The list of tasks a ladder company needs to complete on a working fire can easily feel overwhelming. When I first got promoted to company officer (CO) on a ladder truck, one of my most beneficial learning tools was to ask seasoned COs about their thought process when they began their size-up on a fire. One commonality: the importance of building construction in relationship to the scene size-up.
Building construction will have a major impact on fire behavior and travel, and will drive our tactics, including forcible entry, ventilation and water application. Fortunately, if we conduct a thorough and accurate size-up, we build the foundation for a successful operation.
But how do you ensure that you’re conducting an accurate size-up and making the right decisions thereafter? Paramedics use a process when treating patients—an algorithm they follow to help them decide on the appropriate actions, all based on the conditions with which they are presented. This process often begins with information obtained from dispatch, followed by their general impression of the patient. I believe that truck crews can use a similar process in which we use the information gained during our initial size-up to help dictate our tactical decisions on the fireground.
In this article, I will use a series of pictures to represent what the company officer of a truck crew would see upon arrival at a fire scene, and discuss my thought process in the form of a “tactical algorithm” that can be used from the time I’m dispatched and as I size up the structure.
The Tactical Algorithm
The following bullet points are an outline of my thought process and the questions I ask myself as I size up an incident. Create a similar tactical algorithm that works for you to stay focused on the scene.
• Dispatch: As soon as the tones go off and the dispatcher announces an address, I begin trying to determine, based on the address provided, if the structure is commercial or residential. Is this a familiar address to which we have responded in the past, and are there any known hazards? Will I be an initial-arriving truck? Does the area have any demographic considerations (i.e., older area, neighborhood with basements, industrial)?
• Tech in the truck: Technology can definitely work to our advantage, and many trucks have computers that offer updated dispatch information about the fire. Begin to formulate an idea as to whether the fire is structural and/or room-and- contents, as each poses different issues. Room-and-contents will pose visibility challenges and a potential for flashover. Structural fires promote roof collapse and pose challenges related to access and getting ahead of the fire. Some computers can even pull up aerial photos, allowing us to see what the roof top looks like and any surrounding hazards or access issues.
• On the horizon: This is where the process of reading smoke begins. What can you see as you approach the scene from a distance? Even from afar, the thickness, speed and shape of the smoke are good indicators of what to expect on scene. If the smoke column is tapered with a narrow base, the roof could be intact, calling for an offensive fire attack. If the base of the column is wide, the roof could have already collapsed, calling for a defensive attack. The thickness and speed of the smoke can give you a very good idea of the severity and stage of the fire. Brown smoke usually means that the fire is becoming involved in the structural portion of the building, including the attic. Trusses may collapse after a few minutes of heavy fire impingement, and interior crews should make their stance from the unburned portion operating under intact trusses that are not under heavy fire.
• On-scene general impression: This is the first look at the overall picture of the building and the fire/smoke conditions. I immediately evaluate the overall building condition. Does it look tenable to operate on or is it more on the derelict side? Are firefighters already operating inside, and are there any immediate conditions that need to be addressed? Are there any obvious hazards that may cause trouble—power lines, signs of a basement, etc.? One of the most important tactical considerations when looking at a structure that’s on fire is to determine what can actually be saved. Yes, we risk our lives to save people and property, but how many fires do we go to where there is nothing to save?
• Ladder placement: Place your ladder truck where it will support most of your efforts. At a house, the front of the building is a great place to position, and crews can easily deploy a ladder pipe. At a commercial building, consider what tasks need to be accomplished. Ladder companies are well served in the rear of many commercial structures, as it will allow them to address forcible exit on the rear, secure utilities (that are most often in the rear) and access a roof with fewer facades, shorter parapets and no overhangs. Be sure to place the ladder in a position that protects the greatest amount of exposures in case you need to switch to a defensive operation.
• Read the smoke: Evaluate the smoke’s volume, velocity, density and color. Smoke coming out of the top of a door in a house is a lot different than smoke coming from a commercial door that has 20 feet of attic filled with smoke and fire above it. Reading smoke can help you determine the location of the fire, if the fire is contents and/or structure, and which direction the fire is going.
• Ventilation: This should be a tactical priority, as ventilating the structure will increase survivability for potential victims, make interior conditions more tenable for interior crews and help alleviate flashover conditions. When looking at the structure, identify the unburned portion of the structure so access and egress can be made in a safer area. Identify the type of roof, and determine safe areas and cutting techniques. If ventilation needs to be addressed and no crews have made entry, consider positive pressure attack (PPA).
• Forcible exit: Although interior crews are focused on building entry, a ladder company must look at “softening” the building, creating escape routes for quick exit if interior crews get stuck. Some common challenges for ladder companies—and dangerous scenarios for interior crews trying to make a rapid exit: bars on windows, boarded-up doors and/or windows, security gates, small windows, etc. Building construction may help identify locations of potential forcible exit challenges. Think of a strip mall: The glass fronts make forcible entry a breeze, so ladder crews may be better served in the rear where they may need to address outward-swinging metal doors.
• Forcible entry: Once the ladder company has addressed and/or considered ventilation and forcible exit, they may be able to assist crews with forcing entry. Tip: When considering forcible entry, the door locked last by the occupant is most often the easiest one to force open.
