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Moving Big Water -- A Rural Firefighting Imperative
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By Secretary Bill Wohl
July 21, 2018

A group of Chester County firefighters spent an entire weekend at a special training class to become better practiced at establishing and maintaining a large water supply for rural firefighting. The class, hosted by Union Fire Company of Oxford, and run by GBW Associates - a nationally recognized training organization specializing in this unique topic -- was held over two days and was attended by seven members of the West Grove Fire Company. Before the weekend was over, more than a dozen area fire companies participated.

Being able to establish a rural water supply is an imperative for local fire companies, as there are many areas that do not have fire hydrants, so alternative water sources are important (like getting water from a pond, for instance). Transporting that water and making it available for firefighting purposes involves unique techniques practiced often by the WGFC and area companies. Such practice assures that -- when needed -- getting, moving and using water in a rural setting can be done quickly and safely in emergencies.

And while getting water to a fire scene is something WGFC firefighters do well, there is an art to doing so for large fire incidents, where the need for a high volume of water over an extended period of time requires skills and proficiencies that were taught and practiced at the big water drill this month.

Moving large volumes of water in a rural setting involves four completely distinct operations that must come together quickly to fight a large fire: establishing a water supply, filling tankers, transporting the water, and making it available for use at the fire scene.

Establishing a Water Supply

Fire companies keep an inventory of known water sources like natural ponds, stored water tanks, etc. At the water class, teams practiced how to use fire pumpers to pull water from a pond in high volumes. Drafting water from a pond requires positioning the fire trucks close to the water source, and drafting enough water to create the demand needed for fire figthing. Various techniques were practiced in the class including direct drafting, the use of special tools for unique situations (like a Turbo Draft), and portable pumps. The draft site must also supply water out to a road where it can be pumped into water tankers to then be transported to the fire scene.

Filling Tankers

Once water is available, it must be made available to fill tankers. Crews practiced how to set up supply lines, and, in particular, how to set up fill lines to service multiple tankers arriving to be filled. Various supply lines and valves were used to create the necessary roadside operation to quickly and safely fill tankers at a rate of at least 1000 gallons per minute -- attempting to fill each tanker in less than four minutes.

Transporting Water

Rural fire companies employ special fire trucks known as water tankers that are designed primarily to transport thousands of gallons of water from water sources to the fire scene. West Grove has a tank truck that hauls more than 3000 gallons of water for this purpose. These special truck have "fast fill" connections, and the special ability to dump that water quickly at a fire scene from three different sides of the truck into portable dump tanks.

Water at the Fire Scene

Arriving water tankers must quickly "off load" thousands of gallons of water at a fire scene to maintain a high volume of water flow continuously. These tankers carry portable tanks which can be quickly set up at a fire scene to allow a fire engine to then draft from the the tank and supply water for firefighting purposes. The portable tanks hold 2-3000 gallons of water, allowing the tankers to drop off a full load in a matter of moments and go get another load. For delivering high volumes of water, multipile tanks can be set up at a dump site, allowing many tankers to dump continuously, and keep a high volume of water on hand for fighting fires. Crews at the special class learned how to link together a series of tanks to make this all possible.

The Large Drill

After a day and a half of classroom and practical exercises, the instructors set up a drill scenario designed to see if the class could establish a water supply, set up a tanker fill and transport operation, and run a dump site operation -- all to flow an excess of 1000 gallons per minute over a two hour period. The drill was set up over a four mile course in and around the Herr's Food Plant in Nottingham.

The drill simulated a large fire needing a high water flow. The first arriving engine laid a supply line back to the "fire" and began to flow water to Oxford's ladder truck (which simulated a fire flow). The next due engine picked up the supply line to feed the fire ground - this engine would ultimately draft water from the water supply operation. The first tank truck dropped a portable tank near that engine and left the first 3000 gallons of water, allowing the supply engine to draft water from the tank. The next due tank truck picked up the supply line to offer its water supply to the fire ground while the supply engine established the water source from the portable tank.

Meanwhile, away from the fire ground, two pumpers from Oxford and Cochranville established a water supply by drafting from a large pond. Crews then stretched supply lines from those pumpers at the pond out to the road, which fed four tanker fill stations along the roadway. Empty tankers began to arrive from the fire ground to be filled -- and were filled two at a time while two additional tankers were staged to and hooked up -- allowing tankers to be filled nearly continuously at a rate of two 3000 gallon tankers every few minutes.

A total of ten tankers were made available to "arrive at the scene" and dump their water and join the tanker shuttle -- the shuttle route was nearly four miles round trip, which made filling and dumping water critical to maintain a continuous water supply. To create a dump site to make use of the tankers, a total of four portable water tanks were set up side by side. This allowed three tankers to dump water at the same time from high-flow side dumps, and a fourth tanker could back into the last tank. All three dump tanks were linked to the primary dump tank -- which ultimately provided water to be drafted by the supply engine to the fire scene.

During the drill, the class instructors began to ramp up the flow required to test the ability of the operation to supply even higher flows. Eventually, more than 1750 gallons per minute were being supplied, transported, dumped and pumped to the fire ground. To support this operation, a second engine was used to draft water from the dump tanks, and provide water flow to move water from all three satellite tanks to the primary tank.

The techniques learned in class and in practical training meant the combined operation could maintain a flow of greater than 1000 gallons per minute and a maximum of 1750 gallons per minute over two hours.

While fire scenes needing such a high flow for so long are rare, the ability to reliably set up and operate big water assures that fire companies can do so under a more normal operation of two tanks, and 3-5 tankers. The class allowed experienced veterans to hone their skills, and allowed up and coming operators to be familiar with big water techniques and best practices.

Fire companies from three counties and three states made the drill portion possible, and helped practice inter-departmental cooperation at emergency scenes. The instructors from Big Water Associates were outstanding, as was the hospitality from Oxford. Our thanks to Herr's for providing their property for the practicals and drill, and their auditorium for class room training.

More information on Get Big Water Associates can be found here:

Units: Engine 22-2, Tanker 22
Mutual Aid: Tankers from Cochranville, Rising Sun, Cochranville, Concordville, Hockessin, Avondale, Longwood, Kennett Square, and the full compliment of apparatus from Oxford.

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