Photo Courtesy of Charles White

"Tenders Drive. Tankers Fly. "

I heard that old chestnut sometime during my first year in fire, sitting around a warming fire, eating MREs, and telling tall tales. I remember someone told the story about a rookie IC, who contacted dispatch and requested a "Tanker" for a small little fire he was working up in the hills. An hour goes by, and the tanker hasn't shown up, and the rookie IC gets back on the radio with dispatch, and they tell him it's en route. Relax! And while he's looking down the road, waiting for a truck hauling water to arrive, an enormous C-130 flies overhead, and hails him on the radio. His tanker had arrived!

While I doubt that story is true, it is a fun reminder that there is a very clear difference between a tanker and a tender. One flies and the other drives!

Seeing as fire hydrants are hard to come by in the wilderness, transporting water is a tremendously important task. And Water Tenders are the best way to get large volumes of water from one point to another. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), in 2007, issued guidance distinguishing tenders into two classifications:

Tactical Tenders

Support Tenders

What's the difference? Technically speaking, a tactical tender is designed and intended to be used on the fire line, and actively participate in fire suppression activities. And in order to do so, it needs to be able to "pump-and-roll", which means it must be capable of spraying water while driving. Picture a firefighter, holding a charged line connected to the tender, spraying water, while the tender slowly drives behind him or her. That's a "pump-and-roll". And in order to pump and roll, you need two personnel. And let's be honest, two people is just safer, especially when involved in emergent, tactical situations.

Fun Fact: In order to qualify as "Pump-and-Roll", a vehicle must be capable of delivering 20 GPM @ 80 PSI while driving at 2 mph or above. If you'd like to get into the nitty-gritty on how the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) distinguishes between the two, take a look at the table below, excerpted from the NWCG Memo on Engine & Water Typing Standards.

What Do Water Tender Operators Do?

Well, it depends first on the equipment. If the operator is driving a tactical tender, they could find themselves actively engaged on the fireline, resupplying engines. Think about what a problem it would be if an engine that had deployed hoselays and was fighting the fire, suddenly ran out of water! Given that a standard Type 3 engine will have a 500-600 gallon water tank, you can start to run out of water pretty quick. A water tender, shuttling between a water source like a municipal water system, or a lake or river, can keep the engines engaged in the fight. Or, the tender could tie in directly to a hoselay and supply it with water. Since a tender might have a tank capable of holding 1,2000 gallons of water, that's almost 3x the capacity of a Type 3 engine!

On large, campaign fires, they might play a role in setting up portable water tanks at strategic locations, and shuttling water to them. Tender operators need to be proficient in quickly setting up portable water tanks. They must also be experts at operating the pumping apparatus, and capable of troubleshooting any problems that arise.

Photo Courtesy of ZBeeb (wikipedia)

Where are the jobs?

What types of opportunities are available?

Is a pack test required?

Yes, at the moderate level (2 mile walk with a 25lb pack in under 30 minutes)

What are the requirements?

According to the NWCG's Federal Wildland Fire Qualifications Supplement, a Water Tender Operator must maintain the following qualifications:

Additionally, we've pulled out some sample required qualifications from job postings from the Clackamas Fire District in Oregon & Golden State Fire Support in California.

  • A High School Diploma or GED.
  • Read, speak and write fluent English.
  • Valid Class A or B Drivers License-Excellent Transcript required for insurance company Approval.
  • Must be able to mobilize away from home for period of 14-21 days.
  • Must successfully complete CAL FIRE/USFS Annual 8-hour Safety and Operational training.


  • Proof of eligibility to work in USA as per the I-9 immigration from requirements.
  • Reside within the Clackamas Fire District #1 service area or ability to work shifts.
  • At least 18 years of age.
  • Valid driver’s license.
  • Successful drivers license check clearance.
  • Must be insurable by CFD#1 insurance carrier.
  • Successful background checks clearance.
  • Successfully pass a UA drug screen.
  • Must be 21 years of age at time of CFD#1 Water Tender Operator Academy.
  • Successfully complete CFD#1 oral interview.
  • Successfully complete CFD#1 physical ability course for Water Tender Operator.
  • Successfully complete CFD#1 physical examination for Support Volunteer/Water Tender Operator.
  • Successful completion of CFD#1 Rehab and Command Bus Operator Academy.

Preferred but not required:

  • Valid Class A-CDL.
  • Tanker Endorsement (DMV).
  • Air Brakes Endorsement (DMV)

See the links below to find the job descriptions in full:

Also, if you're interested in learning more about what the specific training would look like to become certified as a water tender operator, here's a link to California's State Fire Training’s Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator – Water Tender certification Guide. It provides in thorough detail all the different practical scenario you would be asked to perform to become certified.