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Pick your battles: 3 things more important than the smooth bore vs. fog nozzle debate

Focus your discussions instead on when and where to mask up, how to deploy the hoseline, and what should occur in rehab


“If I would have spent half of the amount of time I spent arguing smooth bore vs. fog nozzle on running evolutions on deploying the line and putting water on the fire, the debate about what nozzle to use would have been put to bed years ago,” writes Clark.


I am a smooth bore firefighter.

I came into the fire service in an age when the movement back to smooth bore was beginning, and my first department had recently made the change from combination fog nozzles to all smooth bore. I learned to fight fire with a smooth bore nozzle. To say that my opinion is biased would be an understatement.

That being said, for the last six years, I have been a member of a department that prefers combination nozzles. I have spent that time beating my head against the side of the apparatus trying to convince the members that I was right, and they were wrong. I provided training. I played videos. I discussed the advantages of the reach and penetration of the solid stream. I opined on the disadvantages of steam production of the fog stream. I never missed an opportunity to try to prove my point.

After six years of trying and countless hours of frustration, I am no closer today than I was on day one. I haven’t given up the fight, but I have had a realization: I have spent so much time trying to change the way that we do things that I failed to consider how we do things.

No matter what nozzle you find at the end of the hoseline, the result is the same. The water goes on the fire, and the fire goes out. The focus here should not be what nozzle you use, but rather, how to quickly and effectively put the line in service and make an aggressive interior attack. If I would have spent half of the amount of time I spent arguing smooth bore vs. fog nozzle on running evolutions on deploying the line and putting water on the fire, the debate about what nozzle to use would have been put to bed years ago.

So, in the interest of keeping the peace, and better serving the citizens who we have promised to protect, I would like to present the following three things that are more important than what nozzle you choose. These are not presented in order of importance, but rather in order of operation.

1. When and where to mask up

This topic, like which nozzle you prefer, will probably come down to how you were taught. Generally, there are two trains of thought about where and when to don your SCBA mask.

One approach dictates that the mask be donned in the back of the rig on the way to the call. This approach ensures that the crew is ready to go to work when they arrive on scene. There is no delay in the fire attack or potential rescue by having to mask up in the yard.

There is, however, a tradeoff to this strategy. Donning your facepiece while en route limits the crew’s ability to fully visualize the scene prior to entering the structure. It can also create a sort of tunnel vision from the obstructed peripheral vision. Members walking through a snow-covered yard or along an unmaintained road are more likely to trip or fall, with the potential for injury.

Another disadvantage to donning your mask while en route is a loss in clear communication. When responding to an emergency, the crew must be able to clearly and concisely communicate with the officer, and the officer must be able to communicate via radio with the other responding units. Sirens, air horns, radio traffic and engine noise create a substantial level of distraction. It is not beneficial to the crew to add an additional barrier to the process of closed loop communication.

The second approach is to don your facepiece at the door just prior to entering the structure. This plan offers the crew better communication as well as an unobstructed view of the scene on arrival. The crew would be able to task out assignments and clearly plan their attack without the hindrance of muffled communication through the mask. If the crew chooses this method, they must rapidly don their masks to not delay fire suppression or rescue. Ideally, this process should take no more than 15-25 seconds.

The solution to this issue is a split tactic. The crew can don their masks while en route to the call and come off the rig ready to affect a rescue or deploy a hoseline. The officer should delay donning their facepiece until after they have given out the assignments, conducted their 360 walkaround and given a scene size-up. After completing the walk around, the officer can then meet the crew at the point of entry and, while the crew is charging and bleeding off the hoseline, mask up and be ready to make entry with the crew. This allows for clear communication, with the crew ready to perform their assigned tasks immediately on arrival.

2. How to deploy the hoseline

Arguably, the most important task that a fire department performs is deploying a hoseline. It is an essential function at any working fire. As the adage goes, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”

The crew must be able to quickly deploy the attack line to be able to put water on the fire. In my years of experience, I am still surprised by the amount of time that is spent putting a hoseline into service. Anecdotally, it could be said that the amount of time it takes a crew to deploy a hoseline is inversely proportionate the amount of time that the crew spends training to deploy the hose. Similar to the nozzle debate is what hose load works the best, and as with the nozzle debate, the answer has very little to do with the hose load itself and much more to do with how it is deployed.

The FDNY uses a flat lay that is not preconnected. Every fire requires the officer to estimate the stretch, pull off that amount of hose, break the connection, and then connect the pulled sections to the pump. This works well for them as every scene is different, and the amount of hose needed could be vastly different from fire to fire.

