The Urban 360

Deploting the Roof Firefighter as the Fireground Commander's 360° Reconnaissance Element

By: Jason Brezler and Jerry Smith
Photos By: Nick Eid, Charles Hudson, Jerry Smith and Jason Brezler

The Urban 360 - An Introduction:

In recent years, a number of fire departments have adopted a standard operating procedure that requires a 360° perimeter survey prior to the commencement of an interior attack at a structural fire. Though the tactical directive mandating a ground level 360° survey is well intended, the practice is commonly rendered impractical in an urban environment.

The urban environment commonly includes large area multiple dwellings, adjoining exposures, and formidable security measures and obstacles which diminish the likelihood of a rapid ground level perimeter survey. For this reason, personnel operating on the urban fireground must employ more varied and flexible means in conducting a 360° survey. In many instances, time and spatial factors associated with the urban fireground dictate that a firefighter assigned to the roof position in a ladder company will be the best candidate to provide the incident commander (IC) with a 360° perspective of the fireground.

A great deal of training material and literature has been devoted to the roof firefighter's ventilation responsibilities, but the equally important task of a 360° survey has often been overlooked. The notion that a fireground commander must appreciate the 'six sides' of the fire building further reinforces the value of the roof firefighter considering that: a reconnaissance from the roof yields rapid observation of fives sides of the fire building. The roof firefighter's timely and effective reconnaissance, or rather 'Urban 360' of the building's sides, rear and roof, affords the IC critical information which impacts both life saving and firefighting operations.

The Purpose and Concept of Operation:

As with any intelligence collections process, pertinent information serves to reduce the IC's uncertainty, and subsequently promotes sound operational decision-making. The primary purpose of the 'Urban 360' is to raise the fireground commander's situational awareness by providing him with timely and accurate information that yields a comprehensive mental picture of the fire building's perimeter.

The fireground commander that enjoys a timely and accurate mental picture of the sides, rear and roof of the fire building is better informed than a commander who merely possesses a visual image of the building's frontage. In a similar sense, the battlefield commander's decision-making process is greatly enhanced when he is equipped with information about the enemy's laydown and orientation beyond what his troops observe to their frontage. Battlefield conditions and terrain commonly preclude a commander from using conventional combat troops to get eyes on the enemy's flanks and rear positions. For this reason, commanders employ a number of intelligence collections resources to include: ground reconnaissance troops, aviation assets and geospatial information systems (ex. overhead imagery) to develop their appreciation for the enemy's overall strength and disposition. Similarly, the fireground commander must rely on a number of resources in order to construct a comprehensive perspective of the fire building; in many instances, the roof firefighter functions as the ideal 360° reconnaissance element. Just as a well trained and disciplined reconnaissance squad communicates critical information to the battlefield commander, the roof firefighter relays decisive information to the IC.

The fireground commander's decision-making process is not only enhanced in its efficacy, but the time cycle is compressed, as the roof firefighter is capable of performing a 360° survey increasingly faster than members operating on the ground. And, as is the case in combat, operating at a quicker tempo than the enemy is a key ingredient to success.

Despite the importance of the 360° survey, the roof firefighter's first order of business when arriving on the roof is to affect a means of vertical ventilation. Ensuring a means of vertical ventilation is critical to operations on the fire floor, and also serves to improve conditions on the floors above the fire. After affecting rapid vertical ventilation - not to be confused with a roof cutting operation - the roof firefighter immediately proceeds to conduct a 360° survey.

At top floor fires, the temptation will exist for the roof firefighter to forgo his perimeter survey and prematurely perform mechanical ventilation with a gas-powered rotary saw or chainsaw. Though an important evolution, the roof firefighter must remain disciplined and perform the 'Urban 360' before engaging in a time intensive ventilation operation. The 'Urban 360' is critical to the fireground commander's decision-making process and thus takes precedence.

Getting into Position:

On the battlefield, reconnaissance operations are contingent on a team's ability to safely and swiftly maneuver into and out of position - without being comprised by the enemy. This requires developing a layered plan that includes a primary, secondary and even tertiary means of insertion and extraction to/from their concealed position(s). Similar to a combat reconnaissance unit, the roof firefighter must make the roof promptly, and have an adequate plan for egress. At a minimum, the roof firefighter should be wearing all of his personal protective equipment (PPE), and equipped with his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), a tactical radio, and a six foot hook and Halligan. The decision to bring tools such as a life saving rope or gas powered saw is contingent on the situation, availability and department policy.

