Belowgrade Access Hazards, Part 1

(1) Photo by Adam J. Hansen.


By Adam J. Hansen and Jason Hoevelmann

Belowgrade compartments have been viewed historically as one of the most dangerous areas in which we operate at structure fires. The types of hazards encountered while descending into these areas are countless because they are unseen during the size-up. These hazards include limited ventilation; heat buildup; stairwells acting like chimneys; storing hazardous materials such as paints, solvents, gasoline, oils; overstoring/hoarding; unfinished living spaces; boilers, furnaces, hot water heaters—the list seems endless.

An essential part of our job is to become familiar with our “first dues” and learn the buildings and hazards within them. As firefighters, we are in a constant state of vigilance. Whether on a formal building inspection or stopping by the deli to grab lunch, we are perpetually aware and looking for likely risks to our members. Every “routine” call presents us with an opportunity to preplan the layout of a structure. Whether dealing with the brownstones of the cities or ranches in the suburbs, we can all walk through the basic layout of the dwellings that make up our territories.

The majority of medical calls that occur in private dwellings tend to take place within the living spaces of structures such as bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and so on. While operating at these calls, it is essential to preplan. Through situational awareness, we can scan our surroundings for things that are out of place, i.e., partitions, boarded up doorways, or other construction features that don’t fit the basic layout of a specific building style.

Although it is essential to get a good layout of the floor plan in living spaces, there are other areas of the structure that could potentially provide us with even more invaluable information. It’s unfortunate that the areas of greatest value in terms of hazard identification are often the areas to which we don’t have access. Sure, we could explain to the homeowner how a tour of his basement would be beneficial for all parties involved during a structure fire, but that would obviously be inappropriate if his loved one, for instance, was in cardiac arrest. Of course there are calls that aren’t true “emergencies” where you can develop a rapport with the family and explain the tremendous value of your crew going down to see the basement. With that said, it’s unfortunate we don’t have the ability to walk through belowgrade areas as much as we would like.

As stated earlier, the potential hazards which present themselves belowgrade are infinite. Through networking and passing down knowledge, most firefighters seem to be well-versed with many of the common hazards that exist. When out with our crews familiarizing ourselves with our districts, every so often we come across one of those “not-so-common” hazards—the type of hazard that catches the eye of your entire crew until one member finally says “well that’s kinda messed up”. This two-part article series is meant to make our fellow brothers and sisters aware of several of those “not so common hazards” with respect to the ingress/egress of belowgrade environments.

Authors’ note: Depending on the type of area in which you work, these hazards may very well be common and present themselves regularly in your daily operations.

(2) Photo by Adam J. Hansen.


Stairway to Nowhere

When operating at a structure fire, as we progress throughout the building, it is essential that we continuously look for multiple points of egress. Emergency situations such as flashover, low air, collapse, or disorientation could force us—within the blink of an eye—to use one of these points of egress. Speaking on a purely “access” standpoint, the more exterior doors and windows we see as we continue in our operations, the safer we will feel.

This sense of awareness should be even more heightened when operating in belowgrade environments. When operating belowgrade, with respect to wood-frame single-family dwellings, we are usually limited to one or (maybe) two access points. These access points include interior staircases; exterior metal hatchways; “Bilco” doors; windows (if they are large enough); or walkout doors, if the topography of the land slopes, this can facilitate a walkout basement on one side of the structure. Although it is of the utmost importance for interior companies to identify all potential areas of egress, it also falls on the rapid intervention team (RIT) to locate, force, and relay all exterior egress points to interior crews operating in the belowgrade environment. With RIT operating on the exterior, it is likely that its visibility is ten-fold compared to what crews are facing inside, therefore enabling it to locate/access these points of egress quicker and more efficiently. Operating belowgrade has its obvious disadvantages. If one becomes disoriented, your difficulties of finding a way out are compounded.

Scenario: After calling your Mayday and giving your report or any other actions your standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) state, you start looking for a way out. As you follow the wall, looking for a staircase, window, or a door, you finally come upon what feels like a staircase. You stop for a brief second to compose yourself and think, “Thank god, I finally found my golden ticket out of this mess.” While reaching the top of the hot flue-like staircase, instead of being greeted by a door or a floor landing (as you would expect), you get struck in the head by a floor joist. Your “golden ticket out” has instead turned into a “stairway to nowhere.”

(3) Photo by Adam J. Hansen.


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Business owners are often limited to the confines of the square footage in which their store front operates. In a strip mall-/taxpayer-type occupancy, tenant access to the basement area is not always a necessity. Therefore, in an attempt to create more usable floor space, property owners often cover right over existing staircases.


Note the obvious line of demarcation which marks the original flooring vs. the floored-over staircase. (Photo by Adam J. Hansen.)


In these situations, the once open staircase is framed over using 2 x 10 or 2 x 12 floor joists covered with ½-inch plywood, and covered with tile, linoleum, carpet, or another type of material. This easy construction remodel creates more backroom storage for the tenant. Although I don’t blame the property owner for attempting to maximize space and profits, it collaterally creates an extreme hazard for unsuspecting firefighters.

(5) Photo by Adam J. Hansen.


