By David DeStefano
Members assigned to vent the peaked roof of single- and small multi-family wood frame dwellings have challenges, responsibilities, and opportunities that are unique among fireground operations. When vertical ventilation is necessary because of fire in the loft, balloon frame construction, or another factors, members operating on the roof may be exposed to significant risk from fire spread and structural compromise as well as numerous environmental factors. It is paramount that the roof team size up the construction features and vent profile including the location and extent of the fire and its potential to endanger their position and options for withdrawal.
After determining that vertical ventilation is necessary and appropriate based on conditions, members must make their way to the roof by the most efficient and safest means available. In most circumstances, an aerial ladder, platform, or ground ladder will be used to access the peaked roofs associated with wood frame single-family or small multidwellings. When setting the ladder, firefighters must be sure that their ladder placement will not jeopardize a safe operation. Avoid setting ladders over windows that are involved in fire or are in the direct path of fire spread as these areas may soon become untenable. Likewise ground ladder raised in the egress path of civilians or the path of hoselines leading to the dwelling may be a severe hindrance to firefighting or evacuations. A suitable location for an aerial device or ground ladder will place access close to the intended vent location with a margin for safe operation and withdrawal.
With the means of access set, the roof team must be sure that they bring the proper equipment to the roof to conduct operations. Store tools like a maul or force ax, a halligan, and a roof hook on the turntable of the apparatus (or in the same compartment) that can be conveniently accessed near the steps leading to the turntable or a ground ladder nest enhances efficiency and lessens the chance that a tool will be forgotten.
(1) A roof team equipped with a bar saw, roof hook, a halligan, and maul ax, ready to go to work on a peaked roof. (Photos by author.)
The same idea applies to whatever type of saw is available (preferably a bar saw) for peaked roof work. In addition to cutting, the roof team will need the ability to push/pull, strike, and pry as necessary to provide ventilation. A force ax or maul, in addition to a halligan tool and roof hook, are usually faithful companions to any roof team. Referring back to initial size-up, the roof members should determine if a long hook will be necessary to push through the ceiling to complete ventilation of the top-floor living space. Many residential occupancies feature loft space well in excess of the six-foot reach of a standard roof hook.
While ascending to the roof, members must continue to be aware of potential fire spread. Visualize soffits, gable vents, the roof line, and top-floor windows for changes in the volume, color, and pressure of any smoke; the appearance of fire; the roof decking; and existing roof features. Once on the roof, firefighters should always try to work from (or tethered to) a platform or aerial device. Based on the location and extent of the fire as well as the stability of the building construction, the roof team may deploy a roof ladder if working from the aerial or platform is not feasible. The roof team must also have a second option available to leave the roof. Members should ensure that a second aerial device or ground ladder is in place. Because egress through an adjoining roof is seldom an option with peaked residential roofs, secondary ladder placement becomes even more critical.
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Because the roof position offers a unique fireground perspective, members operating in this position should attempt to visualize as much as possible on the opposite side of the peak. Often, this will provide a view of side “C,” where it may be difficult for an initial incident commander (IC) to keep track of dynamic conditions. The roof team can report rapid fire/smoke changes, victims at windows, side “C” property hazards, and changes in elevation between side “A” and “C.”
The members operating on the roof should read the fire, the building construction, and occupancy as well monitor reports from interior companies regarding the fire’s location. The roof team must ensure it is working in coordination with the attack companies before opening up. When the proper location for vertical ventilation has been determined and the attack team is in position—close to the fire with the appropriate sized charged line—the roof should be opened. The size of the opening should be large enough to match the fire/heat/smoke. By overextending vertical or horizontal cuts, an opening can be easily enlarged beyond its original size, if needed. If the fire is not in the loft space, roof team firefighters must be sure to push through the ceiling of the living space below; the ideal “push through” would match the size of the opening in the roof deck.
(2) A saw box mounted on the turntable of an aerial ladder containing a bar saw, a halligan, and maul ax quickly accessible for this company’s most common roof operations.
Once the ceiling is pushed through, the return out of the vent hole should match the fire below. If fire conditions on the top floor are reported to be intense or if the fire is reportedly in the loft, a heavy return of smoke/fire is expected from the vent opening. If little heat or “lazy” smoke is showing from the opening, the hole may have been placed over a closet or a room away from the fire with a closed door. If conditions permit, the opening should be extended or a new opening made to directly vent the fire area.
In many single-family and small multiwood frame dwellings, the attic space is boarded over for storage. This will prevent the roof team from pushing through and directly venting the top-floor living space. However, with balloon frame construction, the attic space is a common area for fire spread during a great many fires involving the structure.
When the return from the vent opening matches the fire conditions, the roof team should withdraw from its position immediately after giving a situational report to the IC. This report should include the team’s success (or lack thereof) in venting the fire as well as any fire extension to the loft space. Once all members have left the roof and no other operations are required at that location, the aerial device may be used as a secondary means of egress from one of the upper floors. Place the device at the most advantageous window near interior companies in case their primary means of egress become unusable. Report this placement to the IC for rebroadcast to all companies operating on the fireground. Then, redeploy or rehab roof team members based on their condition.
At peaked-roof small residence fires, the roof team has the ability to effect great relief for interior companies and trapped occupants by venting with a proper fire attack and positioning a ventilation opening, which provides a flowpath for heat and combustion products. The ability to reach the seat of the fire quickly with an aggressive fire attack and then conduct efficient search operations simultaneously undoubtedly saves lives at many residential fires.
David DeStefano is a 26-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of Ladder Co. 1. He was previously assigned as a Lieutenant in Ladder 1 and Engine 3 and a firefighter in Ladder 1. He has a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. He is an instructor/coordinator for the Rhode Island Fire Academy and teaches a variety of fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He can be reached at [email protected].