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...
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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.