• Salvage & overhaul: Building construction will often drive the extent of salvage and overhaul that’s necessary. Building materials, such as cellulose used for attic insulation, will require more extensive overhaul than materials like fiberglass. Look at the building’s overall shape. All the decorative portions of the building that keep it looking like just a box are often hidden spaces that need extensive overhaul to prevent a rekindle. Further, the type of occupancy will drive priorities for salvage. In a residential structure, family members will want pictures, medications, clothes, computers, etc. If possible, ask residents what they would like for us to try to retrieve. In commercial structures, files and computers often take priority. Much of the company’s financial books and business-related information is likely kept on computers and backed up in filing cabinets. Although salvage often takes place at the end of the fire, if conditions allow, a ladder company can coordinate with interior crews to start providing customer service by saving items before they are lost.
Apply the Algorithm
Let’s now apply this tactical algorithm to three photos to get your mental juices flowing. Consider your thought process as you arrive on the scene of these fires. Here are some initial observations to consider about these fires. Note: Remember that in the following pictures, a lot can be assumed without actually seeing the movement of the fire and smoke. These pictures are meant to generate a good discussion with your crew.
• When dispatched to this address, a snapshot of the neighborhood—a residential area—should pop up in your head.
• The general impression of this house is that it is an abandoned building, and the fire more than likely started from a squatter or vandals inside.
• It looks like a contents fire that has extended into the attic and now is involving the second story.
• Other than a quick look to see if anyone is inside the main portion of the house, assuming conditions permitted, there is nothing to save.
• If crews are inside, priority should be on addressing forcible exit with the boarded-up windows and doors. An engine company may want to consider hitting the main body of the fire to drop the BTUs and re-evaluate interior condition.
• You want to focus on protecting exposures, especially on the D side where it looks like the fire and smoke have pressure behind them.
• I would expect to go defensive on this fire fairly quickly. With the extent of the fire and the warning signs that this may be an unmaintained building, I would be hesitant to get on top of the roof.
• The stairs in front are a warning sign that the house has a basement, cellar or crawl space below the first floor.
• My general impression is that this is a contents fire that has extended into the attic.
• It’s a commercial structure, and most often, people are able to on their own. But even though an all-clear will need to be obtained, you still need to make extinguishing this fire a priority. If the fire is not controlled quickly, it has the ability to extend into exposures or involve the power lines that sit above the truck.
• Collar ties/stars on the ledger walls may indicate that this building is old and not stable. A king’s row may indicate the use of lime mortar, which would also be a red flag.
• Initial concerns are the power lines, and based on the overall look of the building, I would want to further investigate the building construction. Many automotive businesses have high voltage lines for tools like welders and may have explosive bottles inside. Crews need to secure utilities early, and continuously monitor the power lines in proximity to the fire.
• Good ladder truck placement is dependent on how many aerials are responding and if the aerials will be used to access the roof on the second floor. If the intent is accessing the roof by climbing the aerial, ladder placement looks good in the picture, especially to protect exposures, with the second aerial behind placed on the “C/D” corner to protect exposures on that end.
• I would definitely make the roof of this structure and rely on the extent of fire conditions and roof type to determine if a hole would be cut.
• An aggressive attempt should be made to throw ground ladders to the second story where firefighters are operating in case they need to make a rapid egress from the building.
• Depending on the extent of the fire, I would be ready to force open the roll-up doors and be cautious of mechanic pits that drop into a basement.
• Because this looks like an operational business, efforts should be made to retrieve and/or protect filing cabinets and other business-related materials early on. If customers have cars in the garage, every effort should be to protect that property.
• My general impression is that this is a pretty solid building that has a heavily involved dormer room on fire. I don’t see any king’s rows or collar ties that would imply that this would be unreinforced masonry, so it looks like a pretty stout house as far as the walls are concerned.
• An immediate safety concern is the presence of steps up and what appears to be a probable crawl space below the main floor that firefighters should be aware of. If there’s a cellar or basement, firefighters should ensure the integrity of the floor when they walk in and find access to search the area.
• The conditions from the dormer room are not survivable, but looking at the rest of the windows in the structure, I see an offensive fire with potentially viable victims in the remainder of the house. A good walk-around of this house would give clues on how far this fire has extended and if it is isolated to the dormer or running the attic. Also look at the gable ends for curtains or windows that would offer a good indication as to whether the attic was converted into livable space.
• If there’s enough unburned roof left, I would send my ladder company to the roof to cut, making sure not to operate next to the dormer especially in newer lightweight constructed homes where they often collapse early.
• If fans are on scene, PPA could be a way to ventilate this structure.
• With regard to forcible exit, because it’s a brick building, firefighters won’t be able to easily breach exterior walls, so you’ll want to consider ground ladders to the second story. If the attic shows livable space, I would also address throwing a ladder to the gable window, as the staircase leading to the attic can be hidden in a closet or an extension ladder stowed in a ceiling hatch.
• Utilities should be easily secured at the subpanel by a member of the ladder company.
• Teams should concentrate on aggressively searching the tenable spaces of the house and hit the main body of the fire to lower the BTUs.
• When the fire is out and overhaul begins, pay special attention to the roof around the dormer. These structures add weight to the roof and can collapse without warning even after the fire is already out.
I’ve found that some of the best training involves simply scouring the Web for pictures or videos of actual fire incidents. Create your own tactical algorithm that you can use as a mental checklist on each fire call. As far as your crews, underscore the importance of working through a similar thought process—and practicing it well before an actual fire call.