Ah water. You go to the tap and, voila! All you need, right? But is there enough? Is there enough for everyone? This precious commodity is elusive to some who must struggle every day just to have enough potable water to drink. Parasitic amoebas, cholera, and pollution plague many countries of the third world when it comes to available drinking water. Human requirements run from about two liters on the low end to four liters on the high end. Excess is usually excreted but all depends on input versus output. Yet water is something we take for granted.

Water is a simple compound consisting of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms bonded covalently to form the molecule that serves as the transparent liquid (or solid, or gas) people so desperately need. Yet, less than three percent of all water on the planet is considered ‘fresh’ water and almost 70 percent of that is locked in the glaciers and polar ice caps. Water is also the main ingredient in fighting fires. Realistically, it is the only substance available in enough volume to use in combating and extinguishing fires. Yes, we use the exact same water (part of that three percent) to pour over our disasters. How many of you have been to very large events where you poured millions and millions of gallons of water on a blaze over many days? How many of you have lost a structure or failed at a major event because responders ran out of water? Many rural departments and industrial brigades have faced this issue on daily responses as the event is located too far from effective water sources and even the biggest tankers cannot manage the workload. How many chief officers have abandoned an extinguishment effort because there was not enough water, putting lives in danger as well as property? It happens, sometimes even in areas with plentiful water supplies.

After a particular horrific long cold spell in Chicago (weeks of below freezing temps with many days below zero), I have witnessed and have been part of failed extinguishment efforts due to frozen fireplugs. Engineers stop at hydrant after hydrant, searching for one that was not frozen, resulting in very long hose layouts. Nothing is more heartbreaking than consoling a family whose home was destroyed and everything was lost because there was not enough water to extinguish the flames. While the water department would struggle to thaw frozen plugs (using very large blowtorches), single (or even multiple) hydrants may not have enough feed to make the fight a good one.

That same winter, encountering a huge multi storied warehouse fire, I saw the water department lay a portable six-inch water main straight down a major thoroughfare (three miles down the street!) to help contain the blaze. Even cities that have Class A water availability can run short when demand exceeds available supply. That was one rough winter for the Chicago Fire Department and the water department.

A municipal need aside, water management is paramount for industrial brigades as well. Some industrial facilities are located in remote areas due to necessity some practical matters. In any fire fighting situation, water needs are based on many factors such as the number of apparatus, the size of the fire-pumps used, and ‘special’ fire tactics (foam, exposure issues, etc.). There are simple and complicated formulas for calculating water requirements, all of which are practically useless in the heat of the battle. As an example in industry, take a 100-foot crude tank. The formula is tank radius squared x 3.14 [remember Π * r2 ?] x 0.16 [minimum flow rate] to give you a total of 1,256 gpm. Over 60 minutes, that’s more than 75,000 gallons per hour. That’s the minimum. The question remains, “Do you have enough”? Remember, big fires require big water to extinguish, often requiring large master streams for this effort. Industrial and marine efforts often use much larger fire pumps than municipal tactics and cities may be especially challenged to deliver enough water fire flow to affect fire extinguishment. Municipal apparatus may come in at a maximum of 1,000 gpm on their biggest rigs where industrial and marine units may exceed 3,000 gpm capabilities. Of course, many of these incidents seem to occur where no reliable source exists. Rail and marine incidents never seem to be ‘convenient’ when it comes to water supply needs. These hazards can roll through town or float by on a scenic river as well.

Always remember priorities when approaching these extinguishments. Life safety is still number one as it is in all tactics of the service. Incident containment is second, followed by property and the environment. There is no good reason to risk lives when the battle is lost or cannot be won because there is not enough water.

Water is one of the most precious resources on the planet and people squander it, pollute it, fight over it and die without it. Always pragmatically assess water needs and available supply when approaching these incidents as there may be only one chance to do so. Make it a good, sound evaluation and do not hesitate to back away when necessary.