If a firefighter finds himself in a Mayday situation and comes upon this stairwell, it’s almost certain he would not be able to breach it. Maybe in a training situation, given unlimited time, he could accomplish this. However, in a zero visibility Mayday situation, equipped with hand tools, it would be near impossible for a firefighter to breach that kind of construction.

From our experiences, these stairways to nowhere are not extremely common; they tend to be present in older construction built during the turn of the century that has been renovated and/or changed occupancies.

(6) On occasion, homeowners build decks over existing access points to their basement. (Photo by Daniella Ragusa.)


Built-Over Access Points

One of the most critical responsibilities of the first-arriving officer is completing a 360°, four-sided size-up of the building. This does not mean doing a quick lap with our heads down to simply check some box on a sheet. Instead, it is meant to collect vital information such as the fire’s location, what it’s doing, and where it’s going. Another imperative function of the 360° size-up is to gain valuable insight of access points, including the following:

  1. The number and location of doors/windows.
  2. Are there any doors/windows that failed to allow fresh air to feed the fire?
  3. What is the number of secondary, tertiary access points to the structure?
  4. Would running a line down the side of the structure and entering the Charlie Side serve to be tactically superior when compared with going through the front door?

(7) Interior view of a staircase that leads to a metal hatchway door. (Photo by Daniella Ragusa.)


With respect to belowgrade fires and the 360° size-up, one area of utmost importance is identifying exterior access points to the basement. This is not the sole responsibility of the first-due officer, but it falls on other companies, most notably the RIT. As discussed earlier, belowgrade exterior access points may consist of hatchway doors, windows, or walkout/garage doors, depending on the lay of the land.

As with the previous hazard, let’s illustrate another hypothetical scenario: The 360° has been completed and the size-up is as follows:  

  • A three-story, wood framed multiple-family dwelling with heavy smoke showing.
  • The fires appears to be in the basement.
  • The only access from the exterior are a few small Hopper Windows. Crews are going to have to make entry through an interior staircase.

Crews begin to operate, stretch a line through the front door, find the interior staircase, and confirm that the fire is in the basement. While operating, a member gets disorientated and calls a Mayday. Seconds later, the Mayday firefighter finds a set of concrete stairs, ascends to find a metal hatchway door, and relays this information to the incident commander (IC). The IC instantly becomes concerned because of the initial size-up stating there was no exterior access to the basement. During the 360°, the hatchway door hadn’t been identified because the door had been previously built over with an exterior deck.

(8) Note the minimal space between the hatchway door and the underside of the deck. If a firefighter attempted to open this door from the interior, the door would open slightly, preventing egress. (Photo by Daniella Ragusa.)


For some reason, the homeowners arrive at a point where they no longer feel it necessary to use an exterior hatchway or window leading to the basement. Whether the reason is the access point was installed in an optimal spot for an addition, a door that is no longer used, or just to cover up an unsightly metal hatchway, many times homeowners build decks right over these access points. It’s a simple move that seems harmless to the homeowner, but can turn into a true hazard to companies operating on the scene of a structure fire.

(9) his deck was built with concealed doors to still permit access to the metal hatchway. (Photo by Daniella Ragusa.)


What complicates this even more is that when we find a skirt tacked on from the ledger board all the way down to the ground. Skirts such as lattice serve to block out unsightly dirt and foundations while unintentionally blocking a firefighter’s view of crucial access points. The first obvious reason for locating exterior access points to compartments belowgrade is for ingress/egress, firefighting operations, and RITs. Skirts also keep firefighters from checking for the potential fire spread. Never mind the furniture and lacquer coverings; the deck serves as a huge fire load. If the fire intensifies and causes a failure of a window or door hidden underneath the deck, fire can spread undetected. If the deck ignites and intensifies, the benchmark of confinement has not been achieved and, subsequently, the complexity of an incident can change within the blink of an eye.

Whether the fire is on the third floor, the first floor, or especially in the basement, it is vital to gain access below these decks and ensure there aren’t any hidden doors, windows, or other access points. Opening up an existing gate or knocking out a cheap/replaceable piece of lattice is imperative and should only take a few extra seconds. This is simple, but it is an often overlooked step that may make the difference in the fire staying contained and your crews remaining safe on the fireground.

Read Part 2


Adam J. Hansen is a lieutenant with the City of Milford (CT) Fire Department assigned to Engine Company #7. He began his career as a volunteer in his hometown of Branford (CT) in 1999 and was hired with Milford in 2006. Hansen is a graduate of the University of New Haven where he earned a bachelor’s of Science in fire science, (fire administration) and a minor in criminal justice. He is a nationally registered paramedic and is a state certified fire instructor 1, fire officer 1, incident safety officer, pump ops, aerial ops, and technical rescue: Trench.


Jason Hoevelmann is a career battalion chief with the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County, Missouri, and is a volunteer deputy chief/fire marshal for the Sullivan Fire Protection District, where he started as a junior firefighter 32 years ago. Hoevelmann has served as second vice president for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, a board of director for the IAFC’s Fire Life Safety Section, and contributes to local and regional organizations. He presents in the United States and Canada on leadership, officer development, strategy and tactics, and incident command. Hoevelmann is also a regular contributor Fire Engineering and is co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.

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