Basements/Cellars in Taxpayers & Garden Apartments: Subdivisions in taxpayers and garden apartments will differ from those in a private dwelling. The problem with a fire in the cellar of a taxpayer is the difficulty locating access from the interior, especially when there's poor visibility. Access may be through a hinged trap door in the rear of the structure or an adjoining occupancy. The best way to locate access points is to preplan the taxpayers in your district. Many old style taxpayers were constructed with common basements and have been renovated, partitioned off and used for stock/storage. They could resemble a maze with the only second means of egress being a sidewalk cellar door. Most newer taxpayers of limited/lightweight construction are built on a slab and do not have a basements. Fire preplans are necessary to identify cellar access. Garden apartments have caged storage areas for tenants and laundry rooms in their basements, which may lead to a crawl space.
TIP: When firemen are operating a hoseline in the basement, it's important for the members working on the floor above to recognize any signs of hose on the floor above being exposed to fire to prevent line burn through. Flaked out hoselines placed over registers, open basement stairs with fire below and drop fire can damage the initial attack line placing those men in danger.
Size Up: Identifying lightweight construction, balloon frame construction, structures built on a slope, combustible exterior siding, bars on windows, multiple mailboxes and flame impingement on service lines are some of the things that will influence your strategy and tactics. Response time, trapped occupants, fire conditions and personnel will also contribute to tactical decisions.
Flow Path: With an open basement window or bilco doors, some wind, an open interior basement door and the right fire conditions, a dangerous flow path will be awaiting attack crews at the top of the stairs. Excellent videos above on basement fire flow paths. While dangerous flow paths will not be an issue at every fire, it is still necessary for all firemen to understand them.
TIP: Door control must be maintained while the line is ready. If the door has burned through, preventing the vertical fire spread becomes priority.
Ventilation: It's critical that ventilation during a basement fire be coordinated with the fire attack. Subdivisions are difficult to vent because of little or no openings. Basement windows on the front of the structure will suffice and should be visible from the street. Other basement windows, bilco doors and exterior cut out entrance doors can be found during 360 (side B-D-C) and used as the attack point or ventilation. DO NOT CREATE FLOW PATHS TOWARDS THE ATTACK TEAM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS. Many taxpayers have metal cellar door access on the sidewalk in front of the building, but they may be heavily secured to prevent theft. Do not use the interior basement stairway for a vent point as the fire will be pushed into the rest of the building. Cutting holes in the floor is time consuming for ventilation and may jeopardize cutting structural supports. (Better for flooding) PPV will be effective in certain subdivision fires if everything lines up right, but is more effective after extinguishment.
Good truck work at a basement fire.
Signs of a basement fire. No fire visible on arrival, check the basement. Doing a 360 will help find the best access point for attack.
Exterior Fire Spread: Vented basement fires will have to be stopped from spreading up the exterior siding. Fires that are not venting will still spread up the interior wall void spaces, especially in balloon construction.
Burn Time: Underwriters Laboratories performed testing on floor collapse during basement fires with different types of flooring systems. Collapse times ranged from 3:38 to 12:45, with dimensional lumber averaging 11:57 and engineered flooring systems averaging around 7:00. With all of these tests, there were no reliable signs of floor collapse. Sounding the floor with a tool or using a TIC is not reliable when checking for floor stability. ('I' beam rapid burn through of web member: pics below) When it comes to floor stability, it isn't about the type of flooring/lumber in a newer home, but how it's supported and whether the supports are protected/unprotected and how long it's been exposed to fire. Videos above.
Collapse: The 1st due company officer and nozzleman will have to check floor stability when crossing over to make the interior basement door, especially if arriving to a visible heavy free-burning fire below. Firemen can usually tell from the construction of the building whether it's 2x10 or engineered lightweight I-joists, but what if the property has been renovated? A floor support system in an unprotected I-beam lightweight or hybrid truss system can fail in as little as 6-7 minutes when exposed to fire. There's really no way to be 100% sure if it's safe to operate on the floor above the fire. TICs and sounding the floor is not reliable, but if the floor feels spongy or there's fire coming out of the baseboards, floor vents/registers/returns, sagging carpet, these are not good signs! During UL tests on basement fires, there were no signs prior to collapse. Increased ventilation, fuel load, span and added load from the weight of firefighters in full gear increase chances of collapse. Residential basements underneath kitchens have heavy appliances like stoves, dishwashers, refrigerators above them. Commercial properties may have storage, machinery, supplies above, adding weight to an already weakened floor.
