Online Exclusive

Tanker Shuttles: Not Just for Rural Operations

I have been a firefighter for over 30 years and have been fortunate to work with two very progressive fire departments. While both of the departments differ greatly in their scope and service delivery areas, they both have something in common: the need for tanker apparatus.

Currently I work in Fairfax County, VA and on the surface, Fairfax does not look like a place that would even consider the need for tankers. However, the county even with its population density, has many areas that lack fire hydrants. That required us to develop tanker shuttles in order to get enough water to the scene to develop adequate fire flows. The ability to set up and sustain a tanker shuttle is not something that is taken lightly done and it is something that requires a great deal of forethought and practice.

What is a tanker shuttle? Many firefighters, especially those in suburban and urban fire departments, never have to deal with tanker shuttles. Even in my department where we have a viable rural water supply manual, many firefighters are not proficient or not very aware of what the needs are to develop a tanker shuttle. In essence, a tanker shuttle is where firefighters are faced with an area where there are no fire hydrants or good drafting sources. In this case, to deliver water to the fireground, we (the fire department) need to move it to the incident scene via tankers. The late Larry Davis was a well-known and well-written author on rural water supply operations touched this subject on many occasions. In many of his articles and in his text Rural Firefighting Handbook Larry spoke of these operations as "water on wheels."

Now that we know what a tanker shuttle is we need to look at some significant issues facing them.

  • Resources If a tanker shuttle is called for adequate resources need to be sent. In Fairfax County we have developed a tanker task force to try to get enough units enroute to the incident to handle the water supply needs.
  • Safety: Tankers have a very tough and less than enviable history within the fire service. The number of tanker accidents with related injuries and deaths to firefighters is very high. This is very much the one truck that, when it goes out of the station, needs to have an experienced safe driver assigned to it. On too many occasions, we have seen that tanker drivers try to make up time by driving too fast and that leads to accidents and those accidents have consequences.
  • Practice: As noted before, carrying out a tanker shuttle is something that needs to be practiced. Along with the training, we need to be critical of what happens during the practices to improve on future events.

One area concerning tanker shuttles that has caused a lot of discussion is using tankers to nurse. In using a nurse tanker, we in essence take one of the tankers assigned to the incident -- usually the first one -- and place it at the incident scene with the attack engine. While this typically gives us a good initial attack capability, it removes one of the transport units that are critical for establishing a strong water supply. While I am positive that this will cause a degree of controversy, I also think it is a good discussion topic. While this is an accepted practice in some jurisdictions, I am less than convinced that a nurse tanker gives us the optimum performance on the incident scene. Doing some rough math, we found that a 2,500 to 3,000 gallon tanker would deliver about 200 gallons per minute when they have a 10 minute turn around time. If that is the case and I think that this calculation is an optimistic one, then if we lose a tanker due to our using it as a nurse tanker then we will take 200 GPM from the fire flow at the incident scene.

Drafting Pits
In order to remove the nurse tanker from the operation many departments use drafting pits. These are carried on the apparatus and are dropped at a designated area where the tankers can come in and drop off their water supply for the incident. The drafting pit needs to be set up and it needs to be maintained by a crew in an area as close to the incident scene as possible. When the drafting pits are dropped and set up as the dump site, we have determined that an engine company will be assigned to that site to support the operation. Most tankers carry either one or two drafting pits and those are usually sufficient to hold the water of one tanker. Having at least two of sufficient quantity at the dumpsite is important. Two or more drafting pits will go a long way towards enhancing the overall effectiveness of the operation.

Dumpsite Set Up
The crew at the dumpsite needs to be very cognizant of scene safety when they are setting up and running operations. As the tankers move in to the dumpsite area they need to get close enough to the drafting pits to dump their water. Firefighters in the area need to be aware of this fact and they need to be very careful. Someone needs to have a good overview of the dumpsite area and they need to actively watch and monitor the working both for efficiency and for safety.

The dumpsite has been designated as part of the incident command system (ICS) structure in operations involving tanker shuttles for my department. Remember since this is a functional unit it can be a group within the ICS system, and it should be designated as such. The use of designated positions within the ICS system is important especially when it allows us to safely and efficiently handle an operation.


AL MULLINS, a battalion chief with the Fairfax County, VA, Fire Department, has been in the fire service for over 30 years. Chief Mullins has worked in operations and at the fire academy with the recruit and field training sections. He has completed several associate degrees in fire science and is finishing his bachelors degree at the University of Maryland University College. Chief Mullins was a panelist on the Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings podcast on You can reach Al by e-mail at