By Joe Pronesti
Like most students of the fire service, I study hundreds of fire videos each year, and then I choose from the best ones to help teach a point or to emphasize a specific tactic to others. The one thing I find disturbing in these videos is how they show an apparent lack of use of the apparatus-mounted deck gun (which is especially useful for an understaffed department).
For years, the deck gun has sat as an under-used silent sentinel waiting for that block-long shoe factory to go up in flames. However, if you understand its capabilities and train with it, you have a viable weapon that can put a quick knock on the fire and, just maybe, allow you and your crews to get inside and stop any forward progress of fire.
Modern Environment and Tactical Agility
By now, most firefighters and fire departments are talking about and dealing with what has been termed the “modern fire environment”—plastics, modern furnishings, and so on that have heat release rates that dwarfs those of our grandparents’ furnishings. Departments are arriving at well-developed rooms and floors, and they must change their tactics to adapt to these new surroundings. Our operational time is very short; “fast” water is by far the best water to use. Training your department on the “blitz attack” tactic is a proven winner, regardless of the building you are pulling up to.
(All firefighters should read Jerry Knapp’s article “Modern House Fires Warrant Tactical Agility,” which appears in Fire Engineering’s October 2015 issue. Knapp emphasizes that firefighters need to be tactically proficient and have tactical agility, which means making sure our fireground actions—size-up, search, rescue, ventilation, fire suppression, and salvage/overhaul—can safely, efficiently, and effectively defeat the new threats at house fires.)
I believe the deck gun is the best tool to quickly change conditions for the better at all fires. I do not advocate employing the blitz attack on every fire because it does not take the place of efficient handline stretching. Getting the first line into operation is of utmost importance. However, when you are confronted with heavy fire, the blitz may give you some “breathing room” prior to an offensive attack as well as simultaneously when the crew stretches a line in preparation for the offensive attack.
My Mentors’ Advice
Many studies and reports state that the fire service is responding to fewer fires than ever before, and the ones we are responding to are most likely the bread-and-butter room-and-contents fires in which the single attack line handles the job. Many firefighters and incident commanders (IC) seem to have forgotten about the deck gun and what 500-1,000 gallons-per-minute (gpm) can accomplish. Why is this?
After watching hundreds of hours of fire video, I can honestly say that the fire service has become robotic in its approach to the chemical reaction called “fire.” In preparing this article, I e-mailed many of my mentors, asking their thoughts. Without revealing their identities, I will highlight their answers on what they too feel is an underused method of attack: The blitz with the deck gun. I inquired as to their feelings toward using the blitz attack (applying the deck gun prior to establishing a water supply). Following is a brief snippet of their responses, and with these responses I hope to stir up some talk in your firehouse that may reflect your own deck gun knowledge, skills, and abilities.
“I am an advocate of using the deck gun for large fire situations. One example: One story strip mall (multiple stores) and one occupancy is fully involved. The engine can stop in front of that occupancy and have one member mount the rig to man the deck gun while the engineer starts water with tank supply. Third member pulls off two handlines (drop in front of building) to be ready for operation. The engine can proceed up after dumping water to provide room for ladder unit. Granted engine that utilizes preconnects must have enough hose lengths to move up.”
“I have found is that there is a true lack of knowledge and understanding of fire dynamics and tactical deployment. Much of the mentality exists that we pull small lines so that we don’t waste the water.”
“Everyone is afraid to run out of water, but nobody cares if they run out of building!! It makes the engineer work real hard; engine companies have to get their own water, but I am a believer.”
“I think it is a combination of things: a preconnect mindset, training, rebellion against UL/NIST exterior push (‘hit it hard from the yard’)”
“Anytime you find guys not employing a tactic or procedure, it’s usually a combination of a lack of knowledge coupled with lack of skill (i.e., confidence and/or muscle memory). One of the many reasons companies shy away from the deck gun’s use is it often requires repositioning of the apparatus after the initial hit. Even when this is not the case, people need to move around a lot and quickly go from one task to another. Another possibility is having a bad experience or hearing/witnessing another’s bad experience. As with all fire streams, angle of attack can be extremely important. If you are using a deck gun off a modern apparatus, the tip can be 12 or more feet off the ground. You won’t have much success hitting a first-floor window of a ranch house 40 feet from the apparatus. Aiming isn’t as simple as it might first appear. It all goes back to training and repetition. Another reason that is out there but that guys might be reticent about bringing up is that they are afraid they will have their fire stolen from them by the second-due engine.”
“You might think about approaching the use of the deck gun the way you do VEIS [Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search]. A team of people need to “know the drill,” each being expert in all aspects of the operation; not just the one they are responsible for at the moment. Every piece has to be executed for there to be success. No one (I hope) would pull up on a fire with a report of persons trapped and say, “Hey, let’s try that search venter rent thing we read about last month.” Same goes for a deck gun operation as part of initiating an offensive attack.”