Other departments use the “Minute Man” load, allowing the nozzle firefighter to take approximately 100 feet of hose with the nozzle to the point of entry while deploying additional lengths of hose as they stretch to the door. Still others use a “Triple Layer” load. This method allows the nozzle firefighter to reduce the amount of distance needed to deploy the standard 200 feet of hose down to 66.6 feet by layering three sections of hose together into one stack. This load style is especially beneficial in response districts with short setbacks and limited staffing. Regardless of the type of load your department chooses, the most important step in any hose deployment is the training that precedes it.

Training to deploy a hoseline does not have to involve pulling every inch of hose off the engine every day. There are free plans available on many websites that show how to build a hosebed prop that can be housed in the station and equipped with spare house. This prop can allow the crew to gain invaluable “sets and reps” of deploying the line without pulling a single section of hose off the apparatus, thereby keeping the engine in service to respond to alarms even while training is being conducted.

Training can also be conducted while on calls for service. With the increase in EMS calls, we are presented with training opportunities nearly every day. Take a few minutes after the ambulance gets to the patient but before clearing the call to discuss the layout of the house. Discuss where and how you would deploy your first hoseline and give the engineer the chance to discuss apparatus placement. Treat these responses as fire calls simply for the related training. Taking a few moments after each response to preplan your next fire will take you a long way toward success.

3. What happens during rehab and recovery

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of any fire call is rehab and recovery.

There are three key points here. First, and most importantly, ensure that your department has a rehab/recovery plan in place and that it is implemented on every working incident. As we work – and I think we can all agree that firefighting is exercise work – we lose fluids from sweating. In his book “Running for Fitness,” Owen Barder says we generally lose around 17 oz. during an hour run, or 8.5 oz. during a 30-minute run. This means that you are losing about one pound of body weight in a one-hour run. However, that assumes that the runner is wearing regular civilian clothing, not full structural firefighting PPE, and also not wearing a 30-pound air pack. The amount of sweat that can be lost during firefighting can far exceed the amount of sweat from a one-hour run. In addition, the moisture barrier included in PPE not only prevents water from permeating the gear, but also prevents the sweat from evaporating and effectively cooling the body. Without the benefit of a rehabilitation plan in place, the crew will drain their fluid reserve tank to empty and “run out of gas.”

Because the moisture barrier in PPE prevents sweat from evaporating and, our body is not able to cool and recover appropriately while we are still wearing our gear. When exiting from a working fire and entering the rehab/recovery phase, removing as much of your PPE as possible will help the body recover and allow for appropriate cooling. It is understandable that the crew may not be able to completely remove all their gear, but every little bit will help. Removing the air pack, helmet, gloves, hood and turnout coat will allow the body to naturally cool and recover. The crew should take a few minutes to cool off and replace some of the fluids they lost before returning to work. This can be difficult, especially when staffing levels are low; however, it is crucial to firefighter safety and productivity.

The final aspect of rehab/recovery is medical monitoring. The incident commander must ensure that any time crews are working, an ambulance is present. Preferably, the ambulance will be an ALS-level squad, but a BLS unit can be used if needed. When the crew exits the fire and begins to dress down and rehab, they should be sent to a designated medical monitoring area. This area should be near the command post and, if possible, out of the elements. The ambulance can be used for climate control on excessively hot or cold days. While there, the crew should be evaluated by the EMS personnel. Vital signs like pulse, blood pressure, and pulse oximetry should be assessed, and if necessary, the crewmembers should be placed on a cardiac monitor and have a 12 lead ECG obtained.

Another option for medical monitoring is to measure the crewmembers’ CO level using a carboxyhemoglobin meter (SpCO). This measurement is helpful to know if the firefighter has been exposed to the dangerous gases that are present in or near a fire. These values should be recorded and as appropriate passed on to the incident commander. Crewmembers should not be allowed to return to work until their vitals have reached an acceptable level.

Incremental changes lead to big successes

These three topics – masking up, stretching the initial hoseline and rebab/recovery – are certainly not the only challenges that we face in the fire service, but they are a better use of our mental energy than debates over nozzle types. Every department is different and may require a different approach, so I encourage you to sit down with your members and discuss what makes sense for your department. You may find a better solution than what I have presented here. The key is to remember that we cannot solve all the problems overnight. Choose the issue that you feel is most important to your department and address it head on. After you have come up with a solution that works for your department, move on to the next. Eventually, you will find that little by little, you have improved your operations and set up your members for success.

Philip Clark is a 20-plus-year veteran of the fire and emergency medical services, currently serving as a firefighter with the city of Lenoir, N.C.