How Fire Engines Work

Announcer: Go behind the wheel and under the hood on everything automotive with High Speed Stuff from

Scott: Hi everybody, this is High Speed Stuff, and I am Scott Benjamin, the auto editor here at

Ben: My name is Ben Bowlin, and I am a video writer here at the same website.

Scott: How you doing, Ben?

Ben: I'm stoked, man. It's awesome to be back in the booth again.

Scott: Are you really, you're stoked?

Ben: You cleaned up pretty nice.Scott: Are the kids saying that now these days?

Ben: Oh man, I'm trying to bring it back. You guys, Scott looks pretty clean cut today. He got a haircut.

Scott: I finally got the haircut we were talking about. Yeah, I'm spiffing up a little bit. Dress needs some work, but I'm getting on it.

Ben: One of our chairs in the studio actually has a little bit of a sliding forward thing, so sometimes when it sounds like Scott and I are doing this intro - You know what I'm talking about dude - It's like the back end of the chair -

Scott: I do. I gave it to you this time.

Ben: Yeah, yeah, so that's why it sounds a little awkward because we always have that who is getting that chair?

Scott: Someone is falling out of the chair.

Ben: It doesn't matter who you are, someone is going.Scott: Slip under the table.

Ben: We're here to talk about emergencies today, right?

Scott: Definitely.

Ben: Bigger than sliding chairs.Scott: Yeah, and this is something, I gotta tell ya, I think from the point that everybody is a little child, they love watching emergency vehicles on the road. It means that somebody is having a bad day, of course, but I love watching fire trucks. I love following fire trucks. Honestly, I'm kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I will follow a fire truck to a fire to see if it's close.Ben:: Even now?Scott: Even now. I did this, as a matter of a fact, two weekends ago. I followed one, but it was just going down the road, and I could see the smoke billowing over the road. It was in someone's backyard, and one of those fiberglass fences had melted in this big fire. It was like a big grass fire, and trees were catching and everything, but there was a big huge cloud of white smoke going across six lanes of road with a median, and you couldn't see across it, so of course I had to poke my nose around to see what was going on. We got there 30 seconds after the fire truck was there, and they already had it under control. They're quick.

Ben: I've got to ask you, Scott, were you following them because of some do-gooder impulse.Scott: You know what, this is from a long, long time ago. I used to live in Indiana, and I think my dad got it from his mother, honestly, my grandmother, who is still around, she had the impulse that whenever they heard - you know, a small town in Indiana, whenever the fire trucks were called out, she had the impulse to go see what was going on, or let's go check it out. He got that from her, and I got it from him because we would travel out into the country, and watch huge barn fires happening, and really spectacular fires at night, and sometimes we'd see some horrible things, like livestock, and things like that in them, but often times it was just a big, beautiful fire. I mean, I know it sounds awful to say that because somebody is losing property or animals, or whatever, but I'm talking about these enormous 150 or 200-year-old barns that were burning in the middle of this really dark Indiana night, out in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, and I hate to say it, but it was beautiful, it really was.


I'm gonna do you a solid here bro, and insure all the listeners that Scott Benjamin is in no way an arsonist.

Scott: No, no, no, I'm not like that at all. I mean, it was just something interesting to watch, especially when you're a kidney, imagine all that activity and excitement involved.

Ben: Especially if you're in a small town, the odds are there's a very compelling reason to find out what is on fire because you probably know everybody.

Scott: Yeah, could be a neighbor.

Ben: Yeah, it could very easily affect your life, especially in a close knit community.Scott: Sure. How about you, do you have kind of an interest in watching emergency vehicles?

Ben: Absolutely fascinated by them, especially fire trucks because I always wondered, ever since I was but a wee tike, what was going on inside the fire engines because you know, when you're a kid, they just seem so cool. There is so much stuff inside of it, and there is this entire crew of people. I always thought the coolest seat was the one in the back, you know, the guy who stands - I would never want to be there now, but before I ever had to drive, I thought it would be awesome. I didn't know that he was actually doing something. I just thought - you know how like when you're a kid, and you're in school, and some kid gets to be in front of the line because he or she did something? I thought that was a prize for the firefighters.

