The IC should perform a 360-degree walk around the building to determine conditions. In this case, it appears obvious that the fire is in the basement or crawlspace under the house. Ask yourself: How will you access that space? Photo Tim Olk
One of the more challenging calls firefighters respond to involves a basement fire. Whether it’s a large rural home with fire showing from the basement windows and no fire hydrants, or a row taxpayer in a business district with heavy brown smoke issuing from the sidewalk and the entire first floor of the building, firefighters will have their hands full, and everyone will have a job to do.
Any time firefighters must enter a structure where the fire floor is below them, they operate at significant risk—particularly in buildings made of combustible construction.
Finding the Fire
At some incidents, like those described above, it’ll be easy to determine the location of the fire. Other incidents may have a lot of smoke showing, which may make it difficult to tell that it’s coming from the basement. This is one of many reasons why the incident commander (IC) or another officer must take a full walk around the building as part of their initial size-up. It may become quite obvious that the basement is involved if the back of the structure features a walkout basement door. This may also prove to be an excellent access point to initiate the fire attack, but you won’t know if you haven’t checked all sides of the building.
While operating inside, all firefighters should remain aware of the floor conditions. Some indicators of a basement fire underneath them include a hot or “spongy” floor or embers lifting upward. Immediately report such conditions to the division/group officer and IC.
Possible Contents & Hazards
Once you’ve confirmed that the fire is in the basement, try to find out what exactly is burning. If you don’t, you never know what you might discover. Two Philadelphia firefighters were killed in 2004 after becoming entangled in wiring used for an illegal marijuana-growing operation in the basement of a row home. So always remember to check with the occupants (or have someone outside check with them), if you’re able to find them outside the building, about the contents of their basement. That is, if they’ll tell you.
Other scenarios to keep in mind:
- Almost every basement is used for some type of storage, so if the fire is in the basement, the storage will likely be involved. High storage levels present collapse hazards to firefighters.
- Often, firefighters might not consider the possibility of finding sleeping victims in a basement, but basements can serve as bedrooms or even one or more apartments. Again, a quick check with evacuated occupants might clue you into this, but basements must be searched nonetheless—if you can do it safely. Note: The use of a hoseline or search line is an excellent mechanism to ensure firefighters find their way back to the stairs or access point as needed.
- Many older basements are only 6 or 7 feet high; however, newer buildings can easily feature ceilings 8, 9 or even 10 feet high. Older basements are also likely to have open ceilings that expose structural members to the fire below. Newer basements may have suspended ceilings or sheetrock ceilings, which can better protect structural members from fire conditions, but also create a concealed space that you must check for fire.
- If there is black smoke showing, consider the possibility of an oil burner fire (depending upon where you live) which will emit a distinctive smell, but oil-burning fires can and do spread to combustible storage and the structure itself.
If you discover you have an oil burner, first shut off the emergency switch, which is likely somewhere near the top of the basement stairwell. That should shut off the unit and simplify extinguishment. Consider using a carbon dioxide extinguisher to finish the job, minimizing the collateral damage, which may already be extensive due to the oily smoke from this type of fire. Close doors throughout the house to minimize the spread of smoke, and start positive-pressure ventilation quickly.
Remember: A fire in the oil burner might also result in an oil spill on the basement floor, which can present a serious slipping hazard to firefighters operating in the basement.
Getting the Job Done
No matter what type of fire you have, stepping down into the basement will make you feel like you’re walking through the gates of hell. Keep the basement door closed until your crew is in position and ready with a charged hoseline to attack down the stairway.
During size-up of more urban locations, look for entrance/ventilation points in the sidewalk; look around the side/rear of the building when dealing with more suburban or rural buildings. Tip: Many entrance points will be heavily secured, so be ready with metal-cutting tools, and remember that until you open up these points, there may only be one way in and out.
Ventilation might also be challenging since basement windows are almost always small. You may need to open up every access point to the basement that you can find to get any sort of relief from the heavy heat build-up that will likely be present. Make sure the truck crew takes short hooks into most basements—no need for the 8'-plus variety here.
Positive-pressure ventilation might help firefighters make the basement stairs, but only if you create exhaust points by making openings from the basement. At the same time, fresh air can feed an oxygen-starved fire, resulting in a backdraft. This is why it’s crucial to not only coordinate ventilation and fire attack, but also to ensure the attack is made with the proper hoseline.
Hoseline choice should be robust. A 1 3?4" line is nice, but a 2" (if available) is better in my book.
Important: Be very careful with opposing hoselines. Exterior crews tend to apply hoselines through basement windows, but this should never happen while other crews are trying to make an interior attack, nor should a line be advanced and applied down the steps while another line is advanced through the basement walkout, if one exists. If crews can make the basement from a ground level or walkout door, it may be best to have the stair crew hold its position at the top of the stairs, protecting the rest of the house, while the ground-level attack crew works the basement. The problem will be holding back the crew at the top of the stairs (likely the first-in engine), while the other crews (likely the second- or third-due engine) get the fire.
One old tactic that has been forgotten by many: the Bresnan Distributor, or the cellar nozzle. They come in both 1 1?2" and 2 1?2" sizes, and if you’re dealing with anything larger than a row house—particularly commercial occupancies with large basements—you should go with the 2 1?2". The one problem with the Bresnan is that you must cut a hole in the floor to extend it into the basement, which is a lot easier said than done. Plus, the entire time you’re cutting, the fire will continue to attack the structural supports beneath you.
Search & Rescue
Fire below can equal big problems for occupants above. If the fire floor is below an occupied dwelling, the people inside might be unable or too scared to get out on their own. So while attacking the fire below, be prepared to conduct an aggressive search above.
You may need to throw ladders quickly to rescue victims at windows, which is one more reason to conduct a thorough size-up on arrival and throughout the incident.
During search and rescue, firefighters must also be checking for extension. Basement fires can quickly spread up walls to upper floors, and particularly to any attic space. Call for extra help early and often.
No matter how you cut it, basement fires will be challenging. They will take everything your crew can muster. Sometimes they can be contained, but in many cases, most of the basement will be lost. Your job will be to contain the incident to the basement and quickly check for victims and fire extension above.
There’s a great deal of risk fighting fires in basements, but with a crack crew and good coordination, a nasty-looking job can be controlled relatively quickly. Look around town, and take some time to think about how you would get into the basement of common buildings. You never know when this information might come in handy.