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Fireground Ballistics: Establishing Target Flows to Maximize Your Firestream Effectiveness

A firefighter who doesn’t establish and maintain a Target Flow with an attack line is like a cop not knowing the number or caliber of rounds in his weapon.  It’s reckless, unprofessional, and utterly inexcusable. If you’re going  into a fire fight. . .you’d better be ready to fight! 


          This article is founded on two fundamental beliefs which I bring to every seminar and presentation I conduct:

  • What defines a professional firefighter is not simply whether he or she receives a paycheck for their service, but rather their training and experience, their conduct on and off the fireground, and their fundamental values and integrity.
  • While some events and conditions at an incident may seem beyond our control,  as public safety professionals we are responsible for our actions and the written procedures and verbal commands that drive those actions. Remember the 10 most important two-letter words in the English language? IF IT IS TO BE…IT IS UP TO ME.

        So, to that degree, this is intended for Mature Audiences Only. If you suffer from psychosclerosis, which Ashley Montagu defines as “the hardening of the attitude which causes a person to cease dreaming, seeing, thinking and leading”, you may have to confront your resistance to change.

        And if you are inclined to respond to the question, “Why do you do that in your department?” with “I dunno… we’ve always done it that way,” you may need to be jolted out of your complacency.  That’s fine. Just read it anyway. You’ll either learn something you should have already known, or you’ll remember facts once learned and practiced but later forgotten or abandoned.

The Engine Company Mantra:   GPMs vs BTUs.

            Traveling around the country for more than 25 years, talking with firefighters from a wide range of departments—large and small; rural, suburban and urban; career, volunteer and combination—I’m struck by the fact that most engine companies are flowing  less water than they should be flowing based on the realities of today’s fire service: statistically we may have fewer fires each year than we did decades ago, but they’re burning hotter than ever thanks to hydrocarbon fuels, and in most cases are usually fought by too few people.

        And  most members of career, volunteer and combination fire departments usually respond to the question “How much water are you flowing?” with a shrug and a look somewhere between “deer in the headlights” and the annoying adolescent eye roll that says “whatever.”  Well, guess what: This is not a trivial matter. It’s a life-safety issue. Yours.

        Based on my observations and my experience as a teacher, I developed an Engine Company training program called Fireground Ballistics, incorporating the lost or abandoned metrics of fireground hydraulics. Once described as “Engine Company operations as seen through the eyes of a cop”, its objective is to teach you how to establish Target Flows in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to provide continuity and predictable outcomes for pre-connected and additional attack lines, as well as offensive and defensive appliances such as deck guns, portable and personal monitors.

        It’s hard to believe, but with all the discussion about accountability on the fireground, the vast majority of fire departments don’t do this. How do we know that?  We ask. Simple as that. . .we ask. And to my mind, accountability is more than simply knowing where your people are. It’s knowing what they’re doing and making sure they’re doing it right.

        As one of the Elders of the Tribe, I remember discussing this years ago with the late Tom Brennan when he was Chief of Department in Waterbury, Connecticut.  He may have been a truckie  back in the day, but he sure understood water flow! Years later, in his “Random Thoughts” column in the April 1999 issue of Fire Engineering Magazine®, he observed in an article he called “Burning Questions, Part 1” that years ago “the BTU product of one pound of household functioning items could only give off 8000 of these little devils…but the same products—plastic this time—give off more than 17,000 BTUs per pound today.”

        Ironically, that same issue included an article by the late Andy Fredericks (FDNY, Squad 18)  titled “Engine Company Support of RIT/FAST Operations” in which he observed that “we know that the first handline stretched at a structure fire saves more lives than any other action performed on the fireground.” I share that quote of Andy’s at every seminar that I conduct.

       Look, the conventional wisdom is that the solution to fighting hotter fires is simple: more water. But the clichés we utter like “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” or “small fire…small line, big fire…big line” mean nothing if we don’t flow enough water. And most of us are not flowing enough water.

        When the typical pre-connected line was 1 ½”, the average flow was between 95 and 125 gallons per minute. And if that didn’t do the job, you pulled the 2 ½”. Remember?  If you ask any experienced fire officer why their department replaced their 1 ½” hose with 1 ¾”, the answer is always the same: “to flow more water.”

        So,  how is it that most of us are still flowing about the same amount of water with 1 ¾” hose as we did 30 years ago with 1 ½” hose? It begs the question, “Why did you spend thousands of dollars on larger hose if you’re not going to flow more water as you intended?” What the hell is going on here? Are we stupid or ignorant or just lazy? Well, the answers are: no, yes and yes, in that order.


