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 Fire/EMS Department and an account of the close call by the incident commander. This month, we continue with accounts by others involved in the incident and a review of the operation.

The following account is by Sergeant David Stacy, the first-due officer on Engine 812:

On Jan. 27, 2011, at 5:30 A.M., units were dispatched for the reported house fire. The address was near our station, where I was the volunteer station officer for the night. Chief officers and my crew, the first-arriving engine, arrived on scene within two minutes of the dispatch to find a 1½-story single-family dwelling with fire showing from the A/B corner of the first floor and a working fire in the basement. During the response, and referring to the map book that I always keep open to the page displaying the area right behind the firehouse, I notified my engine driver that we would lay out a supply line 1½ houses prior to the reported house on fire.

Upon arrival, the hydrant appeared closer to the burning structure than I originally thought, and I made a last-minute decision to take our own hydrant and stretch the attack line from there. We pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch handline. The irons firefighter on the engine forced entry through an iron security door and the residential door, while the nozzle firefighter completed his "minute-man" hoseline stretch. The line was quickly charged and the crew proceeded into the structure.

Upon entering, we had visible fire in the living room toward the left; it appeared the fire was coming up near the floorboard area of the A/B corner. This fire was quickly knocked. Conditions were zero visibility with light heat. My crew then advanced the line through the living room in an attempt to locate the basement stairs. Per our standard operating procedure (SOP), the first engine is to locate and hold the steps, the second engine provides a backup line for the first engine on the fire floor and the third engine advances a line to the exterior access, if one exists (the fourth engine stands by until directed; the first truck goes to the first floor, the second truck to the basement and the third truck or squad is a rapid intervention team). This county SOP works well within our department; staffing is rarely an issue and units arrive within minutes of one another.

As the engine company made their way out of the living room, a stairwell leading to the attic was noticed on the right side. The engine company continued forward until we ended up toward the rear of the structure at the kitchen/bathroom area. We are familiar with our first-due area and figured one possible location of the interior basement access would be just off of the kitchen, but this was not the case in this structure. The engine crew noticed the temperature was gradually increasing and visibility was still zero. I attempted to notify command that we were toward the rear and still attempting to find the steps.

The second engine was advancing their line onto the first floor, along with several members of the first truck company beginning their search. We moved our line back toward the way we came in an attempt to find the stairwell (thinking we needed to get to the other side of the attic stairs). The engine crew and I just barely entered the initial living room area again. We heard a "crack" and the floor gave way in what felt like a two-stage motion. First, the floor dropped an inch or two, followed a half-second later by a drop of about eight to 12 inches. It felt as if the floor had failed in the corner where we initially attacked the visible fire and the rest of the floor subsequently leaned toward that end. This failure occurred roughly eight to 10 minutes after the arrival of our engine and just over five minutes of operating on the interior.

When this occurred, I was immediately to the left of a chief officer who had Division 1. We both understood what occurred and immediately notified command of a floor collapse and to evacuate the building. Command requested evacuation tones on all channels and for units to sound their horns/sirens. Inside the structure, the evac tones were clearly heard along with an abundance of apparatus sirens/horns.

Visible fire was beginning to push out of the hole on the floor. Units got out of the living room and out of the front door they entered, immediately off of the living room. One member of the search crew was separated from his team; unaware of the conditions present, although not in immediate danger in the A/D corner of the structure; this member bailed out of a window. Upon exiting the structure, units operated from the exterior for approximately 15 minutes until the majority of the fire was knocked down. Upon starting another interior attack, there was significant extension in all the walls and into the attic.

The following account is by Captain Matthew Machala, the Engine 812 driver:

During the short response to this fire, a brief conversation was conducted between the officer and me as to exactly where the hydrant was in relationship to the address and what method we were going to use to establish a water supply. As we rounded the corner just prior to the house, fire could be seen showing from the first floor and basement of the dwelling, which was about one block away. With the hydrant now in sight, the engine officer directed me to take my own hydrant. I pulled up all the way to the left side of the road parallel with the curb, leaving plenty of room for other apparatus to pass.

I shifted the engine into pump and the officer directed the crew to pull the 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line off the rear. Chief 812 arrived shortly before us and gave a full report, so on the engine's arrival, the officer simply transmitted that we were on the scene. County Fire Communications asked whether we had any layout (Prince George's County Fire/EMS Communications plays an active role during working incidents, ensuring companies follow up with their expected SOP-driven duties). As I was still in the cab engaging the pump and the officer had already exited the cab and did not hear the request, I answered that we had our own hydrant two houses down and communications acknowledged. I exited the cab and grabbed my portable radio and helmet, while the crew was running the line to the house.

I immediately went to the front of the engine, pulled the front sleeve from the bumper and removed the front steamer cap from the hydrant. I went to the rear of the apparatus to ensure the hosebed was clear of the attack line, returned to the pump panel and charged the line as I could see it was in position to be charged. After setting my pump pressure, I returned to the front of the engine, hooked up my front sleeve and charged the hydrant. I then returned to the pump panel, opened my front intake, read my gauges to ensure I had an adequate water supply and adjusted my discharge accordingly for the increase in intake pressure.

The second-due engine had arrived and laid a secondary attack line, but the first-due truck was not yet on scene (less than two minutes of on-scene time had passed). As a precautionary measure, I retrieved our 28-foot extension ladder off the side of the engine as the first- and second-due trucks were pulling up, but I did not throw it as it was a 1½-story single-family dwelling and both trucks had ladders going to the structure immediately on arrival.

After getting to the house and sizing up where the fire was and the progress the engine was making, interior radioed that some type of floor collapse had occurred and to have the structure evacuated. I activated my audible devices to indicate the evacuation order and double-check my water supply. With everything in order, I stood by at the engine. During the remainder of the incident, no subsequent lines were pulled off my engine and I simply ensured the water supply and pressure of my one hoseline.

The following account is by Firefighter Tim Curran, who operated on the hoseline of Engine 812:

Upon arrival, I was instructed by Sergeant Stacy to pull the 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line. While Firefighter Tyler Di-Stasio (the "bar man," or irons firefighter) was forcing entry, I finished flaking out the line on the front lawn and masked up. Due to an iron security door along with the regular wood residential door, gaining entry took a little longer than normal. Just prior to entry, I was instructed by our deputy chief to knock down some of the fire on the first floor from the exterior.

After gaining entry, we advanced our line into the living room and knocked all visible fire around the window frame and the rest of the fire that appeared to be coming up from the floorboard in the A/B corner. Visibility was zero with moderate heat. After knocking the fire down, the line was advanced through the living room toward the back of the house to locate the basement stairs. We made our way to the back of the house where we located the kitchen, but no basement stairs. After a minute or two of searching and still not being able to locate the stairs, we made our way back to the living room in order to go to the right this time, thinking the stairs were toward the D side of the building. The second-due engine company and first truck company were making entry.

Shortly after entering the living room, a faint cracking sound was heard with a sudden small drop, followed by a significant drop of what felt like half a foot to a foot. The rest of the floor subsequently leaned toward that end. Immediately noticing this, Assistant Chief Frieder called command, notifying him of the floor collapse and to have everyone evacuate the building.

I left the hoseline where it was for others to have a reference point in order to get out and made my way to the door. After taking a step out of the house, I noticed I was the only one outside. Knowing the location of the front door, I turned around to find my officer and the rest of our crew. After taking a few steps back inside, it seemed like jam of people looking for the door. I soon began to grab people and guide them toward the door. After a few seconds, I had located Sergeant Stacy along with our assistant chief and together we made sure everyone else was out before exiting the structure

The following account is by Firefighter Andrew Plimpton, assigned to the "utility" position on Engine 812:

As part of the crew on Engine 812 (first due), I was in the seat referred to as "utility." Since our engine had six personnel, I was going to assist the nozzleman with line placement and movement. I followed the nozzleman to the rear of the engine, where he pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line with a one-inch smooth-bore tip. I assisted him in flaking the line in the front yard. We then donned the rest of our PPE (personal protective equipment), including facemasks, while the firefighter with the irons forced the front door. Before entering the structure, the nozzleman bled the line while simultaneously knocking down some of the fire venting from a window on side A.

Once we entered the structure, we found fire coming from the corner of the living room next to the fireplace. That fire was quickly knocked down, and I helped the nozzleman move the line to the back of the house to locate the interior stairwell. Throughout the course of this first push to find the basement stairs, I remained directly behind the nozzleman and the officer. We began to advance more, at which point it was noticed that we had no extra line to make it any farther, although we didn't know that we were merely feet from the basement entrance. We tried for approximately another minute to push for the stairs while the temperature began to steadily increase around us. The officer made the decision to reposition the line back to the front of the house, in the hopes that there was a second means of entering the basement.

