The Engine Company and the Initial Stretch

The reduction of structure fires, coupled with errors on the fireground and inadequate skills shows the need for consistent training on engine company operations.

A fundamental basic to any successful fireground operation is a successful initial hoseline stretch. It seems simple enough, so why should we drill on it so much? Three main reasons:

  • Errors in the initial stretch have resulted in firefighter injuries and fatalities
  • We go to fewer fires
  • Repetition builds confidence and proficiency

Errors Can Be Deadly
On March 21, 2003 Cincinnati Firefighter Oscar Armstrong died while participating in the advance of the initial handline at a single-family dwelling fire (Type III, 30-by-20 feet). Engine 9 arrived and front sleeved a hydrant across the street from the fire building. The engine officer and three firefighters stretched a 350-foot 1 3/4-inch handline to the front door while the driver made his connections. Finding the front door locked they proceeded to stretch the line to the rear but were stopped and redirected to the front by District Chief 4.

One firefighter left the line to retrieve an axe. Assisted by a firefighter from Engine 2, the Engine 9 officer and Firefighter Armstrong prepared to enter the structure. As the officer calls for water the front door is forced. The officer calls a second time for water and then, removing his facepiece, he goes to the engine to determine the problem. The driver replies that water is started and it can be seen that the lengths close to the engine are charged. A pile of hose is found among landscaping in front of the structure. As the officer and the driver begin to flake out this line Firefighter Armstrong, the other Engine 9 firefighter and the firefighter from Engine 2 advance their dry (on their end) lengths approximately 12 feet into the structure and radio for water.

The other firefighter from Engine 9 goes back to the front door and sees his officer chasing kinks and the line filling with water. As he returns to the nozzle, the first floor is involved in a flashover. He and the firefighter from Engine 2 are able to make it to the front door. The officer, mistaking the firefighter from Engine 2 as one of his own, believes all his members are safely out. Firefighter Armstrong is separated from his handline and removed from the structure 10 minutes after initial entry.

At the point the fire is extinguished, it took a 150-foot 2-inch handline from a second alarm engine, stretched through the rear Side Charlie yard to knock down the fire on the first floor. A 200-foot 2 1/2-inch handline was stretched to knock down fire on the second floor.

It doesn't stop at simply running the correct length line. We need to be aware and look for kinks and pinch points. Members need to look at the line as they make their way towards the fire building. Is it kinked up and in a pile? Is it snug under a car tire? Did it catch onto a bike or some landscaping and become buggered up? A swift kick with a foot or a toss with the hand may remedy the situation, but we have to look for it as we advance.

The correct size line is another part that plays into a successful fireground. The age old slogan "big fire equals big water" might be missing the mark with some firefighters. What is "big?" If your working fire experience (different than fireground experience) is limited, "big" to you might be venting out two windows in a private dwelling. "Big" to some of you might be a whole apartment unit off, or a whole store in a strip mall. Instead of relying on a relic of past firefighting, utilize the following acronyms to have a better size-up for the initial stretch as well as when to use the 2-inch or 2 1/2-inch handline.

For Size-up: BELOW

B = Building
E = Extent of fire
L = Life hazard
O = Occupancy
W = Water

For 2-inch and 2 1/2-inch Handlines: ADULTS

A = Advanced fire
D = Defensive operations
U = Undetermined location
L = Large building
T = Tons of water
S = Standpipe

We Go To Fewer Fires
What this means is that with less current and repetitive experience fighting fire, we:

  • Become excited easily
  • Lose track of our assignment(s)
  • Become captivated by the flames

By training on handline stretches and incorporating as much live burn or simulated burn conditions, we can make good habits and eliminate the problems.

Repetition Builds Confidence And Proficiency
When we drill on searches, forcible entry, with extrication tools and other specialized tools, we become familiar with them and proficient with their use. If we go to fewer fires, or have relatively low working fire experience, why not drill on running the line? Take a look at your active members, then figure how much time each one has had on a working fire in approximately six months. Then, of those members, figure how many had the nozzleman's position. Do you see a need?

Below are a few things you should ask yourself each time you come in to work or ride to help make the initial stretch go smooth. If you don't think so, consider how you, as part of a four-person engine company, affect the initial stretch if you had to take care of these while on the fireground. Remember, the clock is ticking.

Chocks, Hinge Hangers: Are they on your helmet for looks? Are they the right size? Do you carry more than one?

Facepiece: Is it adjusted so that all you need to do is pull one strap to tighten it? Can you do it while wearing gloves?

Gloves: Can you put everything on while wearing your gloves? Can you make the riser connections with your gloves on?

Radio: Are you already switched over to the fireground channel?

A Competent Engine Company
Such a company knows their area, including: addresses requiring extended lines; building construction; fire spread; collapse risk and signs; how to sweep and sound with the line; how to identify signs of rollover; and how to overcome loss of water, burst lengths and problems with the nozzle. A competent engine company expects fire; always lays out; reads the building and the fire; runs the right size and length line; chases kinks, chocks doors, works together, and is aggressive but not stupid. What kind of engine company do you have?

A Note About Obvious Rescues
With departments facing staffing problems there is a fine line between what actions must be immediately done upon arrival, especially when confronted with obvious rescues. This is simply my opinion, my advice. You will have to follow your own standard operating procedures (SOPs) and determine for yourself what you would, or should, do.

The quickest and most efficient way to rescue trapped occupants is to remove the danger. A correctly positioned line, placed between the occupants and the fire, protecting the interior means of egress and extinguishing the fire, removes the danger. Occupants who have already jumped from the fire building are no longer obvious rescues. You can not do anything for them that a BLS unit cannot do, plus you cannot transport them to the hospital. Unless you are at or below minimum staffing (three), obvious rescues do not require the entire engine company. The nozzleman and backup must stretch the initial line and stretch it correctly.


WILLIAM CAREY, a Contributing Editor, is a former volunteer lieutenant with the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's County, MD. With 20 years, his training is extensive and his experience ranges from a very rural fire department to one the busiest departments among the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. You can read more of his fire service writings at Firefighter Behavior. To read William's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach William by e-mail at