Venting the Roof? Mask up!

By: Nicholas A. Martin

To wear or not to wear self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on the roof is sometimes a contentious issue. I have gone back and forth on this question myself, and have operated in both manners; however, in recent years, I have been sold on not only wearing mine, but also on wearing my mask when cutting a vertical ventilation hole. My reasons are partly safety related, but also largely based on operational efficiency. A brief story from a fire a couple months ago will help illustrate my point:

We were the second-due truck and first in companies reported heavy fire conditions in the top floor and cockloft of several two story wood frame townhouses, with fire extending to the exposures. As the truck driver, my duties at this fire would be ventilation of the roof. We positioned the rig in the most advantageous position available, unfortunately, we would not be able to use our own aerial due to the positioning of earlier arriving companies; I would end up using the aerial of the first arriving truck – which had already been positioned.

As my crew split to perform their duties, I donned my personal protective equipment (PPE), including SCBA, grabbed a hook and chainsaw and proceeded to the roof via the first due truck’s aerial. I could see that a good deal of smoke was pushing from the roof of the end two rowhouses, so about halfway up, I stopped to flip my SCBA mask on. For a second, I thought about just putting my mask on and not my hood, thinking what I was really looking for was protection from the smoke and not the heat. Something stopped me though, quite honestly, I thought to myself, “You spend all your time preaching how people should stay ‘combat ready’, if you don’t put this stuff on someone will get a picture and you’ll never hear the end of it” – so I pulled my hood up had flipped my earflaps down, fortunately.

Stepping on the roof, I was glad I had my mask on, as the smoke was pretty thick and I would have been choking on it without the mask. I often hear firefighters say they don’t want to wear their SCBA facepiece on the roof due to visibility reasons. Personally, I don’t get that. In my experience, it’s a lot more difficult to cut a quick, appropriate hole when you’re tearing-up, squinting, and choking. Furthermore, if it’s not smoky when you start the hole, it ought to be when you’re done – the purpose of vertical ventilation is to let the smoke and heat out, so if none comes out of the hole, you probably didn’t need to cut in the first place – or you’re in the wrong spot. Having your mask on will keep your eyes and lungs clear and make quick work of the hole. This would allow you to get on to other pressing truck company duties.

The benefit at this fire went past visibility…. From the roof’s peak, I did a quick louver cut. When the cut was done, I secured my saw on the pitch by sinking the blade straight into a section of roof next to me. This technique allows you to secure the saw while keeping it running should you need to make another cut, all the while keeping yourself protected from the blade. I took my hook and punched down on the louvered section and then through the ceiling below. Instantly, it got very hot and very orange. I could feel my left side heating up, I quickly pulled my hook out and retreated towards the aerial managing to save my saw on the way. Moving back towards the aerial took only a few seconds, and when I turned around to look at the vent hole the area was completely engulfed in fire.

At the bottom of the aerial some firefighters greeted me with great concern, at the time I wasn’t sure why. It was then that I noticed that my entire left side was charred, along with my hook. My SCBA facepiece was bubbled from the heat on the left side and the left side of my earflaps had burned through. My radio, which was underneath my coat, was partially melted.

What would I look like from the neck up if I hadn’t been wearing my mask? What if I had been wearing leather work gloves instead of firefighting gloves? The shell and lining of my relatively new turnout gear was charred and ended up being condemned.

This is the first time in many years that wearing my bottle on the roof has saved me from injury, but the other point is operational efficiency. Being able to see and breathe clearly let’s you work faster, and deal effectively with increased smoke development. Choking on smoke and having to move away from your cut delays ventilation and increases your chance of not completing your assignment. It’s easy to be lulled into complacency by your years on the job, or that fact that nothing bad has happened to you yet.

Roof operations are a necessary component of the initial operations at many fires. The roof is inherently dangerous because you are always above the fire. When performing vertical ventilation, you cannot reliably predict how and if conditions will change. When working on a pitched roof, your options for retreat may slow. In this scenario, trying to put my mask on after the fire vented would have been too little, too late – this all happened in seconds. In my estimation, had I not had my mask on, I would have in the best case scenario to receive significant burns to my face; and in the worst case scenario fallen off of the roof or into the fire.

I am not a fan of walking around the fireground with my SCBA facepiece on. One of the best skills I was ever taught was how to quickly flip my facepiece on and pull my hood up. With practice, I have the technique down to about ten seconds, with my firefighting gloves on. I would advocate that every firefighter acquire this skill as it will serve you at every fire, regardless of your position.

As firefighters, we must endeavor to stay combat ready; It’s a simple concept. Everything we do in our firefighting career should be guided by one simple question: “What is the most operationally efficient thing to do?” Think about working smarter, not doing what makes you look “cool.”

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