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Planning for Failure, What to do before you lose water

We have all watched the news and social media apps with articles and videos from Texas and surrounding states of frozen and broken pipes. Most of the videos show broken residential pipes and sprinkler system breaks that are all too common in the northeast. The one video that made me stop in my tracks was of a water tower with a broken supply pipe. The water reserve for the whole system was no longer filling the system with water; instead, it made a lake on the ground below. I questioned if the local fire department was ready for a complete system interruption and remembered the lengthy preplanning done for my town if we had a catastrophic failure of our water system.

My town is a coastal town in Connecticut and is about 34 square miles served by a town-only water department. The town is protected with fire hydrants for about 2/3 of its boundaries. The other 1/3  has to have its water relay pumped or shuttled in with tankers from nearby fire hydrants or static sources. What do we do if our Hydrants do not work or we get a fire in the town in an area without fire hydrants? That was the question we asked ourselves as new company officers.  Soon it would be us as the Incident Commander, and we would need to know where our water was coming from and what to do if option one was no longer an option. The following are the steps we took to answering this question.

Step 1: Write Down Your Questions and Your Goals

Starting from least to worst-case, the question we asked ourselves included; What do we do if we have a local water main break? Are we ready to relay pump or set up a tanker shuttle if we lose a small area of the system? How much water can we get out of our system in one area for a large fire before needing to look at an alternative water supply? What would we do if the whole water system was out of service for a short or long period of time? As my town does not have a tanker, who do we get our tankers from, and what are their capabilities? How long would it take to receive mutual aid? Finally, what as a department can we train on to be ready for a water system failure?

Step 2: Finding the Hydrants

To ensure that you find all the possible fire hydrants, you must first request existing data on the subject. We first acquired data from the Water Department and Dispatch Center of the fire hydrants they had a file. We compared the two lists to make one list of possible fire hydrant locations and drove every road in town, stopping and marking each hydrant along the way. We used the I Am Responding program for hydrant marking and mapping. We found that over time some of the information on the list had changed. For example, some fire hydrants that used to be between two houses were now in front of a recently constructed home with a new numerical or the old school landmark that used to be adjacent to the hydrant has since been removed. After a few months, we located each hydrant, confirmed their locations, and marked them on the digital map. We then went back to the water department and reviewed the water main map; this allowed us to observe which hydrants were on a dead-end mains and what size main served each hydrant.

Step 3: Finding the Static Water Sources

The biggest thing to remember is similar to the fire hydrants; you need to do this for the whole town and not just the none hydranted areas. We found the best way to do this was to use an online aerial view of the town. As a coastal town, we first followed the coastline and made a list of every point it looked like a firetruck could get close enough to pull a draft. After that, we went from north to south, making a grid system and marking down any location that appeared a firetruck could get close enough to any water source. With a list of about 300 sites, we set out with a tape measure and evaluated each site. The parameters of determining a good drafting site included elevation of 20 feet or less, 20 feet or less from where the firetruck could get an intake for drafting from the water source, and elevation plus drafting distance also had to be less than 20 feet. Twenty feet was essential because each of our engines keeps 20 feet of hard suction on them. If the drafting site passed the measurement test, the water’s depth was measured to confirm that a draft could be pulled; the final step was marking the drafting sites in the digital mapping.

Step 4: Preplanning every Street

Now that there was a complete map of the town with every possible water source, it was time to preplan. Alphabetically, each street was assigned a draft site. This meant that each street with fire hydrants would have a predetermined best static source in case of failure or part of or a failure of the entire water system. Each street without fire hydrants was assigned multiple water sources made up of static sources and fire hydrants. Numerous streets did not have a fire hydrant, but fire hydrants on the adjacent street were listed as the water source along with a static source if the hydrant was not operable. This also helped identify what streets or parts of a long street that needed a hose relay or a tanker shuttle based on the water source’s distance from various points on the street. 

Step 5: Water Source Results

The results include identifying 960  fire hydrants made up of town-owned and maintained, private, state-owned on state property, and a few hydrants maintained by an adjacent town. The results also included 57 draft sites made up of static sources from fresh and saltwater. The updated list along with the preplans were added to the dispatch computer-aided dispatching software to allow the dispatcher to provide the information over the air to responding units, including each streets static source in case of a water system failure.  Finally, we met with the town’s GIS maintainer and copied the digital map information into the town’s GIS System. This allowed for the printing of large-scale maps that were hung in the firehouse for future preplanning and training.

Step 6: Establishment of Tanker Levels

To establish the tanker levels, we reach out to surrounding towns and counties to see how many tankers they had, what the capabilities of the tankers were; we used the internet to see how long it would take for the tankers to get from their stations to each of our three stations. Most importantly, we inquired how many tankers we could call for without leaving another area unprotected. We then identified a house in town we saw as a worst-case scenario for water supply. The house was a 15-minute response from the closest station; the house was in a none hydranted area of town; the house was about three miles one way from the most immediate static water source and five miles from the nearest fire hydrant; the house was over 6,000 square feet down a 1,100-foot driveway off a narrow cul-de-sac, and up a hill.

After doing our math, total tanker gallons minus ten percent divided by round trip time to estimate our gallons per minute for the tanker shuttle. We compared that number to the needed gallons per minute of water required to extinguish the fire if the house was 25%, 50%, and 100% involved. The result was a level two tanker task force was needed to control the fire. Therefore, to be proactive, we establish a level three tanker task force to plan for what to do next.  We also identified extra tankers in case a surrounding department was not able to respond to our call.

Step 7: Water Source Monitoring

The final steps are to review the map and observe new construction continuously. We still have new fire hydrants being installed with new water mains that change water supply plans for surrounding streets. In times of drought, we also reevaluate our static water source in case we need to temporarily take a location out of service for lack of water. All of this allows us to be ready in case the water system fails.


The work conclusion resulted in changing our existing tanker task forces, a change in our run cards for areas with no fire hydrants, and a better understanding of our town’s available water. We went from each tanker task force from having five tankers to a level one having six tankers that included a vac-tanker and two engines. Each additional level had five additional tankers and a water supply engine, with the highest level task force being a level three. Extra tankers were listed as alternate tankers in case another department was unavailable. We updated our run cards in our none hydranted areas so that when a first alarm is transmitted a level one tanker task force is assigned, and the same went for a second alarm fire a level two tanker task force would be assigned. The biggest payoff of all was we had a good understanding of the town’s water supply and could quickly have a plan a, b, and c ready for each fire we went to.

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