not unusual, you know, when you look at pumping water out of lakes and streams,” Lefrançois said. “You’re going to get dirt, rocks, wood and other debris sucked up into the pump.”

It also was heavy and hard to carry into the woods.

“Those two things [lack of mobility and mechanical breakdowns] are what really drove the innovation that led our predecessor company, WAJAX, to develop the MARK-1, four-stage detachable centrifugal pump end,” he said.

The birth of the MARK-1

The MARK-1’s detachable 4-Stage centrifugal pumping apparatus was patented in 1958 and quickly became the standard portable fire pump used by forest fire agencies around the world, Lefrançois said.

Wildland firefighting presents firefighters with difficult scenarios for getting water from the source to the fire. They often have to overcome long distances between Points A (the water source) and B (the fire); sometimes dramatic changes in elevation between those two points; and finally getting close enough (due to radiant heat or topography) to actually put the water where it needs to go.

The MARK-1 helped wildland firefighters because, as they worked in rugged environments, the pump allowed debris to get into the pump without breaking it or seizing up.

Not only that, but what a wildland firefighter can do with a centrifugal fire pump—that he or she can’t do with a gear pump—is put them in tandem.

“So now you could pump water over greater distances using several high-pressure pumps in tandem,” Lefrançois said.

The MARK-1 also gave wildland firefighters a greater measure of safety and fire control because the high-pressure pump produced a water stream with a longer reach and better penetration into wildland fuels such as thick brush and ground debris.

But perhaps the MARK-1’s two most popular features that endeared it to wildland firefighters were its detachable pump end and it’s lightweight.

The detachable pump end enabled a firefighter to replace either a defective motor or pump end in the field with a replacement part or a motor or pump end from another MARK-1. And at roughly 60 lbs. (27 kg) the MARK-1 could be backpacked or airdropped into the woods.

The dawning of the MARK-3 era

While the basic design of the patented 4-stage pump end has remained consistent over 50 years, the gas engine used to drive the pump has changed several times.

The original MARK-1 was powered by a two-stroke, 9 HP air-cooled Kiekhaeffer-Mercury motor that helped make the MARK-1 a favorite among wildland firefighters because of its low profile, light weight and efficient operation.

Beginning in 1961, WAJAX rolled out the new model MARK-2 with a smaller engine, a 165 cc, single-cylinder Rotax engine of Austrian design. But firefighters did not like the performance of the MARK-2 pump as much as the original MARK-1 with its Mercury motor.

In response, the company launched the MARK-3 series in 1964, using a larger 2-stroke 185 cc Rotax motor.

“When we went back to the bigger engine, that’s when we found the ‘sweet spot’ between weight and performance,” Lefrançois said.

Today, the engine is manufactured in North America by WATERAX. The company acquired the engine from Rotax, as it wanted to produce that engine indefinitely and supply spare parts for it to support the forestry agencies worldwide.

“We now have more control of the manufacturing process,” Lefrançois said. “This enabled us to continue to make improvements to that engine so that it’s more reliable and lasts longer in the field.”

Today, the WATERAX MARK-3 series of high-pressure wildland firefighting pumps is sold and supported by a network of value added partners in United States, Canada and around the world. There is no doubt the company will continue to innovate fire pumps, in order to meet the evolving needs of today’s firefighters now and in the future.

For more information on the exclusive line of multi-stage high-pressure centrifugal pumps, including the MARK-3 series, contact WATERAX.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an 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’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.

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