Jonah Smith: The Initial Line

By Jonah Smith

One of the greatest fire service trainers and engine company firefighters to ever grace the American fire service was the late Andy Fredericks. Although numerous notable quotes of his that live on today, one of the most important regarding fireground priorities was, “The first handline is, without question, the most important life-saving tool at a structure fire.”[i] Nothing could be truer.

There is no more basic operation in the initial part of an incident than stretching, advancing, and managing a hoseline. Forcible entry, size-up, and apparatus placement are also important elements, but none is as basic to a firefighter as getting the first hoseline in service. I\if you are the first engine company to arrive at a fire, you have the ball, all eyes are on you, and you must be successful.

Unfortunately, how well this simple and basic task is performed varies greatly nationally. At the basic level, firefighters need to understand the value in stretching, advancing, and managing the hoseline and its relation to fireground efficiency. Truck companies have a function, Rescue companies have a function, but the primary function of an engine company is to contain and extinguish the fire.

The Engine

One of the most underemphasized topics of engine operations is the design and specifications of the engine. Many departments simply piggyback onto large bids or take another spec and make it their own by changing the name only. An engine company should be designed to be an engine first and everything else last. Additionally, the design should be based on the hoseline complements and sizes the department is now using and potentially may use in the future. One simple internal diameter change in hose can be disastrous for the functionality of an engine company. If a department is using a true 2½-inch diameter hose, for example, and switches to a modern designed 2½-inch diameter hose, which is not truly 2½-inches in diameter, the 200 feet of hose once housed in the hosebed may no longer fit. This has become a common dilemma as diameters continue to grow, especially with regard to 2½-inch hose.

Additionally, at regular intervals, firefighters should be testing the flows they are getting to ensure that lines are being pumped appropriately. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1962, Standard for the Care, Use, Inspection, Service Testing, and Replacement of Fire Hose, Couplings, Nozzles, and Fire Hose Appliances, (2013 edition) recommends that the entire water delivery system from hydrant to nozzle be tested together to ensure continuity.[ii] Additionally, many departments use a generic pump chart that is not built from their own equipment, which often leads to a hot or over-pressured nozzle and mystery flows at fire everywhere.

This point is important because I have found a difference in flow of 50 psi on one discharge on an engine that would never have been discovered as easily in an emergency situation. As a result of the flow testing, we replaced a gauge and a broken ball valve, returning the apparatus to normal. If firefighters examine their own equipment with regard to flows, there is no doubt that their knowledge of their equipment will increase, and many potentially dangerous issues can be mitigated.

Stretching

Regardless of whether your department has preconnects, static loads, cross-lays, rear hosebeds, or bumper loads, when you arrive at a fire, you must remove them from their home on the apparatus and get them to the fire building. There are multiple variations of loads for lines on an apparatus, but each has its advantages and disadvantages. What a firefighter needs to consider is why each of these loads is on your assigned apparatus. If you prefer a triple fold over a flat load, why does that work better for your still alarm or department? Certain loads can be used to speed advancement and deployment, but they may require more practice and familiarization than many of the standard loads. Either way, know your truck and the hose loads on it.

Firefighters advancing hose should realize the toll improper body movements may take on their backs as they advance the line. The body works very efficiently when positioned properly, and many firefighters forget this. Stretching the line begins at the apparatus, and your body positioning here can make or break your stretch. Proper positioning ensures that you load the correct amount of hose (based on your department’s hose configuration) and minimizes the amount of friction and resulting resistance on the firefighter making the stretch. Friction is our enemy during the stretching phase of hoseline advancement. The more friction, the harder you must work to make the stretch; however, later in the operation, friction becomes an ally to an efficient firefighter on the fireground. Additionally, dragging line behind you on the fireground can cause the line to tangle, be stepped on, or become hung on nearly every obstacle you may encounter outside and even inside the structure. You can avoid some of these issues with proper communication and proper hoseline stretching techniques.

