For safety, the time has now come for firefighters to manage floors over basements in the same manner they manage attic spaces.
The United States Fire Administration National Fire Data Center reports that "for a ten year period, 1997-2006, 23.5% of on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred at the scene of structure fires." This significant percentage of firefighter fatalities deserves the close attention of every active firefighter in the country.
Furthermore, if this problem is to be effectively addressed, firefighters must integrate the appropriate type of risk management with incident management at all levels including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities. On the scene, there are two ways this can be done. The first is by routinely focusing on two critical factors during the initial size-up process. In addition to evaluating the smoke and fire showing on arrival, the size and occupancy of the structure and the need to conduct a primary search, the top concern of every firefighter must instinctively be placed on determining:
- Whether the structure has an involved basement and
- Whether the basement fire will expose firefighters to excessive risk
Certain types of structures referred to as "Enclosed Structures" have an enclosed design that lack readily penetrable means of egress through windows or doors and include structures with basements. This specific and extremely dangerous type of structure is killing firefighters at a disproportionate rate and in multiple ways, such as plunging firefighters through fire-weakened floors.
Enclosed spaces such as basements are common and exist in every region of the country but more so in some than in others. It is also quite common for only light smoke to be showing on arrival at these structures when in fact an active fire is involving the basement. This misinterpreted size up factor as well as the use of unsafe tactics on many occasions has lead to line of duty deaths in states including: Indiana, (NIOSH F2006-24), Pennsylvania, (NIOSH F2004-05), Texas, (NIOSH F2005-09), North Carolina, (NIOSH F2002-11), Ohio, (NIOSH F2001-16), Alabama, (NIOSH F2000-26) and Kentucky, (NIOSH F97-04).
To eliminate the risk of falling through a fire-weakened floor and into an involved basement, firefighters must forever heed the following warning: If you routinely respond into areas where basements can be found, you must routinely integrate basement risk management into your daily operations before any firefighter takes one step into the structure. This involves automatically conducting a 360-degree walk around of the structure, with a thermal imager if possible, to initially determine if the structure has a basement and whether it is involved in fire.
Basements may be indicated by the presence of basement windows or doors, a slope of the terrain along the foundation line, a drop off along one side of the structure or by a flight of steps leading to the front or rear door. You may also determine if the structure has a basement by asking an occupant who has exited the structure, by referring to pre-fire plans and, as a last resort, by cutting inspection holes through the floor from safe exterior positions while charged handlines are standing by to aggressively attack any fire that blows out of the opening made. Firefighters are familiar with making inspection holes by pulling ceiling to search for and prevent fire in the attic space from falling behind and trapping advancing firefighters in the structure.
For safety, the time has now come for firefighters to manage floors over basements in the same manner they manage attic spaces. This precaution must be taken because firefighters can no longer gamble with their lives determining whether a fire-weakened floor over an involved basement is strong enough to support the weight of advancing firefighters.