Once we re-entered the living room, the problems started. It was immediately noticed there was a significant amount of heat in the living room and the fire we had initially knocked in the corner had flared up again. The second-due engine and first-due truck were making their way into the home through the front door. All of the sudden, the floor began to sag beneath our feet toward the center of the room. The floor then dropped several inches, we all heard a loud "crack", and then the floor instantaneously dropped another eight to 12 inches.

During the initial push to exit the structure, I lost the line I had been following to exit because visibility was still zero in the structure. After about 15 seconds, I located the line and followed it to the threshold of the front door.

The following account is by Firefighter Jake Stevens, assigned to the "layout" position on Engine 812:

I was riding in the "layout" seat. Given the time of day, the weather conditions, power outages and the fact that box assignments are rare in this area, I believed that this would be a working fire. As the engine got closer to the scene, it quickly became apparent that this was a working basement fire.

Engine 812 front-sleeved a hydrant a few houses before the reported address. Since the driver did not need assistance establishing a water supply, I assisted in flaking out the attack line. While the "bar man" was forcing the front door, the line man flowed water through the window to the left of the front door to knock down some of the fire before entering the structure. Once the front door was opened, I could see thick, black smoke down to the floor level. While the line was advanced inside, I stayed near the front door to feed more hose into the building. There was very limited visibility due to smoke.

Within minutes of entry being made, I had no more available hose to bring inside and the attack line could not be advanced any farther. I followed the attack line inside to let the rest of the crew know that we had no more hose available. As I crawled farther into the structure, I noticed that the floor in the first room felt spongy. Upon meeting up with the rest of the engine crew, I told them that we had no more hose. It seemed like at around the same time I was doing this there was a cracking sound and it felt like the floor sagged or bent a little. The chief ordered us out.

I stayed near the front door and assisted several other firefighters out. While doing this, I was counting the members of our engine crew to ensure that we hadn't lost anyone. The engine officer and assistant chief were the last two firefighters to exit through the front door. When our officer had finished taking off his facepiece, I told him our entire crew was out of the building.

With the majority of the fire in the basement extinguished, crews were allowed to return to interior operations. Most of the remaining fire in the structure was in the attic space and walls. Our initial attack line was extended with a 50-foot section of hose and advanced to the second floor/attic space. To do this, the bale of the original nozzle was left in place. This created a problem shortly thereafter. The crew on the second floor reported they had no water, but the original section of the line near me still had good pressure in it. I started looking for the original bale, figuring that one of the crews performing overhaul must have kicked it closed accidentally. I found it just as Division 2 was about to have all crews leave the attic space and, as I had thought, the bale was closed. With water restored to the attack line, operations were able to continue.

The following account is by Firefighter Tyler DiStasio, assigned to the irons position of Engine 812:

I was riding in the irons, or "bar man," seat and my first assignment was to gain access into the house for the line man and crew. When I got to the front door, I noticed there were two doors, an exterior metal door and an interior wooden door. I tried the metal exterior door first and it was locked. I then broke out the glass to see if I could reach in to unlock it. For some reason, I couldn't unlock the door, so I resorted to forcing it. It was a little difficult because I couldn't get the adz end of the bar into the door enough, but after a few tries, the metal door popped open. I immediately broke out the window panes on the second wooden door and reached around to unlock it. Once both doors were open, I moved out of the way so the crew could continue in to find the basement steps. I masked up and followed the line to catch up with the crew.

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.

