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Basement Fires, a Three Star Performance or a Three Ring Circus?

Hey Folks, today’s blog is a result of my frustration with the continued inept (and down right dangerous) management of basement fires. Generally speaking, basement fires are often (unnecessarily) chaotic events. In the spirit of transparency, I am inspired to address this issue by my growing frustration and disappointment in my own working environment.  As a disclaimer, I will keep the specific Department anonymous, however in order to be fair, I am not speaking of either the Washington DC Fire Department nor am I speaking of the Intercourse Fire Department in Lancaster PA.


Over the years, I have spoken countless times on the topic of basement fires; as a Company Officer with my crew, as a Battalion and Deputy Chief with my shift and as an Operations Chiefs with my Deputy and Battalion Chiefs. There are two statements that have transcended over my years with the DCFD. Number one is “If your SOG’s/SOP’s/Operational Policies, do not address having the basement checked for the presence or absence of fire early on, then you have a line-of-duty death (LODD) lying in wait. “ The second one goes something like this; “ It is unacceptable, for a fire department to perform, like this is the first time they have ever been to a basement fire, over and over again.” Another words at some point and time you have to get it right. You cannot continue to settle for a three-ring circus, when you can/should expect a three-star performance.


While both of these statements are true, it's the second one, which has me shoving a hot needle in my eye just to ease the agony. In 2013, we are without excuse on the importance of managing basement fires. A cadre of line-of duty death reports, producing an unlimited number of best practices and the knowledge before hand of increased risk and difficulty in dealing with basement fires, requires that we do better. Every fire service blog, magazine and talk radio show is filled with information on the topic of basement fire considerations. So why is it so difficult to get it right? If you know me, then you know where I am going with this question. It all comes down to leadership. A failure of leadership to recognize and deal with the continuing problem, a failure of leadership to have strong written operational policies in place, a failure to adequately train members on the policy, a failure to assure that people in a position of supervision are competent in knowing how to perform their jobs and a failure to hold people accountable for their performance or lack there of.


With all that said, there are and will continue to be those clowns, who want to play dress-up, and make-believe they are an Incident Commander. They willingly and knowingly perform this critical job, unprepared, under trained, without clear expectation of performance and a confidence that no one is likely to hold them accountable.  To be clear, his is very different then the person, who lacks experience, makes some tactical errors and is hungry to gain the requisite knowledge. The clown(s) I am speaking of actually think they are competent and capable.  They have reached this position, mastered the skills and there is nothing left to learn.


They are also likely not to read this or any other piece of information, which can help them perform their jobs. If they did, they would assuredly think I was talking about someone else. So for those who are in a position of managing firegrounds or supervising company’s and actually care about the men and women they put in harms way, I hope you find some value in me repeating some critical information as it relates to basement fires. 


When it comes to managing basement fires, there are four key foundational elements, which must occur. The first is early identification. The list of line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries, which have occurred nationally due to companies failing to recognize a basement fire, is astonishing.  The most effective and expedient way of recognizing that you are dealing with a basement fire is by performing a 360 view of the structure.  A subsequent arriving company pre-assigned to handle the rear (side C) can also accomplish this as well. The issue to keep in mind, is that time is of essence. This means, the response time for that next arriving company is critical to the value of “early”.


In larger buildings (occupied multiple dwellings or apartment complexes), where the rear report can be delayed, consider the value of using the roof team to accomplish the 360 from their position on the roof. As a last resort, companies should initially assume a basement fire, whenever they cross the threshold of the first floor and encounter any type of smoke/heat conditions. When this occurs, it is critical for the company officer to notify command, that they have made entry to the first floor and have visible smoke and or heat conditions. It would behoove the company officer to also prompt the IC to have the basement checked at this point if not already accomplished. This critical piece of communications, leads me to my second critical element, which is communications.


If you have ever been to a basement fire, that seems more like a three ring circus then a three star performance; the most likely cause was a failure to or an inability to communicate effectively important pieces of information. The critical pieces of information I speak of include, on-scene radio reports, situation update reports (given after the results of the 360 have been determined), the declaration of the IAP, Conditions Action Needs (CAN) reports, reports when a company has or can not achieve a critical benchmark (fire knocked down, primary search completed, utilities cut off) and last but not least, any critical safety concerns (weak floors, holes in floor, delay in making entrance in to basement).


Radio discipline has become an immerging issue as departments across the country increase their cache of radios, assigning each individual firefighter or riding position their own radio. Lets not forget why we really have this resource. The main purpose is to have the ability to transmit a Mayday and/or for LISTENING which increases our situational awareness. It doesn’t mean that all members are required or encouraged to chime in at-will.


One way to accomplish radio discipline on the fireground, is to teach our members to limit transmissions, as best as possible, to, structured required reports (on-scene, CAN, PAR), companies achieving benchmarks, inability to accomplish assigned tasks, resource requests and safety concerns. In addition to the above situations, the IC must limit communications with individual units and require that all radio communications occur between the IC and the Division/Group Supervisors.  IC’s should never be passive about taking control of radio traffic when the need arises.  


The third critical element in dealing with a basement job is the Incident Action Plan (IAP). There are a few options to consider when determining the right strategy. The key here is to not wait until game day to figure out what these options are. This means that you must have a clear and unambiguous policy on how members should expect to deal with basement fires right now. While there may be a hint of truth, that one model does not fit all situations, your policy should clearly identify the preferred tactical methodology and equally important is that all officers understand the process, for how any deviations of that policy are to be handled.


Confusing basement fire policies, based on a matrix of possibilities, left up to an individual company officer, is a sure recipe for disaster. As always, it is important when developing your basement fire policy, to do so in a manner that fits your department and the community you serve. While it’s appropriate to review other department’s basement policies, never blindly adopt a policy that has little to no utility in your organization. The policy must be based on local risk, available resources including apparatus and staffing and response times. Finally, the policy must be known by all and practiced on a regular basis. Failing at this level, leads to a guaranteed failure of tactical execution. This leads us to our third element, which is execution.


The mistake that many departments make, is to assume that they can begin at this part of the process, failing to solidify the first two. The results are predictable, nauseating and dangerous.  The only thing more pitiful then this, are the organizational leaders who fail to fix it.


Commonly, there are three tactical approaches to dealing with fire attack in basements.  There is the two-line attack, where one line holds on the first floor at the basement steps (maintaining ingress and egress routes for victims and responders), while the second line enters the basement from an exterior rear/side entrance for fire attack. The second would be a single line attack, where a handline is stretched and advanced down the interior stairs or can even be advanced through an exterior rear or side entrance. The third option is to make an exterior attack through an opening such as a window. There are other options to consider such as a cellar pipe or revolving distributer nozzle, however these three are the most common approaches.  


Regardless of which strategy the IC selects, it is imperative that he/she communicates that strategy on the radio so that everyone on the scene is aware of it.


The two-line attack strategy, has grown in popularity on the east coast and has been tried and tested with great success by the DCFD. While this strategy is very effective, it is vital that the expected arrival of the 2nd Engine (fire attack) is within normal NFPA response times. If the response times are of greater magnitude, then this may not be the appropriate choice.


Being that this strategy is common to the east coast, and requires the greatest amount of coordination for proper implementation, I will focus my attention on this strategy.


The first line is stretched and advanced through the front entrance with the two fold purpose of locating the interior basement steps, in order to prevent extension of fire and to place a charged hoseline between the fire and the path of ingress and egress. I try to remind everyone, that with a better understanding of modern fire behavior and new construction performance, our discretionary time, to get key critical benchmarks accomplished, is minimal.  This means, that in this evolution, the ability to quickly select and stretch the appropriate hoseline and get water on the fire is critical.


The company officer of the first crew through the door will play a vital role in the outcome of the fire, through his/her situational awareness and communications with the IC. Once through the threshold, the Officer must quickly observe heat and smoke conditions on the first floor and report it to the IC. All members must make themselves aware of the floor conditions i.e. sagging, sloping, and spongy. If any of these conditions exist, companies must immediately cease their advance, notify the IC (priority) and retreat back to a safe location such as the threshold. Another key benchmark for this company is to notify the IC when the basement steps/door have been located.  Do not forget the simple task of closing the basement door. There are many benefits to this, such as limiting “flow path” and preventing fire spread. Once here, use your stream to cool down your immediate environment and extinguish any fire extension on the first floor. This is where it is appropriate and desirable to flow water, towards the ceiling (never down the steps), when encountering a high heat atmosphere.


The next arriving engine crew, should be prepared to stretch to the rear/side basement entrance and make an attack on the fire. Many of the same rules will apply for this company such as, right diameter (remember your crew size), right length and right stretch. Companies should expect to encounter many obstacles on their way to the basement such as, fences, vehicles, debris, animals, bars on windows and doors etc. Once in the rear, an on-scene radio report from that side of the building must be transmitted. In addition to the regular information, include any difference in building height and the presence or absence of a basement entrance. It is also extremely important for the company officer to report any potential delays in making the basement to the IC. Remember, you have a company sitting above you, expecting that you will soon be making the push. Spending unnecessary time above an unchecked fire can be a high risk, dangerous activity. Once in position to attack the fire, notify the IC and stand fast until you are given permission to proceed.  


Correspondingly, synchronization of support work, performed by truck or rescue companies must also occur. At the top of the list are appropriate ventilation practices and minimizing the potential for spread of superheated air, by way of a “flow path”. Modern fire behavior, coupled with modern building construction, equal oxygen deprived/fuel rich fires. Therefor, the how and when oxygen is being reintroduced, by initiated ventilation is critical. When ventilation is performed improperly or uncoordinated, heat release rates can increase in an explosive manner (flashover). That deadly heat energy will likely travel the path of least resistance from the high-pressure environment (basement) to a lower pressure environment (upper floors). Simply put, uncoordinated, improper and under communicated ventilation operations will put any firefighter(s) operating in the flow path area, in extreme personal danger.


Here’s the deal folks, there is no one single way for me to describe how best to ventilate a basement fire as there are many different scenarios to consider. The fact is, that each of us needs to “think” about ventilation in a tactical way. That's right “think” which means educate yourself, never stop learning and play around with this stuff during live burn training (yes that's right, live fire training). The big thing to consider here is, ventilation must be completed in a thoughtful, coordinated and tactical manner, in order to limit rapid/explosive fire spread and to protect those operating in potential flow path areas. This means you should be talking about this now, not when you get to an actual fire. Have strong written procedures on tactical ventilation and follow those procedures.  Please consider the following:

  • Before taking a window, know exactly where the fire is
  • As you dismount the rig, take a second and confirm that there is a “charged” hoseline moving through the door (the operative word here is charged)
  • Listen to your radio as a way to verify the two previous points
  • Do not be afraid to ask both of those questions, if need be by radio
  • Monitor the radio to identify when the engine company has located the seat of the fire (benchmark which needs to be communicated)
  • Vent closest to the area of origin first
  • Do not ventilate behind advancing hoselines or search teams (on upper floors)
  • Close or control any doors between you and the fire


Search and rescue efforts at basement fires can be challenging for a couple of reasons. You will be searching above a potentially unchecked fire and your normal path of entering the structure, (first floor) may be obstructed by advancing hoselines. Either way, the search must take place. Remember, basement fires are often undetected by occupants until later in the event which means there is a greater chance of an occupant being overcome/trapped. If you are assigned to search the structure, take a second to size-up the situation before rushing in. Take a quick look and identify where the bedroom windows are verse were a kitchen or living room window is. If the front door is unobstructed then take it, if not consider vent, enter, search (VES) as an alternate. If VES is the selection, remember to isolate that door between you and the fire, before the search begins; never search alone and never be afraid to take a charged hoseline with you. Doing this adds very little increase of time (if your proficient at stretching) and adds a whole lot of safety factor.


In the final element, this all must come together, in a coordinated manner, under the direction of the IC. The attacking engine (2nd arriving) must wait for your order to proceed with fire attack. Prior to this, he/she must confirm that the 1st floor company is in-place holding the steps. Those serving in this critical position must be knowledgeable, competent and prepared. If any of those three traits are missing, then you will have problems. In the two-line operation, the IC must understand that this is not the time to allow creative expression by company officers or be fearful of what some may consider “micromanagement”. The IC becomes the lead (and sole) orchestrator of the operational execution, synchronizing each company’s movement and actions. The IC must provide clear concise directions to each company and must expect a confirmation transmission in return, once a directive as been given to a company. Here are some must do’s for the IC:

  • Once it is determined to be a basement fire, make an announcement on the radio of such, so everyone is aware
  • If not completed, assign a company to the rear for a full size-up
  • Control the radio early. Do this by properly organizing companies in to Groups/Division, assigning Supervisors, limiting any communications to companies achieving benchmarks (made entry, located fire, search complete etc), critical safety issues (h*** in floor, burst hoseline, delayed entry) and CAN reports. Make all companies go through their assigned Div/Group Supervisor.
  • Which ever strategy you select, communicate the IAP over the radio so everyone is aware of what the game plan is
  • Get an acknowledgement from each company every time you give them an assignment
  • Keep an eye on the incident clock, paying particular attention to any delays
  • Keep an eye on the smoke conditions from the first floor. It may provide an indication that its time to back that company out.
  • Once you are ready to go, the orchestration of movement (hose lines) comes from you.


We are in the business of providing a service, where our customers (tax payers) pay in advance (taxes) for our services. Knowing that, shouldn't we feel compelled to provide a three-star performance as opposed to a three-ring circus?



Please, be safe and be smart

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Comment by Gerald "Jerry" Tracy on October 20, 2013 at 3:57pm

What an outstanding article! You definitely get it… (ret Chief FDNY)

Comment by Michael Conway on September 6, 2013 at 2:07pm

Nice Job Chief

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