        Okay, let’s talk about stupid first. Remember that line in the movie Forest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does, sir.” It’s only a slightly more grownup way of saying “sticks and stones may break my bones…etc.” which we remember from our childhood. Well, as much as we enjoy our self-depreciating humor in the fire service, we are not stupid. Stupid means you can not learn. You are not capable of learning. Obviously this applies over a wide range of skills, tasks and abilities, but it’s an important point.

        More than 40 years ago, when I was teaching special needs kids  in a state residential facility, one of my students responded to my momentary lack of patience in the classroom with the retort, “I may be ‘tarded, Mr. Chambers, but I’m not stupid!"

        And he was absolutely right. His remark hit me like a slap in the face and thoroughly humbled me. It also reminded me of an admonition from one of my professors in graduate school that “you will learn more from your students than from any of your instructors here.” It was true then and it’s still true today.

        There is a huge difference between those who can not learn and those who, either because of  low self-esteem or hubris, usually in the higher ranks, choose not to learn. We all know people like that. But in the fire service, they are more than self-depreciating. They are  a genuine hazard to those they are responsible for. Their closed minds and self-important attitudes can endanger their firefighters as much as any threat on the fireground.


        Hey, I’m ignorant about a lot of things. So are you. I’m ignorant about quantum mechanics, Italian Renaissance music, and lots of other things, too. The point here is that a lot of us are ignorant about determining Target Flows, developing engine company Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to implement them, and training our people on fireground hydraulics so that we get enough “wet stuff” on the “red stuff.”

        The problem is that this  ignorance  is endangering our brothers and sisters, and the communities we’re committed to protect.  If  today is Friday and you think it’s Thursday, you’re ignorant. You’re not stupid. You’re not a bad person. You just need to buy a damned calendar, or a watch with one, and pay attention, for Pete’s sake! Think about Situational Awareness.

          So, if you’re going to stand at the pump panel of an engine and watch two of your buddies haul a hose into a burning building, you had all better be on the same page (that’s called an SOP) and you had better know what the hell you’re doing.

And that means it’s not good enough to be able to read and adjust the LED numbers on your pump panel. You need to know where those numbers come from and what they mean to you and your team in the building. And if you can’t agree with that, I don’t even know why you’re reading this.                                                                     


          No one wants to admit it, but this is a real problem in the fire service today.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched two people on a line, struggling with nozzle reaction because I’ve just arranged to have the volume of water they thought they had been flowing delivered to them and they’re complaining that they can’t handle the line. So we do the numbers—you know, pump pressure, friction loss, pressure and flow at the knob, nozzle reaction—and they’re whining like kids on a playground who need a nap.

        “Hey,” I call out, “this is supposed to be hard work! If you’re not struggling a little to advance the line, you’re probably not flowing enough water. If you wanted easy you should be sitting in a Crown Vic eating a donut, for Pete’s sake!” That always gets a laugh, and then we get back to work.


          Nobody likes change. You know it as well as I do. It has nothing to do with the fire service, per se. It’s just human nature. Anyone who has proposed a change to their spouse, their kids, or their colleagues knows this is true. We’re wired that way. You can engage in platitudes about expanding your “comfort level,” or “stepping outside the  box,” but on a deeper, psychological level, we perceive change as a threat to our very survival, unless—and this is key—we really examine and evaluate it. If you want to pursue that further, find Dr. Joe Dispenza’s TED Talk® on “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.” Brilliant!

Let’s look at our brothers and sisters in law enforcement for an analogy that applies to operational changes in the fire service. Forty years ago, the standard sidearm carried by U.S. law enforcement personnel  was a .38 caliber revolver, perhaps a Smith & Wesson, Colt or Ruger, usually with a 4” barrel. The .357 magnum was another popular choice; more punch in a similar package.

          For those of you who are too young to remember, check out the movies or TV re-runs. The off-duty or back-up weapon was usually a snub-nose version, the 2” barrel chosen in spite of its seriously degraded ballistic accuracy because of its concealability. Hey, you gotta make choices.

        Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a “wheel gun” in service. In spite of all the early arguments vehemently mounted against semi-automatic pistols—they’re too heavy, too complicated, they jam, etc.—most policemen today carry a 9 mm or .40 caliber automatic. One of my sons is a cop, and even his off-duty weapon is a compact 9 mm. So what happened? The bad guys increased their firepower, and the good guys had no choice but to do the same. The advantages of more stopping power and more rounds available in combat simply outweighed the perceived disadvantages.

        And so it is on the fireground. Fires got hotter, and we had no choice but to respond with more water: bigger pumps, larger supply lines (LDH), more robust  nozzles and attack lines—pre-connected or not—it’s all good! And yet the typical engine company today using 1 ¾” hose is delivering just about the same amount of water as they did with 1 ½” hose. We may think we’re conducting an “aggressive interior attack,” but in reality we’re like Harry Callahan pulling a .22 revolver and asking, “So, do you feel lucky, Punk?”

