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...


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.

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