“In my opinion, the use of the deck gun is considered defensive and after all other options have failed. I would consider it way under-utilized, especially on developed fires or when a line stretch is taking place. Typically, the pump operators are so focused on getting water to the primary line that the last thing on the officer or pump operator’s mind is a quick knockdown. We also can’t ignore that much/most/some (don’t know which fits) of the fire service still believes they will push fire throughout the building and, in my scenario, they are willing to let the fire grow for 5 minutes because of that belief. I don’t believe that you can care about civilians and still let a fire grow for 5 minutes, but they say they aren’t flowing because of the civilians. Ultimately, it is a training issue, both practical and theoretical.”
“How long does it take you to get it in operation? Is it a one-man operation? We got rid of remote control guns and added a hydrant gate on our deck guns so we truly can flow QUICK WATER by just the engineer. He charges the pump and the gun and then hops up quickly to flow water.”
Specific Occupancy Thoughts and Deck Gun Use: The Strip Mall Fire
Scenario: At 1900 hours, you are called to a reported fire in a strip mall. You arrive to find heavy fire conditions blowing out of front windows of a former dental office that is now vacant. You have a three-member crew. Your previous knowledge of the building indicates that it was constructed in 2002 and has no fire walls between occupancies. The involved store is in the middle, and you have some smoke in both neighboring exposures to the left and right. Do you…
A) Lay a line and hit the fire? or
B) Spot your apparatus and blitz with the gun while your company stretches a line to use after a knock?
Obviously, both tactics will work; getting water on the fire as soon as possible makes everything better. However, does blitzing the fire with the gun on arrival while laying a line and establishing a water supply get more gpm and water on the fire faster? It’s all about training and knowing your crew and its capabilities.
RELATED: Zaitz on Deck Gun Operations ‖ Sitz on Deck Gun Drills for Three-Member Engine Companies ‖ Shapiro on High-Pressure Pump Operations
Next time you are out on a call, have your driver stop the apparatus in the parking lot of one of your strip malls and see if your gun’s angle will be effective. Many of our new apparatus’s guns may be as high as 12 feet above the ground and come with an extend-a-gun feature that allows them to rise many feet above their stowed position.
Now, I don’t expect you to flow! But this quick stop and “prefire” measurement can assist you in selecting the right course of water application prior to the next working fire in your strip mall. The photos below simulate a possible deck gun attack, positioning the apparatus on an angle to the fire occupancy. Next time you work on a weekend, take your apparatus out and take a look; take pictures, drawings, whatever it takes. Traffic and parking will obviously play a factor here, but if you don’t train and consider your options, you will never have the knowledge you need. Regarding the truck company, in a situation like this, the front of the strip mall occupancy on fire may not be the most tactically advantageous position; perhaps a few stores down just might be the place to set up.
(1) The blitz is an option at a strip mall. Prior practice and training at your malls is the key.
The Ordinary “Main Street” Deck Gun Consideration
Scenario: At 0200 hours on a cold January night, your local police department reports fire coming from the second floor above a cellphone store in your downtown area. This three-story ordinary Type III occupancy was built in 1890 and has obviously been refurnished numerous times. On arrival with your three-member engine, you find fire blowing out a second-floor apartment. You recognize from previous emergency medical services runs that there are apartments on the second and third floors that are usually occupied. Do you…
A) Lay a line and head upstairs? or
B) Spot your apparatus and blitz with gun for 15-30 seconds while you stretch to prepare to go interior?
If you cover ordinary constructed buildings in your district, you know (or should know) the difficulties these buildings can pose when involved in fire. One common component is the large single-stair run or the large landings/halls located on the upper floors. Stretching can take time, and if you are operating alone for a while or respond understaffed and have to wait for mutual aid to get enough staffing, the 15-20 second blitz from the gun on the fire may buy you some time and hobble the fire long enough to enable you to rescue, stretch, or whatever you need on arrival at these complicated “fortresses.”
Compare the number of times you have stretched—in real-world situations or when training—in these types of buildings vs. a residential dwelling. I love to use an analogy I first heard from Worcester (MA) Fire Department Chief Mike McNamee when discussing the tragic cold storage fire his department experienced. McNamee described how efficient his department was on their bread-and-butter fires and emphasized the importance of being ready to combat the larger commercial building fires in a different way by stating, “You cannot put a square peg in a round hole.”
You cannot expect to stretch up the stairs and get water on a well-involved commercial apartment fire as quickly as at a small residential: 15-20 seconds of blitz vs. three minutes (HOPEFULLY) on a stretch with two people? We all want to think we have efficient companies, but when was the last time you timed a hoseline stretch evolution?
Also, these stretches may need more hose than just what’s in your crosslay. So, time both evolutions (blitz vs. attack line stretch) and see for yourself. It’s like the two-minute offense in football—some teams are better at speed and efficiency than others.
(2) Stretching first-due up in an ordinary “Main Street” building is not the same as stretching at a residential building. The blitz may buy you some time to stretch upstairs, but it’s all fire conditions on arrival. (Photo by author.)
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!
Joe Pronesti is the assistant chief of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department.