Dangers Lurking Above


Dangers Lurking Above

Once a fire is knocked down, one of the functions of a truck company is to overhaul the fire area—to check or search for fire extension and allow the engine company to wash down any smoldering areas, bays, or structural elements (wall studs, ceiling and floor joists). Many of us have been taught to open up past the area of fire involvement until we hit the “clean” or unburned area so we ensure the fire hasn’t spread beyond that point and we don’t run into our fiercest enemy hours later: “Mr. Rekindle.” Overhauling is done when the fire has been knocked down; “opening up” is performed while still chasing extending fire in voids, ceilings, walls, and attic spaces.

Concrete Ceilings

Opening up the ceiling of a bathroom with an extending fire in a multiple dwelling seems very simple for one firefighter to perform because the room is only about four feet wide by about eight feet deep. However, firefighters must think and be wary of what lurks above them. When the tubs were installed, they were set in concrete; over the years, that material can break down and become a severe hazard for the firefighter operating below. If the floor joists were compromised by fire, the weight on the floor above could cause a sudden and unanticipated collapse, or chunks of concrete can and have come crashing down on unsuspecting firefighters operating below.

Recently at a job we encountered, there were three ceilings installed in a renovated bathroom: a drop panel acoustical tile ceiling, drywall above that, and under them the original lath and plaster ceiling. When the ceilings were pulled by a firefighter who was operating under the room’s door frame for safety, large chunks of concrete dropped from the ceiling. After the area was opened up, a young probationary firefighter with the nozzle went to stand in the room to extinguish the fire in the ceiling and running up the pipe chase. He was quickly pulled back and told to lean up against the door frame for support and safety. When he opened up the nozzle and directed it above, other large chunks of concrete dropped from the ceiling.

Demolition Demons

While operating at a good job in a Cape Cod-style dwelling with a shed dormer put onto the rear of the second floor of the structure (an addition that extends living space with full height and width to the structure), we had an incident occur to one of our members. It was a rather simple job with the engine stretching right up the interior stairs and knocking down almost both rooms on each end of the home from the top of the stairway. Since it was a vacant dwelling, we all were concerned about searching for any squatters who may be inhabiting the structure. Plus, since the dilapidated building had seen better days, we wanted to ensure that the stairs wouldn’t collapse, so we limited the number of firefighters operating on them. Often, that can be a tough job, especially with our mentality of, “I want of piece of this,” but sometimes we have to put the bravado aside and think about what our actions can cause—especially while operating in a vacant or 100-year-old building with age-worn stairwells.

As we got into the rooms to open up the ceilings, we noticed the dormer wasn’t fully running the length of the structure and it had been brought in about three feet on each end. Seeing pockets of fire in this void area above our heads, we began to pull the ceiling down to expose the fire for the engine to knock it down. Without warning, as our hooks touched the ceiling and we began to pull, a large section of ceiling collapsed on us with a lot of speed and force. In the smoke, you couldn’t notice why that happened, but as it hit one of the firefighters and dropped him to the floor, you knew there was a problem. Instead of removing the old shingles to the dumpster while renovating the building, workers hid them in the void space. Luckily, the whole pile didn’t hit the firefighter operating below it, and when he got back up to continue opening up, the only thing hurting was his pride.

Brick and Block

Working in a predominantly multiple dwelling area, we’ve responded to numerous fires that have extended to and involved the cockloft area. Pulling ceilings at one top-floor multiple alarm fire had our company split into two teams to open up a large area a few apartments over from the original fire apartment. Our tactic was to open up a large enough space to direct a hoseline into the area and stop the rapidly advancing fire.

Luckily, we found a sturdy table in the kitchen, and the firefighter operating the nozzle stood on it so he could get the stream onto the bulk of the extending fire. Trying to supervise both rooms of firefighters was a bit difficult to do, and when you hear a sudden “Watch Out!” followed by a thunderous boom of something hitting the floor, your heart sinks for a second or two.

Rushing into the other room, the firefighters gave me the “that was a close one” stare, but they were continuing to pull the ceiling as another engine company stood by waiting to hit that area of fire approaching them. The loud boom was from falling bricks that must have been extra and too hard to carry down six floors when the construction finished 100-plus years ago. It surely was an eye opener, and if anyone was standing directly below while pulling the ceilings, they surely would have been injured. Whenever we operate at larger dwellings, we must keep in mind that brick nogging may exist as a fire wall and can be an overhead hazard as well.

When opening up or overhauling, don’t work directly under the ceiling you’re pulling. Surprises are meant for parties, not fires.


MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 33-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 International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.

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