All hose loads are not created equal. Stretching hose refers to dismounting it from the apparatus. Once it is free from its home on the apparatus, it becomes stretching, which can often be the undoing of an efficient fire attack. Visit any number of fire news Web sites or even a fireground in your community, and you will often find a pile of undeployed hose at the door or a lack of forward thinking when it comes to the stretching the hoseline. Too often, we fail to emphasize the importance of an efficient and well-thought-out stretch on a working fire. Firefighters make mistakes on the advance and get away with it, which reinforces bad habits time and time again. The stretch is one of the most underemphasized operations on the fireground and often can be the reason for success or failure of the fire flow on the fireground.

As you stretch the line, consider obstacles to the stretch such as trees, mailboxes, railings, and even access to the seat of the fire. We have all experienced a stretch where the line was flaked around a mailbox, which became a major problem during the advancement of the line after it was charged. A simple mistake could prevent you from arriving at your objective as the firefighter on the initial line. As you remove the bundle from the apparatus, take a minute to look around the fireground and locate potential problems before they interfere with your operation. Slow down for just a minute so you can avoid many of the common pitfalls of the stretch. Remember, you must operate in a manner that will efficiently and effectively control the incident, not in a haphazard and hurried manner. Locate potential pinch points, and minimize them to allow for an efficient advance to the seat of the fire. A slack firefighter, if available, should ensure the line is flaking cleanly and is clear of potential obstructions; this firefighter should be carrying a properly selected tool appropriate for the task at hand.

Advancing

Currently, there is a renaissance in relation to the advancement of large-caliber handlines. Many firefighters are using large lines as initial attack lines because they can be advanced successfully with proper technique. In the realm of hose advancement, as in other areas of the fire service, technique trumps horsepower every time. If you use proper technique, you will need much less horsepower or strength, making you more efficient. Also, many departments are examining the need to reduce nozzle reaction force and maximize flow. This close examination of target flow, nozzle reaction, and maneuverability has led to the introduction of the 1-3/16-inch tip into the fire service. This tip is one of the many examples of how the fire service is reconsidering the importance of using a large-caliber handline in departments everywhere, not just in well-staffed organizations. Numerous Web sites are showing some great techniques, but you must try them yourself on your drill field with your people before you decide on the method best for your department. Each technique has a place, and every technique is not for every fire department.

Advancement of a hose is very team dependent. If there are more than just a few pinch points in a structure, the advance may necessitate more staffing than normal. One of the most important items firefighters and command officers must consider is that the primary attack line is operating in the proper location before deploying the second line. Another great engine company pioneer, Dave McGrail, has stated in numerous presentations that without a first line, there will never be a second line.

Because advancing the line is a team-dependent action, we need to train on it together, not just attempt to get it right at each fire we go to. Fredericks defined in his work that one firefighter should be able to handle a line with less than 70 pounds of reaction force.[iii] With low-pressure and high-flow nozzles, it is possible that a firefighter may be able to flow as much as 175 gallons per minute (gpm) from a fog nozzle while having a manageable nozzle reaction force of 62 pounds nozzle reaction (NR).[iv] When examining the smooth bore nozzles, more gallons of water may be delivered with even less nozzle reaction. The role of the backup firefighter should be emphasized as the most important position on the handline. This firefighter should rarely be shoulder to shoulder with the nozzle firefighter because there are many other functions this position needs to serve than the nozzle firefighter’s escort. The backup firefighter should be chasing kinks and slack to speed up the advance rather than attempting to be should to shoulder with the nozzle firefighter the entire time.

It cannot be emphasized enough that flowing and advancing are possible and are many times recommended. This action is calculated and thought out and can make or break a fireground attack. This technique may be used only at “once-in-a career”-type fire in many locations, training to master it is of utmost importance in firehouses everywhere.

Managing

No matter what hose load your engine company prefers, there will be a situation where you will have either too much or too little hose. If you have preconnected lines, you have surely had a fire 50 feet from the apparatus for which you were forced to stretch a 200-foot-long preconnect and manage the additional 150 feet of slack. This large amount of hose isn’t a problem until you attempt to charge the line, but that is the goal if you stretched, so managing the slack is the most important thing on your mind. As thinking firefighters, we must understand the limitations of our assigned apparatus’ hose loads. Each load has limitations, and it is our responsibility to understand them and have a plan to overcome them. Additionally, you must ensure that if there is a long lay, you can modify your preconnect or stretch enough line to make the objective. Many well-respected instructors of engine company operations recommend that you have 50 to 75 feet of hose ready to be efficiently advanced from the entrance to a room or building, depending on the occupancy. As you can see in photo 4, one easy way to ensure adequate advancement of a line is to place the coupling at the door and the remainder of the slack in a straight line with the doorway, if possible, to minimize pinch points and kink points. An ideal stretch culminates with the layout leading to the entrance door.

