Tactical Agility For House Fires
You are pulling up first due to a reported house fire. It is a 2½ story wood frame in an old section of town. The house looks well maintained. It is Sunday morning, 0600 hrs. The smoke and fire condition is as you see it in the pictures, lots of lazy smoke coming from several areas, no obvious fire.
Is this just another routine one room fire you will quickly suppress with an aggressive fire attack? This fire could go two ways: One line and a good nozzle team may do it or will this routine fire end up killing two of your members and badly burning others? After the funerals, “it was just a house fire” keeps you awake at night. Will you recognize the new dangers of this fire during your size up?
The difference between this being just another house fire and the worst day you have ever had (as a nozzleman or officer) will be your choice of strategy and tactics. These critical choices will be based on your understanding of two important concepts that are in play at this fire: fire dynamics and tactical agility for modified private dwellings. The purpose of this article is to give you a basic understanding of these critical factors so you will be successful at your next house fire. It is a matter of life and death, ours. These are tactical considerations for you to apply based on your size up. Everyone, IC, nozzle teams, search teams and ventilation teams must understand these critical concepts. Fireground experience from across our Nation resulting in many LODDs very close calls proves the importance of your understanding of fire dynamics and how it affects your tactics at modified private dwellings.
You are finishing your size up as your search crew enters the front door of the building. Stairs to the second floor are where you would expect to find them; behind the front door. But there is a door to the right, just inside the front door that should be open and should be the entrance to the living room. One of the search crew tries to open it but it is blocked by furniture behind it Is this the fire room? The front porch on these older homes was usually open or screened in. Look at the picture, it looks like it was turned into a room.
This was an important clue, (if you recognized it). This house was once a single-family dwelling but obviously has been modified. Different tactics apply. The operations chief at this fire AC Jose Mulero from the West Haverstraw NY FD was faced with this problem. Reacting to the situation and desperately trying to find the route to the seat of the fire for the first due engine he continued his 360 and found a back door open that led to the front room on the a/d corner where the fire was, behind the door just mentioned. Search crews were going above the fire so getting water on it was a priority. AC Mulero’s aggressive size up helped make the outcome from this fire successful. Getting quick water on the fire was the key factor in making this a successful fire attack. Introduction of oxygen and plenty of fuel could have combined to kill members searching above the fire.
Even before you enter the building, if time permits, it is always important and a good tactic to question the occupants that have escaped. The first question: Is everyone out? How do you know? is the second question. I have done 9 searches in my career under some very bad conditions only to learn 7 of the 9 times it was a false report of people trapped. How do you know?….is the acid test for how good or bad the info maybe. Certainly, it does not solve all your size up unknowns but is a step forward.
At this fire the occupants that escaped were not cooperative. Strange, for sure, but another clue they are hiding something.
Standard tactics and strategy say we need to search this building as a priority. Before we rush to commit members to a search let’s consider the size up from photo 2. The smoke condition should tell you this is a ventilation limited fire. Simply it needs more air to take off. Smoke is fuel. Combustibles in and near the fire room have been heated and are pyrolyzing, releasing flammable gases that just need air to ignite explosively.
Standard tactics direct the search crew in the front door, chock it open so you can get out quickly. Typically at this time of day, occupants are on the second floor in bed, its early morning on a Sunday. Here is where you understanding of fire dynamics or lack of may be the deciding factor of whether you live or die during this search. These questions should be up front in your mind. Is there water on the fire? If there is you can be assured a reasonable degree of safety while above the fire. How much ventilation has been done? If fire has failed windows, you have left doors open or truck company members ventilated before water was on the fire, you may be in extreme danger above the fire. Is there an area of refuge on the second floor? If fire comes up the stairs, duck into an open bedroom and close the door. Even a hollow core door will delay fire getting into the room and give you time to get to a window or bail out if things are really bad.
Research based on live fires with fully instrumented houses (to record fire development) done by UL and published at FSRI.com shows that for fires like this you have between 100 and 200 seconds before the fire goes to flashover and will likely kill you if water is not on the fire. These are average numbers so don’t start your stopwatch. The speed of fire development to deadly flashover depends on how much air the fire can get and what fuels are available and the considerations just listed above.
Clearly this is an oversimplification of millions of dollars worth of numerous live burns but the point is you must understand fire dynamics. Go to FSRI.com for the free, world class training. It will make the difference between life and death for you and your members. A word of warning. It will take time and effort to do this. You will not get a full understanding with one time through. Make time to understand what is offered, it is your responsibility as a Firefighter and especially as an officer.
Fire dynamics describes how the fire will react to the conditions it is given. In this case an under ventilated fire, gets the air it needs because the search crew forced and chocked the door, fire races up the stairs and traps you on the second-floor. If you were lucky you bail out, if not, your gear that is rated for 17 sec of flashover condition (with second degree burns!) gets saturated with heat, you are in excruciating pain and......
In a similar situation of fire dynamics (aka rapid fire development) in 1999 the Washington DC FD suffered a double LODD and one member with career ending burns. It was a basement fire that was under ventilated, it got the air it needed when the patio doors failed, fire raced up the basement stairs and killed two firefighters, each with a nozzle in their hands. Raced? Yes, UL recreations (Cherry Road Fire - ISFSI and UL FSRI Understanding and Fighting Basement Fires) of the fire showed it came up the stairs at 15-18 mph! Search for this study, watch the videos and learn from it. It is not new, 1999 was almost 25 years ago! Additionally, you may want to consider changing your basement fire strategies based on this and similar LODDs. See the great UL research on these dangerous fires. It is free, it is available and great to use for bad weather drill nights.
Our house fire needed air to become deadly. It consumed most of the oxygen from the fire room and the first-floor apartment which is why the smoke was just seeping out. There was no positive pressure from the fire to push it out. Fire and smoke move from areas of higher pressure (near the fire) to areas of lower pressure (areas away from the fire or openings). See FSRI for the full story. The windows had not failed yet to allow the fire to grow and show itself thru an area of lower pressure. Bottom line…..do not vent until you have water on the fire, especially in an under ventilated fire condition like this.
Getting water on the fire in a modified private dwelling maybe the most important operation, even higher than searching. Recall, this is not a standard house. We know this is a ventilation limited fire and we know what happens when it gets air. So, sending search team in like we would do for a non-modified house before the line may have a very bad outcome. Think of it this way: Different building, different tactics, tactical agility based on conditions. Consider also, the layout of this house (blocked doors, single entrances, enclosed porch) may delay getting the hose line to the seat of the fire giving the fire more time to grow trapping your members upstairs, like Cherry Road. At a minimum, getting water on the fire at the same time as the search starts seems like the best tactic.
Our goal here is to protect human life, not sacrifice our members in suicide missions because we did not recognize the hazards. Even if you don’t subscribe to water before or concurrent with search at these dangerous fires, think about how effective your department will be when one of our own calls the mayday. If you have ever been in situations like this you know all efforts turn to our member(s), not the civilians. Just think ahead a little bit.
So, if you are still not convinced of the importance of water on the fire at modified private dwellings consider yourself on the second floor when fire races up the stairs. Is there an air conditioner in the window delaying your bail out while you are getting burned? Are you trapped in the hallway burning to death because the second-floor doors are locked with dead bolts or hasps and pad locks? I belong to an average NY VFD and this is the second of these situations we have encountered and we know there are lots others in our first due and mutual aid area. They are in your area too. Drive around at night and look for the classic blue flashes from TV screens coming thru attic or basement windows. Multiple satellite dishes, utility meters, trash cans and cars around the house are clues it is not a single-family dwelling. Plan ahead.
The outcome of this fire was good for a couple reasons. First, AC Mulero was able to find (after a couple tries) a good route to the fire for the hose line. The line was stretched and operated quickly using tank water from our first due engine to suppress the fire. Second, instead of forcing doors and taking windows too quickly, we denied the fire the air it needed to turn into a killer. Different building, different tactics, tactical agility. This house is not your grandfather’s house fire.
House fires are the most important alarm we face. Nationally, house fires are 55% of all working fires, 75% loss of lives, injuries to civilians and 50% of the annual total US loss to fire. Due to the poor economy, we must anticipate and prepare for the hazards of modified private dwellings.