Fire Below! The Importance of the 'Basement Check'

Checking the basement on arrival allows the incident commander to select the appropriate tactics and effectively extinguish the fire, without having to backtrack.When arriving at the scene of a reported structure fire, we know that size-up is a key...


Checking the basement on arrival allows the incident commander to select the appropriate tactics and effectively extinguish the fire, without having to backtrack.

When arriving at the scene of a reported structure fire, we know that size-up is a key consideration. The information obtained in our size-up will direct our initial operations and is also a key safety factor. Of course there are mnemonics and phrases galore to help you remember different size-up factors, but one issue is almost always left out: What is the status of the basement?

Basement fires are one of the most hazardous incidents we respond to and are frequently a cause of many line of duty deaths and significant injuries. Regrettably, there is often a significant delay in discovering that there is fire in the basement. Perhaps nothing was evident from the outside, maybe there was smoke coming from everywhere; or maybe we were focused on fighting fire on the upper floors (that was ultimately extension from a raging fire below). Left unchecked, a fire in the basement will burn away the structural supports for the first floor. This results in the "firefighter through the floor" stories that unfortunately seem to be more and more frequent (see photo 1).

Unfortunately, we are often distracted by more attention-getting conditions. Basement fires are often not evident from the outside. Since a fire in the basement can quickly extend almost anywhere in the structure, we may be drawn to what appears to be a fire on the first floor, or any of the upper floors -- maybe even coming from the roof. This may cause a "moth to candle" response: we go to work on the fire that we immediately see and the unchecked basement fire continues to grow, extend, and eat the building out from underneath us (see photo 2).

Often, we only become aware of the unrecognized basement fire because something bad happens:

  • We can't find the seat of the fire.
  • Conditions on the floors above become untenable.
  • The floors begin to weaken.
  • Fire comes through the floor.
  • One of US goes through the floor.

Once we realize the fire is also below us, we try to re-group. Lines need to be repositioned, strategies changed, firefighters are pulled out -- but now we are losing the battle and it's hard, if even possible, to catch back up.

Like many firefighters, I have been to a number of fires that did not go well because a fire in the basement was not recognized early on. The solution to this problem is painfully simple: Check the basement at every reported structure fire.

When A Walk Around Isn't Enough
The concept of a "walk around" or "circle-check" is valid in that it provides a 360-degree size-up, but a peek at the outside of a building cannot confirm that the basement is not on fire. Basements typically have limited openings from which smoke or fire can escape and are frequently cut up into smaller rooms that may hide fire from the outside (see photo 3). A true "basement check" means that someone physically entered the basement and checked it for signs of fire.

This policy exists as "law" in the District of Columbia Fire Department. When responding to a reported fire in any building type, the second arriving engine officer is responsible for reporting the basement conditions to the incident commander immediately. This system works well because it happens every time. Do you have fire showing from the 10th floor? Check the basement -- it could have started in the trash chute.

That is just one example of the implementation of this policy. In departments with fewer resources or a more delayed arrival of companies, the basement check may need to be completed as part of the first arriving officer's size-up. Ultimately - it is not the "who" that is important. What's important is that someone checks the basement and reports its conditions at every reported fire.

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