Managing The "Room And Contents Syndrome"

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.

Photo by Jo L. Keener
Not enough flow rate in a commercial building can spell disaster for offensive suppression operations. Here, firefighters are driven from a store when their small handline, designed for dwelling fires, did not have enough flow rate to knock down the fire.

After doors were forced, lines were stretched to the front and rear in an attempt to control a now rapidly spreading fire. Unfortunately, both companies stretched 1 3/4-inch lines and neither immediately secured a water source. A few hours later, the structure collapsed.

About two months later, when an engine company from this department was at fire school, the training officer told the members that all they really had to master was a single 1 3/4-inch line supplied by tank water, since this was all that was needed for any fire in the city. So much for lessons learned by this department's administration.

In a large southern city, the officer of the first-arriving engine company called for a second alarm when he was faced with a heavily involved auto parts store. He then proceeded to attack the fire with a single 1 3/4-inch line supplied from the engine's tank. The second-due engine company stretched a second 1 3/4-inch pre-connect to back up the first engine but, unfortunately, it too was supplied by only the onboard tank.

Imagine the problems that faced the first-arriving chief who had to immediately deal with a fast-spreading fire, deciding what to do with two out-of-position engine companies with no secured water source, and trying to sort out a number of rapidly arriving second-alarm companies requesting assignments.

Big-Loss Fires

Both cases are actual, and the losses were heavy. To a great extent, the fires were initially mismanaged because first-arriving officers based their attack tactics on the widespread, commonly misused and sometimes deadly "room and contents syndrome."

The room and contents syndrome occurs when departments gear their initial operations to combat a typical fire in one or two rooms of a single-family dwelling. Because these fires are the type most typically encountered, the practice of using a 1 1/2-inch or 1 3/4-inch pre-connected handline, supported initially only by onboard tank water, lulls managers into a common misconception that their department's standard pre-connect can handle any size fire. In most cases it will, since statistics indicate that most fires encountered by the average department consist of a room or two in a dwelling. In the big-loss fires, those involving multiple dwellings and commercial buildings, most departments are the losers simply because they cannot initially deliver the volume of water needed to overcome the heat being generated by a larger blaze.

In recent years, many departments have abandoned regular use of 2 1/2-inch lines in favor of medium-sized "all-purpose" handlines. The excuses usually given to justify this alarming trend range from "we just don't have the staffing to utilize big lines" to "the salesman told us that our new 1 3/4-inch hose and nozzle system will flow 300 gpm so the 2 1/2-inch lines aren't necessary any more."

Photo by David P. Fornell
When this midwestern department switched to rear engine apparatus, the arrangement of the engine dictated that only the supply lines would lead out the rear and all offensive handlines would be carried in crosslay beds. A sales representative told the department that each bed could flow 250 gpm for a total of 1,000 gpm.


Photo by David P. Fornell
During a calibrated flow test a few years after the rigs went into service, however, it was found that at the recommended pressures each line flowed only 80 gpm, which totaled only 320 gpm. The department then found out why its fire losses went up shortly after the units entered service.


Unfortunately, in too many departments, this thinking has created a gap in between a 1 3/4-inch handline designed for interior operations by a limited staff and elevated master streams, effectively eliminating high-flow 2 1/2-inch handlines as an option for incident commanders. It must be remembered that master streams are relatively slow to deploy and experience has shown that if a fire is too large that is, generating too much heat for a 1 3/4-inch line's flow rate to suppress fire losses might be much higher as the fire continues to burn while heavy streams are put into service, than if a high-flow handline was used in the first place.

Photo by Jim Regan
The room and contents syndrome in action. Because of limited large-fire experience, it is common for a first-arriving company officer to order a line stretched that does not have the capacity to either extinguish or contain the volume of fire present. Stretching the line shown is a waste of time and will require plenty of "catch up" by companies arriving later.

While most of the research by individual departments is usually relegated by the chief to training officers or possibly a committee of company officers, top-level management must share in part for the blame for allowing room and contents tactics to creep into standard operating procedures for large volumes of fire. More important, many departments are finding that traditional excuses such as "we didn't have enough staffing on the initial response" or "we ran out of water" may not hold up in court if a building owner or insurance company decides to let a city or fire district help pay for its loss by suing for negligence.

It also seems that a trend is developing in the nation's fire service to diversify and offer other services such as EMS, hazardous material incident management and confined space rescue that, to be safely mastered, require large amounts of training time, equipment and supply expenditures, as well as additional on-scene staffing. These needs may tend to shift a department's focus away from primary fire protection, usually because of financial restraints. Indeed, in many departments, response records indicate that they are primarily medical service providers and perform fire suppression on the side.

Departments exist to serve the public, and if the public demands more medical service than fire suppression, then that is where an organization's substance will tend to lie. The lack of suppression knowledge and training, however, can lead to large fire losses, the explanation of which by the chief to the public and elected officials could prove embarrassing and, in some cases, career shortening.

In most departments, the most common fire occurs in one or two rooms of a private dwelling. Since a department's service delivery priorities may lie elsewhere, it stands to reason that given a limited amount of research and training time, a department may tend to develop tactics and equipment that focus on handling their most commonly faced fire. Unfortunately, the law of averages will catch up with all departments and at some point, they will face a fire that involves a commercial building, factory or multiple occupancy, beyond the control capabilities of their standard suppression tactics.

In 1988, the U.S. Army commissioned a study to research how it could better train its company officers to make the right decisions while under the pressure of combat. They found that combat officers and experienced fire company officers made tactical decisions under pressure based not on consideration of the various pros and cons, then choosing a course of action (analytical decision making), but by first identifying a situation (sizing up), then deciding on a course of action based on what they had experienced before. They called this process "Recognition-Primed Decision" making, or RPD.

