Overhaul & Salvage: Part 2

The best way to minimize water damage is strict control of all hoselines. This is easily accomplished on a minor fire but difficult when multiple streams are operating at different locations within a building.

The basic rule when operating a hoseline is to open the nozzle when fire is encountered and close it after the fire has been knocked down. The exception is a fog stream used to ventilate an area through a window or door opening. This ventilation can cause a smoldering fire to ignite. Firefighters can extinguish the fire with the back up hoseline or they can redirect the nozzle being used for ventilation to quickly extinguish the fire.

Basements should be checked for any accumulation of water. If such an accumulation is found, pumps should be used to remove it. Stock on the floor can be elevated to minimize damage.

Water accumulated on floors or roofs can create a dangerous situation. Prompt action should be taken to relieve water buildup. An immediate size-up can determine the best method of removal. Are there floor drains or scuppers to remove the accumulated water? An inspection may reveal that these systems may only need the drains to be cleared of debris to facilitate water removal.

We don’t want a problem of water accumulation on a floor of a building to be solved by filling a basement with water. When removing water from a multi-storied building, start on the first floor and work upward to prevent a buildup of water on the lower floors.

Overhaul Tools

A variety of tools can be utilized during overhauling. A pike pole or ceiling hook can be used for pulling of lath and plaster ceilings. Plaster board or drywall ceilings have tools that can effectively open large areas to check behind or above the concealed spaces.

A prying tool con be used to open baseboards and moldings around doors and windows. The proven tools are the halligan, claw tool and axe but many new lightweight tools can facilitate these operations.

A particular concern of firefighters performing overhaul is dust. Dust can commonly be found in woodworking shops, grain elevators, bakeries and many other industrial occupancies. Combustible dust lying on a heated surface is subject to ignition due to carbonization of the dust. A cloud of combustible dust can be explosive. This occurs when the dust particles in the cloud are raised to their ignition temperature and come into contact with a source of ignition.

Once ignited, dust can smolder for long periods. Overhauling areas where there is a smoldering dust fire demands a close examination to ensure extinguishment. This must include examination of exposed beams, rafters, ledges and other flat surfaces in industrial occupancies commonly associated with dust. (A fire I had at the U.S. Mint involved smoldering metal dust that had accumulated over many years on flat surfaces high above the machinery. The fire was not spectacular and received little press coverage yet it took a prolonged overhauling and hard work to ensure complete extinguishment).

Water will extinguish most dust fires and moisture will raise the ignition temperature of the dust. When operating hose streams around dust, avoid creating dust clouds. Fog nozzles should be used.

The most dangerous hazard associated with dust is explosion. Dust explosions usually occur in pairs. The initial explosion may not cause substantial damage but it displaces dust that has rested on flat surfaces, creating a large dust cloud. If there is sufficient heat, a secondary explosion can occur. This secondary explosion is usually devastating.

We normally associate dust explosions with grain elevators in rural areas. They can and have occurred in urban areas. A grain elevator exploded with the force of 1,100 pounds of dynamite in Philadelphia, killing three people and injuring 86 others.

Safety Measures

Many firefighters are injured in the overhauling stages due to fatigue and dangerous conditions. Common injuries include:

Portable lighting should be utilized when overhauling building interiors during both day and night operations. Apparatus spotlights can illuminate a building’s exterior at nighttime operations. Lighting enhances the efficiency of the operation while assisting in the overall safety effort.

Interior doors can be removed and placed over holes burnt in the floor to prevent firefighter injuries during the overhauling stages. Door removal also permits firefighters the freedom to move through door openings unimpeded.

Care must be exercised that the overhauling process doesn’t endanger firefighters. Knocking down bottles or throwing around cans could release flammable or dangerous chemicals, causing a chemical reaction or explosive fire. This is especially true in properties that use these materials in their processes or have them in stock. Containers may have been damaged or weakened by the effects of the fire or water used during extinguishment. (During the final stages of overhaul at one particular fire, the engine company was washing down the area and a drum was knocked over; its contents ignited and five additional alarms were needed to control the ensuing fire.)

There may be a need to set up a fireground detail or watch to ensure that the fire has been fully extinguished. This is often necessary in structures that have experienced some collapse and smoldering debris may be buried. Remember, if a dangerous situation exists that could be a threat to the safety of the firefighters, it is best to step back and study the situation. The solution must consider the best and safest method of extinguishment and not how quickly it can be done.

