Where Do You Stretch to Dry?


This is another one of those things that we learn in firefighter 1, but deviate from once we gain “experience”. This subject of where to stretch dry depends greatly on where you are going to fight the fire.  I have seen pictures of firefighters virtually standing eye to eye with the beast without charged lines in their hands or worse yet, their brother firefighters are inside searching, having already made entry and given the beast some oxygen.  Hopefully, they have protected themselves by closing doors as they search.  The only protection the engine firefighter can give those searching is power in the form of water to keep the fire at bay and hopefully extinguish it.

The best rule of thumb I can offer is to stretch as close to the fire area as possible in such a way that does not unnecessarily endanger your crew. This requires good experience and judgment.  If in doubt, always charge the line in a safe, remote area, but remember that moving a charged line is much more difficult than moving a dry line, especially if your personnel are limited.  Make sure that the first line gets to the attack position as quickly as possible before committing any other personnel to additional duties such as stretching a second line.  Too many times I have seen each company stretch their own lines with none of them achieving the objective.  This is most apparent in multiple dwellings where the fire is on the upper floor.  What happens is that the multiple lines stretched all wind up in the stairwell, tangled with each other and/or stuck on stair and landing turns.  Get the first line operating on the fire and then address additional lines.

We will look at some examples

When addressing the single family dwelling or a multiple dwelling with a fire on the first floor, it is best to stretch, flake and charge near the front door. The open floor plan of the single family dwelling lends itself to rapid fire spread, which could be further escalated by the opening of the entrance door.  If you are entering without a charged hoseline, you can be in a very dangerous position if you are inside without water when the fire starts moving rapidly toward the opening you just created.  I have seen crews stretch dry inside structures where the fire location and condition are apparent, endangering the crew and exposing them to extreme heat without protection.  The fact that they usually do not have their masks on at this point adds to the dangers.

long branch

Even though this fire is at the back of the house, stretching inside further than the front door without charging the line can turn this scene bad. The fire is already venting so we should advance through the house (from front to back) via the front door with a charged line.  This allows us to protect the stairs and keep the line between the fire and the egress.  In addition, it allows an unburned side attack.  Advancing to the fire room door before charging the line will be too late to react if something goes wrong.  (Photo Lt. Doug Rowell Long Branch NJ FD)


Even though the fire appears to be on the second floor, it might have started on the rear of the first floor (or cellar) and spread there via an open interior stairwell. I would charge the line at the front door here to keep the surprises to a minimum.  Note the line in the narrow alley protecting the D exposure.  In a fire like this, an exposure line is essential and must be one of the first lines stretched (either the second or the third).  This stream must never enter the windows unless command orders it and personnel are confirmed to be off the second floor. (Photo by Ron Jeffers)



There appears to be no indicator of fire on the first floor here, but the second floor is going good. This is another occasion to stretch to the front door and no further before charging the line.  Although the conditions inside on the first floor may be tolerable here, why would you want to wait until you are inside to charge this line?  More than likely the stairwell is right inside the front door and your advance will be straight up, turn and attack.  Don’t be lazy and wait till you are at the second floor turn before calling for water.  It will be too late.  (Photo by AA)


In multiple dwellings, the line should be stretched dry to the safest area where there is no fire.  This is usually to the landing below the fire.  This is the safest place to charge even if there is no fire in the hallway on the fire floor.  For example, if the fire is on the fourth floor, it is best to stretch dry to the third floor, flaking out the “live” attack load (at least a length) on the floor and landing below.  Resist the temptation to stretch right to the floor before charging.  The door can fail and put the attack team in danger if they do not have water.  In addition, you might have more than one apartment going so the practice of stretching dry to the reported fire apartment door can cause a company to be trapped if the fire is actually in or has spread to an adjacent apartment.  Recon will help here, but remember that those doing recon can best be protected with a charged line.