Other concerns for collapse are long response times and the contents burning in the basement. Responding to a fully furnished family room basement fire in a rural area that has been burning for 20 minutes before the first company arrives means there's a good chance of floor collapse. Even in the city where several companies arrive on scene within several minutes, firemen may be walking into a basement/cellar fire with unprotected floor joists/plywood, loaded with landscaping equipment, motorcycles, gas cans, hoarding conditions, with a low ceiling and delayed discovery, meaning a good chance of collapse. (See test videos below )
Once the line is charged and ready to advance, sound the steps on the way down. Open stairs with fire below exposing them will weaken stairs causing a collapse when weight is applied (if not already burned through) especially 'cardboard constructed' engineered lightweight I-stairs with 2x4 supports, OSB and gusset plates. Sound the center of the step for stability, descend on the outer stair near the supports.
Defensive Attack: When it's time to go defensive, cut a hole in the floor or go through the window and flood it with water or foam.
Stair Collapse: A major concern for the nozzleman making his way down to the basement. Engineered lightweight "I" stairs will collapse fast when exposed to fire. When lightweight construction is present on arrival, expect these cheap stairs.
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During basement fires with well windows, the proactive RIT team should check to see if the well is secured. If not properly secured, take the well out if possible. Even if you have to use a shovel and a sledge hammer, prepare to create an opening large enough to remove a fireman. If these basement windows have bars on them, it will be difficult to get a saw in the well to cut them. A good grinder tool with a charged battery and cutting blade can easily be maneuvered in some basement well windows to cut bars. (See VIDEO here)
Using water to extinguish a chimney fire may cause spalling and further damage the chimney. The best method is to use dry chem powder. if using a hoseline is the only option, on the roof to extinguish a chimney fire, apply short bursts of water to the top as shown in the video above.
Advise the property owner to have the chimney serviced/cleaned/repaired and check CO levels before leaving.
What type of floor support and how long has it been burning? Add the weight of firemen crawling over this floor with fire below.
Close call documentary at basement fire.
Helmet cam interior attack through bilco doors.
TIP: When arriving to a confirmed working fire in a sub-division, the IC should immediately assign the RIT team officer or another member to have a scissor/collapsible ladder or 14' straight ladder ready to go by entrance in case of a floor collapse. Also have a sledge hammer ready to help to increase the size of basement window openings on masonry if removing a large firefighter.
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This chimney fire extended to the structure. They worked safely from the aerial and roof ladders opening up to extinguish the extended fire saving the structure.
What are the chances?
Helmet cam MAYDAY rescue-basement.
Fireman pulled out of a basement window.
TIP: Do not open a line in the window or bilco door while interior crews are advancing down the stairs or inside the basement.
Entanglement/Entrapment: Advancing hose teams should be careful when venturing deep into a basement fire (and attic) because the potential for entanglement and entrapment are high. Basements and cellars in urban areas will have hoarding conditions, illegal boarding-renovations, partitions, furniture, storage, washers/dryers, clothes lines with wire hangers, bicycles, crates, lawn equipment, drop ceilings, utility wires, entertainment centers, oil tanks and heaters. With little or no visibility, use extreme caution and move slow while advancing. Staying at the base of the stairs is usually a good place to attack and knock down the fire in a residential basement. When conducting the primary search in survivable conditions, be cognizant of all the clutter inside of a basement that can trap and entangle you including crawl spaces, closets, appliances, sleeping areas and common basements. Always look for that window or other escape route while hitting the fire, venting or searching. With low ceilings, bring short hooks/tools- and TED/light.
Basement and cellar fires are the most dangerous fires inside a structure that firemen will face. Fires in subdivisions have killed more firemen than all upper floor fires have. Attacking a below grade fire from above requires advancing down a chimney of intense heat and hot gases. There are several dangers the company officer will have to address before advancing on a fire in a subdivision or protecting the escape route for fleeing occupants. Concerns for first due engine crews are intense heat, limited visibility, floor collapse, stair burn through, entanglement, limited ventilation, secondary means of egress and the occurrence of a hostile fire event, especially in areas with taxpayers, lightweight construction and long response times.
Basement or Cellar? If more than half of the floor height is above ground (or the curb), it's a basement, if less than half is above ground, it's a cellar. Some garden apartments and brownstones will have their first floor slightly below grade; count it as a story.
Construction: Basements in urban areas with ordinary construction will differ from those in rural and suburban areas with wood frame construction. A basement in an urban area may have low ceilings, storage containers, hoarding conditions, illegal boarding with partitions, an oil burner, exposed utilities, open stairs and unprotected 2x10 dimensional lumber. The suburban basement may have a large open space with 10' ceilings and an engineered lightweight truss I-beam floor above, protected by sheetrock and used as an entertainment room or an apartment with a rear cutout or bilco entrance door. A row of taxpayers may have common basements with trap door access in the rear of the first floor commercial business and exterior access through sidewalk cellar doors. Not all subdivisions are the same. During size up try to determine the construction and occupancy type which can help determine the floor support system, access/egress and the contents burning below. If a 360° isn't possible, do a 270° and assign another company (or BC) to check the rear, especially if you have a row of attached homes. If it's a wood-frame balloon constructed home with fire, we already know to quickly get crews to the upper floors and cockloft to stop the vertical fire spread. If floor supports are engineered I-beams, fire will quickly burn through the web member and weaken the connection points. Steel C-joist concerns are deformation and connection failure. REMEMBER why we do building surveys and fire preplans.
Location and Extent: Determining if it's in the basement can be difficult if you arrive to smoke showing on all floors with no visible fire. Check the basement windows, gather information from the residents, use a TIC on the first floor (perimeter/registers) or perform a 360 size up. Upon entering the front door to make your way to the interior basement stairs, high intense heat is an obvious sign you have fire below. If you have heavy fire venting out of the basement windows on arrival, consider a coordinated transitional attack (team work). When stretching in through the front door check the stability of the floor on the way to the interior basement stairs. WATER ON FIRE=EVERYTHING BETTER!
For an interior attack with heavy fire in the basement, consider having a firefighter take out (and clear) the basement window and dump a 2.5 gallon water can at the basement ceiling layer while the engine crew is stretching in to the interior basement stairs. It takes a few seconds to clear a window and about 45 seconds to empty a water can which can absorb up to 23,000 BTU's depending on basement temperatures.
Line Selection and Placement: For basement fires, the first attack line should be a smooth bore nozzle. With a limited ventilation fire in a container below and more GPM's, it's the obvious choice. The attack and backup line should be charged BEFORE entering the basement. In some instances, the fog nozzle as the 2nd line is not always a bad choice as it helps with hydraulic ventilation to clear smoke/steam out of the basement and improve visibility after a quick knockdown. The 2nd line must stay on the 1st floor charged and ready to go in case the attack line has a problem. Firefighters have been trapped, injured and killed in basement fires by hoselines being burned through on the floor above.
Determine the best entry point to attack the fire. If there's an outside entrance, stretch through there if it's the best option. Most of the time in urban residential structures, especially row homes, , it's the front door to the interior basement stairs. Make sure to check which direction the door opens before you charge your line. If it opens towards you, it may be difficult getting past the door and in position to descend the stairs. If it opens away from you, the products will hit you quickly, but at least the line won't be pinched under the door.
In commercial/taxpayers, it's the interior basement stairs or sidewalk doors, which better serve at ventilation points. Be aware of hinged trap doors inside of commercial occupancies that may be left open. Firefighters advancing in low visibility may fall through them to the burning cellar.
REMEMBER: Life safety is the top priority. The initial attack line will first protect the interior stairs for fleeing occupants, fire spread and members conducting searches above.
Engine Company: Stretch a line to the interior and quickly determine the source, whether it’s an oil burner, fireplace or a basement fire. Placing salvage covers/floor runners in the area to prevent doing further damage to the property. Using a water can to extinguish a small class A fire is acceptable if outside the container of fire involvement/smoldering. Fires at the base inside the container may require a dry chem extinguisher, which will draw the powder upward. Bring shovels and place any smoldering creosote/wood/embers into a metal bucket and take it outside for extinguishment. Send a company to the attic/cockloft to check for extension. Monitor CO readings in the structure after the fire has been extinguished and ventilate accordingly.
