The "Everyday Routine Complex" Fire

It happens in every fire department — the routine structure fire that you're familiar with that turns into a complex incident because things didn't go as planned. Perhaps there were circumstances unknown or unseen. Maybe there were problems associated with the fire attack, like getting the initial attack hoseline stretched and charged in a timely manner. Maybe the building didn't act like it was "expected" to — perhaps a ceiling collapse occurred or a floor began to weaken or the roof began to sag. Perhaps the fire grew in size or intensity, unexpectedly fast and caught firefighters off guard with smaller-than-needed hoselines. Or perhaps there just weren't enough firefighters on the scene initially to do all that was needed, like quickly stretch an attack line or a second hoseline, lay a supply line, force entry, ventilate or whatever.

I'm sure you can add your own experiences to this list. In any event, the items mentioned above are typical to "bread-and-butter" fireground operations and point to the need for firefighters to be in the right frame of mind at all times at all fires because if we lose control, we can be killed or seriously injured.

A familiar story from so many fire departments around the country is that firefighters are not seeing structure fires regularly or they are not seeing enough fires where they are comfortable on the fireground and they can think and act calmly. A point to be made here is that many firefighters know only one type of structure fire attack — it matters not whether the fire occurs in a dynamite factory or a 50-story high-rise structure. The fire attack method is going to be the same for every incident. This becomes a strategy-and-tactics issue and a training-and-discipline issue.

Without a doubt, it is hard for fire departments to perform their duties in these times of less funding, personnel layoffs, resource reductions and increased call volumes. For many fire departments, call volume can involve 70%, 80% or even or 90% EMS or other non-fire incidents. Some fire departments respond to just about every type of call that comes in, like a social or community-response agency. Some do it to save their departments or to justify their staffing, or because they are trying to prove their need to their community by taking care of too much "customer service" stuff and leaving the "firefighting" stuff on the back burner. That type of response philosophy leaves no time for training, maintenance or other necessary functions. And, if and when a structure fire does occur, it may be an unplanned-for event — and handled as such. Nevertheless, when a structure fire does occur, the fire department is expected to handle it with the high level of efficiency and service to which the public has become accustomed.

All cities and towns have their own appeal just as all cities and towns have their own unique and different types of structures and occupancies, and they present different operational firefighting concerns. One kind of building and occupancy found in just about every city and town across the country, but one that is particularly common in older industrial settings, is the old "mixed multiple" or "mixed occupancy." In some places, they are called "taxpayers" or "mom-and-pops." The latter term of endearment comes from a time when small, family-owned stores thrived and provided for their neighborhoods. Not only did these buildings have a vital neighborhood business, they housed families above and behind them. Many of them are still occupied. These buildings are found on street corners or lined up alongside one another in the middle of blocks.

Most of these buildings are two stories in height, although some are three stories. Typically, the ground-floor occupancy is a business or commercial area and the upper floors are living areas. In recent times, many of these stores have closed as cities and neighborhoods have changed, but the buildings remain. Many of the store occupancies have changed their uses, but the apartments are still in use.

Next: When a fire occurs

JEFF SHUPE is a career firefighter with over 35 years of experience. He is a member of the Cleveland, OH, Fire Department and also has served as a volunteer firefighter. Shupe is a State of Ohio-certified fire instructor and is a field training officer for the Ohio Fire Academy. He is also an Ohio-certified EMT and hazmat technician. He holds an associate's degree in fire technology and has attended the University of Cincinnati Fire Protection Engineering program. He has taught at local community colleges and on state and national levels.