Facing the Rural Firefighting Challenge

David P. Fornell discusses the need to approach emergency incidents differently in rural as opposed to city environments, three years after he joined a department protecting 88 square miles of predominately rural area.


Like most of my fellow officers, I love the challenge of arriving first-due at a fire. Nothing gets me going like pulling up on a building with flames and heavy smoke showing. After a quick 360, I radio an initial report, send the truck in to force entry, have the engine troops lead out the...


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Like most of my fellow officers, I love the challenge of arriving first-due at a fire. Nothing gets me going like pulling up on a building with flames and heavy smoke showing. After a quick 360, I radio an initial report, send the truck in to force entry, have the engine troops lead out the working lines and watch the hose drop as I send the engine to the hydrant. For me, though, those days are over.

Three years ago, I moved to Troy, OH, just north of Dayton, and joined a department protecting 88 square miles of predominately rural area. While I consider myself somewhat proficient in fighting fires in a city environment, I quickly realized that emergency incidents out here need to be approached differently. While a fire doesn’t know if it is in an apartment on the west side of Chicago or in a barn in Casstown, OH, in many cases, suppression strategy is not much different – it’s tactics that become a challenge. Since I teach quite a bit, and folks know me as a “city boy,†I’ve been asked lately what are the major differences in firefighting between the two areas and what would I consider, coming from a populated and congested urban area, important points to help improve rural operations.

A rural area is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as an area with fewer than 500 people per square mile and our response district certainly qualifies as that. It is quite a contrast to being an engine company commander in a congested district in Danbury, CT, that has a population of about 78,000 packed into about 42 square miles. The first thing I learned out here is that water does not come easy in the country. The second thing is that even more difficult than getting enough water is finding, training and retaining qualified members.

Water Supplies

In the city, we could forward or reverse lay and obtain a positive water source from a hydrant relatively quickly. Out here, a lot of thinking has to first go into planning how you get enough water to show up in the right place when it is needed. There are 14 fire departments in Miami County, and it is standard practice, depending on the location, to dispatch three departments on the initial alarm to a structure fire reported in a rural area, just to make sure enough water is on the way. This becomes more challenging during the day when reduced staffing enters the picture.

How the water is handled on the scene is extremely important. Apparatus placement is key to the whole operation. If the first-due engine blocks the roadway, tankers will have to back up to offload their water, slowing the whole operation to a crawl. It’s not like having the pump operator stretch a line over a parked car to connect to a blocked hydrant. Block the road at a rural fire and everything comes to a halt.

Taking a chapter out of the city book, common practice is to have the first-due pumper lay a large-diameter hoseline (LDH) up the driveway and a second supply pumper set up a supply operation, drafting out of portable tanks set ahead or behind the pumper near the roadway.

During the planning stage, if the apparatus was designed properly, the job becomes much easier. For example, by equipping the supply pumper with front or rear large intakes, it becomes an easy job to connect a five-inch section of hard suction with a low-level strainer to draft out of the portable drop tank. If a pumper does not have a front or rear connection, a 45- or 90-degree large-suction elbow on a side inlet will let the pumper draft from a tank placed ahead or behind with a minimum of difficulty. Eliminating the side-placed drop tank provides more room for the tankers (called tenders out west) to drive by and quickly dump their loads.

I learned that as a rule, at a well-designed operation, a loaded tanker should never have to back up to dump its water. Many dump tanks have been damaged and firefighters injured when a large unit with relatively poor visibility to the rear makes a reverse move. If the rig is properly designed with side-mounted dump valves or provided with an elbow extension on the rear dump, things go much more rapidly and safely at the dump site.

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