There is a strong desire for occupants and owners to re-enter the fire building. It may be to view the damage or collect valuable items such as money, jewelry or medicine. During active operations, no one should be permitted to re-enter; they could be injured or impede operations. There is also the need to preserve the scene for the fire marshal. If you deem it necessary, a firefighter can be assigned to retrieve the valuables. A police officer should be involved to ensure that the articles are given to the rightful owners and that everything is intact (anyone can claim to be the occupant).

If people are observed removing items from a fire building or exposed building, a police officer should assure that they are the owners of the items being removed. If the origin of the fire is suspicious, no one should be permitted entry and the police should secure the scene for the fire marshal when the fire department has completed its operations.

Salvage Operations

Preventing additional damage can be accomplished by employing salvage operations as early as possible. One easy method is removing items from the path of heat and water. This can be done by taking down curtains in a nearby exposure or moving material from the path of water runoff, and placing salvage covers over valuable items.

Many fire departments have found that in addition to salvage covers, carrying rolls of plastic sheeting is an excellent tool for salvage operations. The plastic can be left in place after firefighters have left the scene to guarantee that items are continuously protected. It can also be used to cover window, door and roof openings.

In commercial properties, materials in direct contact with the flames should be removed. Other stock can be protected by salvage covers or sheet plastic. If there is considerable stock on shelving that has been damaged due to heat, it can be inspected and if deemed safe can be left there. The items can be checked more than once to ascertain that no problem exists. If there is any doubt the items should be removed to the exterior.

Forklift trucks can facilitate the quick removal of stock either to the exterior or to another part of the building. This includes baled material, rolls of paper and pallets of material. Fire-damaged goods can be taken to the exterior for overhauling.

Though a fire may be contained to one room, damage and cleanup may be considerable. It can leave the building uninhabitable. In colder climates the heating plant may be needed to prevent further damage from sub-freezing temperatures that can cause pipes to burst. Once the building has been cleared by the fire marshal, local utility personnel can assist in restoring electricity and placing the heating plant back into operation. If this cannot be accomplished, the water supply to the building should be shut off to prevent further damage.

General Rules

  • A fire officer should supervise the overhauling process. His or her responsibility is to ensure that all suspected areas are opened and that firefighters operate in a safe manner as a team. Teamwork will minimize damage.

  • A fire officer must use his or her judgment when opening a wall or ceiling. If char or fire is found, a larger hole should be made. If cobwebs are discovered, it indicates that fire has not extended to that area since the heat of the fire would have destroyed them.

  • Floors above a fire area can be checked for fire extension by removing the baseboards and checking the area behind them.

  • Prevent unnecessary water damage by controlling water lines. Use fog streams to minimize water runoff. Avoid leaking couplings on hoselines. During freezing weather, nozzles must be kept flowing to prevent hoselines from freezing.

  • Salvage must be a constant consideration. The goal is to restore the property to the state it was in prior to the fire.

  • If an item is not damaged, place it aside to protect it. Many items may not have a significant dollar value but can be irreplaceable family heirlooms.

  • Once the utilities have been turned off, the fire department should not turn them back on. The local utility company should be called to restore them.

  • When overhauling, be alert for signs of arson. If arson is suspected, minimize overhauling until the fire marshal can inspect the fire scene.

  • Before leaving the scene, all roof, window and door openings should be sealed to prevent the weather from causing additional damage.


Our goal is to bring the emergency to a rapid conclusion while preserving civilian life and protecting the firefighters operating at the scene. We should attempt to restore the property to the condition that it was in prior to the fire. A fire officer can accomplish this by supervising the overhauling and salvage stages. Some forethought will assist in the overall implementation of both operations. It will better protect the building and contents, will avoid duplication of effort while achieving better results.

The goal of overhauling is to ensure that all fire has been completely extinguished while minimizing further damage to the structure. It is not just wetting down of a fire area but a thorough investigation. Take the time to explain to the occupant or property owner the reason the fire department caused certain damage during overhaul operations.

Firefighters are looked to whenever problems arise. Our hard work has earned us a special place in our communities. We assist those in need during their worst times. This assistance doesn’t take into account the income status of the recipients. In fact, the less affluent usually need our assistance the greatest. They often do not have sufficient insurance to cover the damage caused by their emergency. The best part is that the firefighter gets a feeling of accomplishment through a simple, yet earnest thank you or the smile of a grateful child.

James P. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department and an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD.