When I was writing my previous article, “What They DIDN’T Teach You in Fire School” (March), I made a list of the different tricks that I wanted to share with Firehouse® readers. The more that I thought about the subject, the longer the list became. I soon realized that I would not be able to include all of my thoughts in one article. Therefore, what follows is a continuation of techniques that only experience can teach.
As a battalion chief, I am responsible for all the firefighters and officers in my firehouses. In a large city this means that the turnover of personnel is never ending due to retirements, new hiring, transfers to and from other stations, and new officer promotions. I make it a point to meet with every new person who comes onto our team. I welcome them and get to know a little about their background. I make an extra effort with newly promoted officers. These officers are now facing new challenges and greater responsibilities than ever before. When talking with rookie officers, I always try to remember what my thoughts and feelings were when I was in their place.
My main concern is to help make their transition easier. I always start by outlining their responsibility for the health and safety of their teams. Next, I explain the enormous responsibilities and powers that have been delegated to them as fire officers. They could evacuate any size building without question, block any major highway if they deem it necessary, call in multiple alarms and manpower with a simple radio code, and break down almost anyone’s door with just cause.
How I use this power properly was learned through my experiences and by learning from the wiser senior officers. They don’t teach this subject in fire school.
Follow Your Nose
Once, while I was a junior officer, my crew and I were dispatched to a call for a strange smell in an older downtown apartment building. Investigating the cause of the smell led us to the rear of the first-floor hallway, where we found a locked, unidentified door with a strange mechanical sound. A slight burning odor was coming from behind the door. No tenant or manager was available to unlock the door or identify what was behind it. While my crew looked for another way past this door, I wondered if we should force open the door. I thought about the damage we might cause and about the consequences of these actions. What if it was nothing? How would we then explain the damage? Was I allowed to break down a door just because of my suspicions?
As I was pondering this dilemma, my battalion chief arrived. I explained the situation to him and his answer was, if you have any suspicion about a possible danger, then that is sufficient to later justify your actions. Our mandate is to protect the lives and the safety of our fellow citizens. Any threat or danger gives us a just cause to investigate further. We forced the door open and found that it led to the basement furnace room. Inside, we found that the noise and the smell were being caused by the furnace’s blower motor. A rubber pulley belt was disintegrating and heating up. But the clincher in this situation was that we found leaking heating fuel accumulating in a pool at the base of the furnace blower. There had been a real possibility that this fuel would have eventually caught on fire.
My lesson on that day is one that I still teach new officers today: if you have a suspicion and can justify your actions, then you have just cause.
We have all pulled ceilings as firefighters. We were taught that it is usually very simple – stick the hook in, twist and pull. What we were not taught was that if you pull the ceiling at the wrong time, or in the wrong manner, a disaster can happen. Many materials can be found in the make-up of a ceiling. The most common materials used today are sheets of gypsum board or squares of acoustic tiling that are used in false or floating ceilings. In older buildings, we can still find plaster on wooden laths or even embossed metal tiles being used as ceiling coverings. All of these materials are held in place by the use of simple connecting devices. Nails, screws, wire or glue may be all that is stopping this enormous ceiling mass from crashing down on our heads.
The safest and proper way to start pulling a ceiling is to stand in a doorway, under the doorframe, and then pull the part of the ceiling that is in front of you. Once that you have removed a portion of the ceiling safely, you may advance to underneath the stripped area and continue pulling the rest of the ceiling. The advantage of this technique is that if a large portion or possibly the entire ceiling collapses from the pulling action of your pike pole, you would not be standing directly underneath. Each year, many firefighters suffer head, neck and spinal column injuries from sudden ceiling collapses.
Another advantage of this method is that the exit is always behind you if you need to make a sudden retreat. Always use eye protection such as visors or goggles to protect yourself from falling debris and try not to look up as the pieces are falling. This way, if a heavy piece falls on you, your helmet – and not your face – will take most of the impact.
Pulling false, or “floating,” ceilings presents another type of danger to firefighters. These ceilings are usually composed of two-foot-square acoustic tiles held in place by thin metal channels or frames. These channels are held above the floor by thin wires nailed or screwed to the building’s structure. If too many firefighters try pulling this type of ceiling at the same time, they can cause a total ceiling collapse and possibly become trapped and entangled in its network of wire and metal.
The proper way to open up this type of ceiling is to push the tiles up and to the side so that they rest on the metal channels. Or, you can let them fall through the framework to the floor. If you must remove the framework of channels and wiring, it should not be done hastily. Use wire or bolt cutters and then place the removed sections of the framing a safe distance from your working area. This will prevent you from becoming entangled and provide you a safe passage in and out of the work area.
Another danger is that these ceilings conceal the voids that are above them. Sometimes, these voids can contain the building’s technical services such as heating and cooling ducts, electrical wiring or plumbing. At other times, these voids can conceal only the building’s main structural components or older, but higher ceilings. The danger is that these voids can also hide fire or combustible gases. Hidden gases above our heads can cause a sudden backdraft or flashover the moment a tile is removed and oxygen or fresh air is introduced into the void.
