Preparing an attack hoseline for fire attack off a standpipe system
By Dave McGrail
This month, I want to discuss the task level operation of properly preparing an attack hoseline for fire attack off a standpipe system—specifically, the art of doing this with tactical patience and, thus, ensuring a positive end result.
Anytime we stretch a hoseline for fire attack operations, there is an urgent need—that is, an urgent need to quickly stretch the hoseline, charge it with water, and attack the fire. As with all our emergency operations, I have found that the very best among us are those who understand the concept that a smooth, careful, and thorough preparation equals a fast attack, whereas just trying to be fast sometimes results in a sloppy and often failed operation. We must be professional and take the time to make up time in the long run.
When providing hands-on training for firefighters in standpipe operations, I frequently think about the scene from the movie “Backdraft” where the chubby pump operator charges the hoseline at a factory fire. The line is charged so quickly that the hose violently moves as the water is filling the line at an extremely rapid rate of speed. Obviously, this was done by design, as it was for a Hollywood movie. However, we have all probably at one time or another seen a hoseline charged too quickly. There are concerns of water hammer, burst hoselines, damaged appliances, and so on. These are all significant concerns for any of our ground-based firefighting operations. They are of much greater concern for high-rise/standpipe operations.
Now yes, I fully understand the need for speed when we arrive at and have to quickly control a fire. But, once again, sometimes the quest for speed results in a tremendous delay. Slow down! A burst section of hose or a broken appliance is bad at any fireground operation. However, for ground-based operations, additional hose and equipment are immediately available at the pumper should a section burst or appliance fail. Conversely, when we are operating on the 40th floor of a high-rise building, we will likely not have replacement parts immediately available should something go wrong. This includes our fire department equipment, but also remember we are relying greatly on the building’s built-in fire protection equipment (standpipe system). When a part of the standpipe system fails, that’s a major problem that we probably won’t be able to solve in the heat of battle.
Let me begin to paint a picture for you. We have been dispatched to a report of a fire in apartment #2515 at a well-known address in our first-due response area. The building is a very large, high-rise multiple dwelling. It is a ’60s vintage building with minimal fire detection and fire protection equipment. It is NOT fully sprinklered.
On arrival, there is heavy smoke and fire showing from the A side at what appears to be approximately the 25th floor level. First-arriving companies quickly go to work, and the first-due chief officer requests a second alarm assignment to a base area (Level II staging) one block away.
The first two engine companies and the first truck company quickly (but safely) make their way up to the 23rd floor level (two floors below the reported fire floor and floor of alarm). The truck company quickly completes a reconnaissance and determines that there is in fact a working fire in apartment #2515 on the 25th floor. Radio and face-to-face communication with the first-due engine company officer helps establish that the north stairwell will provide the closest, fastest, best, and safest access to the fire apartment and, thus, it is established as the “fire attack stair.” The truck company has established and is maintaining control of a closed door to the fire apartment. Therefore, the engine companies can now complete an “apartment stretch” and specifically can stretch the hoseline dry up to the point of operation, which is the fire apartment door.
The two engine companies are equipped with mentally and physically prepared, top-shelf firefighters and fire officers. Because of their professionalism and dedication to the mission, they quickly, efficiently, and properly complete a dry apartment stretch up to the point of operation. Specifically, the hoseline is fully stretched out; there are no piles of hose and no hasty or sloppily prepared areas of the stretch that would potentially lead to a failed operation. At this point, they are ready for and will call for water.
OK, let’s cut to the chase. Where I am ultimately going with all of this is that we must train our firefighters, especially the younger ones, to slowly charge all hoselines, but especially those that are stretched off a standpipe system. If we don’t charge them slowly, here’s what can go wrong.
Remember, the standpipe hoseline should be stretched from the floor below for safety. This provides an umbilical cord to safety for firefighters operating on the fire floor. Because we are stretching a dry line up a flight of stairs, the hoseline is already fighting gravity. When we add water, especially when we add it quickly, we are adding weight, and the hoseline will move and will move down the stairs, assisted by gravity and the weight of the water.
