How technology helps firefighters access rural water supply

Author: Rachel Engel

In rural, less-populated areas, firefighters must grapple with rural water supply challenges that require additional planning prior to an incident, longer response times, more personnel and equipment to manage.

As the fire service continues to struggle with firefighter recruitment and retention, incident commanders and local utility partners can use emerging technology to help plan for, prepare and manage rural water supply for firefighting and keep their communities safe.

How firefighters access rural water supply

To ensure crews are ready when a call comes in, fire departments in less densely populated areas must have rural water supply plans in place to retrieve water from local sources, such as streams, ponds, rivers, lakes and even swimming pools, if needed.

When a call comes in for a rural fire, one apparatus with a moderate amount of water on board may be sent to the scene to begin hose operations. Additional apparatuses make trips back and forth from the approved water source to the scene, where water is dumped into large folding tanks and continually replenished until the fire has been extinguished.

Though this is a typical operation for rural departments, even crews in areas with a well-run hydrant system may find a random non-working hydrant and be forced to pivot to an alternative water source.

Rural firefighting water supply challenges

Unlike in larger cities, rural departments must make plans to ensure they have access to an adequate rural water supply for firefighting, which can involve several challenges.


Fire departments that serve areas with smaller populations are often volunteer—95% of volunteer firefighters serve communities with 25,000 people or less, and 48% of volunteers serve in locations that protect fewer than 2,500.

Those are alarming figures amid a dwindling number of people volunteering to serve as firefighters, particularly in rural areas that need multiple people to both respond to a scene and drive tanker convoys from the firefighting water supply.

Fire vehicle and equipment management

To provide an adequate amount of water, rural departments need several apparatuses capable of holding and transporting thousands of gallons of water across potentially long distances from the rural water supply to the scene. Often this is achieved with mutual aid—additional fire crews from neighboring towns—but continued fire service staffing issues make this another challenge leaders face.

Sometimes crews may need to drive past suitable water sources because they don't have the appropriate equipment to access the water, perhaps due to the distance between the roadway and the water.

Time management

Unlike in urban and suburban areas where a hydrant is often close to an incident scene, it takes time to drive out to a water source, fill a tanker, drive to the scene and dump the load—which then must be repeated several times. Incident commanders managing a blaze don't have time to worry about water supply, particularly as crews prepare to attack a fire.

Collaboration with other agencies

A close working relationship between fire departments and local water providers and other utilities can be critical to reducing the difficulties in accessing water. Where possible, the respective leaders should address questions of responsibility in advance, while also keeping each other informed of any developments during fire operations. However, maintaining this level of communication can be a challenge, particularly if agencies are using different systems, have staff in multiple locations and are reliant on networks that are likely heavily being utilized by residents trying to escape and may even be damaged by fire.

How technology can aid rural water supply for firefighting

When working a fire scene that relies on the continued movement of both apparatuses and personnel, technology can help incident commanders control all moving parts.

Equipment and fleet management solutions

Depending on how far the incident is from the water source and the size of the fire, crews may need many fire apparatuses to drop multiple folding tanks and pull water from several sources. This takes communication and coordination.  For incident commanders, getting water to the scene swiftly in rural areas may involve the coordination of multiple tankers making trips to more than one fill site, like a lake, a pond and/or a river. It’s important that the water supplyremains constant and efficient.  However, it can be difficult to know which apparatuses are on their way to the scene and how far out they are.

Having a view into fleet operations can help fire commanders and service leaders locate and manage apparatuses in near real time and know exactly when they'll arrive on the scene with advanced fleet management technology that includes options like GPS tracking, fuel management, and fleet diagnostics.

Additionally, training and planning for potential scenarios that involve accessing the rural water supply for firefighting with fleet management software can help ensure the correct apparatus for the job is ready when it's needed. 

Collaboration and communication solutions

An effective response requires reliable, interoperable communications that build awareness and improve near real-time decision-making. There is a need to move information quickly between units on scene and back to central command.  This is where Verizon Frontline Crisis Response Team shines with more than thirty years supporting first responders during times of crisis, providing mission-critical voice and data service to fire departments and emergency services across the country.

Having access to technology helps facilitate the prompt sharing of information about the rural water supply with local water providers or other public safety agencies. Examples of applications that support first responders in almost any location with the network and devices built for tough missions include:

  • Push to Talk Plus, a mobile app that can connect dispersed teams using multiple devices, allowing for near real-time responsiveness
  • Group First Response, provides talk, text and streaming of  live video to public safety users nearly anywhere across the U.S. with the push of a button.
  • Priority and Preemption, the automatic and temporary reallocation of network resources to allow designated users to stay connected during emergencies, even when the network is fully utilized.

With these tools, firefighters, incident command, local water agencies and other personnel can easily and quickly share information about the status of the rural water supply, even in situations where the network is under pressure, or even unavailable.

The  Verizon Frontline Crisis Response Team members set up portable cell sites, WiFi hotspots, free charging stations and other Verizon Frontline devices and solutions that enable communications and/or boost network performance.  In addition to providing Verizon Frontline connectivity solutions, such as cell phone distribution, cell sites, temporary satellite links and drones to assist with situational awareness during an event, the Verizon Frontline Crisis Response Team also provides support for displaced communities, supplying Wi-Fi access and charging stations to emergency shelters in an evacuation.

In 2022, the Verizon Frontline Crisis Response Team delivered close to 2,000 Verizon Frontline solutions to public safety agencies responding to fires in more than 120 communities in 21 states. 

Learn more about how the Verizon Frontline Crisis Response Team is working with public safety agencies to ensure communities are covered during emergency operations.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.