Fighting Basement Fires Safely

Nov. 1, 2003
Basement fires are probably the most dangerous structural situations a fire department can face. A basement may or may not have exterior access. It may or may not have more than one window at street level.

The foundation walls in older homes are usually constructed of brick masonry or rubble stone. The stairs leading into the basement are directly under those leading to the upper floors, although in rare instances this may not be so. The framing is most often stick built or conventionally framed.

Many post-World War II homes have rear exterior access doors or front stairs from the street level on side 1. The foundations are usually block or poured concrete, but the floors of the first level will also be constructed with trusses in most cases.

Let's say your unit responds to a reported structure fire and it is apparent upon arrival that you have a working fire in the basement. Clues may include smoke rising from the sidewalk, smoke from the first floor at floor level or visible fire showing from the window at street level. What is your present standard operations plan or guide? Will you attempt to go down the stairs? Does a unit hold at the top of the stairs while another unit attempts to enter from the outside?

For many years, it was standard procedure for my department to make the attack down the interior stairs; that is, until an entire engine company was incinerated. Now we hold at the top of the stairs with a line while the rear companies make the attack. Even this approach is becoming more than unsafe. We had two firefighters killed attempting this maneuver and they were on the first floor of a 19-by-30-foot, two-story rowhouse. Recently, two firefighters entered a dwelling and were in the basement before they knew what went on. Truss construction did them in.

For years, the fire service lacked the technology to place firefighters inside the inferno for very long. This led to slower attacks - not by much, just slower by today's standards. Along came technology with advanced personal protective equipment (PPE) and now firefighters have a tendency to enter the environment of fire much quicker, with a false sense of security. This equipment does not make you invincible.

Back to the scenario. What do you want to do at this point? Most young firefighters want to get the wet stuff in place because they believe that's all that is necessary to put it out and we all go home. However, too many firefighters are not going home. In New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other places, guys went in and didn't come out. Either the fire or the construction got them, but they are still dead.

My approach is for you to consider the following: Why should you go in quickly? Are there credible reports of a victim in that area? Will the fire spread impact rescues being made above? If so, do you have any equipment that would help without you going in? If you send firefighters in, can you get them out? Do you have more than a two-person rapid intervention team? Does the incident commander know building construction? Do the officers understand fire behavior or do they operate by the now-maligned philosophy of sending people in until they are driven out, or worse? Are the officers competent? Can they do a credible size-up? Do they coordinate the operations? Do they ask for help piecemeal or do they request enough additional resources to protect their people? Are your communications always reliable?

If you can't answer yes to all of the above, then consider this: stay out of any building that contains truss construction, no matter how small the fire. Only - and I mean this - if there are credible reports of trapped victims should you enter these death traps. Even then, limit the amount of personnel. Trusses are going to fail. If you have outside entrances, use the biggest line and drown it. There is nothing heroic about entering a two-bit fire and not coming out when you had the tools to keep you from being placed in jeopardy.

Protect the floors above, make searches and rescues, but flood that first floor and hold it. Sure, some diehards will scoff at this, but then they should be the only ones to suffer when the fire doesn't react the way they want it to. In departments already handicapped by understaffed units, whenever the case presents itself that credible rescues won't be needed, slow down and make better decisions regarding priorities.

Not too many years ago, we killed a fire officer when his unit and another entered a grocery store with no victims inside. The units had missed valid clues that the basement was roaring. In fact, one officer mistook rollover to be a gas-fed incident. The floor failed and the officer was gone. This was a predictable outcome and we missed the signs doing what we always do.

We have not invented new ways to kill firefighters; we only continue to perfect the same old foolish ways. As bosses it is our job to ensure that our people go home after a shift. Putting a handline in people's arms and telling them to get down there quickly is not the way. Stay safe.

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University and has degrees in fire science, construction management and public administration. He holds a journeyman's card with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and lectures nationwide on fire service topics, including management, command, rapid intervention, building construction, and strategy and tactics for all types of buildings.

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