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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 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.

An important point to remember when checking the basement, or any lower floor at a fire, is that fire and smoke do not extend down nearly as well as they do up. If your basement check reveals smoke or heat conditions, do not assume it's just from a fire above. It is imperative that we verify that the basement itself is not on fire (see photo 4). A good rule of thumb is that if you encounter conditions that require you to don your self-contained breathing apparatus, you must assume there is an active fire on that floor.

Smoke Showing From Everywhere
Another tip I learned early on was "beware the house with smoke from everywhere." We arrive and find smoke showing, but from no readily identifiable location. Or we find the first floor charged with smoke, and perhaps heat, but no visible fire. These fires are also the ones that result in the "we can't find the seat of the fire" radio transmissions. If you can't find the fire right away it's safest to assume it's in the basement until a check of the basement proves otherwise.

Basement checks must become a practice at every reported structure fire. This must be a policy that is integrated with our standard operations. If checking the basement is optional or an afterthought we will end up operating behind the ball and putting our firefighters in unnecessary danger. The results of the basement check must be reported immediately to the incident commander. This must be done even if the basement is clear and ideally it should be done over the radio on the appropriate fireground channel. This will give all responding and operating companies a clearer idea of the situation.

Basement fires are extremely hazardous and challenging. In order to select the appropriate tactics and effectively extinguish these fires we must first realize the situation. A "basement check" policy for all reported structure fires is a quick, no-cost, solution that can be implemented with even the most limited manpower.

NICHOLAS MARTIN is a firefighter with the District of Columbia Fire Department, assigned to Engine 11 in Columbia Heights and is also a volunteer in suburban Maryland. He has over 14 years of firefighting experience and holds a bachelors degree in fire science from the University of Maryland and is pursuing a master's degree in public safety leadership at Johns Hopkins University. He is a vice president of Traditions Training, LLC and instructs nationally on operational topics of the fire service. You can reach Nicholas by e-mail at