Firefighters and Construction: The Cockloft

Salvatore Ancona has a refresher on tactical and fire dynamics concerns when dealing with cocklofts in buildings.

By Salvatore Ancona

While you’re sitting around, always good to brush up on building characteristics that affect fire operations in a significant manner. Part of every firefighter’s common terminology, the cockloft is ingrained in every single member’s head as a negative building feature, and rightly so. The cockloft is a void space that is created between the top floor ceiling and the roof decking. (1)

Cockloft void space
(1) The cockloft is a void space that is created between the top floor ceiling and the roof decking.

An inherently common feature in Type III (ordinary) constructed buildings, the cockloft is found again in all types of construction. For the sake of conversation we’ll focus on Type III and Type V. The cockloft is created to enhance the slope of the roof, to use as a utility passageway, and to provide ventilation of the top floor as it tends to capture heat at the uppermost floor. (2)

Cockloft diagram
(2) Cocklofts are created to enhance the slope of the roof, as utility passageways, and to provide ventilation of the top floor as they tend to capture heat at the uppermost floor.

Keep this in mind and hopefully take it to your kitchen talks and building construction drills….The cockloft is nothing more than horizontal balloon frame construction. If you know and understand balloon frame, then this should be in your mind in these buildings. This is an often unimpeded passageway for fire to travel and spread throughout a building.

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In commercial buildings, taxpayers, strip malls, row frame houses, low-rise multiple dwellings, and office spaces, cocklofts present a true danger to responding firefighters that intend on making progress. Roof firefighters met with heavy fire as they make inspection holes should relay the possibility of fire in the cockloft as soon as possible. The exception is when you’re met with heavy fire when opening up natural openings such as skylights, bulkhead doors etc. This can mean heavy fire below the cockloft however inspection should be undertaken for possible extension. In scuttle openings, you can break gypsum board to inspect the cockloft. It is important to get ahead of fire in the cockloft, as they can quickly consume multiple units of attached buildings. While this is not a tactics talk, drill on ways to vent the cockloft such as trench cuts or suppression tactics involving cockloft nozzles.

Pressure building up from smoldering and oxygen-deficient void spaces can create a deadly prescription for cockloft explosion should unsuspecting firefighters attempt to pull a ceiling or penetrate the ceiling from underneath. This may ultimately result in the ceiling and fire behind landing directly on top of members. It is very important to check the void spaces within buildings like this quickly and from a safe area, and always with a line in place.

Cocklofts have been the root cause for the demise of multiple buildings and, more importantly, firefighter’s lives for decades. If you respond to buildings of ordinary construction or attached private dwellings, please: check the cockloft regardless of what could be the obvious cause.

Sal AnconaSALVATORE ANCONA is a deputy chief fire instructor at the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy; a member of the Seaford (NY) Fire Department; a former captain and training officer for the Bellmore (NY) Fire Department; and a paramedic supervisor in Queens, New York. He has an A.S. degree in fire science from Nassau Community College and is in the emergency services administration undergraduate program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Ancona is the author of the building construction page “The Sons of Brannigan” on Facebook and was a recipient of the 2019 FDIC International Honeywell DuPont Scholarship.

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