It is 0200 hours, and your first-due engine and truck companies have been dispatched to a possible structural fire. As the engine company arrives, the company officer gives the initial on-scene report: "Engine 1 on the scene of a three-story Type 5 wood-frame (balloon) construction. We have a moderate volume of thick, gray laminar smoke coming from the eaves of the attic space showing from the A, B, and D sides. There are two cars in the driveway. We will be investigating. This will be College Street command."
This initial on scene report paints a pretty good picture for other incoming units. As more units arrive and firefighting efforts start to come together, five minutes have passed and none of the companies have checked the rear or completed a 360-degree size-up to gain additional information since arrival. (See photo 1)
The structure mentioned above is just one of the many 1940s homes located near the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Most of these dwellings are of wood-frame balloon construction with partial to full basements. Each of these occupancies hosts multiple occupants. These large homes have been converted into a minimum of three units and a maximum of up to 12 units. (See photo 2)
During a previous routine inspection at this structure, I had reached the second floor, found apartment #9, and knocked on the door. While waiting, I heard footsteps coming down to open the door. I introduced myself and presented my identification. I asked, "Where is apartment 9?" The occupant replied, "This is apartment 9, follow me upstairs." (See Photo 3) At this point, I was very curious and was thinking to myself, "Are you serious, you're living in the attic space?" I was outraged that anyone would allow another human being to occupy a 15 x 20-foot attic space and actually make a profit from it. As I continued the inspection, I began to question the resident on a few things that I thought were important to her safety, such as:
- What is your evacuation plan?
- What if the stairwell is blocked by fire?
- Does your smoke detector work?
Typically, the answer was none to each of the questions. I proceeded to give her a working smoke detector and went over some options, although they were very limited, and finished my inspection.
Your initial report most likely will not consist of getting all four sides of the structure. It is critical early on that firefighters perform a 360-degree size up. Obtaining a look at the rear, in the above scenario, would have shown us the occupied attic space, which was only visible from the rear. One major clue was the heat and air unit in the uppermost window (see photos 4 and 5). Other major clues were soda cans, patio furniture, and bath towels on the second-floor roof extension. Often students will use these roof extensions for recreational purposes. The 30-second look at the rear can pay huge dividends, if in fact a rescue is warranted.
As a nation, our percentage of fires are decreasing, EMS response is increasing, and many of us are finding ourselves doing more inspection and prevention duties. I know some may think, "I didn't get into this profession to be an inspector or a prevention officer." Please take advantage of the opportunity when you are out on these inspections to gain as much knowledge as possible from these occupancies.
Just because you are not physically dragging someone out of the depths of despair, does not mean you are not saving a life. Now when your department responds to such an area, you will have gained a better knowledge of these occupancies and be more prepared. Remember, we all owe this to ourselves and the community we serve.
Jason Sowders is a 13-year veteran and a company commander/EMT with the Bowling Green (KY) Fire Department. He also serves as the training officer and has served as Firefighter I and II, a fire service instructor, state fire instructor, incident safety officer, and hazmat technician.