Fighting Fires on Rooftops Undergoing Rehab


A fire within a structure can pose any number of challenges for firefighters. Take the same fire and place it outside and on the rooftop of the building, and now you have the makings of an extreme challenge. The Wheaton (IL) Fire Department has faced this extreme challenge several times over the past few years in structures whose roofs were being replaced or repaired. The first was on the rooftop of the four-story Billy Graham Center-Barrows Auditorium on the campus of Wheaton College, the second was at one of our high schools, and the most recent was an extra-alarm fire on top of a local two-story elementary school. In these incidents, the fires involved not only the roof structure itself but also stored construction materials in the area for the rehab work in progress. Additionally, firefighters were confronted with heavy fire conditions at the onset of the incidents and faced significant operational challenges. During these operations, we had to address numerous considerations to achieve a safe and successful outcome.




General rooftop operations during an interior-based building fire normally present a variety of hazards. A firefight on top of a roof under rehabilitation in some cases can be significantly more dangerous, necessitating the need for an absolute focus on firefighter safety. Be alert for the following hazards: fall hazards because of the height of the building and openings in the roof related to the work; obscured vision because of heavy smoke conditions that are typically thick and black as a result of the materials on fire; weakened structural members caused by the normal roof envelope’s being compromised during work and the potentially excessive loads in play (stored materials, rooftop units, and excessive live loads); extreme weather conditions as a result of the time of year (i.e., summer months in areas with seasonal changes) in which the rehab work is being completed; the presence of hazardous materials such as propane, gasoline, and sealant materials; and the application of nonroutine tactics that are typically personnel intensive and necessitate creative methods for execution.

Click to Enlarge
(1) Billy Graham Center-Barrows Auditorium rooftop fire. (Photo by Stephen J. Wilcox.)

Firefighters operating in these conditions must wear all of their personal protective equipment (PPE) including self-contained breathing apparatus. At first, personnel may gravitate toward not donning face pieces based on the assumption that they are outdoors. However, it is critical that personnel use full respiratory protection because of the potential for shifting and toxic smoke conditions. Firefighters operating with face pieces must be diligent to maintain an awareness of their proximity to roof edges and openings. PPE also helps to reduce the chance of burn injuries that flying embers and brands may cause. PPE is also critical for members operating beneath the roof sheathing or on the top floor; hot melting tar can cause significant burns to an unsuspecting firefighter below. Also, if smoke and fire conditions obscure their path of travel, firefighters must get down low and crawl while probing out in front with a tool to check the roof.

The complexity and location of the operation make it essential to quickly implement the incident management system. In addition to the routine elements of the command structure, multiple safety officers are needed to monitor conditions. During the operations at the Billy Graham Center fire, I was the sole safety officer for some time and was quickly overwhelmed by the large area and height at which operations were taking place, making it necessary to assign multiple safety officers.

Accountability is also a challenge during these operations, since the work area can become quite congested with personnel, who add to the live load of the roof structure. Strictly adhere to and monitor the implemented accountability system so you can manage the number and locations of personnel.

The incident commander (IC) should also consider setting up a number of rapid intervention teams (RITs) according to the size of the building involved. You may ask, “Why the need for a RIT, let alone multiple RITs, for what is basically an outside fire?” The answer is that if you have a considerable working fire on top of the roof, the IC must prepare for the possibility of roof collapse, which would warrant a RIT deployment. An option may be to position RIT resources on opposite corners of the building at grade level (in tandem with a collapse zone) for quick response if needed. Another option may be to place a RIT on the roof and additional teams around the structure. If a firefighter were to suffer dehydration or be injured on the roof, the RIT could be deployed quickly, and firefighters would not have to interrupt their extinguishing operations on the roof.

Several other major safety points to address include the early implementation of firefighter rehab; resource considerations such as emergency medical standby; and, most importantly, personnel. Rehab needs during this type of incident will be immense, especially if the weather conditions are extreme. Personnel will have to be rotated frequently and participate in a formal rehab protocol. Request additional personnel early to achieve adequate staffing levels. The IC may need to consider extra rehab and emergency medical resources to protect personnel. At the Billy Graham fire, we established multiple rehab areas because the fire was more than 50 feet aboveground and personnel had an immediate need for rehab resources because of extreme weather. You may also have to consider high-rise operational practices during an operation of this nature.




