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Watching the Roof for Changes During Operations

I am posting this to share an experience I had at a structure fire a couple days ago. I try to take something away from every run, as most of us do, and this particular fire proved to me why proper sounding when performing roof operations is so important. I have gone on record and said before, and will say again, I am not a truckie from a large metropolitan department. I have performed vertical ventilation on multiple occasions with success and consider myself average with a decent knowledge of the practice, but the culture of roof operations is not strong in my area like the metro areas and the left and right coast. I honestly couldn’t tell you of a department in my area that is truly known for aggressive roof operations. There is a department of nearly 20 stations right next to me and I have never heard of them making the roof and opening up on a regular basis, but they may do so and I just don’t know about it.

I make it a goal to maintain a wide lens with my mind on how the fire service truly operates and not tunnel vision in on the things going on only in my area and departments. I have spent the last several years studying roof operations and putting time in that area during training and on runs when I can and the main reason I’ve done this is because the busiest of departments all seem to make the roof and open up on a very regular basis. It is a tried and true tactic that works; so why does it always catch a bad rep? I think the people who harp on it the most are the ones who know the least about the tactic overall. They see a picture or read a couple reports of firefighters falling through roofs and they get gun shy. They start to preach about the dangers of the roof and how you will die if you get on one, especially lightweight construction. There have been five firefighter fatalities since 1994 while performing vertical ventilation and of those five; most didn’t have their full personal protective equipment on. Although the roof offers several challenges and it can be one of the most dangerous places on the fire ground; it’s no more dangerous than being on the nozzle pushing down hallways laden with heat, knocking out primaries ahead of the line, or throwing a fan in the front door for positive pressure attacks. We do all of these things with a risk vs benefit reward and utilize a size-up with constant situational awareness to help calculate our decisions.

This particular fire started low (possibly outside) and immediately made access in the attic space. We know attic and top floor fires are the best candidates for a successful roof operation. I arrived on scene first and performed the 360 prior to the Engine’s arrival. The first thing I noticed when I completed it and got my last big picture view was fire showing all the way along the ridge line. This told me right there that the fire was throughout most of the attic space and had burnt through the ridge cap of this metal roof; this was clue one that the roof could be losing its integrity if we didn’t get in there and make a stop on it from below rather quickly. The Engine arrived and we made an offensive attack inside with aggressive hook work. We put a quick stop on a rather fast moving attic fire; it helped that this house wasn’t big. While hooking for the nozzle man towards the end of the fire I realized a couple things through the smoke with help from the light of the fire. There were few rafters left where I was hooking at because they had burnt away. I had walked outside of this house a couple times to look at the roof and smoke conditions to check our progress. When I walked out the first time I asked the IC if he thought it was worth opening up and he stated we just about had it knocked out and to keep doing what we were; it wasn’t until the second time I walked out of the house and checked our progress that I noticed the roof line about midway down the ridge and extending to the delta side was approximately a foot lower than the rest of the roof. This confirmed to me the rafters had burnt out and the roof was near a potential collapse point. When I got back with my fire attack group I advised them to stay near the doorway or load bearing walls to finish it off and mop up. It was a midday fire in my volunteer department so manpower wasn’t readily available. The numbers weren’t bad but when you dish out a safety officer, accountability officer, IC, pump operator, and run a tanker operation on the river, in the county, with four trucks beached in the neighbor’s yard for access; the people for firefighting and roof work start to dwindle. We made it work, and did so well.

So, now to the point of this article, if the IC had put a crew to the roof to open up for us would it have been a safe operation? I think there truly isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question. It would all depend on what point during the fire they got up there and who the crew was. This particular operation would’ve taken a knowledgeable roof crew who knew the proper sounding techniques and how to travel the roof for it to be a success. They would’ve had to make the roof, open up quick, and get down quick. It would be even more dangerous had they gone to cut an offensive heat h*** where all the rafters were completely gone and not just weakened, compared to just dicing the ridge line slightly away from the fire. When the fire was out and we were mopping up I had some photos taken of the areas where the rafters were intact but the decking under the metal covering had burnt away and then the areas where both were completely gone. This view from the outside early on would've looked like a good solid metal roof and without proper sounding techniques a crew up there would’ve stepped on nothing but thin sheet metal and had fallen through. This is a tactic that shouldn’t be taken lightly and IC’s should send their most knowledgeable crews for the job. It's also important than interior operations relay information such as this to the roof crews and IC, it could literally be a damn life saver.

This is a reminder for some of the proper sounding techniques:
• You have five senses, you need them all on the roof, so pay attention
• Slightly bend your knees and stay low for balance while sounding
• Strike the tool with enough force to simulate your body weight
• Strike in different areas as you move along and not multiple strikes in one spot
• Tools have length for a reason, use it. Reach out and strike ahead of you and not at your feet

Other Key Points to Note:
• If you don’t know the task at hand, then don’t do it
• Inspection cuts are your friend and a must on advanced attic fires. It may be necessary to cut one right at the ground ladder before committing to the roof
• The decking fails well before the rafters, even in lightweight construction with metal connectors, so know your local building codes on rafter spacing and decking thickness.
• Balance the load whenever possible with roof ladders and don’t “hang out”
• Whenever possible travel exterior load bearing walls; don’t walk “cross county” to get to your cut location. Walking along the ridge line isn’t always the best practice either in structures without a true ridge beam. LWC with ridge blocking and/or structures with a false ridge can be deadly. This goes back to knowing your local codes and getting out and inspecting these houses and buildings during their construction phase
• Watch vent pipes. They don’t just “grow”. If you notice they’re normal when you get up there and they’re “taller” minutes after, you should be suspicious of roof sag. So maintain situational awareness and watch various pipes while up there.

I hope this short article finds you well and gives you some material to review with your crew members. This is a good opportunity to refresh on the bullets above and take them out in the streets to get on some roofs or look at a building under construction. If you aren't the most knowledgeable person about construction practices then let someone else in the group who is head up the training. That will build crew confidence and allow someone else to shine!

Stay Safe and Stay Low

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