Photo By Steve Dudeney
A typical UK pumper with 200ft of high pressure hosereel (bottom left) constantly connected each side of the appliance.
I am often asked by US firefighters why the UK fire service uses booster lines.(or Hosereels as we call them). I have watched massive debate for and against their use on many forums including the Firehouse.com forums.
The principal reason is construction. Most buildings in the UK are of what we call "traditional construction," in short they are made of brick and concrete. Many single occupancy houses are made of brick with wooden floors and roof members, although every wall (including internal walls) are made of brick. Due to strict building codes all commercial and apartment buildings are made of brick and/or concrete with wood and other materials reserved for fittings and roof structure if the building has a pitched roof. The exception to this are; modern buildings of lightweight truss construction such as factories and warehouses
The UK fire service utilizes high pressure hosereels on approximately 80% of its firefighting applications. They operate at 500psi flowing 35gpm. The hosereels are used in thousands upon thousands of rubbish, vehicle and small structural fires per year throughout the UK without loss or the need to change to higher flow handlines. The London Fire Brigade alone tackles 50,000 fires per year; around 40,000 of these are dealt with using the hosereel.
I don't want you to run away with the idea that this method is the be all and end all of firefighting within the UK; Let us take an average domestic fire. If crews roll up to a regular UK brick built house with moderate fire conditions on the upper floor then a hosereel with be pulled off and placed in service using the tank supply within a few seconds. General good practice follows with a 1 &3/4 inch line (120gpm @ 100psi) laid out to back up the 'reel' in case of emergency; while the supply is being augmented from the hydrant. A regular UK fire truck has a 1190GPM multistage (high & low pressure) pump and a 475 Gallon on board water supply. This means a single hosereel will last just under 14 minutes or two will last 7 minutes.
If a fire starts in a room and the door is open, the fire will tend to burn in the room with fire damage spreading from the open door into a hallway and possibly into other rooms via open doors. Fire spread through walls and ceilings is a very rare occurrence, allowing an effective knock down with a high pressure hosereel.
On the other hand, if we roll up to a small commercial or domestic building that is well involved, the hosereel may be placed in a defensive manner for a couple of minutes by a single member while a larger 1 &3/4" or 2 &1/2" inch lines are laid out. High rise fires are the same, even if we were able to pull a reel all the way up the stairs. The higher fire loading and effects of wind, could easily overcome the limited ability of the reel. Standard practice in all such operations is to lay out large diameter hose that will ensure a higher flow of water is available if required.
Why do we have such strict building codes I hear you ask? The UK has 60 million residents on an island that is 94,525 square miles. Into this area are squeezed a dozen or so metropolitan cities, plus 100 or more large towns before you even consider the rural areas. Imagine squeezing a dozen major US cities alongside 100 large towns in an area the size of Oregon, then you have the UK. For that reason we have one of the biggest and busiest fire departments in the world, every inch of land is covered by 63 professional fire brigades. Although quieter towns are staffed by 'retained' firefighters who only respond when a call comes in. Retained firefighters are part of that county's fire brigade, using the same equipment and trained to the same standard as their professional counterparts.
Lessons learned as far back as the Great Fire of London in 1666, the WW2 Blitz and a thousand lesser tragedies right up to modern times have given us very strict codes for building construction and structural fire prevention. If we built our properties with anything less than the materials we use, we would see entire blocks taken out by fire on a daily basis.
Consequently, property in the UK is very expensive, not just in the built up cities. Insurance costs are also very high. There is great pressure put on the fire services in the UK to protect property from 'fire and the effects of firefighting' from the insurance industry. As a result, UK firefighters play great emphasis on limiting damage to the property; this includes water damage and damage caused by 'overhaul'. Just last week, my station had a fire in a 9th floor apartment. When I was questioning the station officer (Captain) about the job, his words were "The guys did a good job, they kept the fire in the room of origin and the room was almost dry when I inspected it"
I hope this goes some way in explaining the reasons why we play such emphasis on hosereels. If I were firefighting in a US department I would be very reluctant to 'pull a reel' on a typical wooden house fire, but they are always my first choice for a rapid attack on fires in vehicles, dumpsters and fires in a fireproof building limited to a couple of rooms.