The Pressurized Water Extinguisher,aka “The Can”

New contributor reminds you that "the can" is not a door chock.

PWE, PWC, piss can, water can, the can…whatever you want to call it, its’ an essential tool in a firefighters toolbox. Many take the can for granted. Often times, you will see it in the foyer, holding open a door.

Lets take another look at the can. Its not just a cumbersome, clunky, heavy chock, but really in many cases, it's the first 2 and a half gallons of water on the fire, essentially the first nozzle to operate on the fire. With fire lapping out a doorway or down a hall, or in some cases out a window, you may say to yourself “ what the heck is this going to do”? But believe it or not, you can hold back a fair amount of fire between operating the can properly, and controlling the door, at least until the line gets to the fire area.

Using the can properly, and operating it around a closed doorway, on only the areas where the door is compromised may afford you the ability to hold your position, and control the fire area. The relation between the can and an intact door is relative and direct. After you’ve established the fire area, and checked the space behind and around the door, if conditions permit, closing the door and operating the can on the compromised areas will allow you to maintain the upper hand in keeping fire confined, at least until a charged hoseline makes it to the fire area. Operating the can through an open doorway, without using an intact door to your advantage will deplete the two and a half gallons rather quickly. You may then find yourself retreating down the hallway or into an area of refuge which will then permit the fire area to increase. This is where the direct relation of the “intact door” and the can comes into play. Without the presence of an intact door, in many instances, you may be able to hold a room of fire with in a doorway, at least until the engine arrives however, time and water is limited. Moreover, the importance of utilizing a door that may be present to the fire area, and proper use of the can will go a long way.

That being said, lets discuss the issue of trying to “make that back room” for the sake of a known life hazard. We all know searching past fire without the protection of a charged hoseline can have some very bad consequences, but lets face it; for a confirmed life saving effort, we’ll do what we can to get the job done. Getting in and out quickly may come down to operating the can to go those extra few feet or so to make it to a trapped occupant, and do it under the safest conditions possible. You may be able to momentarily hold a room back while another firefighter gets to the trapped occupant. I am by no means telling you to pass fire with out the protection of a charged hoseline, but simply discussing how the can may provide a brief period of opportunity for the sake of rescue.

Searching with the can, as noted earlier can be cumbersome. There’s a couple different ways I’ve adopted myself, but as goes all else in the Fire Department, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. My preferred method is slung over my shoulder, but opposite of the way you’d carry it while walking. If you can picture crawling on your hands and knees with the can between your shoulder and the floor, it would ride along the floor as you crawl. Another way I’ve chosen is either to grasp the sling close to its contact point towards the top of the can, and pull/ drag it along, or simply by gripping the bottom, non trigger portion of the handle and pushing it along. Lastly, if you are advancing in the duck walk fashion; you may try to keep it slung over your shoulder. In any event, TAKE IT WITH YOU, off the rig for every run, and don’t leave it in the foyer! For fireproof buildings, and buildings that may provide a challenge in facilitating the stretch of a hoseline you may even consider taking two cans.

Along with its’ often effective, but limited suppressing tactics, the Can can afford you some limited defensive ones as well. Finding yourself in an area along your search where the heat is rapidly increasing will drive you to retreat to an area more tenable. It’s possible that the can may be used to momentarily cool a small area down, if pathways of immediate retreat have been compromised. While the can doesn’t hold enough water to prevent flashover, it may aid in delaying it. This is by no means an alternative to exiting, but another bullet of thought, should you find yourself in the situation.

Searching with the can on the floor above, as is in any area of the fire building, is necessary. Upon the discovery of fire in areas on the floor above such as pipe chases, walls and voids, the can may again, afford you the ability to hold back fire, at least until a hoseline arrives. Upon the discovery of fire on the floor above, proper precautions, like calling for a line, and securing an area of refuge should be taken. Moreover, utilizing an intact door in conjunction with the can, or using the can to limit the fires’ spread on the floor above by holding it within the pipe chase, void, wall or closet may prove effective.

Coming from a tower ladder for just about my entire career, another area where the Can can and will lend itself useful is up in the bucket. Operating from a tower ladder basket for vent, and window rescue could place you in a position where there is either an occupant or member exiting from a room with fire bearing down, or even fire lapping from the window in question.

With the possibility of becoming hung up while exiting the window, the can may be used to hold back fire while a member or occupant begins a hasty exit. Keeping a can in the tower ladder bucket should be considered for the possibility of members exiting a window due to fire driving them from the building.

All of these points made about the can in this discussion are purely to provoke thought in situations where it may provide a positive outcome. It is by no means procedural in its use. The can is not meant as an insurance policy to allow you to pass fire without the safety of a charged hoseline, nor is it to provide assurance in searching without a viable means of retreat, but purely a tool to provide very limited fire suppression in situations where one may benefit from its’ use. The point of this article is to discuss its’ possible uses and to foster the thought of the importance of carrying it along in your searches both on the fire floor and floors above.

Joe Fitzgerald is a 10 veteran in the City of New York Fire Department. He is assigned to Tower Ladder Company 170 in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. His previous assignments include Tower Ladder Company 119 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

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  • Good article Joe!  I love the can!  I hate carrying it.  It's clumsy, falls off my shoulder, limits my mobility if I carry it with one hand…so…I started to sling the strap over my SCBA pack, and carry it on my back!  It frees up my hands to carry more tools because of limited personnel, and I have more mobility to get to the area where we might use it.  It works great when your investigating fire alarms, etc. 

  • Dan says:

    We use the can and add some AFFF!

  • Matt "Dal90" Kivela says:

    From my volunteer perspective — I'd issue every officer or member who regularly responds direct to the scene a minimum of EMS jump kits and a 2-1/2 gallon can. 
    It's great first aid, though I ended up using the one in my pickup more often out-of-town…since in town I usually responded to the station.
    Came across a car fire in Worcester one snowy afternoon.  Longer then usual response by WFD (snow, hilly area, they were running chains, and in heavy traffic as employers were letting out early).  
    I stayed out of the smoke and used judicious squirts kept the fire confined to the engine compartment — squirting above the wheel wells and below the dash as necessary.
    No can and the engine company would've had a heavily involved fire car on arrival — and been faced with the extra hazards of at least two burning tires, a front bumper that might be pressurized, maybe a flammable metal dash, pressurized struts in the lift gate, and god knows what cargo. Minimal risk to me made for a much safer situation for the boys in turnouts that day.

  • Darren De Bonet says:

    Not bad, Joe. Maybe mention its useful in venting 1/2 landing windows when going to the floor above, too! Lol. Nice job.

  • joe fitzgerald says:

    thanks Darren, good point on venting the 1/2 landing. Hows the boogie down?

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