Danger at a Residential Basement Fire

  In late January 2011, a close call was experienced by firefighters at a basement fire in a single-family dwelling in Prince George's County, MD. Part one of this column in the March issue featured an overview of the Prince George's County...


  In late January 2011, a close call was experienced by firefighters at a basement fire in a single-family dwelling in Prince George's County, MD. Part one of this column in the March issue featured an overview of the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department and an account of the close call...


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I noticed the conditions on the first floor continued to get warmer. Through conversation with the crew, I learned that they did not find the basement steps yet and were going to back the line out to go around the other way in the house. Conditions rapidly worsened and there was a partial collapse of the first-floor quadrant A. I was right at the collapse point and felt my feet going underneath me, so I immediately grabbed whatever was in front of me and pulled myself forward. Evacuation tones were sounded and the entire crew exited the house.

Lessons learned and related observations by those involved in the fire, Chief Goldfeder and others related to this incident:

Although no one was injured at this fire, it was a very close call. The crew all agreed they never want to feel a floor giving way below them again. At their post-incident discussion, several key items were brought up:

  • Engine placement — Taking your own hydrant ensures an adequate water supply as quickly as possible. This fire occurred at the end of a major snowstorm; the roads were in poor condition and the second-due engine took longer than usual to arrive. However, the hydrant location left the engine a bit farther away than desired; the 1¾-inch line pulled was not long enough to get into the attic or make the basement steps if necessary. Toward the end of the incident, an additional 50 feet was added to make the steps into the attic (which subsequently led to its own problems, such as the bale on the first floor accidentally being kicked closed). Laying out, even if it is only one length, is a much better option and gets the tail end of the engine just past the A/D corner of the structure. If need be, the engine driver could easily run the 100 or so feet down the street and charge his own line.
  • 360-degree walk-around — While the irons man was forcing entry, this was a great time for the engine company officer to do a complete 360 of the house. A chief officer did conduct this almost at the time of the engine company's arrival, but conducting the 360 himself would have given the engine officer going into the house a better idea of the house layout and fire conditions prior to entry.
  • Using the thermal imager — The engine officer brought the thermal imager with him, but did not turn it on before entering the structure. The thermal imager would have helped the crew locate the basement stairs by showing where the thermal conditions were coming from. A sweep of the floor also might have shown heated rafters, indicating a significant fire in the basement.

A note about thermal imagers: According to Underwriters Laboratories (UL) data, even with a well-involved basement fire (1,300 degrees Celsius on underside of ceiling), the unexposed side (first floor) averages only a surface temp of 80° C, something a thermal imager would not register. Only if there is an open hole or HVAC register would firefighters normally see thermal conditions clearly. Regardless, in this case, the sergeant probably would have seen a hole developing around that A/B corner. However, the lesson is that the thermal imager is one very critical tool, but must be used as a part of the overall size-up and operation at any fire.