Should all fire trucks carry water?

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Robert Avsec

The recent fire tragedy in Philadelphia has reignited the debate about whether or not truck companies — ladder trucks, elevating platforms, etc. — should be equipped with a pump, water tank and hose.

This discussion is about more than just how a piece of fire apparatus should be designed and built. The discussion includes a department's operational requirements, its staffing levels and its operational culture.

The general public doesn't know the difference between an engine and a truck. They just know that they've called 911 to report a fire. And when that first piece of fire apparatus appears on scene, they expect that firefighters are going to start applying water to the fire.

Perception is reality.

"It is additive [sic] to have a water supply and cross-lays on a ladder truck. As in the case of the recent Philadelphia fire, the engine company from the same house was already responding to another call," said Bill Green, a fire and safety consultant. "This left only a ladder company, without tank water to respond. Having a few minutes of water available while you catch a hydrant can make a lot of difference on initial knockdown."

Aids rescue
It is certainly a plus for a department to have fire suppression capabilities available from all of its fire apparatus, if for no other reason than to minimize the public relations risk of having the first-arriving piece of fire apparatus be one that is incapable of putting water on the fire.

Having fire suppression capabilities on a truck also reduces the risk to those staffing the unit. If faced with an occupant rescue situation and no engine company on scene, the truck crew could stretch a line to protect themselves and the occupants during the rescue operation.

Newer apparatus designs, newer pump technologies that require less space like PTO pumps, and newer water tank hose designs have made the option of a truck with a pump and water a more viable. Adding fire suppression capabilities in the design of a piece of aerial apparatus doesn't necessarily have to result in a bigger and heavier piece of apparatus.

Cost and staffing
One negative aspect is certainly the additional cost of adding a pump, tank, and hose in the apparatus design phase, a critical factor given the cost of fire apparatus today. Although cost can be reduced using the aforementioned advances in apparatus design and technology, this is still a significant issue for many jurisdictions.

Many departments are struggling to maintain their present staffing levels for fire apparatus, while many others have seen significant staffing reductions as local fire suppression budgets have been slashed in recent years.

In many of those localities, the staffing levels on truck companies have taken the biggest hit; departments have been forced to reduce their truck company staffing below a desire four-person complement with many staffing their trucks with one or two firefighters.

Those staffing reductions make it difficult, if not impossible, for a truck company crew to carry out multiple tasks on the fireground. For example, if the truck crew stretches a hoseline for fire suppression because it was the first arriving piece of fire apparatus, who's going to conduct the necessary truck company functions?

Like a supermarket
Jonathan Smith is a captain with the Stockton (Calif.) Fire Department, which has studied the use of quints in their department.

"A quint is best described in an analogy. Your fire department is like a grocery store," Capt. Smith said. "You have a produce department and meat department. You decide to outfit your green grocer and butcher with the same knife to do two different jobs.

"The knife is your quint. The knife is not a butcher knife or paring knife. It is a Leatherman tool. That is a quint to me.

"Add one more thing in this grocery store. You don't have a [designated] butcher or green grocer. You move them around each day. One day they are a butcher, one day they are a green grocer, and next day Sally calls in sick and they are a checker."

Dual training
Another staffing-related issue is that of training and maintaining operational proficiencies for both engine company and truck company operational tasks. Both disciplines have a body of knowledge and skills that only continue to grow and evolve, especially in light of recent fire research results — transitional fire attack (hitting it hard from the yard) and the impact of airflow paths on fire behavior.

Captain Smith's comments speak to this potential constraint when discussing truck companies equipped with a pump, water tank and hose. It's not enough to just have the equipment available on the apparatus; personnel staffing the apparatus must be skilled and practiced in its use.

This can be a significant challenge, particularly for those departments that are operating with reduced staffing levels that require a high degree of workforce mobility, such as moving staff to cover positions vacated because of scheduled leave, illness, or worker's compensation-related injuries.

The foam alternative
Forget the pump and the water tank. There have been great advances in the performance of stored energy Compressed Air Foam Systems and their ability to more effectively suppress fires in a variety of environments.

CAFS use in first-line emergency response is being adopted by fire service organizations globally. These portable CAFS units use compressed nitrogen gas as the propellant for the extinguishing agent and come in a variety of sizes and capabilities that enable their installation in a compartment on the fire apparatus.

This new generation of portable CAF systems comes in 21-, 30- and 60-gallon capacities with discharge capabilities ranging from 50 feet (21-gallon model) to 75 feet (30- and 60-gallon models).

Another option is the Macaw, a totally independent compressed air foam backpack from Intelagard. The Macaw multiplies its five gallons of stored water into as much as 350 gallons of finished foam along with the capability of delivering a stream of foam to the target up to 40 feet away, thus enabling the user to maintain a safe distance from smoke, flame or heat.

Place a couple of these units on a truck company and you'll have provided the crew with the capability to make a quick initial knockdown of a fire or protect their rescue path if an engine company is not already on scene.

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