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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  • 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.