Online Exclusive

Risk Management for Ladder Company Operations

If the owner considers the building a liability and disposable then do we belong operating in it at a fire?

You are dispatched to the report of a basement fire in a two-story private dwelling. Would your operation be different than if you were dispatched for a fire in the basement of a dollar store? The difference between the risks we take at a fire in a residential building and those we take in a commercial are tremendous. Therefore the tactics we use should also be different. If the fire attack does not change with the change of building and occupancy then trouble is waiting for you.

The ladder company has to facilitate the engine company's advance to extinguish the fire. This is done by ventilating the fire building, making entry into the fire building and searching for the fire.

The first and foremost thought in our mind must be the life hazard. The life of all the operating personnel is the most important factor in determining how we fight this fire. The first tactic that we undertake on the fire scene is to find it and confine the fire.

Once the fire is located, the truck company officer should communicate with the engine company and alert them to the fire location and the best way to get water to the fire.

When the fire is located then we can begin our search for victims from the fire area out. Usually we do not advance past a serious fire without the engine company having water on the fire. The operating forces do not want to commit past the fire without water or a verified secondary means of egress. That can mean that the member of the ladder might have to wait a moment or two for the hoseline to be in place and operating. This is the normal standard operating guideline for most fire departments at residential basement fires.

What about a basement in a commercial building, are the operations the same? Should they be? If your department wants to risk firefighters lives to save a dollar store, a few more dollars worth of material then the priorities are askew. We risk a lot to save a lot and risk nothing for nothing. The risk versus benefit analysis is messed up if your fire department does not differentiate in the risk it member's take.

Recently, while teaching at a college, another one of the instructors told the students a story about a fast food restaurant in his area. He went to this building for a water leak and after concluding operations he, as the on scene officer in command, offered the manager a copy of the report for his insurance company. His offer was declined and the manager stated "That the building did not have insurance. It was a disposable liability to the corporation".

After that class I visited some of my local stand alone fast food establishments and found this to be true. The buildings are considered a disposable liability and that is how they are looked at, if I do not insure the 50 structures I own and only lose one in 10 years, I have made a good financial decision. If the owner considers the building a liability and disposable then do we belong operating in it at a fire? I have had a respectable chief state that if he was the chief assigned at a fire and found units operating in an unoccupied fast-food building then he would look at the officer's judgment very closely.

The fire service has always been the go-to organization for the public. When people do not know who to call, they call us. This is one of the reasons that we do what we do, because we help people. That is a firefighter! That is a noble calling and why we can walk tall. The only thing that we should remember is that we risk a lot to gain a lot. That risk has been taken by many brother and sister firefighters many times and sometimes it is made with the ultimate sacrifice as a consequence. I always remember that I am a husband, father, and brother and that someone wants me to come home. I take risks with that in the back of my mind, do you?

Michael M. Dugan is a 22-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as the Captain of Ladder Company 123, in Crown Heights Brooklyn. As a Lieutenant, Dugan served in Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx. While assigned as a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, in Spanish Harlem, Firefighter Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY's highest award for bravery. He is also a former volunteer firefighter, with the Halesite Fire Department. He has been involved with the fire service for 32 years. You can reach Michael by e-mail at: or contact him through his website: