Friday the 13th

I’m not the most superstitious person, but I will admit that if I’m working the night tour on a Friday the 13th, my mind often wanders. Unfortunately, a brother firefighter assigned to my company made the supreme sacrifice while we were operating at a stubborn fire in a corner tenement that went to multiple alarms and had two elderly civilian fatalities. Working alongside this firefighter at this fire and working many other incidents over the years gave many of us “on-the-job” knowledge that I’d like to pass along.

Roof Operations. We responded on a multiple alarm to a taxpayer fire; fire was extending into the cockloft of numerous stores. Since we arrived on the second alarm, we parked our apparatus down the block and reported to the command post with our hand tools and power saws. Command ordered us to report to the roof as a company and assist in opening up the roof.

After climbing a portable ladder to the one-story structure, we sounded the roof as we got off the ladder. About 25 feet away, a few companies were working on expanding the coffin cut with fire raging out of the hole. As we began to head in their direction, a few of us began banging on the roof with the heads of the hooks while walking. The firefighter leading the pack said, “We’ll be fine; they’re up here already,” and, with his next step, his boot went right through the roof, burying him up to his knee. We immediately stopped in our tracks and extended a hook to him; he grabbed it, and we pulled him out. Of course, one of the comments was, “Hey, we’ll be fine; no need to sound the roof.”

A few months later, the same firefighter was walking on a roof of a vacant building. As he was banging the hook’s head on the roof, it went through. He looked back at us with a devilish smirk.

Tactical Tip: Roofs may have tarred-over skylights or may be covered over with lightweight materials. Roof sheathing may be weakened by fire. During the nighttime or in heavy smoke conditions, visibility may be obscured; probing forward with a tool may alert you to an open shaftway. Sounding and probing on a roof at any fire are acceptable; if visibility is lost, get down on one knee, leg forward, or crawl and push the saw or tool in front of you to warn you if you’re getting near a hole, a shaft, or the edge of the roof.

Blocked-Up Windows. Normally when we encounter blocked-up windows on vacant buildings, we grab our sledgehammer and begin smashing the block open for access and ventilation. When we operate on the ground floor, many of us were taught that we should strike the block about waist high using a power swing like when swinging a baseball bat. Of course, we’re not striking the center of the blocks (they have a solid seam in the center) or the mortar, but we’ll try to hit just off each side of center-cinder and concrete blocks are normally hollow there and easier to smash open. Don’t be surprised if you find some that have extra concrete poured into their cavities or solid blocks. If you blow through a few about waist high, the top blocks usually begin to weaken because they are unsupported.

Now you can use the sledgehammer’s longer flat head and push inward on the unsupported blocks; this usually causes them to weaken and fall inward. Doing so reduces the chances of their falling outward and landing on your feet, which could cause an injury. Be aware that when you break open a few about waist high, there could be an immediate collapse of the upper blocks, and you’ll find yourself moving swiftly out of the way. Remember to clear out the bottom half of the opening to provide unimpeded access and egress or a better ventilation avenue.

When performing this tactic on multiple floors of a structure, we normally want to start at the highest level so we don’t have to work in the smoke or be exposed to flames if we started low. When we begin breaking open the blocks on the upper floors out of a tower ladder bucket or off of an aerial ladder, we should attack the topmost course of blocks. We don’t want to knock through the center section and have the rest of the blocks fall downward out of the window. These blocks falling down a few stories could possibly strike a member operating below, causing a severe injury.

Another tactic for operating on upper floors in vacants is to take out a few courses of block and then probe inside with a hook for a floor. If there’s no floor and companies are operating inside, warn them of the dangers of the falling blocks through the interior. Many times, firefighters will encounter factories or buildings where large, older-style casement windows have been removed and replaced with blocks. Opening up these areas for stream penetration is often a plan for hydraulic operations, secondary means of egress, or rescue and removal operations.

Tactical Tip: Many of these fortified windows have the blocks flush with the exterior walls. However, there will be times when the blocks are recessed and not flush with the exterior wall. When opening these up, use extreme caution when you swing the sledgehammer or back of the ax. There have been times when the head of the tool has penetrated the block or knocks it completely inside the building and the firefighter’s front hand holding the tool handle strikes the side of the building, causing an injury. Always watch your footing while swinging; broken pieces of block are easy to trip on and you could tumble or fall during your swing.

We can always remember and honor our fallen by passing on what they’ve taught us to those who will succeed us.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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