Photo 1: Fire officers must know what to look for during a 360-degree assessment at a structral fire.
Photo 2: The 1991 fire in Brackenridge, PA, a steel floor joist expanded causing the first floor to collapse into the heavily involved basement.
Photo 3: In 1996 two Chesapeake, VA firefighters were trapped and killed by the total collapse of a lightweight wooden truss roof assembly.
Photo 4: In 2008 two Colerain Township, OH, firefighters fell through the fire weakened first floor and died.
Photo 5: This is a view of the Charlie side and of a basement walk-out door in Colerain Township.
Photo 6: Fire curtains, with the assistance of a ground ladder, can be used to seal out driving winds at one and two story residences.
One of the most critical tasks to be conducted at an early stage of a structure fire is the performance of a 360-degree walk around. For safety, a 360 assessment, which is part of a quick size-up obtained from all four sides of a structure, attempts to gain as much intelligence about the structure as possible. Although highly recommended by numerous fire safety associations and advocates, this task is not by any means a cure-all. However, when done on a routine basis by a trained officer who knows what to look for, a 360 will help minimize the risk of injury or death to firefighters.
Far too often the first arriving officer feels the overriding need to take immediate action by quickly entering a structure to locate and extinguish the fire. However, an investment of one or two minutes required to conduct a 360 at the outset has the potential to provide greater overall safety throughout the remaining course of the fire. But to be of benefit, it must be done routinely whenever possible or practical, otherwise the potential exposure to danger for all involved may be greater.
In the case of a residential fire, in many instances the first arriving officer will have a good sense in regards to the strategy and tactics that will be needed and may order firefighters to bunker up and lay a dry, pre-connected handline. The line can then be charged when the officer determines if it is safe enough to conduct an interior attack and on which side of the structure the attack will be made. This can be done while the officer conducts the 360. In this way, tasks that are equally important are carried out simultaneously rather than sequentially, allowing safety to be maintained and preparation for a calculated attack to proceed without delay. The officer should also keep in mind that, in many cases, the use of traditional fast and aggressive blind interior attacks on arrival have resulted in firefighter fatalities, so there is, in fact, inherent safety associated when conducting a 360. It forces the officer to slow down and more carefully assess the structure and the situation.
Extremely Dangerous Enclosed Commercial Structures
Any officer or firefighter from any department has the ability to determine the degree of danger associated with any structure by simply looking at its structural design. It has been proven that enclosed structures that have few windows or doors in relation to the size of the structure, have been taking the lives of firefighters at a disproportionate rate when compared to open structures. The rate was even more disproportionate when multiple firefighter fatality fires were examined. Open structures have an adequate number of windows and doors to provide prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation. The small- to moderate-size single-family residence without a basement and without boarded windows or burglar bars is a prime example.
When a large enclosed commercial structure is involved, the officer and all arriving firefighters should be able to notice and realize that the structure is enclosed and dangerous. During a 360, in addition to making a note of covered windows or doors that may serve as alternate points of entry, the officer should also look for certain signs of dangerous conditions, including downed power lines. Additionally, a slope of the terrain along the foundation line may indicate the structure has a basement. The mere presence of basement windows or doors also indicates the existence of a basement. The officer should look for fire or cracks in the walls, a leaning wall, separation of walls or smoke seeping through a wall. These signs may indicate a roof collapse is imminent and defensive operations may be needed. It is also important to consider what may be happening within the structure. The structure may have serious structural integrity problems suggesting that perhaps an unprotected steel I-beam may have been heated to such a degree that it has expanded, pushing outward on the exterior walls. This condition can go unnoticed when unprotected steel beams supporting a floor may fail when sufficiently heated over the course of the fire. Fire seen along the upper walls along the outer edge of the roof may indicate that the roof assembly, perhaps of lightweight steel or wooden truss construction, may have been exposed to fire and is on the verge of collapsing into the structure.
Residential Structure Fires
During a fire at a two-story residence, a 360 may reveal people hanging out of the upper floor windows needing immediate help. In another residential scenario, the officer may notice a sudden drop-off along the foundation line indicating a sublevel and enclosed space, perhaps involving a basement fire. These specific types of scenarios, which may generate light or moderate smoke conditions from the Alpha side, have lead to the deaths of numerous firefighters. Basement fires can lead to fire-weakened first floors, which in turn can lead to floor collapses. These two scenarios provide clear direction for the assessing officer who understands the risk.
In the first case, the officer should indicate the urgency of the situation and have an extension ladder(s) brought to the Charlie side to bring the trapped civilians down. An attack line may also be needed in order to provide protection should conditions deteriorate. In the second scenario, the officer should immediately warn all responding firefighters that they have a basement fire and that an attack will be made from the Charlie side. In cases when the location of the seat of the fire is unknown, no one is to enter the first floor of the structure until command feels confident that the structure has retained the integrity needed to allow fully bunkered and equipped firefighters to safely enter the home. Here strong command, who may be the first arriving officer on the scene, actively manages the risk by not allowing responding firefighters to gamble with their lives and needlessly risk death to save a structure.
