Not for a Piece of Property

Feb. 14, 2008
William Mora offers risk management principles to evaluate the risk of fighting structure fires. Factors include the presence of basements, fire conditions, defensive attacks, life safety and more.

For safety, the time has now come for firefighters to manage floors over basements in the same manner they manage attic spaces.

The United States Fire Administration National Fire Data Center reports that "for a ten year period, 1997-2006, 23.5% of on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred at the scene of structure fires." This significant percentage of firefighter fatalities deserves the close attention of every active firefighter in the country.

Furthermore, if this problem is to be effectively addressed, firefighters must integrate the appropriate type of risk management with incident management at all levels including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities. On the scene, there are two ways this can be done. The first is by routinely focusing on two critical factors during the initial size-up process. In addition to evaluating the smoke and fire showing on arrival, the size and occupancy of the structure and the need to conduct a primary search, the top concern of every firefighter must instinctively be placed on determining:

  1. Whether the structure has an involved basement and
  2. Whether the basement fire will expose firefighters to excessive risk

Enclosed Structures
Certain types of structures referred to as "Enclosed Structures" have an enclosed design that lack readily penetrable means of egress through windows or doors and include structures with basements. This specific and extremely dangerous type of structure is killing firefighters at a disproportionate rate and in multiple ways, such as plunging firefighters through fire-weakened floors.

Enclosed spaces such as basements are common and exist in every region of the country but more so in some than in others. It is also quite common for only light smoke to be showing on arrival at these structures when in fact an active fire is involving the basement. This misinterpreted size up factor as well as the use of unsafe tactics on many occasions has lead to line of duty deaths in states including: Indiana, (NIOSH F2006-24), Pennsylvania, (NIOSH F2004-05), Texas, (NIOSH F2005-09), North Carolina, (NIOSH F2002-11), Ohio, (NIOSH F2001-16), Alabama, (NIOSH F2000-26) and Kentucky, (NIOSH F97-04).

To eliminate the risk of falling through a fire-weakened floor and into an involved basement, firefighters must forever heed the following warning: If you routinely respond into areas where basements can be found, you must routinely integrate basement risk management into your daily operations before any firefighter takes one step into the structure. This involves automatically conducting a 360-degree walk around of the structure, with a thermal imager if possible, to initially determine if the structure has a basement and whether it is involved in fire.

Basements may be indicated by the presence of basement windows or doors, a slope of the terrain along the foundation line, a drop off along one side of the structure or by a flight of steps leading to the front or rear door. You may also determine if the structure has a basement by asking an occupant who has exited the structure, by referring to pre-fire plans and, as a last resort, by cutting inspection holes through the floor from safe exterior positions while charged handlines are standing by to aggressively attack any fire that blows out of the opening made. Firefighters are familiar with making inspection holes by pulling ceiling to search for and prevent fire in the attic space from falling behind and trapping advancing firefighters in the structure.

For safety, the time has now come for firefighters to manage floors over basements in the same manner they manage attic spaces. This precaution must be taken because firefighters can no longer gamble with their lives determining whether a fire-weakened floor over an involved basement is strong enough to support the weight of advancing firefighters.

If smoke or fire from a basement is detected, everyone on the fireground and enroute must immediately be advised by radio or on arrival and no one should be allowed to enter the structure at the outset or thereafter if the floor has been determined to be unstable. For safety, the assumption must also be made that the floor is about to collapse until proven otherwise.

Firefighters must also bear in mind that although a lightweight wooden truss will collapse suddenly at any time after the trusses have been exposed to fire, any wooden beam of any dimension supporting the floor will also eventually burn through and cause the floor and furnishings to collapse when exposed to fire for a sufficient amount of time. And that time may have transpired well before your arrival.

Since the traditional, quick and aggressive interior attack does not always work in these types of structures and in fact repeatedly result in tragic outcomes, integrate risk management into your operations. Train your firefighters in the use of safe enclosed structure tactics which include basements and learn to conduct primary searches in such a way that specifically avoids the risk associated with these high-risk, high-frequency types of structure fires linked to firefighter fatalities.

