Close Calls: “Get Off the Roof … Now!”

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This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder’s comments follow.

Last summer, our truck company was dispatched on mutual aid to a reported working apartment building fire. As a part of the first-alarm assignment, our truck was the third piece on scene. On arrival, we had a heavy volume of fire showing from the middle of the row – fire blowing out the first- and second-floor windows, truss roof/ordinary construction. The building was a part of a garden apartment complex, approximately 75 by 250 feet, two stories tall.

As we did our size-up, there were no visible signs of fire from the roof area. My assignment was to vent the roof with my company officer. I got to the roof and went farther down the roof to make an inspection cut because I believed the fire had extended. My officer (a lieutenant) went in the other direction, right next to the fire apartment, and vented over an exposure apartment. I made my cut approximately five apartments away from the fire apartment and fire blew out of the hole. At that time, I walked over to tell my company officer that we should get off the roof, the fire has it and it’s time to go, and as I walked over the roof became spongy.

I told him that we needed to get off the roof, it was getting soft and spongy. The officer said no because he felt we needed to make more cuts. I was surprised, so I asked him if he had heard what I had just said. He said yes, we’ll be fine and to keep cutting. I said to him, “Are you crazy? It’s over, the fire has the roof and it’s time to go.” He said no.

At this time, the evacuation signal was sounded and we were ordered off the roof. I was the last person off the roof. By the time I got down off the ground ladder, walked five steps and turned around to take off my facepiece, the entire roof had collapsed. This happened not more than 30 seconds after I had gotten off.

In the 13 years I have been in the fire service, that was the closest call I have ever had. I talked about it afterwards with some firefighters who have more time on the job than me, and everyone said that I should have gotten off the roof myself and the officer would have followed. I stated that I don’t leave anyone behind, whether on the roof or inside. The guys then said to me that if the officer saw me getting off the roof, he would have followed and that he should have not put me in that position. One of the older guys in my department told me that not leaving him behind almost got me killed. Believe me, I will not let myself be put in that position again.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communication with the writer:

Plenty of information is available today on roof operations; in fact, in some areas the thought process on tactical operations on the roof is changing. Some jurisdictions have decided that if there is the slightest chance that it will be dangerous, no firefighters are sent to the roof. That may be a bit extreme. On the other end of that scale are fire departments that send firefighters to the roof (or firefighters wander up there without direction or supervision) in situations that are obviously hazardous.

So, what is the rule? There is no rule. Just like most of what we do on the fireground, there is no “one way” to do the job all the time. The tactics used must be determined based upon many factors that can partially be known through pre-planning and partially become known once the incident commander (or company officer) does a size-up, which continues throughout the incident. The occupancy, rescues/life hazard, construction, roof loads, roof type, access, where the fire was and is, constant input and communications from the crews operating, and where the fire is going are among the numerous factors that must be considered quickly before firefighters are assigned to the roof to open up.

Taking a look at “the big picture” is also critical in the size-up. As a part of the size-up, consider whether the task you are getting ready to order make sense. How will it affect the lives of the firefighters being given the task? What about those inside? What about the overall outcome? In other words, will it matter?

Two recent fires come to mind when thinking about firefighters being assigned to “open up” the roof. One case involved a large-area commercial building of bowstring-truss construction with two very large heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems on one part of the roof. Heavy fire was showing below the roof with heavy, pushing smoke throughout. All civilians had self-evacuated.

With that description, I hope you are thinking that we will not commit firefighters to that roof. Maybe we will direct several tower ladders or related master streams horizontally and have a few ready above for when the fire comes through the roof.

But that’s not what happened. In this case, several firefighters were operating on the roof, working on opening it up. Some wore proper personal protective equipment (PPE), some did not. Some simply stood there while deciding what to do. At one point, fire broke through the roof, and the firefighters continued to watch. At a point way too far into the timing of the incident, the firefighters determined that they would get off the roof. They walked over to a ground ladder and as they got within two feet of it, the fire took the entire roof – within five seconds. All of the firefighters made it, literally, in the nick of time.

Who was looking out for the big picture in that case? No one. Between the construction, the roof load and the fact that everyone was out, with heavy fire and smoke conditions no one should have been assigned to that roof. Actually, the roof construction type alone is enough to determine that we will not commit firefighters to that roof.

