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Our tower ladder company (quint) was dispatched to assist a neighboring community for a working building fire. The call came in after midnight and our on-duty crew of four responded with our battalion chief. I was the officer of the rig. While responding, information was relayed to us (from one of our off-duty officers who was at the scene in an unofficial capacity) that the fire was in a building approximately 100 years old, 50 feet wide in the front and rear with 80-foot sides. There was a restaurant on the main floor, apartments on the second floor and an open cockloft.
The fire was advancing and first-due units had been there for 11/2 hours prior to our dispatch. We were advised that the fire was extending into the cockloft and the roof needed to be ventilated. Our assignment was to lay our five-inch supply line to an engine in the rear as we approached and get to the roof and ventilate it.
On arrival, we could see the rear with considerable fire that appeared to be on the first floor, extending to the second floor and cockloft. We dropped the supply line to the engine in the rear of the structure and turned to the scene. The front of the structure had two large picture windows on both sides of the entrance and three windows on the second floor. The second-floor windows were not taken out yet and a positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fan was blowing into the front entrance door.
While the crew set the tower ladder in place and gathered tools, I reported to the command post. There, the off-duty officer from our department (observing the fire in no official capacity) stated that the roof needed venting and firefighters were on the second floor, further stating the fire was getting into the cockloft. I never made contact with the incident commander.
As I returned to the truck, I brought our crew around the front entrance, shut down the PPV fan and took one firefighter to the roof with a chain saw, a circular saw with a multipurpose blade and axes. We reached the roof and found it in good condition. It was at this point that the mistakes started to happen.
As we got onto the roof, I thought to myself that I should put my mask on and advised the firefighter with me to do the same. My reasoning was that if we fell through, we would want to have them on. We donned our masks and started to find the place to cut. Remember, this was a mutual aid run and radio communications were not well coordinated. The department we assisted had a different frequency than we did, but communications were being relayed by the off-duty officer who was at the command post.
We went to the location in the back of the building where we had seen the fire on arrival. The fire was contained to that area and crews on the first floor had their 21/2-inch lines into the fire, while the second-floor crew had an 13/4-inch line. Smoke was coming over the rear (east) edge and obscuring our view. We backed off the edge and went to the center to find the "spongy area" without success. I then made the decision to just get something open for the guys on the inside. We started to make our cuts in the center of the building. We found the roof joists and it became just a vent job from there. By this time, other firefighters were making it to the roof, including the turntable operator.
At this point, the off-duty officer was calling me on the radio. I approached the front of the structure to make contact with him visually as well as by radio. He asked if we could reach the front windows of the second floor and take them out. I did this with a long pike pole. While I was doing this, the other firefighters were finishing the cutting and more air bottles were being brought up to us.