Before entering a large area covered by these tiles where you suspect a fire to be hiding, push aside one or two of these tiles and verify the conditions in the void space. As you move down a corridor or deeper into a room, periodically remove a few tiles ahead of your advance. This way, you will always be aware of the conditions and potential dangers around you.
What’s Around You?
Being aware of your surroundings is one of the keys to survival on the fireground. Information is power. A standard operating procedure (SOP) at all fires requires a primary search for victims to be done as soon as possible whenever there is a potential danger to life. We search the fire floors and those above. The lower floors are a lesser priority. When the fire is on the first floor, such as in a one- or two-level ranch-style dwelling, the basement is usually checked only after the suppression of the fire. This area typically is checked for water damage or to gain access to the utilities.
Experience, however, teaches us that there are many reasons for checking the basements earlier during a fire. If a fire gets out of control and we must change our tactics to an offensive attack, we have lost the opportunity to assure that all possible victims have been located. Children often hide in familiar places such as a family room. Anyone using a home sauna would have difficulty hearing a smoke alarm or smelling smoke from a fire. People could be in the basement at the outset of the fire and be trapped or unaware of the danger above them. There could be someone sleeping or living in an undeclared apartment in this lower area. I have seen many unregistered day-care or other businesses set up in residential basements.
It is especially important to verify these lower areas when no owner or tenant is on the scene to tell us what we may find there. Neighbors are not reliable in these matters because they don’t always know what goes on in the house next door. Other hidden surprises that can be found are animals, illegal drug laboratories, stored chemicals, compressed gases, munitions and arms, and even adult “playgrounds” such as soundproof dungeons. The knowledge of what is below the fire is just as valuable as knowing what is above it.
The “Odds Factor”
Another lesson that is not taught in fire schools is the “Odds Factor.” If you respond to the same address often for false or nuisance alarms, the odds are increased that the next call will be the real thing. Complacency kills. It happens to all of us at some time or other. We become complacent with the routine calls. Listen to your fellow firefighters as they respond to a known address and you will hear them mumbling something like “it’s going to be another false alarm” or “it’s food on the stove again.”
Every call should be considered and treated as the “Big One” until proven otherwise. One of the best training aids on this subject is the American Heat Video Magazine, Volume 9, October 1994, titled, “750 Adams Street.” In this video, a “routine” alarm at this known address suddenly turns into a living hell and ends tragically for several members of the Memphis Fire Department. It teaches us to never take anything for granted.
Routine, or “nuisance,” calls are not all false alarms. Usually, a valid reason can be found for the fire department being sent out of quarters. Some can be honest misinterpretations by neighbors about a fellow tenant’s cooking habits. Many are caused by defective fire alarms or sprinkler systems. Others can be justified only after a long and meticulous investigation.
Few smaller or older buildings have alarm panels that indicate the cause of an alarm or even its exact location. Therefore, a search of the entire building must be done to look for any fire or smoke. Fire is not always visible, nor will we see or smell smoke every time. Occasionally, we will return to the firehouse and list the call as having been a false or defective alarm, only to be called back later and be met with a fire in its full stage of growth.
A trick that I often share with my fellow firefighters when seeking the cause of a fire alarm that has activated mysteriously is to properly search the different areas of the building. First, if there is no zone or any specific floor indicated on the alarm panel, then all levels must be verified. Second, all doors are to be felt for heat by hand. If they are locked, the searching firefighters should apply pressure to the door and sniff between the door and doorframe. Many doors are airtight and smoke can remain inside of an apartment or office undetected by those in the hallway. Nearly all doors have a fraction of an inch of play when they are pressed against, and that could be just enough to let us smell any smoke that may be on the other side.
That lesson was learned after a call to a residential building for “a fire alarm in operation.” When firefighters arrived, the fire alarm bell was ringing. While they verified the zone indicated on the alarm panel, the bell was suddenly silenced and the panel showed only a trouble signal in the original zone. When the firefighters saw the trouble light, they stopped their search and returned to quarters, concluding that the detection system was defective. The next day, a tenant was found dead in an apartment. He had died of asphyxiation in his sleep. Later, it was learned that a heat detector inside one apartment had activated the alarm due to a sofa fire. As the fire burned itself out, the ambient temperature in the apartment decreased. The heat detector then reset itself and silenced the alarm bell, leaving only the trouble light flashing. The search should have continued after the alarm bell had fallen silent, and all the doors should have been verified for the presence of heat or smoke. Perhaps then, the outcome of that call would have been different.
Not everything can be learned from a textbook or taught in the classroom. Certain smells, sounds or conditions can only be recognized firsthand. They can never be accurately described in words.
Experience is personal and it is gained over time. However, experience must be shared if we wish to advance our profession. Remember, “Experience comes before the lesson.”
Ron Baran is a battalion chief and 29-year veteran with the City of Montreal Fire Safety Service. He is a certified Fire Prevention Technician and has taught and lectured on various fire fighting subjects nationally and internationally. Baran has developed numerous fire and safety programs, public education videos and training courses. He is also a member of several national and international firefighting organizations and has served on the board of directors of an international fire training service. Baran is also a media specialist for his fire service.