Making an aggressive interior attack on a well-involved structure will require a considerable effort from the initial arriving companies. Any time that the suppression forces have to deal with a significant fire in an overhead space, there will be some monumental obstacles to overcome. This month, we will look at some characteristics that the on-scene companies will have to identify in order to efficiently handle fires in these spaces.
First, it is imperative that the incident commander (IC) determine what type of overhead space they are dealing with. For our discussion, we will stick to attic spaces, and point out some similarities when dealing with cocklofts and overhead void spaces. When we discuss an Attic, we are referring to an upper-floor space, usually built with a steep-pitched roof to shed snow and rain water, usually high enough for storage and can be used as a living space (photo 1). Conversely, a Cockloft is a top-floor area, but is not large enough to incorporate occupied living space. It is a structural space above the top-floor ceiling and below the roof rafters, connecting similar occupancies at the roof line. These spaces are usually unfinished, with nothing more than roof joists or trusses, with a floor that is constructed from the top-floor ceiling and insulation (photo 2). From time to time, one may come across plywood that is set on the ceiling rafters to allow for storage and mobility around the floor area. Access to these spaces is usually by means of a spring-loaded, pull-down stairwell. Most of these carry weight ratings topping out at 250 pounds; this is not recommended for firefighter use. Crews are much better served opening these spaces up and utilizing fire service ladders for access instead.
Once the space has been identified, consider the usage that the space is providing in the building. Many residential dwellings maximize living space by renovating the available attic space into a top-floor bedroom or living area (i.e., office, playroom, etc…). These spaces can be identified during the 360-degree size-up process. Decorative window treatments and dressings, window decals and pictures, and flower boxes around window areas can be sure signs of upper-floor occupancy. Furthermore, many of these top-floor bedrooms will have an exterior means of access/egress for emergency evacuation (photo 3). These stairways are not recommended for use during fire suppression operations. Compounding this problem will be the location and accessibility of the top-floor stairs; many times these stairs are located in somewhat unorthodox places, such as behind pocket doors and hallway closets.
The IC must also consider the construction methods and alterations that may exist in these areas. Older residential wood-frame dwellings were constructed utilizing Balloon Framing, where the wall joists run from the sill plate of the foundation all the way up to the top attic/void space. This allows for an unimpeded vertical shaft for fire extension. Newer wood frame structures have made changes that limit the vertical travel of products of combustion within the wall studs; however, many of these “starter castles” will have additional voids built in the structure that allow for vertical fire spread to these areas. Overhead spaces that traverse over multiple occupancies may or may not have inherent fire stops in place. Even in those with fire stops, utilities and other breaches between the walls will provide an avenue for heat and smoke to travel horizontally throughout the space, involving multiple structures.