Here is where recon can pay off well. These are likely to be railroad flat apartments, running from front to the rear of the building with two on each floor.  The fire appears to have already extended to the second floor at the rear.  Charge the first two lines here at the front door until we have contained this.  A line to the top floor should be stretched an alternative way so as not to clog the stairwell, but even if it is not, the conditions require charging in a safe area.  Being above the fire without a charged line here is likely to be a critical mistake (Photo by Bob Scollan)



This fire appears to be spreading up the voids at the front of the structure. The lowest floor fire and smoke is observed is the second floor.  I would change this line before entering the structure or at the very least at the top of the exterior stairs just inside the front hallway door.  With a fire escape on the front, this building likely has four apartments on each floor, two at the front and two at the rear.  As this fire appears to be at the front of the structure, make sure charged lines are in the stairwells to keep it from crossing the hallways (Photo by Ron Jeffers)



Although this looks like a top floor fire on the A side, a look at the D side shows fire on the floor below the top floor, the fourth floor. This may actually be a fire on the fourth floor that is extending via a stairwell to the fifth floor as the fire escape area appears to be “between” floors.  In this case, stretch dry to the third floor landing.  Stretching to the fourth floor landing before calling for water can put the company in a compromising position.  This shows the value of recon.  (Photographer unknown)

stairwell windows

The windows that are in the center (appearing to be framed by brick) are stairwell landing windows. They are between each floor.  These are an ideal place to stretch additional lines to the upper floors.  Bring them in on the floor below the one you are looking to work on.  Charge the line on the landing, flaking it down the stairs beneath you.  (Photo by author)

Another place we will discuss is the cellar or basement fire.  In these situations, it is imperative that the line be charged before descending down the stairs or into the below grade area, whether it be from the interior or from the exterior such as the Bilco door.  Some buildings, especially multiple dwellings can have large cellars that may not show the true fire conditions from the exterior.  Be prepared for things to escalate when we make openings in the building for entry.  Often this is the only place the fire may have to go in its quest for the outside air supply.  Don’t be in this area without protection when it does.

cellar 1

This door leads to the cellar stairwell seen on the right. It is in an old multiple dwelling.  A fire extending up this stairwell will spread to the open interior stairs and threaten all apartment and occupants (and firefighters) above.  Do not go down these stairs with a hoseline unless it is charged, no matter how “friendly”  the conditions may seem.  You are heading into a chimney.  Stay protected. (Photo by author)

Finally, when stretching into attached exposures for recon and extension prevention, make sure that the line is charged before entering  any areas that are adjacent to the fire area where fire may have already spread to.  Once you open a door, you may be in for a surprise.  This is especially true of buildings where shafts are present.  Opening an apartment  door in an adjacent  building may suck fire right into that apartment and right at you.  The same may be true in a building  that is unattached but the original fire has ignited its combustible siding.  Opening a door for recon may pull fire right into the building.

If you are going to operate on the top floor of an exposed attached multiple dwelling with orders to keep the fire contained to the building of origin, make sure that a hoseline is charged and ready to operate before entering vulnerable areas.  These include apartments that abut the fire building, any areas where shafts may be present, and any area under which might be a common cockloft.  Fire can burst into these areas with frightening speed or blow down from the cockloft with explosive force.  Always make sure you have a charged line and keep your exit path clear for a quick retreat should conditions deteriorate.



Evidence that this fire is in the cockloft demands that charged line be placed to the Bravo exposure top floor as soon a possible. Even though it appears to be clear on the top floor of the exposure, fire above has blown down on unsuspecting firefighters without warning from above.  A charged line and maintenance of an escape route is critical to operate in this seemingly friendly environment.  If fire erupts unexpectedly, an uncharged line is like having no line at all.  You will not have the time to make a stand.  (Photo by Bob Scollan)  By the way, the absence of a helmet on the firefighter in the top floor exposure is unacceptable.  He (and his officer) would be writing a report, answering for that on my fireground. 

The key is to recognize where the unsafe areas lie and then ensure you do not make entry into these areas without a charged hoseline for protection.  Don’t make complacency-driven mistakes.  They may be your last.

Check out the Garlic and Gaelic radio show on fireengineringradio.com with me and Chief Jim Duffy from Wallingford CT called Fireground Strategies and Other Stuff from the Street.  Our next show is on June 12h.

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1 Comment

  • Patrick Gleason says:

    Great article. Awesome review of some basic tactics that could be overlooked after time in service. Always good to refresh on the basics.

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