        Care for an example? Let’s say you pull a 200’ stretch of preconnected 1 ¾” hose with a fog nozzle attached, and the discharge pressure is set for 150 psi. If your nozzle pressure is 100 psi, that leaves 50 psi for friction loss. The formula here is the old standby:  EP=FL+NP (+/- EL). Since we calculate friction loss per 100’ of hose, we divide 50 psi by two and obtain 25 psi per 100’ of 1 ¾”, or about 125 GPM. You’re right back where you were years ago with 1 ½” hose and an adjustable gallonage nozzle with settings of 30-60-95-125 GPMs. You may say you’ve been doing that for years with no problems, so what’s the big deal?

        The deal is this: the fireground is no place to roll the dice. Understand? Remember the old adage that assume makes an a** out of u and me? Well, the stakes are higher on the fireground. When intelligence and situational awareness deteriorate into complacency, that’s when someone could go home in a body bag. This may be 5th grade math…but it ain’t middle school. So how do we deal with closed minds who don’t want hear about a procedural or behavioral problem?

The Role of the Rogue.

        This subject was addressed just last year by Mark vonAppen in a Fire Engineering® blog about fire department rogues…men and women who refuse to ignore such a problem.

        When I’m talking to a firefighter who wants to discuss a policy, procedure or just an isolated event in his department which he believes compromises the safety of the others on the team...I'm talking to a rogue. And I use that term in the most complimentary way possible.

        He's not a whiner...he's a winner! He's not a loose cannon or freelancer...he believes in accountability. That's why he called. And in most cases, he not only knows what the problem is...he already knows the solution, as well. The small role I play is based on the simple reality that the group will be more receptive to an idea involving change if it comes from an outsider than from one of its own members.

        Funny, isn't it?  It's just human nature. I've seen it as a a middle and high school teacher...and in the fire service. I’ll bet you have, too. We encourage people to "think outside the box"...but the familiarity of the status quo inside that box is both comforting and seductive. As a species we are wired to resist change. And sometimes passion is just the thing to engage people and help them along.

        Getting that rogue on board and engaged in policies and procedures makes for a stronger and more dynamic organization. And without a doubt, "people follow passion much more readily than rules." I love these guys!

        More dangerous are the quietly complacent and cynical members who prove to be an obstacle in the firehouse and a genuine hazard on the fireground because they've forgotten that we belong to the fire service.

The Solution.

        First, examine the realities of your fire department and ask the often-overlooked question: How many people are advancing the line? More than anything else, that will determine how much water that line will deliver. If you know you can only count on two people on the nozzle and a third back at the door, it clearly makes no sense to establish a target flow beyond their ability to manage and advance the line.

        Second, based on the staffing realities of your company, determine what your target flow is and compare that to your SOP and your actual flow. So, how much water should you be flowing, say, for an interior attack on a room-and-contents fire? There is no magic number, but, given today’s fuel loads and light construction, if you’re flowing less than 180 GPM, you’re asking for trouble.

        Remember the mantra,  EP=FL+NP (+/- EL), and welcome to the  Laws of Physics: gravity, nozzle reaction, fire behavior, water behavior, etc. It’s due diligence, that’s all.

        Third, using basic fireground hydraulics, re-examine your engine company SOP and see if it makes sense in terms of tactics, strategy, staffing (manpower), fireground operations with other companies (truck, squad, rescue, etc.), mutual aid protocols, and so forth.

        And don’t just crunch the numbers. Use a calibrated flow meter to determine what you’re actually flowing. Why? Because it’s part of your due diligence. Fire hose varies widely by brand, construction and use. Don’t have a flow meter? Borrow one. A fire department that doesn’t have access to a flow meter is like a police department without a firing range. Think about it. If you want to know what you are capable of at an incident, you’d better know the performance and capabilities of your tools and appliances. People without military experience may have to ponder this for a moment. The rest of us already understand.

Final Thoughts.

      Look, this is not complicated.  It’s not difficult.  We simply have to accept the fact that one of the reasons we still lose about 100 firefighters each year is either inadequate or inappropriate application of water on the fire.

        Col. Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut best known for his video in space of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” speaks to this very subject: “It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people; we’re just meticulously prepared.” And so it must be for us on the fireground.

        No one said it better than  our late friend and gifted instructor, Lt. Andy Fredericks, FDNY, Squad 18.  After  FDNY’s Battalion Chief John Salka spoke on self-rescue, Andy remarked: “You know, if you put the fire out, you don’t have to jump out the window!”

        So, now what?  Watch with the intention to learn.  Ask questions and then listen to the answer.  Make your due diligence a daily practice. Bring common sense to each event.  And stay safe, brothers and sisters!


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