Nearly everyone understands the idea that fires can start at any time. I don’t know anyone who thinks that having a fire department ready to respond for only part of the day is a safe idea.
But just as a fire could break out at any time, when it does, the fire could be in any place. As firefighters, being prepared to respond at any moment is not enough. We must be ready to deliver lifesaving water not only at any time but to any location in our assigned district as quickly and effectively as possible. This is what it means to be an engine company.
For a few generations of firefighters, preconnected hoselines have been the primary tool for getting water to the fire. Because most fires are in single-family dwellings and our most common play is the line to the front door, preconnects work well. A good engine company will specify an appropriate selection of hose diameters and lengths for their array of preconnected loads and use them regularly. They allow us to get water on the fire very quickly, even with staffing as light as two—with one of those being a pump operator!
Can preconnects do it all?
The speed and simplicity of preconnected hose come at a cost: flexibility. We must not let the success, ubiquity, and convenience of preconnects make us complacent. If you need a line that is longer (or shorter) than the preconnects your engine carries, you’ll need to make your own line.
To make that decision, you must determine how much hose is actually needed to fight the fire. Without this information, all other efforts will be useless. Making that determination requires you to know the exact location of the fire in the structure.
Locating the fire
The fire officer should be thinking of the location of the fire and its stage of development as soon as it is dispatched. Clues may be given as to the location and intensity of the fire in the initial dispatch or en route via radio.
Upon arrival, the first-due officer must immediately begin a survey of the building to find the location of the fire, possible victims, hazards, and any other unknowns about the building. Use a thermal imager if possible while doing this 360-degree walk-around. Look for the following:
Visible flames. If you see flames through the glass of a window or self-vented out a window, this is a good indicator of the fire’s location. You may see flames at the eaves or on the siding of the building, which may be extending fire that needs to be investigated further. Unless the origin is obvious, continue investigating until you find the true seat of the fire.
Smoke. This is the most common sight upon arrival at a working structure fire. Smoke reading is an art and could be discussed at length. For our purposes, keep in mind that to find the seat of the fire, you’ll be looking for the place emitting the darkest, highest volume, and usually fastest-moving smoke. Some well-developed fires, however, will not show obvious smoke immediately upon your arrival. Some fires may be oxygen-limited and flare up without warning. Always be prepared for the worst and use caution!
If you come upon the door to a suspected fire apartment or room of origin in a house and see no visible signs of fire, jostle the door and look for smoke leaking out of the door casing.1The Fire Department of the City of New York. (1997) Engine Company Operations: Fire scene operations—Locating the fire. (4.3.4)
If you see smoke coming from what seems like everywhere in a house, without appearing concentrated in a particular area, the fire is likely in the basement.
People. If you find the person who called emergency services or a victim who has escaped from the structure, they may be able to tell you where they saw fire. This can be a huge help, but we cannot take their word as infallible. Trust but verify.
The classic formula for estimating the stretch
Once we know where the fire is located, we have all the information we need to make the proper stretch. Estimate the length of hose needed then decide whether to use a preconnect or make up your own line.
The formula for estimating the stretch, as recorded by the late Andrew Fredricks in his article series Stretching and Advancing Handlines2Fredericks, A. (1997, March). Stretching and Advancing Handlines, Part 1. Fire Engineering., is simple. The formula is based on 50-foot lengths of hose.3See also: The Fire Department of the City of New York. (1997) Engine Company Operations: Stretching and Operating Hoselines—Estimating the Stretch. (8.10)
The proto-formula from which all others are derived is this: lengths from engine to entrance of building + lengths needed inside the building = total lengths of hose
Small to medium-sized homes and apartment buildings
Formula: distance from engine to entrance of building + number of the fire floor = total lengths of hose
Building size: <35 ft wide by <75 ft deep
You will generally need one length of hose for each floor you ascend using a normal stairwell. Then you’ll need one length of hose to operate on the fire floor.
- Stairwell with a well-hole
- Spiral staircase
- Hoisting hose outside the building through a window
In these cases, calculate the vertical distance the hose will need to cover as it will be running straight up rather than on flights of stairs.
Example: Fire is located on the third floor of a small apartment building. Your pumper is 20 feet from the front door. You will need: 1 length from engine to building entrance + 3 lengths inside = 4 lengths (200 ft) of hose
Larger apartment buildings
Formula: distance from engine to entrance of building + number of the fire floor + 1 or 2 sections = total lengths of hose
Building size: 36 – 100 ft wide by 100 ft deep
The above simply adds 50 or 100 feet of hose for the extra length needed once on the fire floor. The same exceptions apply from the previous formula for small and medium residential structures.
Example: Fire is on the fifth floor of a large apartment building 60 ft wide by 100 ft deep. Your engine is 75 feet from the front door. You will need: 2 lengths from engine to building entrance + 6 lengths inside = 8 lengths (400 ft) of hose
Large commercial structures
Formula: distance from engine to entrance of building + ((length + width of building) / 50) + 1 length for floors above or below entrance = total lengths of hose
Large commercial structures take a lot of hose. If you have enough hose to get to the fire floor and enough hose to run the entire width and length of the building, there’s no place inside that you can’t reach. We divide the length and width by 50 to convert from feet to lengths of hose.
Example: Fire is on the C/D corner of a large warehouse. The warehouse is only one story and measures 100 ft by 200 ft. The engine is 35 ft from the entrance. You will need: 1 length from engine to building entrance + 6 lengths inside = 7 lengths (350 ft) of hose
The Beaker Stretch and Alternatives
You may be wondering how to put together so much hose on-the-fly. Many engines only have two, three, or four preconnect loads to choose from. Chances are you’ll need more length than a single preconnect provides at some point.
Of course, we can always pull from bed hose, but that can be time-consuming depending on the way the hose is loaded. Many pumpers simply flat load the hose in the bed. It also requires manpower and practice. Regardless, all engine companies should be prepared to use bed hose as effectively as possible when needed.
Another approach is to have hose rolls or bundles stored on the engine, separate from the normal preconnects and dead loads. Many engines have bundles of hose pre-assembled for use in high-rise fires. Why not take those out and add them to your longest preconnect? With practice and coordination, you can get the exact amount of hose you need while only adding about a minute to your normal preconnect stretch. In our department, we call it the Beaker stretch in honor of the firefighter who suggested the idea. (Guess what Muppet he looks like?)
The steps are simple:
- The driver pulls the preconnect and stretches toward the entrance of the building
- Firefighters carry as many hose bundles as needed and drop them at the entrance to the building. Meanwhile, the officer is doing a 360 walk-around
- The driver will connect bundles together and connect the bundles to the preconnected hose while firefighters mask up
It is essential that engine companies are familiar with their districts and prepared for a fire in any room of any building in their response area.
Do a tabletop drill, thinking of unusual locations fire could break out in your district. Get out and stretch hose in unusual lengths. Time how long it takes to set up a bed hose stretch.
Be prepared to get water to any place, at any time, quickly and safely!
- 1The Fire Department of the City of New York. (1997) Engine Company Operations: Fire scene operations—Locating the fire. (4.3.4)
- 2Fredericks, A. (1997, March). Stretching and Advancing Handlines, Part 1. Fire Engineering.
- 3See also: The Fire Department of the City of New York. (1997) Engine Company Operations: Stretching and Operating Hoselines—Estimating the Stretch. (8.10)