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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.