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Four Factors for Stretching the Initial Attack Hoseline

One of the most important, if not the most important aspect of structural firefighting is getting a sufficient amount of water for an attack on the seat of the fire. The initial arriving engine company must select the correct attack line for this task. All too often, we see the results of an incorrect choice in initial attack lines. Lately, there has been quite a stir within the fire service about different sized handlines, and which to use when. So, which is the right choice? Well, quite clearly…that depends.


Handline Considerations

From a response standpoint, there is an old saying that I learned when I was riding the right front seat in the early part of my career that goes, “As the first line goes, so goes the operation.” All too often, we search for the standard, fail safe, one-size-fits-all solution to decision-making on today’s fire scene, and some try to find this when it comes to water on the fire. Simply put, initial attack lines will wind up in one of two places: between the fire and the occupants/victims; or stretched into place to locate, confine and extinguish the seat of the fire. Beyond that, there are a few considerations that have to be weighed before embracing a conclusion as to which line is the one for the task at hand; solutions will vary from incident to incident, and must be part of the initial Incident Commander’s (IC) size-up. Let’s take a look at a few of these critical points, as they can be applied to most any incident, regardless of the type of incident.


Arriving On-Scene

As the first engine arrives at the incident, consider your department’s procedure for apparatus placement: where does the first-due apparatus position? Many departments have operational guidelines that identify the front of the building as belonging to the first-in truck company, however, we still need to put water on the fire (photo 1). That being said, having the first-due engine pull just past the front of the building allows the truck company to set up and gives the engine company access to stretch in through the front, should that be the place to enter. Sounds simple, right? Not so much. Look at the front of the building: how is the building set back from the street? How much hose is needed to get to the door and then to the seat of the fire? Many officers use the “One to the door, one per floor” approach, meaning that one length should get you to the front door, and then add a length for each floor you have to traverse. For example, a residential dwelling with a fire on the second floor would get a minimum of three lengths of attack hose to get to the seat of the fire, providing that the floor area can be covered with one single length of hose. What about the multiple dwelling that is set back from the street, with entrances to units from the center courtyard? That 200 foot pre-connected line is not a viable solution for this location.


The Fire Building

Identifying structural characteristics of the fire building can help determine the mode of attack and ultimately attack line selection:

CONSTRUCTION CONCERNS – We are seeing an era of “disposable buildings” being built in our communities, which may limit the time we have to get water on the fire. Be aware of clues that the building is beginning to fail and collapse (photo 2).

HEIGHT – How many floors to we need to travel (above and below grade) to reach the seat of the fire? We have to make sure we bring enough to make it to the seat of the fire.

BUILDING USAGE – Handline applications that work for residential settings do not always work for commercial occupancies. What is the building being used for, and is it designed to do so? Many times renovations can overpower any protective systems that were in place for the last usage by the previous occupant.

FIRE LOAD – This is by far the most important consideration during the initial size-up. What is the smoke telling you? Are there signs of pending flashover or backdraft? What about the fuel load within the building? There used to be a time where most residential fires could be contained with the use of 1½-inch or 1¾-inch handlines, but now with the “”starter castles” that we see today, that is not the case. Today’s residential dwellings are almost three times the square footage of the legacy dwellings that preceded them (photo 3). More space equates to more fuel within the compartment, which results in a higher Heat Release Rate (HRR) within the building. Furthermore, today’s fuels are significantly higher in producing heat energy, as more contain hydrocarbon-based fuels rather than natural fiber fuels. The result is a rate of heat release that has exponentially risen in residential dwellings, requiring more water and faster delivery times to achieve extinguishment. For offensive attacks on the fire within the structure, many use the National Fire Academy Formula for needed fire flow (Length x Width/3 x % involvement) to determine needed gallons per minute (GPM) application from attack lines. Without this data, many interior operations come up short in BTU absorption, requiring transitions from offensive attacks to defensive operations.


Suppression Support

Stretching a back-up handline is critical to the overall success of the operation, but they can only support the suppression effort when they are placed into operation (photo 4). Most times, the back-up lines stay on the hose bed, and when they are needed, critical time lost trying to play catch-up usually results in a change of operational modes (defensive). Opinions vary on what characteristics officers list for back-up suppression lines; most will say that back-up lines should be of equal diameter and length as the initial attack line. But consider this: why would the back-up line have to be placed into operation? Three answers come to mind;

1. The initial line cannot get into position, for whatever reason, allowing the fire to increase exponentially (photo 5)

2. The IC’s initial calculation for BTU absorption will not provide adequate knockdown of the fire

3. The stretch to the seat of the fire came up short; pre-connects are truly convenient, but they are not always the best option.

These three scenarios can lead to disastrous results; therefore, I would recommend that back-up lines be at least one size larger in diameter, and at least one length longer in reach. This provides a higher GPM flow to compensate for an inaccurate flow calculation, and can cover the floor above to check for extension in the event the initial attack line has a good handle on the fire.



Initial arriving companies will set the tone for successful operations on the fireground. Pre-planning your response area will aid in determining needed fire flow well before the emergency. Armed with this information, crews can place the right line into operation, providing for a safer, more efficient emergency scene, as well as limiting property damage and loss to the people we are sworn to protect.

Until next time, stay focused and stay safe.


See Mike Live! Lt. Michael Daley will be presenting “Basement Fires” and “Strategies and Tactics for Fires in Attics and Cocklofts” at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, July 23 - 27.

MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy, where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. You can reach Michael by e-mail