Firefighting Operations Within Sealed Buildings

Firefighting is a dangerous undertaking at any time, but if the fire building is a sealed structure then the job becomes inherently more dangerous.

Remember if the structure is sealed it sometimes, although not always, indicates a presently unoccupied building, therefore the potential for victims is low. However, inherent dangers still exist for the firefighters at the scene. Plan and act accordingly! The possibility of becoming lost, trapped or disorientated is real and firefighters need to stay aware of this. Remember firefighter safety first. A building and its contents can always be replaced. The life of a firefighter could be lost forever.

The third type of sealed structure that is often confronted is a vacant sealed structure. These buildings are abandoned or left vacant by their owners and can be unoccupied for years. These sealed structures are hazardous to firefighters as soon as they become uninhabited. The first reason is because of delayed alarms. Another reason is a lack of doors and walls to confine the fire and few barriers to fire extension remain within the building, due to holes in the floor, open pipe recesses and deterioration in general. The environment takes its toll on the structural stability of these buildings due to the effects that climatic changes can have on unprotected structural components.

Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This Multiple Dwelling has folding scissor type gate on the interior of all but one front window. Interior escape would be difficult especially is they are padlocked shut.

These structures are exceptionally dangerous and if they must be entered, do so with extreme caution! Of course the possibility of encountering victims is always present, but the risks to firefighters are much greater. Firefighters can easily become lost, hurt, or trapped anywhere within these buildings. Fires in these vacant buildings are often due to arson, which raises the likelihood of uncontrolled fire growth. Numerous structural problems may also exist. The staircase or individual steps might be missing and floors are sometimes removed from bathrooms in order to salvage copper piping. These structural problems might not be visible from the exterior. The first step in fighting a fire in a vacant sealed structure is to determine if it will be attacked from the interior or exterior of the building. This decision would be based upon the structural stability of the building and the size of the fire problem.

A fire that has started on a lower floor and traveled to an upper floor may only be visible at the upper levels. This is a real concern. It is dangerous to advance to an area where a fire is burning if it is unknown whether the firefighters are operating above an undetected fire. This could trap them in a sealed and hostile environment from which escape would be difficult or impossible. If an interior attack is decided upon, then the search for fire should be started on the lowest floor and continue upward floor by floor. This will reduce the possibility of firefighters being caught unaware by fire burning below them. The possibility of a secondary fire, which might trap firefighters unexpectedly, is always present. Even if all precautions are taken, such as searching the floors before advancing above them, there still must always be a second way out. A member or a team should be assigned the task of doing a 360-degree survey around the fire building's exterior to look for signs of previous fires, especially on the floors directly above or below the present fire attack.

Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This bar sealed Private Dwelling has a different variety of bars. This homeowner has placed his family in their own jail. Removal of bars for rescue will be time consuming.

The number of personnel committed to an interior attack should be kept to minimum and operational time within the structure should be limited to only the time required to extinguish the fire. While interior units are operating, outside forces should be assigned the job of removing any material sealing the structure on the fire floor and at least the floor above. Plywood, stucco over plywood or tin or other sheet metals, are some of sealing materials that might be encountered. This will be a time consuming assignment and if additional manpower is required to complete the task of removing obstructions then call for them immediately. It is safer to call in additional help, if it appears it might be needed, then to not call them and try to catch-up later.