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.
What are the chances?
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 fortified 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.
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, whether the supports are protected or unprotected and how long it's been exposed to fire. Videos above.
Collapse: The first 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 will be unaware 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 5-7 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 firemen 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. (See Buffalo LODD)
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 if possible, or just 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. Check stability of steps and descend at the stringer.
Fires in basements and cellars are the most difficult areas to access, advance, ventilate, and escape, making them the most dangerous location for firemen. 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 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; it's a living space so count it as a story.
Construction: Not all basements are the same. 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, oil tank, exposed utilities, open stairs, and unprotected 2x10 dimensional lumber. The suburban basement may have a large open space with 10' ceilings with an engineered lightweight truss I-beam floor above, protected by drywall 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 with 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 points, 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 fireman take out (and clear) a basement window if present, and dump a 2.5 gallon water can at the basement ceiling while crews are preparing their stretch down the interior basement stairs. It only 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. WARNING: Consider wind conditions when deciding this tactic. A strong wind in direction of window will intensify the fire, don't break the window.
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, steam concerns, and more GPM's, it's the obvious choice. The attack and backup line should be charged BEFORE entering the basement. The fog nozzle (or breakaway) as the second 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 second line must stay charged on the first floor ready to go in case the attack line has a problem. Firemen 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 with the line 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, exterior entrances or the sidewalk doors, which better serve at ventilation points. Be aware of hinged trap doors inside that may be left open. Firemen advancing in low visibility may fall through them into the burning cellar.
REMEMBER: Life safety is the top priority. The initial attack line will first protect the interior stairs for escaping occupants, fire spread and firemen conducting searches above.
LODD NEW YORK
NEWS, VIDEO, LINKS AND MORE...
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 and shear bolts. (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.
LODD Basement Fires: 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.
Helmet cam MAYDAY rescue-basement.
Fireman pulled out of a basement window.
Some good basement RIT training.
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 the entrance, in case of a floor collapse. A good proactive RIT team at a basement or cellar fire will have a sledge hammer and other tools ready to help increase the size of basement window openings, just in case!
Good truck work at a basement fire.
Signs of a basement fire; smoke showing, but no fire visible. Check the basement and do a 360° to help determine 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. A fireman should be assigned to stop any vertical exterior fire spread.
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 or work off of a 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 to dig out the roof area near the chimney. 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.
Trenton house fire kills 7-year-old but spares 18-month-old found treading water in the basement. Click here for story.
LODD HAMILTON OHIO
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.
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 to understand them for wind conditions. Weather size up begins at the start of our tour.
TIP: Door control must be maintained while the line is ready. If the door has burned through, preventing the vertical fire spread becomes priority.
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 in windows 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. This discovery has to be reported to the IC immediately.
Be prepared to rescue firemen 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, bilco door, or other egress point with poor visibility conditions. (Why lights on helmets/coat help)
Some firemen will have trouble escaping through cellar windows above them wearing the full PPE -SCBA. 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. Enlarge the hole if possible.
It's IMPORTANT during a MAYDAY that members NOT involved with the rescue USE RADIO DISCIPLINE, unless it's a priority/mayday! CONTINUE assigned suppression, search, ventilation duties, and remain on the PROPER channel. This is often a problem!
Close call documentary at basement fire.
Helmet cam interior attack through bilco doors.
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 may be visible from the street. Other basement windows, bilco doors and exterior cut out entrance doors can be found during 360°, and used as the attack point or ventilation. DO NOT CREATE FLOW PATHS TOWARDS THE ATTACK TEAM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS: Although rare, with the right conditions present, breaking basement windows or opening BILCO doors on windward side while firemen are advancing down interior basement stairs will create a dangerous flow path.
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 cellars). Using positive pressure ventilation (PPV) will be effective in certain subdivision fires if the conditions are right. PPV is usually more effective after extinguishment.
LODD WILMINGTON DELAWARE
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.
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, and basement.
Think about it...
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.
TIP: While handlines are operating in the basement, it's important for members working on the floor above to recognize any signs of hose on the floor above being exposed to fire as 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. These incidents have already happened numerous times.
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. Knowing the reported fire location given by dispatch, weather conditions and time of day before you even leave the station puts you ahead of the game. Confirming location and extent upon arrival will determine size, selection and placement of hoselines.
On approach, look for basement windows and exterior doors for secondary means of egress and ventilation points. Take a quick look inside the basement window. For trapped occupants on upper floors, stretch the line for protection of the escape route, start ladder placement and primary searches.
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 entering the structure, hitting the fire, venting or searching. With low ceilings, bring short hooks/tools- and TED/light.
What type of floor support and how long has it been burning? Add the weight of firemen crawling over this floor with fire below.