Basement Fires Present Unique Challenges

BALTIMORE – Perhaps the most troubling and potentially deadly fires firefighters face are those found in the basement. Because fire goes everywhere it wants, and it loves to go up, basement fires are often the most challenging of all.

That’s why John Lewis, a retired lieutenant from Passaic, N.J., and Robert Moran, chief of Brewster, Mass., Fire Rescue, dedicated an entire class to the topic at this year’s Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.

“When there’s a report of fire in the basement, firefighters need to take a hard look at the building before deciding to go in,” Moran told the standing room only class.

Lewis asked the question about when size-up should being on any fire. One participant shouted out "yesterday" as the answer.

“Very good,” Lewis said. “That’s exactly right. Size up started before the fire even happens.”

Showing an image of what appeared to be a modest single-family ranch-style home with a charge of gray smoke come from various parts of the structure, Lewis pointed out a feature was largely unnoticed.

“Take a look at the power going into that building,” Lewis said, pointing out an electrical service that had its own utility pole with what appeared to be three-phase power entering the building. “It turns out there was a commercial printing press in the basement,” Lewis said. “That’s why it’s important to know your community and know the hazards before the fire.”

The presentation that was fast paced and interactive, Lewis and Moran showed slides and quizzed the audience of what they would do if faced with situations like the ones represented in the projected images.

Showing what appeared to be a car fire in a below-grade garage, Lewis said that from the front, it looks like the fire was knocked down and the incident commander could report the fire was under control. A view from across the street told a completely different story as the back of the two-story building was nearly fully involved.

“As the commander is reporting the fire is knocked down, the next due company is reporting the house is lit up like the sun,” Lewis said, driving home a point that a 360-degree walk around is essential to determine the tactics used in the firefight.

“Early detection of a below grade fire will determine the strategy and tactics used on the fire scene,” Lewis said.

It’s difficult to second guess whether it’s a good idea to go in and fight a fire in a basement or to go into a defensive mode and fight it from the outside.

“As long as everyone goes home, the chief made the right decision,” Lewis said. “It all comes down to the quality of the information the chief gets that determines if we go in or we fight it defensively.”

Some particular hazards of basement fires include occupancy in finished areas, and sometimes illegal apartments, Moran said. Balloon frame construction which allows the fire to travel in both vertical and horizontal planes virtually unchecked. That means a fire in the basement can be in the attic too without any fire breaking out in the first or second floor.

Lightweight construction, with fabricated trusses and gusset plates stapled into the wood a quarter of an inch means floors can collapse in six minutes or less after fire impingement, Moran said, adding that typical “legacy” construction could typically could withstand at least 20 minutes of fire before the risk of collapse.

“In some cases, you’re not even at the fire station in six minutes,” Moran said.

Other hazards of basement fires, Moran said include tile and terrazzo floors that are very heavy and can collapse on firefighters working in the basement. Terrazzo is a composite material that is poured in place like cement and places a load on the floor that may not be immediately recognized.

Hoarding conditions should also be considered when determining whether to go into a basement fire or not, Moran said. The fire load on the floor above can mean quicker collapse in a basement fire event and can be a danger to those in the basement or those on the first floor above, sending firefighters into the basement, he said.

Commercial structures can present unique challenges as well, especially if they’re multi-use structures, Moran said. Each unit can have its own load on the floor and commercial buildings can have common basements and cock lofts, he said, presenting their own challenges.

Lewis said there are some structures that have different kinds of below grade spaces, but all have voids which need to be checked for fire extensions.

Some buildings have crawl spaces where services, like cable television lines, and plumbing are used for storage of lawnmowers and all kinds of property, according to Lewis. Some have spaces that are above and below the grade and some, like split-level homes and walk out basements can have different points of entry. Firefighters will often have difficulty articulating what floor they are on, Lewis said, noting that the first floor on the A side could be at grade, but around the back, on the C side, there could be one or two floors below grade.

“Make sure you know where you are at all times in case you need to call a MAYDAY,” Lewis said, noting there have been line of duty deaths because firefighters could not immediately identify what floor they were on when they got in trouble.

That’s why both Lewis and Moran repeated over and over, that firefighters need to have information from all sides of the building and report it back to command. It’s critical to making decisions.

And, closing with the age-old adage: “risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little and risk nothing to save nothing,” Lewis said.

“Know what you are getting into before you get in there,” Lewis said. “It’s OK to close the door and; ‘say we’re not getting this one.’ It’s OK to go defensive and it’s a good day when everyone goes home.”