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Why is it when we attend seminars and many other places where we get training, we sometimes see scare tactics using roof ventilation as the example, talking about how it is too dangerous? Is it any less dangerous than dragging a hoseline into a burning building full of ignitable, lethal gases? I would say no, they are equally dangerous. In fact research and facts support that far more firefighters are injured and killed performing interior operations (search, not flowing water, etc.), than performing roof work. Research was conducted over a 20 year period on LODD's during fireground operations by Bryan Lynch. Performing roof work, specifically involving roof collapse accounted for only 6 of 53 deaths. 4 of these firefighters were without SCBA. 2 had full gear and SCBA. Over and over again it’s roof operations being used to make these points to the audience. I feel that this is contributing to the fear mongering that is going on out there and getting in the way of effective ventilation practices. The following points/thoughts have pulled from by brain are meant to provoke thought and cause some questions and concerns to be raised. Ok, and maybe a little bit of me just venting frustration as well. Let’s take a look at the way some are approaching this needed fireground operation.

So why this dismal approach to roof work lately? Maybe lack of building construction knowledge is playing a part. These days we have to work hard to make sure we understand this. Less and less firefighters are entering the service with a trade in construction. More and more we are seeing new construction materials popping up on our fireground and we have to stay ahead of it. We can’t rely on our academy training alone to fill this gap. Even afterwards there are limited opportunities to get this training unless you go out of your way to find it, or even better, develop a program to share with others. So when we fail to make sure we understand this material, it make us even more gun shy when going on that roof, especially if the only message you have been hearing is: Its lightweight, stay off man!!!!


Maybe one theory is that Incident Commanders have had poor experiences for whatever reason when ordering people to the roof to ventilate. The crew wasn’t quick enough to make the roof, they didn’t open properly. Could it be something internal with that IC that caused the hesitation? Maybe certain IC’s don’t know building construction like they should, or they simply don’t trust their crews. The list could go on and on. I remember working a shift where we had two fires about 4 hours apart. The first one was a small fire burning in the roofing material ABOVE the metal decking. The IC was extremely hesitant and did not want to put the ladder crew on the roof to get to it. Even after multiple reports from the ladder officer that there was no issue of poor roof integrity.  I was standing under the nice clean, clear roof with smoke and fire free bar joists. This IC, in my opinion, was gun shy and didn’t want to put that crew on the roof out of fear, not understanding. Even over the air you heard them say “can someone tell me this construction type”. I’ll admit, sometimes it could be hard to tell, not at this one. The next fire was an old balloon frame that was lit slam off with the roof starting to come down into the second floor. What happened? A crew was ordered to the roof to vent, when it was clearly not needed. They never went up there. Why the order? Once again, in my opinion, lack of understanding and the need to put a nice check in the box on that tactical worksheet, without thinking tactically.


How about the big one and the drive that made me write this blog, because whenever we are in classes, all we see are videos of poor roof work. I titled this forbidden fruit because these operations are necessary, but are turned into evil by anecdotal stories based on false claims. STAY AWAY cry some with their videos. You see them, your peers see them, and your officers and chiefs see them. Does this leave a poor taste in their mouth when they are sitting in that command seat? Is that video burned in their minds when they are thinking about giving the order? Do they not trust crews to get it done? How about not being done timely enough? This tactic has to be employed rapidly and efficiently. These videos are playing into the problem. Now I am not saying that we can’t learn from them. We absolutely can, but aren’t there others. Aren’t there other incidents we can use during our risk management and situational awareness classes? I would say yes there are. Ventilation class, sure, I can see a few roof videos here and there. Task driven conversation about improving our operational effectiveness can take place. The other classes, I shake my head a little bit and ask, why always with this specific example, when there could be a dozen others?

This was a great point made by fellow REAL Fire Training Instructor Jeremy Williams, and it led into good conversation between us. Do you think if we were able to capture on video all the poor and dangerous interior operations, we would stop performing them? You know they are out there happening. Do you think those IC’s would think the same during their command directions when all they see is poor hoseline management, terrible searches, and frankly people hiding in doorways? By and large we don’t get to see those things on video. Those aren’t the videos that are being displayed in these classrooms. Yet, it’s nothing for someone to pick apart a roof work video that is easily captured on film. It’s in the open, it draws attention and we use it.  I would venture to say if those same instructors, firefighters, or officers had all the videos of the fires they went to that went bad on the interior; they may have a change in their curriculum and message. If you are out there teaching, quit using the excuse of we are killing too many firefighters to keep people off roofs, when that is clearly not the case. How about focus on teaching them how to do roof work the right way (good size-up, reading smoke, construction, tool use etc.) while turning some more focus on those interior operations. You know, where we are actually getting ourselves in trouble the majority of the time. Maybe then we can see that roof work, when done properly, may even drop those LODD numbers some just love to hang on for all the wrong reasons.

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Comment by Mark J. Cotter on December 12, 2015 at 8:30am

It is true that video clips can be used to take a stand for or against any tactic, and their power as a teaching tool must be balanced by an awareness of their limitations as being only a glimpse of a much more complete scenario.  Dismissing such dramatic and potentially misleading images, though, still leaves us with a tactic - roof ventilation - that has significant dangers, beyond falling off or through the roof itself.  Contrary to what we were all taught, believed, and practiced, fire dynamics research has demonstrated conclusively that ventilation increases the heat output of a fire without improving conditions.  While this effect can be delayed for several minutes, depending upon the distance and orientation of the vent to the fire, vertical ventilation immediately atop a fire will result in more intense burning within seconds.  Once water is applied to a fire and its growth has been reversed, ventilation serves the benefit of removing products of combustion.  My argument is that this smoke removal can be accomplished much more easily, safely, and quickly by horizontal and/or positive pressure ventilation.  Even if we all train harder, and improve our ability to scale and cut through roofs, it remains a dangerous tactic with no advantage over alternative methods.

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