When discussing strategic and tactical considerations for structural fires, one hot-button issue that divides many incident commanders is the use of “Bilco” doors. When they say Bilco, most people in the fire service are referring to below-grade access hatches that allow for normal access in and out of basement and cellar spaces, but this term is more known as the trade name; the actual assembly is serving as a bulkhead door for specific levels of the building (see Photo 1). For our discussion, we will stick to the below-grade bulkhead assemblies that are found in residential and commercial occupancies. What divides the fire service regarding this topic is the actual use of the assembly during a fire:
• Do we use it to gain access to the basement/cellar?
• Do we use it to provide ventilation from the space?
• Do we avoid it altogether?
I am a firm believer that two words that are seldom used in a discussion of fireground strategy and tactics are the words “never” and “always.” When it comes to bulkhead doors, many strategists will perch on the “always” and “never” side of the argument; however, each incident sets forward a compilation of problems and considerations that must be made and, somewhere during the incident, these assemblies may provide support to bring the incident to a successful conclusion.
The bulkhead door assembly comes in many shapes and sizes; some are flush-mount with doors that open on each side, some are angled doors that are mounted along the foundation and sill for the below-grade entrance and there are even flat-door mounting assemblies that mount into a masonry foundation plate that is set on an angle into a building’s foundation. It is important to note the style of mounting that fastens the door assembly to the structure so your crews will be able to defeat the assembly for use during the incident.
Most new assemblies are made from steel. Inherent issues that come with steel assemblies that are exposed to the elements include oxidation and deterioration of materials, build-up of rust and scaling on moving parts and pivot parts and frozen/inoperable assemblies that will require significant efforts to defeat. Additionally, security devices that are put on the inside of these doors may be multiple in numbers, requiring a large amount of time and energy to gain access to these assemblies. With this in mind, many officers will find it easier to defeat the entire assembly and remove it from its foundation, rather than spend considerable time and effort to defeat the door assemblies.
Fire Attack Considerations
There are many tasks that need to be performed at a working fire, but there are six significant tasks that must be done within the first few critical minutes of the alarm: forcible entry, search, suppression, ventilation, command and rapid intervention. Bulkhead door assemblies may serve as viable solutions to some of these tasks.
Many fire departments utilize these assemblies as access points to below-grade areas during a fire involving that floor. One of the most dangerous assignments a firefighter can be assigned is the area above a fire. When companies stretch into the main floor to attack a basement or cellar fire, it exposes a firefighter directly to the dangers and hazards associated with these assignments, since companies are mounting their suppression operations on the floor above the fire. From a firefighting point of view, a basement or cellar is the most dangerous area inside of the building. More firefighters are killed and injured battling cellar fires than operating at incidents involving upper-floor fires. Stretching attack lines through the interior of the building will expose the company to all of the intense heat, toxic smoke and other products of combustion that are racing up the stairway, which is acting like a chimney for the fire.
However, stretching through the bulkhead doors have a variety of hazards that the crew might encounter: