What They DIDN’T Teach You In Fire School

Ron Baran discusses the importance of learning to be flexible and able to adapt to any situation, as textbook maneuvers are just a guide.


Many years ago, on the last day of training at rookie firefighter school, one of our instructors gathered the class together for a last-minute pep talk. This instructor was the youngest of our six teachers and he was the one that we most related to. He sat on a desk in front of the class and told us...


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When helpful neighbors claim that there is nobody inside the fire building, that the residents are at work or at school, do a primary search anyway. They can be wrong. People stay home from work or from school when they are not feeling well. There may be overnight guests or visitors that the neighbors are not aware of. Many victims have been found when “There is no one home.”

“Unnecessary” Damage?

Years ago, salvage or protection companies were started up by insurance companies that wanted to lower the monetary losses being suffered by policyholders due to excessive fire or water damage. This mentality was also present in the fire service. Our first mission is to save and to protect lives and then to try to save or to protect their property and possessions. We have all been taught that, whenever possible, not to make any unnecessary damage such as holes or openings in the structure, to remove or to open screens and windows without breaking them when the situation permits it. Unnecessary damage is frowned upon.

Today, new construction is often lightweight and quickly assembled for the economic benefits. The use of trusses and prefabricated building components are the most common methods of saving time and building costs. Whenever we are faced with a fire in a building’s structure that we suspect has lightweight or prefabricated building components, then we are justified in making “unnecessary” damage.

Damage in the form of exploration or observation holes is a must. To determine what the structure of the fire building is composed of, we must expose its skeleton. By removing the plasterboard and the insulation, if any, we will have a clear view of the building’s structural components. These exploration holes must be made in a smoke-free area when possible, where the visibility will be at its best.

Upon entering a fire building that we suspect was built with pre-fabricated components, we should open up an entrance hallway or foyer ceiling. This will enable us to gather vital information about the building’s construction before advancing farther toward any possible dangers. This information will help us to determine the strategy and the tactics that will be used in fighting this fire. By knowing that pre-fabricated floor/ceiling trusses are employed in the construction, we will now be aware of any sudden collapse dangers before deciding to venture into a zero visibility area. The damage caused by these observation holes is minimal in monetary costs, but will pay enormous dividends in accident prevention and life safety.

When combating a structural fire, the stripping of the plasterboard or gypsum board is a necessary tactic in order for us to expose and then to extinguish the advancing fire. The concept of just how much to remove and when to stop removing plasterboard is something that most young firefighters are not properly taught. Either too much plasterboard is removed, creating excessive damage, or not enough of the buildings internal structure is exposed, thus allowing the fire to spread unchecked.

The argument that is most often encountered is, that since the ceiling has been already ruined, why not continue and to remove all of the ceiling’s plasterboard? This argument can be countered with, why waste valuable physical energy and time doing a redundant chore? Why must we increase our risk of having an accident happen by creating a cluttered and hazardous work environment?

There are proper methods to employ when opening up walls, ceilings or floors to extinguish a fire or to stop its advance. The most efficient is to remove the plasterboard, wall paneling or any other decorative finish covering the structure to expose wooden framework. The stripping of walls, floors or ceilings must continue until there is no longer any evidence of visible fire, charred wood or heat-affected areas. Wall coverings must be stripped back to at least three feet past the last point of charring or heat staining to assure that the fire has not spread beyond this point. Only after an area of natural wood has been exposed can we safely stop the stripping of the wall or ceiling coverings.