By Thomas N. Warren
Many dangers await firefighters on every fireground. There is always something new to be learned at every fire to which we respond; we should never let any of these new lessons pass without some examination and reflection on our part.
Structure fires are one of the most common responses for firefighters in the United States; they are second only to the category referred to as “outside or other fires.” Firefighters responded to 501,500 structure fires in 2015; therefore, a home structure fire was reported every 86 seconds, and a structure fire was reported every 63 seconds.1 This places firefighters primarily at structure fires, where dangers can be both seen and unseen frequently.
As unpredictable as a structure fires can be, there show many common dangerous conditions on arrival. These conditions, if left unaddressed, can become deadly to those operating at on the fireground. Whether you are the incident commander (IC) or company officer or you’re riding the side of the truck, you can make a quick observation of the situation presented to you at every structure fire. Make mental notes of possible dangerous conditions during your size-up and incorporate any perceived dangers into your incident action plan. Every firefighter at any structure can minimize their exposure to dangerous conditions by looking for common dangerous conditions. A better way to find these dangerous conditions is when fire companies are out in their districts.
After a short amount of time you will find yourself looking for these dangerous conditions on every response, even if it is not for a structure fire. That kind of forward thinking allows you to develop fireground instincts that will keep you and your crew safe.
So, during your size-up, note the following dangerous conditions and include them in your mental size-up process:
You can readily identify window-mounted air-conditioners at every structure fire. The obvious danger they pose is that, during fireground operations, they can become dislodged and fall to the ground, seriously injuring or killing a firefighter operating below.
(1) Air-conditioners in windows. (Photos by author.)
Among the ways these air conditioners can become dislodged from windows are from being hit by hose streams inadvertently directed at the window; firefighting ventilation operations; or, perhaps the most common, they were not properly secured when installed. When you identify window-mounted air-conditioners during your size-up, be mindful that exterior companies should not operate underneath them and interior companies should not direct hose streams toward them. Interior firefighters should pull them back into the building as soon as possible; this will improve ventilation and, most importantly, will eliminate this common fireground danger.
Masonry chimneys are very common in older buildings in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Many of these chimneys need repair. However, they are still standing because the force of gravity keeps them in place. Firefighters engaged in ventilation operations on the roofs of older buildings should be cautious when operating near these chimneys, which can collapse with very little warning. Many times, TV antennas or dishes will be attached to them, making them even more unstable.
(2) A house with a curved chimney. (3) A house with a chimney that is missing bricks.
When these chimneys collapse, they usually come apart in large chunks of brick that will fall to the ground, potentially injuring or killing firefighters operating in that area. Firefighters engaged in roof operations should never lean on or grab these chimneys in any way because they can fail without warning. Aerial devices that contact these chimneys can also knock them over with only minor contact. Fire companies operating elevated master streams should never let their streams contact with these chimneys because the force of the stream can send bricks hurtling to the ground.
“Compromised buildings” is a general term used to describe buildings that are under construction, renovation, or demolition. Buildings that fall into this category have one major feature in common—they are not intact and in usable condition. They may have major structural features missing, rendering them dangerous to enter and prone to rapid fire spread and early collapse.
Buildings under construction will not have fire-rated walls in place, stairways open or missing; stacks of lumber on the floors; trusses/joists exposed; walls held in place by temporary wood bracing; or, in the case of larger buildings, fire protection equipment that has yet to be installed. Buildings under construction generally burn very quickly, radiating large amounts of heat, endangering surrounding structures, and being prone to early collapse.
(4) A building under construction.
Buildings under renovation can look like they are safe to enter as well as safe to mount an aggressive interior attack, but you must still take extreme caution. These buildings may appear to be undergoing minor painting or other renovations, but fire companies may find missing stairs, asbestos abatement, inoperable sprinkler/standpipe systems, missing bearing walls, or piles of building materials laying on the floor. The unknown dangers in buildings under renovation can cause rapid fire extension that can render traditional fire attack principles ineffective.
Buildings under demolition are buildings that the owners have decided to discard. The building is in the process of being destroyed and carted away in dumpsters or large trucks. Firefighters should know that anything of value has been removed from the building and risking an interior attack is not warranted. Access to these buildings may be difficult because of the heavy equipment used in the demolition process. An exterior attack is best with an eye toward an early collapse.
