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Are You Ready For The Balloon Frame Fire??

One of the ways I mentally prepare and train as an incident commander is to review major working fires around the country, this past Sunday while reviewing the day’s prior events I read about a terrible tragedy that occurred in Portland, Maine where five victims perished in a fire in a large two story duplex apartment house. I researched the photos and listened to the fire department audio from the scene and based on these I am assuming the large house appeared to be of balloon frame construction. NOTE: This is not a fact as of this writing. That got me thinking about my preparation and the lack of these fires in my response area recently even though they dominate my city’s landscape.

If you are a young firefighter and have not had the “pleasure” yet of fighting a fire in a balloon frame take my word that these fires will definitely test your skills both physically and mentally and I encourage you to study up and prepare for when they do occur and if you work in an older city, They most certainly will happen.

Mr. Frank Brannigan in his book Building Construction for the Fire Service stated that balloon framing began around 1833 and reduced the need for the skilled labor needed for post and beam construction that was the main form of construction prior. Balloon frame became the universal form of construction through the mid- 20th century.

In balloon framing, the outside wall studs run from the foundation to the eave line, at the floor line a horizontal board is nailed to the stud, this board called a ribbon board supports the floor. The open stud channel allows for rapid fire and smoke spread. Fire spread can be in all directions and this is the challenge to fire suppression operations. In listening to the audio from the Portland fire it certainly appeared that this fire spread rapidly and took over the building very quickly after arrival.

If you open up a channel while searching for fire you must be keenly aware that the smoke will soon overtake the area you are in and a hose line must be available to extinguish and more importantly protect the firefighters working inside. The sometimes overlooked issue in these houses under fire condition is the structural integrity being attacked making collapse a real threat. Sometimes while being an officer and firefighter inside these fires I can say that you can become tunneled into your own situation and current job inside and not think of the fire overtaking the building. Command officers outside MUST keep a close eye on heavy smoke pushing from the voids and be prepared to pull the trigger on getting members out of the building.

On April 9th, 1978 four Syracuse, New York firefighters perished in a fire in a balloon frame college residential structure, The house was a three story building constructed of wood balloon framing and was built in 1898. The house had been converted into ten (10) apartments that were occupied by SU students, the firefighters were killed perform search operations. This fire began on the second floor and spread via voids to the third and attic area.

The balloon frame fire is a “throw back” fire from our past but one that requires lots of staffing and strong command; you cannot underestimate the speed of which the fire will travel in these structures, make sure you and your crews are ready when you pull up on one.

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A great four minute video on balloon frame by Jason Hoevelmann can be found at:

A simulation video you can review with crew/shift of a balloon can be found at :




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