Scott: They got to stand on the back?

Ben: Yeah, they got to go in the fun seat. No, they're doing work.

Scott: How about the one driving in the back. Have you ever seen that on the -

Ben: Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.

Scott: Oh, the guy driving. I thought you meant the ones hanging on the back.

Ben: On the longer, more rectangular ones.

Scott: Yeah, yeah, that would be fun.

Ben: It's really interesting because I still have this childhood fascination with fire engines because if you look at it, we've got some great articles on the site, and one of the things that really struck me here is our authors say that the important thing to know about a fire engine, and I'm quoting here, is that "it's a combination of a personnel carrier, a toolbox, and a water tanker, all at once".Scott: The toolbox aspect of a fire engine is extremely critical. They've got - you mentioned yourself how it seemed like there was a lot going on inside of a fire truck, right?

Ben: Yeah.Scott: Everything has a place, and everything in its place is a good way to describe this thing because it has to be exactly where they know it is. I mean they have to learn that truck inside and out. They need to know exactly where everything is, what size hoses there are, the connectors, where the tools are, everything, any imaginable scenario, they need to be able to take care of in the dark, at a fire scene where there could be smoke blocking vision. They have to be able to communicate with the rest of the fire department, the rest of their group, be able to tell them what they need exactly, and where to find it. There's just a lot of communication that happens on a fire truck that you and I don't see when they are just passing at 80 miles per hour on the side streets.

Ben: I think it would be fair to say that most people don't really know everything that goes into it, so I got a little list here if you want it.

Scott: Fantastic.

Ben: Okay, I'm just gonna run through some of the stuff that firefighters have to take because you know, human beings fire is not our natural element, just in case somebody is wondering, don't do it. Put the matches down. We have to have, when we are fighting any kind of conflagration or something, we have to have a lot of tools to get it out safely, with a minimal amount of property damage, and hopefully no loss of life. So, a lot of this stuff is related to the hoses, to the transportation water and foam, so I'm just gonna read some of these, and stop me if one catches your interest.Scott: Sure.

Ben: Barrel strainers, you know, that's just what you put on a hard suction hose when you're taking water from a lake or a pond..Scott: Oh, okay, so you don't have to -

Ben: So you don't end up spraying fish or something.Scott: You don't have a hygrin.

Ben: Right, right.

Scott: Got it.

Ben: Nozzles, of course, depending on the kind of water coverage you need, foam inductor, to put a kind of flame-retardant foam on there, a haligan tool, which is kind of like a crowbar, a sheetrock puller, pike pulls, and these are about 10 to 12 feet long, and are thrust into the ceiling to pull sheetrock down.

Scott: Those are those cool hook-looking tool they got, right?

Ben: Yeah, yeah.Scott: With a spike on one end and a hook on the other?

Ben: Yeah.

Scott: Oh, very cool.

Ben: Which is almost medieval in design when you think about it.

Scott: Yeah, it does, it almost looks like a whaling tool or something like that they would use like a spear.

Ben: Not being a fireman myself, I cannot speak to any allegations of fires that can be attributed to whales, but it is good to be prepared, you know. They're very smart animals.

Scott: I'm just saying it just looked like that, to me anyway. It looks like a harpoon maybe.

Ben: Then they have EMS equipment. We know that because every firefighter has EMS training, and then there are some hose adaptors, a bunch of different wrenches because of course, as we all know from being kids, and trying to open fire hydrants, you can't do it with your ordinary wrench.

Scott: Did you try to do that?

Ben: Of course I did, man.

Scott: Did you really?

Ben: Yeah.Scott: Were you ever around when someone has opened one?

Ben: Yup.

Scott: Legally or illegally?

Ben: Illegally, Scott.

Scott: Really?

Ben: Yup.Scott: I've never been to either. I have never seen anybody open one legally or illegally, only on television I've seen it done.

Ben: I didn't see them open it, but I was there after it was opened.

Scott: Were you playing in it?

Ben: Yes.Scott: Really?