We solve this potentially disastrous problem in two ways. First, if possible, we place firefighters from the second engine company to physically hold the hoseline in place while it’s being charged with water, one firefighter at the fire floor landing and another firefighter at the half-landing (for return stairs). This is simply a matter of taking a knee on the hoseline and applying body weight to secure it in place. This is a great time to don your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face piece, hood, and gloves, along with fully opening your SCBA main air cylinder valve. Even with firefighters in place securing the hoseline, we still must charge the line slowly.
Yes, I fully understand that two engine companies and a truck company may in fact be a luxury for many smaller and medium-sized fire departments at the outset of a high-rise fire. Appropriate and safe staffing levels simply do not always exist for the vast majority of our fire service. I consider the department I work for to be a large and reasonably staffed organization. However, in my corner of the fire service, as well as most others, there will always be times when the first-due engine company gets there a few minutes ahead of the other companies. And no, the very best among us are not (in most situations) going to wait for other companies to get started. The very best engine companies are going to get up there, and get to work—as it should be.
So, now we are up there with, let’s say, one company officer and two firefighters. The engineer/pump operator is outside initiating a primary water supply for the standpipe system. An initial attack team of three members is not ideal but, if we’re mentally and physically prepared, we can still stretch a line, charge it, and get water on the fire quickly. Once again, my advice is to always charge the standpipe line slowly, even with extra staffing holding it in place. With limited staffing, charging it slowly takes on an even greater importance.
The critical steps include the following:
1. When the company officer calls for water, the firefighter who will charge the line (control firefighter) must first look at the entire stretch. Yes, I am saying to physically travel up the stairwell from the floor below and visually inspect the entire stretch. Look down the fire floor hallway and make visual and voice contact with the company officer. Look at the entire stretch, and make sure there are no problems. Specifically, we are looking for the following:
• The attack line must be fully and properly stretched out.
• There must be NO piles of hose anywhere in the stretch.
• We must ensure that the hoseline is away from all openings such as open stairwell holes, open stair risers, gaps between the stairs and the building wall, etc.
• We must ensure that the door from the stairway to the fire floor hallway has not come unwedged and closed over a flat, uncharged hoseline. Charge the line with a door closed over it, and it‘s game over!
2. At this time, having visualized the entire stretch and ensured that there are no problems, the control firefighter can now charge the line, but remember, charge it slowly.
OK, at the very least we would like to train all firefighters to follow and complete the procedures just described. However, I would like to take this just one step further. Here comes the “gopher creep.”
Slow and Small
Back up to the point when the company officer calls for water. This time, I would like our control firefighter to open the hose valve outlet just slightly. Specifically, open the hose valve enough to start a small amount of water into the hoseline, slowly. We are trying to achieve a very slow “gopher creep” of water into the hoseline. Think of the movie “Caddy Shack” and recall the gopher going through the ground on the golf course. When water is moving through a hoseline, it reminds me of this scene from “Caddy Shack” with the gophers.
The benefit of starting a little water gopher creep is that the hoseline will start to slowly fill with water and become weighted down with water weight. Because we are filling it slowly it will not move and, because of the added weight of water, it will become much more stable and less likely to move when we finish filling it after our inspection.
Putting it all together, when the company officer calls for water, do the following:
• Open the hose valve outlet slightly to start filling the hoseline, very slowly, with water (the gopher creep).
• Quickly visually inspect the entire stretch to ensure there are no problems in the stretch. If there are any problems, quickly come back and shut off the hose valve (water flow) while you correct the problem.
• Make visual and verbal contact with the company officer, and let him know water is coming.
• Return to the hose valve outlet, and fully open the hose valve—but do it slowly.
Remember: Charge all standpipe hoselines slowly.
Dave McGrail is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with the Denver (CO) Fire Department. He instructs internationally on a wide range of fire service topics, specializing in high-rise firefighting operations. McGrail is the author of the book Firefighting Operations in High-Rise and Standpipe Equipped Buildings (Fire Engineering, 2007). He has two associate of applied science degrees in fire science technology, one with a focus in fire suppression and the other with a focus in fire prevention. McGrail also has two bachelor of science degrees, one in human resource management and the other in fire service administration.