Creative thinking and partnerships are the key to solving rural water-supply challenges.
The Tohono O'odham Nation spans roughly 4,500 square miles in the southern Arizona desert. Nearly all of its communities fit the definition of “rural” and have limited infrastructure to support firefighting operations.
As many fire departments already know, providing an adequate water supply for firefighting operations under these conditions often is a challenge. In many instances the nearest water supply is many miles away. Factoring in drive and fill time and minimal staffing, shuttle operations become impractical so operations typically rely on water brought to the scene. Add in rugged terrain, miles of regular off-road travel, greatly extended response times and sandy wash crossings, sustaining water supply at an incident starts well before the tones drop.
The Tohono O'odham Nation Fire Department staffs four stations with at least one engine assigned to each one. While tenders are available, they could be 40 minutes out and crews facing fully involved structures may have to plan their strategies around a limited water supply, such as imminent rescue transitioning to a defensive operation or focusing on protecting exposures when no life hazard exists. In many areas it isn't even possible to get tenders in because of the terrain or other restrictions.
As with any apparatus purchase, much thought is given to specifications, but even more so when you know your second-due apparatus may not be arriving anytime soon. Engines purchased in 1999 came with 1,000-gallon poly tanks. In addition, 20-gallon foam tanks were integrated into the water tanks and plumbed to a quick-connect fitting at the pump panel that makes connecting to a specially designed foam eductor easy.
While bringing 1,000 gallons of water on the first-due unit makes knocking down larger fires possible, the need to be equipped to respond to a wide variety of incidents — including brush fires, medical emergencies, water rescues and vehicle extrications — and the compartment space required to meet such a need, leads to larger apparatus. That, in turn, creates additional response challenges given the rugged environment in which we work.
A first-out tender delivered in 1999 carries 3,000 gallons of water, but is very large and limited to use in relatively flat, open areas. While this unit has an exceptional turning radius because of its all-steer feature, its weight, length and tendency to be used off-road make us mindful of its limitations. The design of a 2002 tender opted for a smaller 2,000-gallon poly tank with a foam proportioning system and greatly enhanced angle of departure achieved by forgoing a tailboard and reconfiguring the rear.
New engines expected to arrive this month have been scaled down. The specifications called for 750-gallon poly tanks; CAFS was added to make up for the smaller water tank. The compartment-space requirements were met by the successful bidder and the 4-wheel-drive chassis is suited for regular off-road use. The specifications committee worked for months to improve on the original design while addressing our unique needs. With regard to tender design meeting the needs of rural firefighting has become a matter of balancing the need to bring enough water to the scene and being able to get it there at all. Future specifications will draw from the tactical tender design used in wildland firefighting to include smaller water tanks and greater angles of approach and departure.
Aside from apparatus design, there are many other opportunities to ensure we have needed water at an incident. Relationships need to be established early on with all stakeholders when new construction is planned. The area the department serves has been fortunate to experience growth and has many new, modern facilities. Most of these facilities are large public buildings that are considered target hazards. While these buildings have a positive impact on the community, we must make our case for adequate fire-protection systems in areas with limited infrastructure and abide by code requirements to the extent possible. We also must factor in our firefighting capabilities and truly understand what it means to take advantage of being the authority having jurisdiction.
In most urban areas, the plan-review process provides all the needed assurances that we have the needed water flow at an incident. In many rural areas, however, it is quite possible that because of limited infrastructure and the costs of upgrading, construction could occur without the necessary reviews. It is critical for fire departments to be involved early on so that the owners and stakeholders know up front what physical enhancements may be required, what the financial impacts are and what liabilities may be created by forgoing any recommendations.
One particular challenge that perhaps should be addressed up front is the need to add elevated water tanks to provide the necessary water flow and support sprinkler systems and fire hydrants for target hazards. This obviously has significant financial impact on a project, but with early input and education, life-safety issues can be prioritized and accepted. Despite limited resources and extended response times, you can be assured automatic sprinkler systems will be effective in helping you limit loss.
Keeping the lines of communication open also allows for honest dialogue and creative solutions. With the development of large recreation centers in our area, the owners and architects readily agreed to work with us to meet the needs of all involved. At one facility, a dry hydrant was installed in the parking lot that allows for water from the swimming pool to be drafted. The solution in another facility required that an above-ground tank be constructed and dedicated to the building. This tank provides the domestic water supply and only will support fire operations once water flow is detected in the automatic sprinkler system. A specially designated hydrant is installed on this system and is used as a fill point only.
When new construction is planned, never hesitate to get involved and always encourage an exchange of ideas. It is our responsibility to provide for life safety regardless of how limited our fire-prevention resources may be. Ask for a hydrant with any new construction, and if approved have it placed so that it benefits existing construction as well as the new. We have been successful at this and take advantage of every opportunity to improve our response capabilities.
Because of the remoteness of our area, wildland fire poses special water-supply challenges as well. In many cases the normal tender and dump sites work to keep engines supported; however, fire starts in inaccessible areas require additional thought. Our rugged mountains are inaccessible to engines and hand crews often need to be flown in. It's a given that the cooperative effort will bring together federal, state and local resources to include air support, but the distances in some cases limit traditional tactics.
For example, suitable dip sites that are accessible to both tenders and helicopters may not be readily available, thus requiring greater turnaround time and the need for more tenders to maintain dip sites because of long travel distances to the nearest fill point. Watering holes for livestock have been used as dip sites, but as with anything that affects livestock, ranchers need to be consulted and appropriate arrangements have to be made to either replenish the sites or reimburse the refilling costs.
Finally, the local utility authority must be a partner in your business. Without them, we literally can't do what is expected of us. Understand that our priorities may not be the same, but realize that they respect our needs and will do what they can for us within reason. An example of local collaboration with the utility company involves a pilot program to establish fill points in communities without hydrants. We already understood the financial constraints of modifying the existing distribution system to add hydrants and also knew that in many cases the flows would not support an engine pumping from the system, but nonetheless, we approached them about the need for reliable water supply in these areas.
We jointly developed a plan to tap into the domestic water supply. Most communities rely on elevated or above-ground storage tanks to gravity-feed the water distribution system. The utility authority agreed to plumb 2H-inch fill connections directly to the tanks that supply the community or in other areas accessible to apparatus. Because security of the connections is a concern, and because we already had partnered with the Knox Corp., we suggested the use of Knox SecureCaps. The utility authority does the work at cost and soon we'll have fill points in all of our communities.
In many jurisdictions, reliable water-distribution systems are granted through rigid code enforcement and thorough planning and permitting processes. In rural settings, however, we must remain vigilant to ensure that our firefighting capabilities are maintained and improved whenever possible. Most people never consider the impact that new construction has on water supply or how the lack of infrastructure limits our effectiveness. Because of that, it remains our responsibility to constantly educate and stay involved.
Be proactive and never minimize the obvious when it comes to finding solutions to water-supply problems.
Craig Encinas is chief of the Tohono O'odham Nation Fire Department. He also is a member of the Native American Fire Chiefs Association.