Ben: Yes.

Scott: Did the, I don't know, the city members come by, and scold you or anything, or did the firemen show up because how long can something like that last?

Ben: You know what, you would be surprised because perhaps memory is putting a sort of golden hue on this, or rose-tinted hue, but we played in it for an afternoon. I was quite young, this was in the burbs, and then we just went home.

Scott: Wow, good for you. I had water fights with hoses and things, but never a fire hydrant.

Ben: Oh that's cool, man.

Scott: Yeah, it's a neat memory.

Ben: Yeah, yeah, well I feel kind of bad about it since now I know I know what a fire hydrant is for.

Scott: Oh you know, they do have to release pressure on those things occasionally, and they clean them out, so maybe you were doing a service.

Ben: Oh man, thank you, thank you. We're even now because you insure people that I wasn't stealing fire hydrant water, and I let them know you are not an arsonist. They also have the jaws of life as well.

Scott: Oh yeah, jaws of life.

Ben: We could do a whole podcast on that thing one day. Exhaust fan, and then salvage covers, which was really interesting. They can cover furniture and stuff on a lower floor if there is a fire on a higher floor.

Scott: No kidding?

Ben: Yeah, so there's a bigger chance that you can keep some of your stuff.Scott: Really? So one team kind of runs in and covers everything up real quick?

Ben: The team -

Scott: No, I'm not kidding, I mean really, does that happen because I've never heard of it?

Ben: Well the way that the fire teams actually work is a little bit different, I think, depending on the place, but they do have the capacity to salvage some things, which usually when we see fires, we see them gutted out with just the frame remaining. I think just recently up the street from our mysterious location in Studio 1A, there was a house fire. Fires happen all the time, right? So the other stuff they have are bolt cutters, sledge hammers, fire extinguisher - who saw that one coming? - Water cooler and usually two ladders.

Scott: It's kind of funny that they carry a fire extinguisher.

Ben: I mean, can you imagine? You can die from the irony alone if your fire engine is catching on fire.

Scott: I don't know, it makes sense, I guess, to hold something like that because you don't want to hit somebody with 95-gallon per minute hose if you don't need to.

Ben: Yeah, exactly. Scott: It makes sense. Blast them back a little bit.

Ben: Right. Scott: Yeah, oh you know what, one other thing they carry is breathing apparatus.

Ben: Oh yeah, we should have done that, yeah.Scott: The thing about t his is, it is like scuba only without the U, without the underwater part. It's SCBA - Self-contained breathing apparatus, but they carry those and they carry 30 minutes of air I believe is what they have, and they're already in the truck, ready to go. They just kind of turn around, put them on, and head back into the fire. So that's critical for them to be able to rescue people, and get in and see what's going on in there. It gives them an advantage that we don't have. If you're in the fire, trying to crawl around, you know you may succumb to the smoke, fumes, and it allows them to spend a little more time in there.

Ben: Yeah, hopefully I mean, unless the condition of the building deteriorates quick.

Scott: One thing that we didn't mention, and we probably should, is that some trucks actually carry water. Some carry - A lot of them can carry 1000 gallons, or even up the 5000 gallons of water to the scene, so they can instantly begin fighting the fire without finding a hydrant or another location to draw water from, like you said, a stream or pond, anything that's in the area, even a pool they can draw water from. Think of a fire truck as just a big water pump. It's just a way of facilitating getting water from one reservoir, through the truck, and onto the fire where it has to go, and they used to do that a long time again with even water bucket brigades.

Ben: Yes.Scott: You'll find, if you do a search online, a keyword search online, you'll find a lot of these old leather buckets that fire chiefs used to keep. I don't know, they probably still have them around as relics at the firehouses, but they really would fill up buckets and hand them man-to-man from the nearest available water source to take them to the fire, and dump them on one at a time, and that's how they fought fires at one point. They had hand pulled carts that had a small reservoir of water. They had just kind of a wooden box on top of big wheels, like big cartwheels, and they were either horse-drawn or human drawn. They would run them to the fire. The sprinters would carry them.