For example, say a company officer has experienced a number of fires that have been successfully handled by 1 3/4-inch handlines. When faced with a large fire, if the officer has not experienced the consequences of battling a similar fire nor has been trained as to what course of action to take, he or she will take a course of action that has worked in the past.

This theory may explain why officers with limited experience almost always choose to deploy smaller lines when conditions dictate a larger line is needed. They simply have never had the experience of successfully attacking a fire with 2 1/2-inch hose. In their experience, when the 2 1/2-inch line was finally ordered into operation, the fire was of such magnitude that it was already beyond the capabilities of even the 2 1/2-inch stream.

Big Fires Requirw Big Water, Immediately

It's a matter of physics that combustion of solid matter causes a release of heat energy that is proportionate to the amount of material and the type of material involved in fire. To stop this energy release that is, to put the fire out the most common method used by departments for manual fire suppression is to cool the burning material to a point where it stops distilling flammable gases. This, of course, is normally accomplished with water. A given amount of solid material will produce a certain amount of heat energy and if the stream of water applied by firefighters is not of sufficient quantity to cool the amount of material involved in fire, it will not be extinguished. Simply put, it's the quantity of water applied to the burning material that will dictate whether extinguishment will be achieved.

How much water is needed for a given amount of fire? This can be calculated by using the National Fire Academy (NFA) rate of flow, rule of thumb formula that states that an involved area's square footage (length x width) divided by three approximates the amount of water that must be flowed to extinguish a fire in that area.

Photo by David P. Fornell
Where do priorities lie? In the engine above, working lines are replaced by cribbing. This engine carries only 200 feet of large handline.


Photo by David P. Fornell
The hosebed shown above contains a 2 1/2-inch 200-foot pre-connect, at left, and 600 feet of 2 1/2-inch line in the next bed for long stretches. Both lines have 325-gpm nozzles. At right is 300 feet of two-inch line with a 250-gpm nozzle.


For example, if the auto parts store mentioned at the beginning of this article measured 35 feet wide by 50 feet deep, 1,750 square feet would be involved. This number divided by three gives us a needed flow of 583 gpm. If the two first-arriving engines put two 1 3/4-inch handlines in service at an average flow rate of 125 gpm, the initial flow rate would be 250 gpm, less than half the needed gallonage. Each unit would be out of water in four minutes and the fire would not be extinguished, as was the actual case.

If we move away from the room and contents syndrome and assume that each engine was equipped with a 21/2-inch handline with an 11/4-inch tip, they could have supplied a combined flow rate of 600 gpm, or more than enough to extinguish the fire with tank water provided; the streams could hit all parts of the involved area.

Big fires require big water for extinguishment. It's a matter of physics and it cannot be changed. If a small line is pulled on a big fire and the flow rate is not sufficient, the fire will not be extinguished. It's that simple and, unfortunately, is proven every day.

Why Don't We Use Big Lines Anymore?

There are a number of reasons. The first may be that a department listened to a sales representative who oversold 1 3/4-inch hose and a nozzle that "can flow from 50 to 300 gpm." If a department believes it is flowing over 140 gpm from its 1 3/4-inch pre-connects using common combination nozzles, yet is still able to move them offensively into a fire building, it may want to borrow a flow meter for a "reality check."

Photo by Jim Regan
It's bad enough when the first-arriving company stretches a line that cannot contain the fire but that error can be devastating when the officers of the second- and third-due units continue to operate with a dwelling-fire mindset. Training, hardware research and standard operating procedures can cure this problem but the motivation must come from the top.

A good example of this mindset beset one midwestern department that purchased a new pumper with the engine at the rear. Because the rear hosebed was so high, members decided to put their working handlines over the pump in four crosslay beds. The sales rep told them they could flow 250 gpm from each of the beds using 13/4-inch hose and automatic nozzles. He was telling the truth because in theory the system he sold could flow 250 gpm but the pump pressure needed to flow that amount was found out later to be almost 300 psi. During a class in which the instructor used a calibrated flow meter, the members were shocked to find out they were flowing only 80 gpm per line rather than the 250 gpm they were promised.

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.

It's ironic that with today's emphasis on physical fitness and continuing fire service education, many departments have members who are stronger and better educated than their grandfathers yet do not have the ability to deliver large handline flows rapidly on the fireground as their ancestors did with 21/2-inch lines. It may be that many of today's chiefs, in their firefighting days, worked 21/2-inch lines with difficulty, attempting to muscle around the stiff cotton hose, heavy brass couplings and 20-pound chrome playpipes with old-style combination nozzles then in common use. Could they be unwittingly transmitting their own negative experiences to suppression personnel even though technology has given the fire service new hardware that can be safely handled and flow more water with less stress than that of the past?

It is vital for the chief to plan, encourage and then insist that company officers and firefighters maintain proficiency on operating high-flow handlines. Statistics show that fire departments, especially in newly developed areas, are experiencing fewer large fires than occurred 25 or 30 years ago. Most tactics books describe firefighting in buildings constructed in styles that have not been built in 50 years. The bulk of new construction is put together in such a manner that it can collapse in minutes after being involved. These structures are packed with contents made from synthetic materials which burn much hotter and much more quickly than the contents of yesteryear.

The lack of firsthand, real-life, up-to-date experience can put a fire company at risk unless members have trained for the task. The responsibility of flowing more water to help reduce life exposure and fire losses begins with the chief and an experienced, educated command staff. The buck stops at the top.

Captain David P. Fornell recently retired as commander of Beckerle & Company, Hose Company, Engine 9 of the Danbury, CT, Fire Department. He is the author of Fire Stream Management Handbook as well as the producer of a number of fire service training videos. Fornell teaches around the country and is a field instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Training Institute.