Integrating Risk Management by Using Warranted Defensive Attacks
A second way to address the structural fatality problem is by using sound officer judgment at every structure fire. The reasoning during the emergency must be based on the danger encountered and knowledge of the safe and acceptable tactics to utilize for a specific situation. In addition to the tactics discussed in the caption for NIOSH F2006-26 (see right), a defensive or exterior attack should also be utilized on structures that are fully involved and where there is nothing left to save. Similarly, a primary search in these types of involved areas should not be initiated.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) directs firefighters during these challenging fireground situations. According to NFPA 555 - Guide on Methods for Evaluating Potential for Room Flashover, a flashover is defined as: "A stage in the development of a confined fire in which all exposed surfaces reach ignition temperatures more or less simultaneously and fire spreads rapidly throughout the space." The guide goes on to state that "the occurrence of flashover within a room is the ultimate signal of untenable conditions within the room of fire origin as well as a sign of greatly increased risk to other rooms within the building."

This guide, used for safety-based decision making, must also be applied when encountering structures which may be partially or well involved but that are abandoned, vacant or dilapidated. In these specific situations and where life safety is not an issue, first arriving officers must integrate risk management with incident management by communicating to all companies that a more reasonable defensive attack will be utilized.

Not For a Piece of Property
Firefighters traditionally serve communities very well by saving lives and structures that can be saved, however, firefighters can no longer needlessly place their lives in extreme danger. Across the country today, firefighters are receiving excellent training in the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Everyone Goes Home Courage to be Safe Program. Within the cultural safety portion of this presentation, FEMA Director and former USFA Administrator, R. David Paulison provides firefighters with a simple, yet significant message which takes only 13 seconds to deliver, but if applied nationally, could save lives on the fireground. Paulison states:

"What we're trying to do is change the culture of the fire service. It's no longer acceptable to put your life on the line for a piece of property. Yes, we're going to save lives and we're going to put our lives on the line if we have to save somebody else. But stop and think what you're doing before you go into a burning building." To prevent the tragic loss of firefighters, the safety culture must change. In this effort, Firefighters must understand that they are not required to sacrifice their lives to save any structure, regardless of the type of occupancy encountered, including but not limited to: residences, churches, restaurants or even a high rise building.

It Takes Tactical and Cultural Change to Prevent LODDs
If your department routinely implements a fast and aggressive interior attack, without following a risk management statement and is not aware of the dangers associated with enclosed, abandoned, vacant or dilapidated structure fires or maintained structures that cannot be saved, your firefighters run a high risk of serious injury or fatality. In the future, the high percentage of firefighter fatalities suffered at structure fires will only be reduced if local, progressive leadership, institutes tactical changes more appropriate to managing basement fires and for vacant or abandoned property not worth the life of a firefighter.

Note: This article implements the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiative 1: Cultural Change Relating to Safety and Life Safety Initiative 3: Integrating Risk Management with Incident Management.


  • Tarley, J., Braddee, R., Death in the line of duty, (2007), Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, F 2006-26, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
  • NFPA (2004), NFPA 555 - Guide on Methods for Evaluating Potential for Room Flashover, Chapter 3, Definitions, 3.3.2, Flashover, page, 555-6.
  • NFPA (2004), NFPA 555 - Predicting Flashover for Fire Hazard Calculations, Chapter 7, 7.1.1, General, page 555-9.
  • National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Courage to be Safe Program (2006), compact disc safety training program.
  • Mora, W.R., "U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001" (2003).
  • Death in the line of duty, Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, Keodam, R.E., Merinar.T., F2006-24, Tarley, J., Lutz,V., F2005-09, Merinar,T., McFall, M., Bowyer, M., F2004-05, Romano, N.T., Frederick, L.J., F2002-11, Tarley, J., Mezzanotte,T., F2001-16, Mezzanotte, T.P., Cortez ,K., F2000-26, F97-04, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ,

WILLIAM R. MORA, a Contributing Editor, is a Captain in the firefighting division of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. You can reach William by e-mail at [email protected].

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