A competent roof firefighter is well served when he contemplates the range of options for both accessing and dismounting from the roof. The roof firefighter's options for accessing the roof include: aerial ladder, tower ladder or platform ladder apparatus when available, a fire escape with stairs or a gooseneck ladder to the roof, an adjoining building of similar height, and winged or enclosed stairs. The roof firefighter must never use a set of open stairs that service the fire floor. Additionally, he should avoid using platform ladder apparatus when possible as it is both time-consuming in operation, and is commonly better served for the removal of occupants and horizontal ventilation operations.

The roof firefighter must notify both his officer and the IC if he is going to be delayed in reaching his designated position - for this will contribute to a delayed perimeter survey, and consequently prolong the fireground commander's decision-making cycle. Though often remote from the main body of fire, the roof firefighter will encounter and navigate an array of obstacles that may include: fences, razor wire, guard dogs, air/light shafts, 'parapetless' roof edges and overhead wires. Additionally, operating during periods of inclement weather, high wind and low light/limited visibility often make ordinary tasks increasingly challenging.

Furthermore, the temptation may exist for the roof firefighter to participate in operations which appear more enticing, such as assisting with the search and removal of trapped occupants on the fire floor or floors above. The roof firefighter must, however, remain focused and disciplined on his assigned duties as they are paramount to an effective fireground operation.

The 'Urban 360' at Large Multiple Dwellings:

Large non-fire proof/resistant multiple dwellings (aka: tenements, apartment houses, et al.) present myriad challenges for the IC. It is not uncommon for non-fire proof multiple dwellings to span more than 100 feet in both width and depth, this a result of the introduction of steel joists and channel rails in the early 20th century. These multiple dwellings possess little in the means of fire protection as they commonly lack automatic sprinklers, standpipes and enclosed stairwells. Additionally, these buildings can reach seven stories in height, requiring extensive hose line stretches which are both time and personnel intensive. Large, irregular, and altered layouts give way to extension, exposure and auto-exposure problems. The inordinate size, layout, potential for adjoining dwellings and likelihood of obstacles often make the ground level 360° survey impractical.

A capable and attentive roof firefighter possesses the ability to provide the IC with critical information in a timely fashion. The roof firefighter's 'Urban 360' must be paradoxically rapid and thorough: A regimented and systematic approach will ensure that the roof firefighter is thorough in his visual assessment of the fire building's sides, rear and roof. The roof firefighter should work his way around the exterior of the fire building in a clockwise or counterclockwise surveying strategic points such as the buildings corners where two sides can be viewed at the same time. Maneuvering at diagonal angles as opposed to pacing the entire perimeter of the roof affords access to strategic points and saves time.

Critical information requirements can be divided into two categories: structural and conditional. Structural factors include those which are permanently organic to the building itself and remain consistent in their impact on the overall operation, regardless of the fire situation. These include: the presence of open or enclosed air and light shafts, rear setbacks, an irregular layout, antiquated dumbwaiter shafts, window bars, fire escapes (or the lack thereof) and any other obstacles or unanticipated features which could potentially impact fireground operations. Additionally, the roof structure itself may possess unique structural features which will impact operations such as penthouses, unconventional roof surfaces, and/or large static loads such as large air conditioning units or cellular phone sites. Raising the IC's awareness of structural factors enhances his mental image of the fire building and enables him to shape his strategy and allocate resources accordingly.

Conditional factors are those which are specific to the fire condition and subsequent events, often making them more time sensitive and fluid in nature. Conditional factors include: the presence of victims trapped or in distress on the fire floor or floors above, fire or heavy smoke issuing from side and/or rear windows, fire extending to adjoining or adjacent buildings, and fire auto-exposing to floors above. It is absolutely imperative that the roof firefighter communicate pertinent information to the fireground commander in a concise and succinct manner: The roof firefighter must ensure that verbal communication captures precisely what is observed in a fashion which can be processed by the incident commander.