Firefighters commonly respond to all types of structure fires and the single-family residence is the most common. However, firefighters must realize that those residences with basements or with covered windows are killing them at a disproportionate rate whenever fast and aggressive interior attacks are used. Firefighter fatalities have also occurred even when the firefighters knew that the basement was involved. It will continue until firefighters routinely use tactics that avoid the danger associated with these extremely dangerous structure fires, which deceptively appear like a typical bread-and-butter structure built on a concrete slab foundation.
The Wind Factor
One sign of danger that has recently come into greater focus, and which active firefighters should be keenly aware of, is the possibility of encountering extremely dangerous wind-driven structure fires. According to the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), under certain conditions, a wind speed as low as 10 mph will cause extreme fire conditions on the interior of a structure fire, regardless if the structure is a high-rise apartment building or a one- or two-story single or multi-family residence. A 360 in the case of a single-family residence may reveal fire showing on the Charlie side, venting out one or more windows. When sizing up the rear of the home, and as noted by NIST, it may also be possible that the force of the wind pressurizing the Charlie side may be keeping much of the fire in the interior of the structure or that the behavior of the fire itself may be characterized as having a pulsing appearance as it attempts to vent outward against the pressurizing wind. Every firefighter must understand that what they are observing in this type of situation are signs of a wind-driven fire condition, which can become extremely dangerous should firefighters create a vent point on the Alpha side and enter the structure. This is done by innocently opening the front door. Opening the front door will cause the wind-driven fire to rapidly spread with blowtorch characteristics to the vent point, which may lead to fatalities of firefighters and civilians. To prevent engulfing exposure during wind-driven fires, fire-resistive fire curtains can be used to cover and seal windows at the inlets, thereby allowing firefighters the chance to safely enter and attack structure fires from the Alpha side.
However, the use of a flexible approach when considering the use of fire curtains may provide the best outcomes and therefore sound officer judgment must always be exercised. For example, in certain cases too many windows may be venting on the pressurized side of a residence and the necessary number of curtains may not be available to effectively seal all windows. The use of water from handlines would then be the officer's first choice. In other cases, it may be beneficial to use a combination attack with water and the use of fire curtains. Fires in attic spaces, or those that may produce high radiant heat from the venting of an entire side of a structure, may preclude the use of a curtain without injury to firefighters. In these scenarios, while ensuring that no ventilation takes place on any side of the structure and that the front door vent point it is kept closed, use of multiple attack lines to quickly knock down the main body of fire on the venting side would be the first arriving officer's initial course of action.
Brackenridge, PA - 1991
During the 1991 fire in Brackenridge, PA, (see Photo 2) a steel floor joist which was being heated by burning flammable liquids in the basement and began to expand. However, since the ends rested securely on a concrete basement wall, preventing expansion, it twisted causing the first floor to collapse into the heavily involved basement. While manning a handline at the top of the first floor basement stairway to prevent vertical fire extension, an entire truck crew of 4 from the Hilltop Hose Company lost their lives.
Chesapeake. VA - 1996
In 1996 two Chesapeake, VA firefighters, who were making an interior attack from the Charlie side of a large enclosed commercial structure, were trapped and killed by the total collapse of a lightweight wooden truss roof assembly (see Photo 3.) Involved enclosed structures and spaces which can initially conceal smoke and fire are associated with, flashover, backdrafts, collapse of roofs and floors, and prolonged zero visibility conditions which lead to firefighter disorientation and fatalities.
Colerain Township, OH - 2008
In 2008, as moderate smoke was showing from a known basement fire and informed that occupants had escaped this two-story residence three Colerain Township, OH. firefighters initiated an offensive attack across the first floor and into the basement (see Photo 4.) During an evacuation, two firefighters became disoriented, fell through the fire weakened first floor and died. Photo 5 shows a view of the Charlie side and of a basement walk-out door. NIOSH noted that an incomplete 360-degree assessment was a contributing factor but it also appears that the extreme potential danger associated with basement fires was not understood by some of the responding companies and therefore did not result in use of safer tactics from the outset.
Through experience and research the fire service over time learns and benefits from knowledge about old and new signs of danger. No one can ever know how many fallen firefighters may have survived had they understood the importance of knowing what signs to look for during a 360-degree assessment, but things in the fire service are slowly changing for the better. Today's firefighters literally have access at their fingertips to specific and valuable tactical information provided by fatality investigations involving departments across the country. Additionally, valuable information determined by such studies as hazards of the wind have been significant in advancing safety on the fireground. But the insight and power of information, along with emerging technology, must be translated and taken to the drill ground and ultimately to the fireground to be of any value in the prevention of line-of-duty deaths.
Note: This article implements the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives 3: Integrate risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical and planning responsibilities and Life Safety Initiatives 8: Utilize available technology whenever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.
WILLIAM R. MORA, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a former Captain of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. You can reach William by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.