Managing The "Room And Contents Syndrome"

David P. Fornell describes a common and sometimes fatal mistake involving departments that utilize insufficient flow for big-loss fires.


The fire had been burning for about an hour before headquarters received an automatic alarm for smoke in a store two buildings away from the fire building. The two first-arriving engine companies quickly located the source of the fire in the basement of a furniture store. So far, so good...


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It was then that they realized why their fire loss rate went up when the new pumpers went into service. Who is at fault here? In this case, the blame should be placed squarely in the laps of the department's upper management. They succumbed, without questioning, to a claim of high flows and never asked why the nozzle reaction force was the same as the 1 1/2-inch lines they were replacing. Remember, if the claimed flow rate seems too good to be true, it probably is. A rule of thumb is that if one person can offensively operate and move a 1 1/2-inch or 1 3/4-inch handline using a standard 100 psi nozzle, it probably is flowing no more than 130 gpm.

Maybe the fire service, in its never-ending quest to find the perfect all-purpose handline, oversold the claimed capabilities of 1 3/4-inch hose to itself. After all, if members really believed they could flow 250 to 300 gpm through 1 3/4-inch lines, then leaving the 2 1/2-inch hose off the new engine made sense. The trouble is, in actual practice it just doesn't work because few departments ever pump the lines in the required 300 psi range, and almost none have the initial fireground staffing to handle a hoseline that generates supersonic nozzle reaction forces and can't be easily bent around corners.

More important, a lack of training in selecting and operating a large line is evident in a large number of departments. A look at a department's 2 1/2-inch hosebed can tell a story. If the nozzle is an old 20-pound brass playpipe or if it is equipped with a 100-psi fog nozzle or if the hose is stored without a method to rapidly place 50-foot sections, or at least part of a pre-connect bed on a firefighter's shoulder, or after wiping your hand over the hose it comes away soiled with dust and diesel soot, you can be assured that the line is not used much for offensive attack nor is it pulled very often for training.

In the first fire situation described at the beginning of this article, one of the reasons that 2 1/2-inch lines were not immediately stretched is that the department rarely trained with large lines. This was confirmed months later when the training officer reinforced his conviction that the 1 3/4-inch line could handle just about any fire in the city, even though he was present at the fire where three buildings were destroyed.

In departments that use large lines effectively, their use is almost always mandated by the chief or a member of the command staff. It has to start at the top. If the chief believes that 13/4-inch is the only handline needed by the department or if the chief leaves research and training to a relatively inexperienced junior officer, this dangerous attitude will manifest itself in the rank and file who will take relief in not having to train on or handle "the heavy stuff" anymore on the fireground.

Unfortunately, it may just be a matter of time before a firefighter is killed or injured while being overrun with flames while making an offensive interior attack with a line that does not flow enough water to handle the fire.

What Can Be Done?

Managing by objective should require that the final result desired in all fire attack operations not be simply TO PUT THE FIRE OUT but be changed to PUT THE FIRE OUT NOW.

An extinguished fire will buy the attack crew a large amount of safety. A department's batting average can be materially increased simply by flowing more water more quickly. Of course, it is not practical to attempt to compute needed flow rates on the fireground using the NFA formula, so, most departments that exhibit superior tactical fire suppression skills have planned to flow as much water per handline that can be safely handled by the available crew. This may mean changing nozzle styles on present handlines to those that flow their rated capacity at low operating pressures; for example, low-pressure combination nozzles or smooth-bore nozzles.

It may also mean that equipment, training and tactics should be refocused to concentrate on 2 1/2-inch lines that can practically flow water in the 250-to-300-gpm range without requiring excessively high engine pressures. Practice may also be needed in immediate deployment of master stream devices that provide flows in the 600 to 800 gpm range if the desire is to stop a barn or large factory fire in its tracks.