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

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...


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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.