Once you transition from stretching the line to advancing it, managing the slack becomes even more important. As you begin advancing within a structure, the weight and resistance of the hoseline will increase, making effective slack management the key to an efficient advance. Managing of the line described here involves located “havens” to keep the slack once inside and avoid interference by incoming companies performing their assignments. Firefighters entering the structure should ensure the hoselines deployed are operating and are not under any obstructions. Also, as firefighters enter the structure, they should ensure that all of the slack needed or potentially needed is inside of the structure and that all kinks are removed. Kinks and the need for additional line are everyone’s responsibilities; they affect everyone on the fireground. The truck company entering the structure to carry out a primary search has just as much responsibility to fix a kink in the hoseline in the yard as the engine company members do. One method for limiting kinks is to overcharge the line momentarily during deployment to push the kinks out. Coordinate this function between the nozzle-firefighter and the driver operator; it must be in line with your department’s standard operating guidelines/procedures.

While moving throughout a structure, it is easy to let slack become a problem. As you advance, prepare for additional advancement at every step. When acting as the nozzle firefighter, it is also very important to give an approximate length of hose that you need when calling for more slack. The word “some” can be very ambiguous and misinterpreted, whereas 10 feet is a quantifiable measure that should have approximately the same end result. Additionally, the nozzle and the backup firefighters must continually communicate to assist with a coordinated advance. Firefighters must learn the proper spacing along the line through continuous drilling on the topic of line advancement. Typically, firefighters must mind multiple pinch points during a typical advance, which inevitably requires coordinated movement. This is not taught on a chalkboard or in a recliner; it requires numerous hours and discussions on the drill field, vacant building, target hazard, or behind a firehouse.

The management of the line is also very important because we must never forget that it may show us the way out if we have an emergency. If you have 200 feet of hoseline in a stairwell, not only will it hamper your advancement, but it may also confuse you if you are trying to exit in an emergency situation. When managing the slack hose inside of a structure, consider the ease of advancement, ease of egress, and the practicality of what you are doing. The advancement of the initial line can make or break a fireground, and each of us has been there. The three elements must come together for the first-arriving engine company to be successful on a fire. If one of the elements is neglected, it directly affects the others, so no one element should be viewed as more important. One of the most basic situations that can affect the fireground in a negative way is poor placement, poor deployment, or poor operation of the initial line in a fire. Take pride in knowing that on your apparatus, the initial line and the phases associated with it are carried out in a manner that could be showcased in front of fire service professionals throughout the world.

Training for Battle

The deployment and operation of the initial attack line are arguably the most important functions on the fireground. Firefighters must emphasize their importance not only through drilling but also by committing enough hands to the first line to ensure it is doing its job. Firefighters and chiefs alike must understand that success on the fireground is dictated by the success of the initial line in the early stages of an incident. Crews everywhere should practice advancing lines not just in a parking lot but also at some of their most challenging stretching positions to force proficiency when the real fire comes in. The only road to success is to train over and over again with varying scenarios to ensure your crew and department are proficient at perhaps the most important fireground task, the deployment of the initial line.

BIO

Jonah Smith is a captain with the Charlotte (SC) Fire Department and is assigned to Engine 19. He is also a captain with the Pleasant Valley Fire Department, where he volunteers. He holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of South Carolina and is an instructor at Rowan Cabarrus Community College and for SAFE Firefighter.

Endnotes

1  Stretching and Advancing Handlines, Part 2. Andrew Fredericks, Fire Engineering April 1997.

2 National Fire Protection Association 1962, 2013 Editio.

3  “Improving the Quality of Your Solid Stream,” Jim Regan and Andrew Fredericks, Fire Engineering, April 2000.

4 SC7 Fire Department Nozzle Project;  http://www.firedistrict7.com/tpdffiles/nozleproject/NozzlePresentation.pdf.