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Part 2 of basement fires will branch out to cellars and basements in commercial taxpayers, garden apartments, brownstones, rowhomes, and structures on slopes and hills. For part 1, click here.

Obviously, there are some similarities between residential and commercial basements and cellars. But there's also many differences that we must recognize related to construction, occupancy, access, and renovations. Not all basements/cellars are the same. We should prepare for the various types of basements, cellars, sub-cellars, and half-stories we will be descending into under fire conditions. 

Example: Most private residential homes will usually have an interior stair access to a basement, or an exterior bilco to the cellar. Most garden apartments will have an exterior entrance on the side of the building leading to laundry facilities, storage areas, and utilities. Most urban taxpayers will usually have an interior trap door leading to the cellar, and a sidewalk or bilco entrance on the exterior. A row of ordinary constructed taxpayers may have a shared or common basement. Brownstones will have basement apartments a few steps down, and a cellar below that space. Again, different basements require different tactics.

For me personally, I already expect different types of basements and cellars in my urban department compared to my metropolitan department. There will also be differences when it comes to construction, response time, reflex time, manpower, ventilation, forced entry, access, and fire attack. 

Be prepared for long stretches when courtyards are present.

Garden Apartments: For basements and cellars in garden apartments, the major concerns will be vertical fire spread, limited ventilation, long hose stretches through court yards, and locating nearby hydrants for water supply. Depending on the setback, aerial operations can be another issue. 

As for floor and stair collapse, most garden apartments have exterior entrances or common areas to access the basement, unlike a residential basement in a SFD where firemen have to crawl over the fire below them to reach the interior stairs. The more likely danger in a garden apartment is collapse from above coming down on top of firemen.

Typically, the garden apartment basement will house utilities, laundry facilities, and storage areas for each apartment. There may be crawl spaces depending on the unit. There are plenty of fuel loads and void spaces present for rapid vertical fire spread in these basements.

Construction: Garden style apartments are usually 2-4 stories, ordinary or frame construction with common stairs, or straight stairs for individual apartments. Some may have a lower basement apartment a few steps down below the curb line. 

*I do not see many similarities between garden apartments and townhomes as I do with garden apartments and condominiums. Even some motels are similar to garden apartments, while townhomes are more comparable to rowhomes. Thoughts?

2nd Alarm: During late evening and early morning hours, when heavy fire is present at a garden apartment complex, call an extra alarm. More manpower will be needed to awake and remove sleeping occupants in exposures, which are usually on top, bottom, left and right. In addition, manpower for opening up the walls and roof ventilation will be needed to halt fire spread to the cockloft and adjacent apartments. Most garden apartments have fire walls, but there are times when heavy fire can jump them. 

Incident: After moving to New Jersey from New York as a kid in 1980, we settled in to a suburban garden apartment complex. A few months later, I remember being awoken in the middle of the night by neighbors banging on the door yelling "fire!" Fortunately for us, the building across the courtyard was burning. The entire building went up in flames and through the roof destroying all 12 units.

It was later determined that a teenager with a criminal background was responsible for setting the blaze, initially starting a small fire in a cellar storage unit in the building. The fire department responded and put the small fire out. But they forgot to open up the walls behind the storage unit to check for extension before leaving the scene. A few hours later at 3 AM, they returned to heavy fire conditions. By sunrise, the building was a charred convertible with all 12 apartments destroyed, including the apartment where the arsonist lived with his family.

Overhaul: It's critical to open up and check for extension during a fire in the subdivision of a garden apartment. There are numerous families above, and that living space must be protected from hidden fire spread. There's plenty of voids where fire can travel from the cellars of garden apartments up to the multi-family units above with stacked kitchens, bathrooms and utility runs. The apartments above must also be checked. It's not 1980 anymore, most fire apparatuses  have TIC's and hooks. Use them to prevent coming back for the big one and avoiding embarrassment. 

Half Story: Some garden apartments and brownstones will have a half story subdivision apartment. This living space can be located anywhere from a few steps down, up to a half a flight down. 

If it's a half-story or less below the curb, some will make the case it's a first floor (and a story). If a cellar exists below that floor, others will identify it as a basement apartment. 

The 'half-story' and basement vs first floor'argument in these buildings are often the subject of disagreement between members of the fire service. Whichever identification is preferred, remember it's more important to recognize the dangers of advancing down into a burning basement from above.

Whichever term is used, it is technically a below grade fire and should be fought with that in mind. 

Force Entry: Most basements will require conventional forced entry with the irons. Some may require bolt cutters for padlocks. Some doors leading to the basement are outward opening metal doors that can be handled with the irons. Whether spreading the door from the jam, or removing hinges, truck companies sizing up the doors in garden apartments should also bring the hydra-ram in case an inward metal door exists. Some doors are actually basement apartments where the 'super' lives. 

Image may contain: outdoor

This must be reported to the IC when discovered. (Photo by Brian Butler)

Some lower floor apartments in urban areas will have bars on the windows. These should be removed immediately by a proactive RIT team. 

Fire Attack: For basements where a long stretch from a courtyard is required, account for friction loss. Our city has a "4 and 4" on the back of the engine. Four sections of 3" hose connected to a gated wye, and another 4 sections of 1 3/4 hose. Consider a similar setup when stretching long distances. 

Photo by Brian Butler

For basements with interior access such as a lower floor apartment, using an 1 3/4 or 2" for speed and maneuverability is recommended; Especially in an occupied and compartmentalized apartment.

For large open non-living space basements with exterior entrances on the side of garden apartments, when met with heavy fire conditions, using the 2" or 2 1/2 hoseline can more easily be stretched down the stairs to an exterior basement door. Control the door until the line is charged and ready to give the basement a 250 GPM shot with a solid bore nozzle. 

REMEMBER: I can't stress enough the practice of keeping a taut hoseline when advancing into these larger open windowless cellars and basements where there is only one way out (the way you came in). Following that line out is much easier when it's not looped around and over-stretched. Unfortunately, there are also times when the attack teams own worse enemy will be "spectator" firefighters who may have good intentions, but who are crowding and blocking the attack teams egress. They are more useful at the exit feeding line, chasing kinks, and having a TED to help members return to the access/egress point. Most firemen would rather be on the line and not have that duty, but we should be thinking about our brothers inside. Always remain in contact with the hoseline. 

Ventilation: With garden apartment subdivisions, there are not many options when it comes to ventilation. The exterior window is helpful for checking fire conditions, transitional attacks, and hydraulic ventilation, which is why I always suggest a breakaway or fog for the second or third line. Some common basements may have two access/egress doors on each side of the building. Use caution if considering opening both doors to attempt horizontal ventilation that you don't create a dangerous flow path for the hose team.

Warning: Do not break a basement window on the windward side when fire attack team is advancing! This will create a dangerous flow path for the members operating inside. Check wind conditions before venting those windows and coordinate the ventilation timed with the attack teams application of water. 

Using PPV (positive pressure ventilation) in basements is another controversial subject. Some suggest using it when there's an opening on the other side of the basement, and others oppose it all together. PPV in cellars and basements can be dangerous, counterproductive, and contribute to fire spread on the upper floors. The decision to blow air into the fire room with active fire to make a rescue is something to consider depending on the circumstances, and the options available to the IC. In general, introducing that air to any fire involved void spaces will rapidly intensify fire spread to the upper floors.

Taxpayers: Basement fires in taxpayers are extremely dangerous. In addition to descending below grade from above, there's the possibility of floor and stair collapse, disorientation, entanglement, flashover, and other dangers we fear during basement or cellar fires. Another potential problem with a fire in the cellar of a taxpayer is the difficulty locating access from the interior, especially when there's poor visibility. Access may be through a hinged trap door in the rear of the structure or an adjoining occupancy if the stairs or door on the first floor has been sealed off with plywood. The best way to locate access points is to preplan the taxpayers in your district 

Preplan: During building familiarization in a row of legacy ordinary taxpayers in my first due, one of the them had the cellar stairs sealed off with plywood at the top near the first floor. This is done to keep burglars from gaining access to the store from the common cellar.

Keep in mind with a well involved fire in a cellar, going down through a trap door as a pose to interior stairs is extremely rare. With all the products venting up through the hatch, water should be applied from above first with coordinated ventilation from a sidewalk or bilco doors.

2 Buffalo firemen were killed in this commercial store fire after the floor collapsed. 

The major concerns for firemen are floor and stair collapse, backdraft, rapid fire spread, limited secondary means of egress, poor visibility, limited ventilation, and descending down to make the push, In older taxpayers, entrapment from entanglement or being disorientated in a renovated maze with storage racks, stock, and no windows present are major concerns for the attack team. It's also important to check floor stability when above a burning basement, especially in a taxpayer because of the heavy weight added to the floor. Remember when stretching hoselines to not have so much excess hose. Keep it taut and stay in contact with the line in case things go bad and you have to follow the line out. 

(For RIT duty, see basement fires part 1)

Buffalo LODD's. Photos by CDC NIOSH

Most urban taxpayers are ordinary construction, renovated, and contain numerous hidden void spaces. Often compartmentalized with residential upper floors, the 1 3/4 or 2" handline with solid tip is ideal for these jobs. As always, we charge the line before descending into a burning subdivision. The backup line must also be charged and at the ready before initial fire attack advances. 

Ventilation options will have to be determined when arriving to a fire in a taxpayer. There may be a fire in a sub-cellar with no options to vent. Look for sidewalk doors that access the basement as a ventilation or attack option. When using interior stairs leading to the basement for fire attack, the sidewalk or bilco doors are ideal for ventilation. The taxpayer basement fire will most likely NOT have windows sufficient for effective ventilation, so look for exterior access doors during the walk-around. Another option would be to cut a h o l e  in the floor near a window and let it vent through there. This will be difficult in smokey fire conditions, and also jeopardizes cutting floor supports.

If there are windows present in an urban taxpayer, they are likely to have security bars. Assign a proactive RIT team to cut them immediately so they can be used for ventilation or firefighter egress during an emergency.

Many old style taxpayers were constructed with common basements and have been renovated, partitioned off and used for stock/storage. They could resemble a maze with the only second means of egress being a fortified street cellar door.

Modern taxpayers (strip malls) of non-combustible or lightweight construction are usually built on a slab and do not have basements or cellars. Their major concerns are the cockloft area. Fire preplans are necessary to identify cellars and sub-cellars.

Photo by CDC NIOSH

Slopes/Hillsides: Some buildings may appear to be 3 stories from the front, when in reality it may be 5 stories from the rear with a basement and cellar unnoticed  from the front of the structure. While a 360 is not always possible in urban settings, company officers still must ensure that they are not entering ABOVE a fire 1-2 floors below them without knowing it. The rear may also be the best access to the fire area. The fire attack team may believe they are entering the front door to the first floor, when in reality they may be on the 2nd or 3rd floor. These structures are present in "hill" and "sloped" regions like Pittsburgh and San Francisco, cities that have lost firefighters in these types of structures.

Brownstones: Like some garden apartments, brownstones will have an apartment slightly below grade and possibly a cellar below that. It's important for truck companies to coordinate ventilation with the fire attack team using any window available to them. For additional ventilation, consider cutting the h o l e in the apartment above near a window. Cellars in brownstones are difficult when it comes to effective ventilation. 

Subdivision apartment fires require adjacent apartments and above to be searched along with the rear of the building. If smoke is showing from the 2nd and 3rd floor of a brownstone, the first engine officer in on fire attack must ensure the fire is not burning in an apartment below. Advancing the line above a fire with poor visibility can have deadly consequences. Take the extra minute to recon the floor below. Intense heat is an indicator of fire below!

The Beacon St fire in Boston that claimed the lives of 2 firefighters originated in a brownstone subdivision and was intensified by wind coming off the back bay at gusts of 45 MPH See LODD report, click here...

Photo by Ryan Wenger

Rowhomes: Basement fires in rowhomes are common in urban areas. With rowhomes, the major concerns are exposed joists, hoarding, open utilities, weakened stairs, and small windows (well windows) which create a problem for egress and ventilation. Some rowhomes will have bilco doors. Another problem with rowhomes, unless it's the end of the row, there's no B and D side, so laddering the rear and accessing the bilco doors will have to be done through an exposure. It's not uncommon to walk through someones living room and kitchen with a ground ladder (or saw) and hop a fence to get to the rear. If there's an apparatus friendly alley in the rear, use it. 

Photo by Brian Butler

Incident: In 2004, I was assigned as nozzleman for Engine Co. 6 in East Trenton. A structure assignment came in during the middle of the night. We arrived as the first engine and had two well-involved 2 1/2 story rowhomes with fire on the first, second floor, and the rear. The building (now a vacant lot pictured above) was mostly boarded up with HUD windows. I call these"occupied" vacants. You could hear the sounds of people screaming for help on the second floor.  

Upon entering the front door into the living room, we were met with high heat and a free-burning fire in the rear. We crawled towards the interior stairs with the line attempting to make the landing, where our plan was to knock down fire on the first floor, and protect the stairs for the trapped occupants above. Without warning, half way across the living room I dropped and fell through the floor decking, luckily landing on a joist right between my legs. 

Unknown to us at the time, the basement below was heavily involved. My helmet fell into the basement, my legs were below the floor dangling in the basement, and heating up. I turned to my Captain and told him to grab my SCBA harness until I pull my legs out. Other members were trying to access the upper floors through the rear, but with heavy fire in the basement, the IC was notified to keep firemen out of the building because of the floor burning through. The vagrants who were trapped upstairs perished. A wall had to be breached to recover them after the fire. 

I didn't think much of it at the time, as many firemen plunge through decking at some point in their career. But it could have also been bad for us if not for a little luck. Fortunately for me, landing dead center on a charred joist that was strong enough to hold me up was better than falling between them and getting stuck. Whether wedged or stuck in jagged plywood, my legs could've burned before I was freed. Again, luckily pulling my leg out of the decking without it getting stuck on split wood was not an issue. And had the joist failed, I would have went into the burning basement.  

I also missed seeing a dangerous warning sign upon entering the building. The building was marked  "X" a hazardous structure. But we could not see this mark because cold smoke in single digit temperatures kept it low, concealing the faded orange mark on the building. 

After the fire, I went back in to try and retrieve my helmet from the basement. An officer was standing near the h o l e  looking at me and said, "yea that h o l e would've swallowed you up." 

I would encourage new firefighters to focus on familiarization of hazardous buildings, basement fires, floor support systems, and recognizing as many key size up indicators as the building is giving you.  


Many firemen have lost their lives fighting basement fires through no fault of their own. Let's face it, it takes a certain metal and courage to descend into an inferno from above, and not everyone can do it. Despite some of the propaganda television shows, kiddie camps and other false narratives out there, no.. this job is NOT for everyone.

Basement fires kill more firemen than any other area of the structure because they're the most dangerous. It's not our job to stand outside the building and watch it burn to the ground. Unless there's obvious signs of collapse, hostile fire events's not 'careless' to advance a line into a basement fire, it's our job. If while doing our job, unpredictable deteriorating conditions occur so rapidly we can't escape, it's extremely unfortunate. We can only prepare as best as we can and hope Murphy's Law doesn't show up at our next basement fire.

It's a dangerous job, and there's certain risks that come with being a fireman. Sadly, even the most courageous, knowledgeable, and elite firemen have lost their lives going above, beyond, and below. 

Photo via FDNY

Photo via FDNY

This post is dedicated to the memory of FDNY Lt. Michael Davidson.


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Comment by Kevin Dippolito on April 17, 2018 at 2:41pm

Brian, another good post. Thanks for taking the time to put that together.

Stay safe.

Kevin Dippolito,

Fire Marshal, Bristol Township (PA)

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