It's All About the Water

With temperatures outside in the teens and seeing on the weather channel that another winter storm is on the way, I find that the dark days of late winter are a great time to catch up on reviewing fire reports; gleaning information that can be passed along to make the job safer and more efficient.

While going back through some line of duty death reports, I again found a common thread that continually echoes through most fireground LODD reports-lack of water being applied to the fire.

I usually hesitate to publicly comment on someone else's fire ground actions, basically because I was not on the scene to observe and form opinions first hand. In these cases however, the details in the reports tell the story, and there are lessons to be learned.You or I may have made the same decisions under the same circumstances, so keep in mind that we are not criticizing here, just simply trying to prevent another firefighter's funeral.

Normally, there are a number of factors that contribute to a firefighter's death, but rarely are these factors repeated in report after report as are water problems at fires.

Take for example, the NIOSH and Phase II reports on the 2007 Super Sofa Store fire in Charleston, SC that killed nine firefighters. Understand, this building consisted of a large furniture showroom and connecting warehouse that was spread out over a 51,500 square foot area.

The report can be found here: and or downloaded below.  In my opinion, the Phase II report should be required reading for any fire officer.

While the NIOSH report listed a total of 32 recommendations, number 19 stands out alarmingly: Fire departments should insure that any offensive attack is conducted using adequate fire streams based on characteristics of the structure and fuel load present.

The Phase II report states that the first arriving engine personnel initially pulled a booster line (30-GPM) and then a 1-1/2" line (60-GPM) on a fire that began in outside rubbish and had then extended inside the building.

A second 1-1/2" (60-GPM) preconnect was advanced into the fire area from the front door and both reports stated that at this point in time, the fire involved an area of about 2,200 square feet that was loaded with highly combustible furniture. Using the National Fire Academy fire flow formula (square footage ÷ 3) the flow rate should have been 733-GPM. The actual flow rate at the time was less than 150-GPM and the outcome proved fatal. The fire continued to spread, eventually flashing over the show room trapping nine members of the department.

Last October, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released their report on the Sofa Super Store fire, in which they reconstructed the fire using computer modeling. Ironically, their findings indicated that if a sprinkler system was installed, the fire would have been automatically suppressed by two heads flowing about 60-GPM. The flow rate wasn't the issue, but the timing was, proving once again that sprinklers save lives.

One of the most telling and detailed NIOSH firefighter fatality reports was released last September, outlining the actions that contributed to the death of a Homewood, IL firefighter in March of 2010. While there were 14 recommendations, one stands out as a primary contributing factor.

In Recommendation #2, the report says, "Fire departments should ensure that interior fire suppression crews attack the fire effectively to include appropriate fire flow for the given fire load and structure, use of fire streams, appropriate hose and nozzle selection, and adequate personnel to operate the hose line.

The firefighter who died was assisting in the advancement of the initial attack hose line in a 950 square foot house when the fire flashed over, trapping him and severely injuring a firefighter trying to escape.

In the beginning, the fire was not unlike the majority of house fires that we fight over the ears. One of the occupants called 911 to report that her paralyzed husband was in a chair that was on fire. While the dwelling was relatively small in size, the main body of fire was located in a family room addition constructed between the original brick structure and the garage. Heavy fire in the rear was visible to the crew of the first arriving engine as they were en route, and a decision was made on arrival to attack the fire with a 2-1/2" line.

The report states that the IC, the officer of the first-arriving engine did not complete a 360-degree size up of the building before attack efforts were initiated.

The 2-1/2" line was stretched into the front door of the structure and was moved toward the involved area, a textbook placement, but in hindsight, may not have been the best choice. The line was operated by a 3-person crew that attempted to advance in conditions of high heat build-up and heavy black smoke.

The line was opened and closed in a technique commonly called "penciling" in an effort to cool the room. While this technique is considered somewhat controversial in water application circles, in this case, it was apparent from the layout of the house that what little water was discharged, never reached the main body of fire.

Almost immediately, the senior member of the crew had to exit the building because of a placement issue with his hood, leaving two relatively inexperienced members inside to operate the line.

About the same time, venting operations were initiated and in a short time, the interior flashed over, trapping the firefighters.

As I said above, with so many fire attack LODD investigation reports, when all the extenuating circumstances are stripped away, more often than not, it is usually apparent that the lack of water materially contributed to the fatality, and this case is no different.

While the volume of water that could have been flowed on the fire from the 2-1/2" line was more than sufficient to extinguish the fire, two items precluded its effective use.

The first was the decision to stretch the big line into the building rather than take it around to the "C" or rear side to hit the fire from a point that would have stopped its spread into the garage and into the house, and also reduced the intensity of the fire to a level where it would have been safer for people operating within the structure.

We have been taught for years that ideally, a line should be advanced from the unburned area into the burned area, and for most fires, this is a reasonable and prudent approach. In this case, however, the circumstances were that heavy fire that was easily accessible from the exterior was pushing in two directions, a relatively inexperienced crew was attempting to move a heavy cumbersome line into a structure that would have required a number of turns to reach the area of involvement, and the heavy fire was causing interior conditions to rapidly deteriorate, reducing visibility and building up heat.

While interior placement might have been a successful tactic if a smaller, more maneuverable line was used, in this case, the line stopped moving and operating before reaching the area of involvement. The fire found the line rather than vise-versa.

Second, was while an attempt to cool the "compartment" was initiated by opening and closing the nozzle bail, the technique proved ineffective because of the location and volume of fire. An officer who was on the scene told me that if the nozzle inside was fully opened and directed toward the rear interior of the building, chances were that the heat build-up would have been mitigated and the flashover would not have occurred.

There are those who might argue these points, but the facts in this case point directly to the argument many of us have been making for years-put the fire out and things immediately get better.

In these documented cases, the wet stuff never affected the red stuff and lives were lost as a result.

Take a bit of time and download the reports, then study them in detail. Who knows, you may save a life.