RELATED: Angulo on Smart Decision Making with Computer Fireground Simulators ‖ Humpday Hangout: Focus on the Fireground ‖ Pronesti: Lost in the Fog of the Fireground
Fire Escapes and Barred Windows
Fire Escapes and barred windows are often thought of as being an urban firefighting problem, but these building features can be found in rural, suburban, and urban settings as well.
Fire escapes can be installed on single-family buildings and larger structures in both residential and industrial areas. The most common danger is that these fire escapes are not maintained and can be 75-plus years old. They can fail under the weight of several firefighters (and their equipment) as they operate on them. Even a failing fire escape can hold together long enough for a single occupant to escape a fire, but it’s a different story for a fire company operating on them. Firefighters should look for signs of rusted metal; missing steps/railings; building separation; and, perhaps the most visible sign, rust stains on the side of the building, particularly at the attachment points.
(5) Rust stains on the side of a building from a fire escape.
Barred windows are typically installed on the first or second floors of a structure or near fire escape landings to prevent people from entering the building through the windows. They are most often thought of as crime prevention tools, and to that extent, they are effective. The dynamic changes drastically when the building that has barred windows experiences a fire. People will become trapped inside the building and will be unable to escape through the windows.
(6) A house with barred windows.
Many window bars are simply bolted to the outside of the building, but some have latching devices that can unlock the bars and allow them to swing outward. The unfortunate aspects of this window bar design are that the occupant must operate the latch and that these mechanisms must be maintained.
Another window bar is the type that is installed on the interior of the building to prevent young children from falling out. This type of window bar can be equally dangerous to occupants and firefighters alike. As easily as occupants can become trapped in these buildings during a fire, so too can they trap responding firefighters. When firefighters encounter buildings with barred windows, they must be deployed immediately with power tools to remove the bars, especially if the fire is on the lower floors.
Overhead Wires and Service Drops
Overhead electrical wires are common in every city and town in the country. The wires usually pass along in front of the building, and the service drop carries the electricity from the pole or wire to the building. Firefighters operating apparatus should avoid parking below any electrical wires or service drops. Fire venting from a building and contacting the building’s service drop can allow the service drop wire to fall and hit firefighters or apparatus operating on the scene, creating yet another dangerous, possibly deadly condition for all working firefighters. The wires can energize wet equipment and apparatus.
Firefighters operating aerial devices should be especially mindful of overhead wires and service drops when spotting apparatus, especially in congested urban areas, where it may be impossible to park the apparatus away from overhead electrical wires and service drops. However, make effort to minimize this potential hazard.
(7) A house with overhead wires.
Firefighters should be equally cautious when raising ground ladders. The IC as well as all firefighters operating at a building fire should be well aware of overhead wires and their condition at all times. In these situations, it is best to request the local electrical utility company early to terminate the electricity.
Clearly, there are many more fireground dangers than the five fireground dangers I have discussed here, which also includes falling glass, stabilizing aerial apparatus, lightweight construction dangers, vinyl siding flame spread, abandoned/vacant buildings, high-rise fires, and building collapse. This article features some of the more common fireground hazards that you can identify easily on arrival and incorporate into an incident action plan.
Unfortunately, it is easy to overlook these common fireground dangers at a fast-paced, dynamic fireground operation. It is everyone’s responsibility to operate as safely as possible and identify these hazards early in an incident to allow for safer operations and fewer injuries, or worse. As firefighters, we must make a commitment to the Firefighter Life Safety Initiative: “Everyone Goes Home” after every building fire.
- National Fire Protection Association News and Research, Fires in the U.S. 2015.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
More Thomas N. Warren
- Situational Awareness on the Fireground
- The Firefighter: A Different Kind of Person
- Command Presence: What Is It, and How Do You Develop It?
- Standard Operating Procedures: The First Step to a Safer Fireground
- How Do You Prepare Yourself for Duty?
- The Dangers of Fire Escapes
- Fire and EMS Responses to Violent Incidents: Tactical Considerations