Article Archive
Risk Assessment - Pre-planning then and now
The fire service does not have to accept a poor water supply and can take action to improve the situation.
Volume 23, No. 6

This article continues the discussion in the last issue comparing my preplanning experiences as a young firefighter and now as a fire protection engineer. The analogies apply to planning for all types of fire fighting but more so to industrial operations.

Part two focuses on two water supply issues that we seemed to accept as an unchangeable fact in the various fire departments I served in over the years but have actively worked to change as a property loss prevention engineer.

The first water supply issue is accepting low flow or low pressure hydrants the way they are, and simply painting (or repainting) the caps to correspond to the flow. I distinctly remember one chief telling me that it was unfortunate that we had such a poor water supply in a particular high challenge target area.

Although it may have been going on without my knowledge, I do not recall ever hearing any discussion about improving the supply or trying to figure out why the supply was so poor. It was just accepted as fact and we were left to preplan around the poor supply.

One of the first things a property loss prevention engineer will do when evaluating a facility's fire protection is to compare the tested water supply with the expected results. Even on the first test, there are clues as to expected performance. If there is a discrepancy, a hydraulic gradient test (discussed in the August 2006 - February 2007 series Hydraulic Analysis of Fire Protection Water Supplies) is in order. Many times, the problem is as simple as a partially shut valve in the water supply. In one case, my company found a valve that may have been shut for ten years, and possibly much longer than that.

How does this happen?

  • A water supply valve needs to be closed to repair a break or to expand or modify the system.
  • At the end of the job, which is usually at the end of the day, the valve is cracked open to re-pressurize the system.
  • The crew goes home, intending to come back the next day and open the valve all the way.
  • By then, more work orders come in and the mostly shut valve is forgotten.
  • Since there is pressure on the system, it often goes unnoticed.

At an industrial facility, this problem is largely controlled by following the impairment procedures required by corporate or insurance loss control policy. But if this happens out in the municipality, the facility may never know about it. This is why regular flow testing is needed.

If the water supply is truly deficient, that is, it cannot be corrected by reopening a valve otherwise clearing an obstruction, then a property loss prevention engineer will recommend the most cost-effective way to improve the supply. Such improvements can be quite expensive and may take a few years to complete, but the process must start somewhere. In the situations I was familiar with in the fire service, and where an insurance company was not asking for an improvement, the process never started, and nearly 30 years later, some situations are still the same.

The second water supply issue is that the fire service is very good at overcoming water supply problems with the tools at its immediate disposal. In fact solutions that should be stop-gap measures become the permanent "solution." In one fire department I served, an elaborate plan to move water about 2,000 feet (about 650 meters) from a static water supply to the target building involved split-lays1 from engine companies from four different fire departments. It was practiced annually as a test of the mutual aid system.

This was a great example of fire service resourcefulness and cooperation, but there were too many moving parts and setup took too long for this to be reliable in the long run. What was needed was a permanent water supply as part of the long-term budget. To my knowledge, the fire service never raised this issue to the people who would have had the authority to at least consider a permanent supply. Of course, it might have been rejected but nothing gets done if no one asks.

The key message is that the fire service does not have to accept a poor water supply and can take action to improve the situation. But the desired end state must be known; that is, how bad the supply is now and how much improvement is needed. 

Feel free to contact this author at or at (404) 431-2673. John Frank, P.E., CFPS is with XL GAPS, a leading loss prevention services provider and part of the XL Insurance Group of companies. Through its operating subsidiaries, XL Capital Ltd (NYSE: XL) is a leading provider of global insurance and reinsurance coverages to industrial, commercial and professional service firms, insurance companies, and other enterprises on a worldwide basis. As of Sept. 30, 2007, XL Capital Ltd had consolidated assets of approximately $60.9 billion and consolidated shareholders' equity of approximately $11.4 billion. More information about XL Capital Ltd is available at


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