  • Full and proper use of PPE — All of the firefighters from Engine 812 were wearing all of their gear properly. Had they not been wearing the proper PPE, there is a significant chance all of the interior crew would have gotten burned.
  • Tunnel vision — Crews must keep in mind all the information given to them while enroute. It was stated that this was a reported basement fire. Upon arrival, fire was visible from a first-floor window. This indicated there was a significant basement fire since there was already extension to the first floor. Don't get caught up by the fire venting out a window; think that this fire has advanced so far that I already have fire venting that window (the fire must have burned through the floor or is significant in the wall space below the window). Also, don't fall susceptible to the "always be aggressive" attitude. A possible tactic for a well-involved basement fire may have been to start knocking this fire from the exterior. You are not being a wimp by conducting an exterior attack; you are potentially saving your crews' lives and still performing an aggressive, proactive attack. As observed in recent UL studies (search for this term: "UL fire behavior in a single-family occupancy"), an exterior hit, knocking down the visible fire, can make a huge difference to the occupants and the firefighters entering today's single-family dwellings.
  • Building construction — This house had two-by-eight-foot rafters in the basement and the floor failed within 10 minutes after arrival of the first engine. Building construction is critically important. Many basements are unfinished, with rafters and supports susceptible to the fire right off the bat. What if this house was lightweight construction? The engine crew most likely would have fallen through the floor as soon as they entered the house.
  • Know your assigned job and do your assigned job — As noted by the first-due engine driver, he felt his overall operation went smoothly, but does wish he would have suggested to drop a supply line and pull past the house, but at the time it did not cross his mind and taking their own hydrant was a very viable and reasonable option. In regard to the evacuation tones and partial collapse, it was not a good feeling for him to be standing outside and for the most part unable to assist in ensuring everyone on the crew was safe and able to get out. Part of that comes from him being an officer, wanting crew integrity and the fact that we want everyone to go home. But because their officers can rotate duties, his job that night was to ensure water — and that is exactly what he did. He knew his job and did it, as tempting as leaving the pump might have been.

The Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department and its operating companies are an SOP-driven organization. There should be no other way of operating. SOPs provide firefighters, officers and command officers with a trained-on "game plan" in order to be as effective as possible. Without SOPs (procedures) and SOGs (guidelines), a department arriving on the scene is either at a standstill, with the commander ordering every little detail, or companies arrive on the scene and do whatever they want — and, sadly, even in 2011, that still exists in some areas.

  • Command, control and accountability — As tempting as it is during an emergency where your members may be in "urgent" danger, the incident commander must remain in command. It's like a coach who wants to run onto the field to help the team win. The results can be fatal if the fire is not strongly led and controlled by the commander from start to finish.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a firefighter since 1973 and a chief officer since 1982. He is deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) committees and is the chairman of the IAFC Safety, Health & Survival Section. He is on the board of directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the September 11th Families Association and the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and non-commercial website www.firefighterclosecalls.com. Goldfeder can be contacted at BillyG@Firefighterclosecalls.com.

Considerations When Operating at Basement Fires in Single-Family Dwellings

  • What is the quickest, most applicable and fastest way to get water on the fire? As a part of your initial and ongoing size-ups, do a risk/benefit analysis to determine whether an interior attack is the best way to perform search and rescue and to get water on the fire.
  • Where is the fire? (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta?) Where was it? Where is it going? How badly have conditions deteriorated? What is the damage to the floor and related building structural components?
  • What type of building construction are you operating in?
  • Conduct a 360-degree walk-around so you fully understand the building and the conditions on all sides of the structure.
  • Do you have adequate companies and staffing on the scene to conduct your operation — at the time you want to conduct it? Considering water supply, attack lines, truck work, search and rescue, ventilation, rapid intervention, and required command and support roles, how many personnel will you need? Does your first-alarm assignment consider those roles for a simultaneous and coordinated/disciplined command operation?
  • Has command clearly stated (by radio) to all companies whether the fire is going to be offensive or defensive?
  • Do command and the operating companies understand the plan and which units will do what?
  • How are your members getting in? Getting out? What are the secondary means of egress? Will you have to make additional access/exit points?
  • Is the area vented? Is the vent location helpful or ineffective if your plan is an interior attack? Ventilate before you enter while making sure interior crews clearly understand where that venting will be performed.
  • If going interior, the crew must often move quickly, but cautiously, using the bearing wall as a guide.
  • Assign a company to protect the stairs.
  • Assign a company to rapid intervention.
  • Continuously monitor basement conditions with a thermal imager and have your side/division officers (A, B, C and D) monitor conditions from the exterior.
  • Backup lines (and water supply) should be in position as companies are making entry.
  • Interior companies must report conditions to the incident commander as soon as possible. Equally important is for the interior companies to know "how it looks" from the outside.
  • Based on conditions from the outside, and reports from the interior, command must decide whether progress is being made and companies should remain interior, or whether companies should be pulled out and the fire hit it from the outside, which may be the best means initially, depending on conditions.

—William Goldfeder