Engine Company, Firefighting

Recognition and Attack of Basement Fires

Basement fires are some of the most treacherous incidents to which firefighters respond, and a large majority of firefighter fatalities and significant injuries occur at what were ultimately basement fires, Firefighter Nicholas Martin told students at “Recognition and Attack of Basement Fires” on Friday. Today’s fire service needs to recognize these fires early and know the multiple options available for attacking them.

Martin, a firefighter in District of Columbia Fire Department, noted that the department’s last three operational line of duty deaths (LODDs) occurred in basement fires; he dedicated his presentation to their memory. Martin is also a volunteer in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, where in the past few years there have been at least two severe firefighter injuries in basement fires, and the last operational firefighter fatality occurred at a basement fire.

“This issue has struck home for me personally throughout my career. It seems every time I turn around, this issue has taken, or come close to taking, another firefighter’s life,” Martin said.

The class reviewed several case studies involving firefighter injury and near-miss situations, some of which Martin was personally involved in as a firefighter. He said, “By looking at these incidents, some of the things firefighters need to be doing will explain themselves.”

Considerations in these type of fires include the construction and contents of typical basements and their corresponding effects on fire behavior, structural stability, and tactical options, basement checks vs. circle or 360° checks, placement of the initial attack line, attack scenarios for single and multiple handlines, coordinated. attack methods, alternatives for when the first floor is unstable, and rescuing civilians from upper floors.

On arrival, Martin said, it may not be obvious that the fire is actually in the basement. Smoke may be only visible on the upper floors; in one instance, the initial dispatch reported a roof fire. “Beware the house that has smoke coming from everywhere,” Martin warned. You may be seeing just the ultimate result of a fire that originated in the basement. The District of Columbia Fire Department has a specific operating guideline that the second-due company must check the basement for fire and immediately report its findings to the incident commander. Any delay in reporting this information may allow the fire to spread and quickly imperil the structure’s occupants and firefighters operating on the upper floors.

At the scene, check for a basement fire either by performing a 360° size-up of the structure, or entering the basement if necessary. If entering the basement, be prepared for possible clutter (the “packrat syndrome”), gas utilities, and the possible storage of hazmats such as gasoline.

Firefighters, especially those working on the first floor, should always check the floor for integrity, Martin said. With the use of wooden I-beams and truss construction, “Floors today aren’t built the way they used to be.” Moreover, an unfinished basement will burn more readily because the structural wood may be exposed. Check the interior stairs’ integrity before placing any weight on them. If the interior stairs to the upper stories are located above those to the basement; both may have been compromised by fire. Martin warned. 

The importance of verifying the status of the basement early in the incident cannot be overemphasized. “If we know what we are faced with, we can deal with it, but too often, we have no idea,” he said. “We must also realize that there is more than one option when attacking these fires, and that a different approach may be indicated based on our size-up, the building’s construction and layout, and available resources.”

Martin hopes that as a result of this presentation, the message on basement fires will spread through the fire service. “My goal is to make sure that every firefighter knows when they are fighting a basement fire, before it is too late. But with early recognition and sound tactics, we can reduce the occurrence of injury and death that is attributed to these fires.”

Martin, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, wrote “The Two-Team Truck Company,” which appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fire Engineering.