Relaying critical information via a tactical radio network also raises the situational awareness of members operating on the fireground, and is likely to influence their actions as well. In an effort to ensure radio discipline, the roof firefighter should elect to only communicate structural and conditional factors which are unforeseen and unanticipated by both his officer and the IC. In other words, the roof firefighter should refrain from reaffirming conditions that are assumed by the IC and members operating, as this merely congests the radio network with unnecessary traffic.

Many departments have adopted operational terms and graphics in accordance with NIMS that identify sectors, divisions, exposures, etc. The fact remains that in many instances it is more beneficial for the roof firefighter to simply use 'plain speak' when communicating the presence or absence of pertinent structural and conditional factors, particularly when his observations are urgent in nature.

The 'Urban 360' at Row Houses:

Similar to the non-fire proof multiple dwelling, row house type dwellings present the IC with a series of challenges from both a structural and conditional perspective. Traditional row houses are constructed of predominantly wood components - frequently brace-frame or balloon-frame construction. Though most commonly constructed of wood, row house type dwellings may be of ordinary construction with brick and joist components, too.

Many cities have witnessed an influx of light-weight row house dwellings in recent decades. Row houses are also referred to as 'row frames', 'townhouses', or 'brownstones' depending on the geographic area, structural nuances, and the neighborhood's socio-economic status. Row houses commonly range in height from two to four stories and are individually 20 feet (width) x 40-60 feet (depth) but often joined together in a uniform row to span an entire city block.

Though it is a necessary task to gain access and ladder the rear with portable ladders, the contiguous nature of these individual structures makes such work both time consuming and labor intensive. Rear alleys are common in many urban areas, but the inability to position ladder apparatus in the rear alley, and obstacles posed by yard fences make operating in the rear equally tedious. Once again, the IC is left with a limited one-sided perspective of the fire building, and most likely to gain a timely and insightful 'Urban 360' from a capable and disciplined roof firefighter.

Again, the focus of the roof firefighter's reconnaissance is divided into two categories: structural and conditional. Structural factors include: the presence of added static loads such as air conditioning units, roof decks or solar panels; the existence of rear setbacks or extensions in the rear; opportunities and/ or challenges for portable ladders (or an existing fire escape as an alternative to a portable ladder); ladder company apparatus access in the rear (alleyways, driveways, vacant lots, etc); the presence or absence of fire stopping between individual structures above and at roof/cockloft level; the presence of window bars, HUD windows, VPS devices, etc in the rear; the presence of open or closed light/air shafts between individual structures; and any other alterations that are likely unanticipated by the IC and members operating. Though originally constructed to house single families, many row houses have been altered to accommodate multiple families. Accordingly, the roof firefighter must communicate any information that confirms a multiple-family dwelling (i.e. presence or absence of fire escapes in the rear). Additionally, any warnings of potential collapse or structural instability should be relayed to the incident commander immediately.

The condition of the roof is often an indicator of the condition of interior floors, particularly in vacant row houses. It is not uncommon for a dwelling to appear structurally sound from the street, but an unstable roof surface inundated with holes or weakened structural members is a strong indicator of structural instability. A preponderance of row houses contains scuttle covers and/or skylight openings on the roof, and on occasion a walkout bulkhead. The potential though exists for a roof to lack any such openings, and such a finding would require a notification to the fireground commander. This notification results in a requirement for the expedited use of a gas-powered saw for not only top floor fires, but also ventilation of the interior stairs for non-top floor fires.

Significant conditional findings for row house dwellings include: the presence of victims trapped or in distress on the fire floor or floors above, fire or heavy smoke issuing from side and/or rear windows, fire extending to adjoining or adjacent buildings, or fire auto-exposing to floors above. Extension to adjoining dwellings is more prevalent in wood row frames due to the increased presence of exterior wood structural features such as: the cornice and flammable materials such as Insulbrick and vinyl siding. Fire travel to adjoining dwellings via the cockloft is a much greater concern at row frame dwellings, particularly in wood row frames due to a deficit of lateral fire stopping materials and a subsequent large, common cockloft. Any indications of fire in the cockloft should be communicated immediately, as top floor fires are extremely resource intensive.


A competent roof firefighter: understands the fireground commander's information requirements, is knowledgeable about building construction, and is most importantly a disciplined operator.

Options for obtaining a 360° survey in urban terrain include: the use of information gathered via detailed pre- planning, the use of overhead satellite imagery, as well as the employment of aviation assets (commercial or government agency) for larger scale operations.

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