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.

Ladder company personnel should be used to assist the engine company by facilitating their advance and operations and should not be assigned to search without the protection of a hose line due to possibility of a rapidly developing fire. Ladder company firefighters should be equipped with hand lights and search ropes along with their assigned tools. They should clear a path for firefighters stretching the hose lines and assist them in gaining access to the seat of the fire. Thermal Imaging Cameras that help locate fire and heat would decrease the time it takes for interior forces to find the seat of the fire. Unfortunately this technology is not available to every fire company, although it should be.

Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This is a commercial occupancy on the first floor with two apartments on the floors above. The sealing of the building will complicate a fire in any of these occupancies.

At times firefighters may encounter what is known as a semi-sealed structure. These are defined as sealed buildings that are lived in by homeless individuals. The access points into these buildings are usually hidden from the public view. In semi-sealed structures firefighters occasionally find evidence of people living in the building. They are now dealing with a potential life hazard. Before committing firefighters to searches in these semi-sealed structures we should have a known and confirmed life hazard in the building and a definite area within the structure on which to concentrate the search. All the other requirements, for safe operations including secondary exits and hose lines are still necessary.

Keep in mind that most vacant buildings usually have a low potential for civilian victims and a large injury risk to firefighters therefore Commanding Officer must take into account the safety of all personnel at the fire scene. Remember that interior operations are not mandated at vacant buildings. Entry into a vacant building is an option not an obligation. Only when conditions are favorable to interior control and extinguishment without unusual risks to our forces should an interior attack be considered.

Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This electronics store has an interior gate, which is raised by a key switch. Getting this gate opened will probably delay the start of operations.

There might be buildings in a response area that is sealed and unique to that response area. New York City has HUD (Housing and Urban Development) sealed buildings and warehoused apartments. In Florida they encounter hurricane shutter and storm resistant glass which makes it very difficult to exit the structure. Self-storage building and telephone exchanges are becoming more common throughout the country. Whatever type of building is in your response area, if it is sealed it should be the subject of visits and drills. Training firefighter on what they might face at a fire in a specific structure will improve the knowledge and safety of responding firefighters.

Sealed buildings, whether residential, commercial or vacant pose enormous risks to firefighters when called to operate at them. For this reason, Standard Operating Procedures should be prepared and strategic plans for fires within in these buildings should be established. Firefighters are called to duty to protect life and property but in doing so a firefighters life must come first. Firefighters deserve ongoing training in order to learn how to operate safely within these dangerous structures. More importantly, they need to have the ability to recognize when not to.

Michael M. Dugan is a 17-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as a Captain of Ladder 123 in Brooklyn?s Crown Heights. He has been involved with the Fire Service for 27 years. He is also a ?HOT? instructor at the ?Firehouse Expo.? He is a contributing editor to ?Firehouse? magazine. While assigned as a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY?s highest award for bravery.

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