Ben: That's so nuts. We're talking about a Rickshaw basically. Scott: Yeah Rickshaw, with I don't know, 100 gallons of water on it or something like that, then they would hand pump the water through one single hose, and that's how they fought the fire. Houses were made of wood, of course, almost every one of them. Some were stone, but wood and stone, so a lot of houses, I'm sure, didn't make it because of that.

Ben: Yeah, and buildings are also a lot larger now.

Scott: Oh, true, yeah, look at the high-rises and things we're talking about fighting, so they have a lot more modern equipment now, of course, but they had steam-powered pumps at one point, around the turn of the century.

Ben: Steam-powered, huh?

Scott: Steam-powered, yeah. It was just a way of getting rid of the hand-pumping function that humans were providing, so they had these steam-powered pumps, which are pretty neat looking, really. I think those are maybe my favorite to look at, the old steam-powered pumps, usually horse-drawn because they were quite heavy, but they were on a wagon. I guess it was a steam-powered water pump really is all it amounts to.

Ben: Let me check with you on that one before we move on because what's perplexing to me here is that if the goal of the pump is to get water to a blaze, and kill the fire, it seems to me that you would be losing a lot of water by using steam.Scott: No, no, no, no. I know it sounds kind of counterintuitive that they would be using that to power the vehicle, but if you think about the steam-powered cars - you fill a reservoir that's like about the size of a washing machine -

Ben: Okay.

Scott: And that is then used - it's just like a steam-powered automobile would be in that you prime it, and get it ready. We've talked about these in the past -

Ben: Oh, in terms of ratio then.

Scott: Exactly, yeah. This is just to drive the motor, the pump, to get the fluid flowing, so then once the got the steam-powered pump there, then they would find the source of water, whether it is somebody bringing water in a reservoir like we talked about, or if they were pumping it from a river or lake, that's how they did it, but the pump itself was steam-powered, and it was just like the steam-powered automobiles of the day, so they're using relatively small amounts of water to run this thing. They could run it 24-hours a day if they wanted to.

Ben: More bang for the buck.Scott: Yeah, just like an automobile where they just kept it going so it was ready to go.

Ben: What's interesting, the hoses are - well I guess we use the terminology that the firefighting professionals use, lines, right?

Scott: Lines, right.

Ben: They call them lines. It is so weird because I did not know there were so many different types of hoses.

Scott: I didn't know this either until I started digging into this stuff, and these guys really know their stuff, I'll tell you that.

Ben: Yeah, they're not just running out there with a garden hose and high hopes, guys.

Scott: No, no, no, these guys are true professionals. They know all about what type of fitting they need, what rate of flow they're gonna need to fight a particular fire, what particular nozzle they need to fight the fire. We talk about the hoses they use most commonly -they're called cross lays. Those are capable of 95-gallons per minute flow, which is pretty significant when you think about it. If they're on a pumper truck - a tanker truck rather, where they have 1000 gallons, that only gives them about 10 minutes where they're able to fight with the water they've got on board. They have to find an alternate source, like a fire hydrant nearby.

Ben: That's a nice map there, Mr. B.

Scott: Well, it was close. It's similar. It's close to that anyway. They may back it off a little bit. They may not even need more than that. That might be enough to fight the entire fire. So, every situation is completely different, but what are some of the other ones?

Ben: Well, there's also the booster line, that's the smallest hose on the truck. That is sort of - if you don't want to take out the big guns, the cross lays, you take this guy, and its diameter is about an inch, so it's about a half inch smaller than the cross lays, and this is used for things like smaller wood fires, chimney fires maybe if you have a shed of some sort, something like that.

Scott: Oh, okay, smaller like - I understand, okay. It makes sense, they want to bring out the smallest they need really to make it work. They don't want to hit somebody with this next one they're talking about, the water cannon.

Ben: Oh God, that is my favorite.

Scott: Deluge gun.

Ben: Oh, man.

Scott: Doesn't that sound cool? I'd like to use the deluge gun on some stuff around my house, wouldn't that be neat?

Ben: Well you can actually really injure somebody with this bad boy.

Scott: You know what, you could. The flow rate on that is 1000 gallons per minute. So you can imagine.

Ben: Let's think about that.

Scott: I know, that's pretty intense, isn't it? It would be a lot of fun to kind of blast some things around my house.

Ben: If you have that, and you're running a water tank vehicle, I mean you have 60 seconds.

Scott: Yeah, 60 seconds with a full blast.

Ben: Full blast, yeah.

Scott: That's obviously one - if they need either the 5000 gallon tank to run any significant amount of time, or have to have an outside source.

Ben: Link up to a hydrant or something.

Scott: Exactly, a hydrant or two or three. One other thing about this, before we get too far, I want to mention that there's a system on board - there's a complicated series of valves, controls, and gauges, so if someone were to turn off a hose in one area, it does not automatically feed that amount of water into that other hose, so that the firefighter working on the other end can rely on the amount of water that is coming out there at that time, it doesn't necessarily matter if one gets shut off or added in another place.

Ben: You're talking about the super villain - the puppet master of the fire engine.

Scott: Go ahead, what's -

Ben: The mastermind.

Scott: The mastermind, that's right, I forgot the name. Yeah, you're right. So if he is controlling, who is getting what amount of water, one person isn't suddenly hit with double the amount of water that they had in the house, and it would throw them back or down to the ground. It remains constant.

Ben: That's really important.

Scott: Yeah, I would think it would be.

Ben: I mean because in a lot of houses you know, or apartment buildings, if somebody flushes the toilet or they try to take a shower while the washer is on or something, it can cause pandemonium. Pandemonium is a little strong, little strong, how about an unpleasant surprise?

Scott: Yeah, I'll go with that. I'll go with that. I've had that surprise before where, you know, suddenly the shower goes cold. That's no fun.

Ben: Maybe there should be a mastermind for houses.

Scott: I think so.

Ben: You know what else is actually powered - let me see how we go into this, Scott. The ladders are hydraulic.

Scott: Oh, cool, very cool. And they've got incredible range on them now. It used to be a lot smaller.

Ben: Oh yeah?

Scott: They were hand-held ladders. So now they have intense reach. I mean, what do you think is the maximum reach, or do you know roughly what they are? I don't mean to put you on the spot.

Ben: No, no, that's fine. There's a - let's see, well our article talks about a ladder that is 105 feet, which to me, is very, very tall.

Scott: I don't have any shocking numbers or anything like that, but I thought I heard numbers around the 150 foot mark, or even higher, at this point, so maybe they're just - I don't know how long ago this article was written, we may need to update a little bit, but the reach is getting longer and longer because you know, you get in a city like Las Vegas, or something like that, or even downtown New York, or here in Atlanta, we're on the - well, we're high up, let's put it that way, and pretty little hope of getting a ladder up this high, I think, I think. So I'm all for longer reaches on the ladders.

Ben: Well you know, this is really interesting. There is actually, if you go out, we have kind of a deck balcony thing in one part of our office, and if you go out there, you'll see this weird-looking gray metal cap, and if you take it off, it has tie-off lines so that you can propel down.

Scott: Oh, no kidding?

Ben: No kidding.

Scott: I won't be using that. Ben: You won't?

Scott: No.

Ben: Oh come on, man. It's easier to go down. Scott: I'm gonna have to go with one of the - I'm gonna get a parachute.

Ben: Oh, that's awesome.

Scott: Yeah, yeah. I'll base jump out of here.

Ben: Okay. Scott: Well maybe we'll have somebody call in with some advice about base jumping.

Ben: Anyway, so the ladders are - everything here in the modern fire engine is really built to be as convenient, as responsive, as flexible as possible, which is why we have things like masterminds. That's why the controls for the pump that are located on the captain's side of the cab are also - you know, everyone has a clear division of labor, and they know how their chain of command works, but the amazing technology behind these ladders because I was thinking - you know, I was thinking what you were thinking, one guy just pushing a ladder up against the building and holding it, and saying go, go, go.

Scott: Yeah.

Ben: That's not the case.

Scott: That's what they had to do a long time ago, but thank goodness they are able to reach a little further now with stuff, and what's cool about that is they've got platforms, and also they can extend hoses up to that level, so they can fight fire from above.

Ben: Oh yeah, with the hose pack.

Scott: Exactly. They can see what's going on from above. Let's say they get to an industrial fire. The can get above the roof line, and spray down onto the fire instead of trying to fight it coming through the front door. It's just an easier way to approach things sometimes.

Ben: We've kind of covered I guess the water tank, and we've covered the mobile toolbox.

Scott: Yeah, there's a ton of different types of trucks. I mean we'd have to listen - well let's just run through a few types, but we don't have to dwell on any of these, but I think we're nearly done here, but there are mobile command units. There are the fire rescue trucks, ladder trucks, tower ladders, tractor-drawn aerial trucks, hook and ladder trucks, snorkel trucks, and of course we mentioned tanker trucks. There is the Quinton quad trucks, the hose layer trucks, which carry nothing but hoses, just all kinds of rescue vehicles, marine vehicles, vehicles for airplane landing strips. The cool thing about this, and this is the last thing I've really got here because the cool thing I read about some of these airline emergency vehicles, these fire-fighting vehicles, is that they've got a nozzle on the end of one of the - kind of a boom that they can poke into the fuselage of the jet, and spray it like an overhead sprinkler system almost, and it will just fight the fire within the fuselage without them having to go through a doorway or through a window, so they can pierce the outer layer of the airplane, and then spray this material inside.

Ben: That's amazing.Scott: It's really cool, yeah, it's really neat. I mean it's a big spike, so I would think you'd have to be careful, you know, make sure no one is still walking around in there. Play the odds I guess, and just do it because you have to put out the fire. What are you gonna do, I mean, I don't know, that's a touchy situation, but I don't know how far it goes in either. I mean, I know that it gets in, and I'm sure it does something to suppress electrical fire, and all that, too, so maybe it doesn't go in as far as I think it does. I don't think it's like a big 6 foot spike. I think it's something that just gets through the depth that it needs to, and then it releases this foam.

Ben: Nerves of steel, man. I gotta tell ya. I have a tremendous admiration for firefighters, and talk about professionals. I mean, we know, the listeners know that we also have nerves of steel writing and editing, but I think we don't have to deal with these same situations. They are both probably physically, strategically and emotionally demanding.

Scott: Yeah, and we haven't even talked about the physical requirements of the job really because those are intense as well. I mean, that's a completely different show, not our wheel house b y any means, but those are some athletes out there, I'll tell you.

Ben: Yeah, for sure. I guess that is gonna wrap it up for us with a little overview of how these fire rescue vehicles work. Scott?

Scott: Yes?

Ben: Would you like to do some listener mail?

Scott: Maybe a piece or two.

Ben: All right, Scott, we have Big Papa writing in from the internet.

Scott: Did you say Big Papa?

Ben: Yeah, that's what he calls himself.

Scott: Oh, I thought it was your nickname.

Ben: Oh gosh, no. No, no, Big Papa writes in, and I'm gonna go ahead and propose that whenever we don't get a point of origin from a listener, we just assume they're from the internet.

Scott: Okay.

Ben: So Big Papa from the internet writes in about dumb and dumber, and I thought this was hilarious. I told him we had to read this on the air. He just finished our second movie car podcast, and he says, "I doubt it's the first time it's been mentioned, but if dumb and dumber start Jim Carey and Jack Daniels, does that mean I have Jeff Daniels locked in my cupboard?"

Scott: Oh boy, did we make a mistake and say Jack Daniels in that podcast?

Ben: I'm pretty sure it was me.

Scott: Oh boy. Jim Carey and Jack Daniels?

Ben: Yes, together at last.

Scott: Yeah, yeah.

Ben: Well, thanks for writing in Big Papa, and to our listeners, thanks for lending us your ears for another fun-filled podcast. If you have any other ideas for an upcoming show or any - What do you think of Scott, any what?

Scott: Oh, I don't know. I don't know where you're going with this.

Ben: Surprises. Send us an E-mail at

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