Ladder Company: Size up the chimney roof area for access and egress. It make take up to three different types of ladders to access the top of the chimney. It may be safer to put the aerial ladder up and work off of the platform. Bring the chimney kit consisting of chimney sweep chains, mirror and TIC. Additional equipment such as hand tools/hooks, flashlight, chimney bombs (dry chem powder in bags) and possibly a saw may be needed. Remove the chimney cap, fencing (bird cage) and any other debris from the top of the chimney. Dropping the chimney bombs down the chimney is very effective as the bag will melt with powder being naturally drawn up the chimney. Lower the weighted chimney chains from the top of the chimney down the flue to knock the creosote off the walls into the base container area to be removed and extinguished. Check for extension at the base of the chimney where flashing may be present.
DO NOT LOOK DOWN THE CHIMNEY!
Collapse of the chimney can seriously injure unsuspecting firemen below. Most chimneys in older cities are in poor condition and made of brick. Most of these bricks are cracked, lost their adhesiveness and are being held up by gravity. Establish a collapse zone under the area of the chimney.
Explosions: A cellar is a confined space. Be aware of the explosion dangers in the subdivision and how to mitigate them. Gasoline and propane tanks, natural gas pipes from hot water heaters and a melted connection at the gas meter can cause explosions while firefighters are operating in the basement. For more on explosions in cellars click here.
Chimney fires extending to the roof and attic areas will have to be accessed and opened up quickly before a chimney fire becomes an all out structure fire.
LODD's in Subdivision Fires and Floor Collapse.
Fires in subdivisions have claimed the lives of many firefighters. Below are links to LODD (Line of Duty Death) reports of members from the fire service who were killed in below grade fires in various regions in the U.S. They vary from entrapment during searches or burned through hoselines, disorientation, entanglement in a basement used to grow marijuana, to engineered lightweight constructed floor collapse, flashover, smoke inhalation and stair collapse.
LODD reports are thorough investigations of actual incidents where firefighters were killed in the line of duty. Using them for training purposes will be beneficial to those reading them. Make them part of your drill school.
Some good basement RIT training.
Rapid Intervention Team: RIT TEAM priorities at a basement fire will be providing the hose team with an additional means of egress BEFORE they need one. Immediately removing bars from basement windows, AC units and performing a 360 to see if any other escape routes are available should be done right away in case a problem occurs. The attack crew entering through the front door in what appeared to be a 2 story home, may be a 3 story from the rear with a walk in basement entrance.
Be prepared to rescue members in the basement if a floor collapses or the stairs burn away trapping them below. Methods of rescue will depend on their location, entanglement, fire/smoke conditions, air supply etc.. Have a ladder, webbing/rope, cutters and RIT pack ready to go. If possible, use the radio to direct them towards a window or bilco door in poor visibility.
Most firemen will have trouble escaping through cellar windows above them with full PPE on. They will have to remove their helmet and SCBA with facepiece still attached, reduce their profile and be pulled out by members on the outside.
It's IMPORTANT that members NOT involved with the rescue STAY OFF THE RADIO unless it's a priority/mayday and CONTINUE with their assigned suppression, search, ventilation duties and stay on the PROPER channel. This is often a problem!
Be careful if using a hoseline to extinguish a chimney fire. Spalling and damage to the flue may occur, which can blow bricks off the roof.
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Trenton house fire kills 7-year-old but spares 18-month-old found treading water in the basement. Click here for story.
Chimney fires are rare incidents, but it’s critical that we prepare for them using a quick effective coordinated attack to prevent chimney fires from becoming an all out structure fires. A reported chimney fire should require a structure assignment response as additional manpower will be required to effectively mitigate a chimney fire. Most chimney fires are contained fires, but if not controlled quickly can extend to the roof, cockloft, attic, basement etc..
Most chimney fires are caused by highly combustible creosote build up in the flue. Flames, sparks and fast moving dense smoke accompanied by a roaring sound are sure signs of a chimney fire. Chimney fires can burn up to 2000°F destroying liners, bricks, masonry materials and contributing to fire spread in combustible parts of the structure. A well coordinated effort will be needed to extinguish the chimney fire before spreading to the rest of the structure. In the video above, the chimney fire extended to the structure. They worked safely from the aerial and roof ladders and did a good job opening up to extinguish the extended fire saving the structure.