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...

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