Another recent case involved a two-story, single-family dwelling with all occupants out. Heavy fire was coming out two of the four sides of the very large, picture-style windows on the second story. There was no real attic or cockloft, just a bedroom ceiling to the roof with joists.

Upon arrival, two firefighters raised a ground ladder and went to the roof to vent, even though the fire was venting heavily out of two of the four sides of the roof with heavy smoke showing out of all sides. The fire was well vented before they raised their ladder, but because they are trained to “get to the roof,” they did. But no one was looking at the big picture.

The firefighters went to work cutting the roof with a chainsaw. One was masked up, the other was not. As they worked (in a one- to two-minute period) fire was blowing out of all four sides and windows – and they kept cutting. Suddenly, they realized that they were surrounded by fire and black smoke. They quickly headed to their ladder, which was now blocked by the fire blowing out the window. Until this point, no one on the ground – not the incident commander, not a pump operator, no one – saw the situation. As the tense moments continued, a firefighter on the ground noticed their burning ladder and moved it to a different corner, where they just barely escaped by sliding and then jumping down. (A burning ladder? Yes, it was a wooden fire department ladder.)

There were several significant warning signs that could have been used at this fire, but the incident commander – or at least the operations commander – has to see the building in order to see “the big picture.” This was within the first five minutes of the fire and neither the incident commander nor a safety, a command or a chief officer was looking at the crews or the building. These are just two examples of firefighters “just barely” getting off the roof.

The other issue here is the firefighter and the officer disagreeing on when to get off the roof. Sounds like a simple issue, right? If the officer says to get off, who is going to argue? But when a firefighter says to get off, the officer may not agree. Then what do you do?

The best solution is to not have that problem occur. How? Training. If the officer and the members train together on an aggressive and regular basis, they should all reach the same conclusions. And, hopefully, the officer reaches it even sooner due to experience.

In some fire departments, there may or may not be any entry-level or continuing training – and that can then create a problem. For example, imagine that several “gung ho” firefighters do all they can to attend as many training sessions as possible. They go locally as well as nationally to learn as much as they can. They do this because their fire department offers little or no training. They are hungry for training – and they get it on their own.

The problem comes up when they return home. They may be more trained than their officer. That is what happened in this situation. The firefighters had more training than their officer, who did not keep up with issues such as roof operations, but ended up supervising them. Unusual? It isn’t very common, but it does happen, and the solution is to have a department mandated (and department-enforced) program that requires everyone riding the apparatus to attend the same training sessions – together and hopefully available locally.

This particular problem can be compared to a situation in which a football coach is not attending training with the players. It would be unheard of in professional football for the coaches (officers?) not to be there, training on the plays (tactics?) with the players (firefighters?) – but in our business, many times, firefighters attend training – or are required to – while those responsible for their supervision do not participate.

By having a department training program in which everyone participates, the chances of a “rooftop” disagreement are minimized.

Let’s assume that everyone has attended the department training sessions. A good rule of thumb would be that if an experienced and trained firefighter provides the officer with good information, such as in this case, the officer uses that information to the overall advantage and orders the firefighters off the roof. If, after clearing the roof, conditions indicate that firefighters can go back, the carefully evaluated return to that roof can be ordered. If, however, a senior and/or trained firefighter provides information to the officer and that officer chooses to ignore it, the result could be a serious problem. Yes, the officer is clearly in charge and the failure of a member to follow an officer’s order is extremely serious. But when a firefighter says the roof is soft and spongy and it’s time to get off, the failure of that officer to heed and strongly consider that information can also be devastating.

The problem can be eliminated by everyone operating with the attitude that if we are going to respond together, we are going to train together, thus assuring that everyone has the required amount of information needed to do the best in getting everyone back to quarters safely. Simply put, if everyone attends the “roof operations course,” there is a much better chance of everyone agreeing on what to do – and what not to do – when up on the roof. The same applies to nearly all tactical scenarios; if everyone trains, there is a much better chance of everyone agreeing on what to do – and what not to do – when performing a specific task.

Avoid “rooftop arguments” by making sure that everyone going to the roof is well trained and qualified to be operating there, and that there is a mutual respect of the experience and education of all involved, especially by the officer who is ultimately responsible to take care of the crew.

Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters’ own words, can help others avoid similar “close calls.” We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.

We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at chgold151@aol.com.


William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues.

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