Accessing the fire becomes a huge issue during this type of incident; therefore, safe access to and from the rooftop area becomes an integral operational component. Consider using ground ladders, aerial devices, interior stairwells, and adjacent buildings. Although each of these methods has its limitations, the goal is to use the safest and most efficient means for moving people and equipment. Safest and efficient may mean the use of ground ladders (consider heights and parapets/mansards) or aerial devices (consider setbacks). An aerial device can offer quite a bit of flexibility not only for moving personnel and equipment but also as an elevated standpipe, a master stream for defensive operations, or even a safe area for personnel.

Interior access may be possible through a man door/scuttle opening, but this will most likely pose confined areas for moving, slowing operations. Another option may be to access the area from an adjoining building if the two buildings are connected. During the Billy Graham Center fire, crews conducted standpipe operations from an attached building on a floor that was level with the adjoining fire building. Be cautious when using this method because of the potential for smoke and fire to spread back into the exposure or unaffected area. The IC also must ensure that multiple points of egress are provided during the operations so operating personnel can escape, if necessary.

Many fire departments rely on the procedure of placing at least one ladder to each side of the building if it can be achieved. When larger buildings are involved, place more than one ladder on each side of the structure. Remember, fires involving a rubber membrane roofing material spread rapidly and can quickly overrun firefighters operating on the roof. You must throw ladders for the overall safety of personnel.

Getting to the roof is only a part of the battle. Another part involves ensuring that all life safety issues are addressed, such as removing workers from the affected area (do not be surprised to find numerous workers waging a fire attack with portable extinguishers to attempt to correct a possible huge mistake); also, do not forget about the inside of the structure.

The interior of the building may house a large number of people who may be unaware of the fire conditions. Consider getting someone inside immediately to activate the fire alarm system to notify occupants, and then implement as soon as possible search and evacuation measures with incoming emergency personnel to safely move the occupants.

Relocate occupants to an outside area remote from the building to protect them from the rooftop hazards. A responsible building member should conduct a headcount to ensure full evacuation. During two of the fires in our community, the buildings were occupied at the start of the fire, and one of our first-in officers during his walk-around activated the fire alarm system to begin the evacuation process. For some of these fires that involve only the roofing materials, or in a building with multiple levels or roofs, it may be more advantageous to shelter the occupants in a centralized location. There would be less pedestrian traffic in the parking lots where apparatus are trying to position, and the occupants would not get injured if flying embers were a concern.

Most likely in conjunction with or as part of addressing the life safety issues, initiate an organized fire attack. Fire conditions and their involvement with the structure will determine the attack type and method. Heavy fire conditions with excessive loads on the roof area, coupled with lightweight construction, will warrant a defensive operation from the start. Conversely, light to medium fire conditions involving only stored roofing materials (rolls of membrane, cases of sealant, roofing equipment, tar kettle) or a fire contained in void areas could warrant an offensive attack at the start.

If the fire appears to involve only stored materials, you most likely essentially will be dealing with a petroleum-based fire caused by asphalt/rubber along with tar sealant materials used for roofing. With this in mind, a fire attack with large-water-volume punch will be on order, necessitating a proper water supply. The line sizes might include 1¾-inch and 2½-inch hose. Firefighters will need to have mobility with the attack lines because of the possibility of having to stretch up ladders and around confined roof areas. They can gain mobility with a 1¾-inch line (or similar) or a 2½-inch line (if additional personnel are available).

Another valuable option is to stretch a 2½-inch or larger supply line to the roof and use a manifold or gated wye at the end to supply multiple handlines to attack the fire. At some of these fires that involve only roofing materials, once the fires have been knocked down, it may be wise to overhaul them with foam to suppress and smother any rekindling. If you arrive on the roof and find propane or other cylinders, use a fog line to cool the tank down and protect it. If a tar pot is on fire on the roof, introducing a direct water stream can cause molten tar to react, pop, and fly through the air, possibly burning a firefighter. Use the reach of the stream for protection.

Another option our first-in officer considered at our most recent fire on the elementary school is a prepiped deck gun. Using the deck gun in a quick water fashion or rapidly connecting it to a water supply could result in a “darkening of the fire” and then allow for mop-up operations. Life safety and a proper size-up are concerns associated with this fire attack method. It is crucial to verify whether workers are still on the roof or if they are in a safe location before discharging the water, to prevent injuring them or pushing the fire, along with materials, on top of them. Also, if a flammable material tank is on the roof, the stream could move it and possibly spread the fire or create more problems. Conduct a thorough scene size-up before implementing this and all other attack options.

Minimizing the impact of a fire on a building is always paramount in an operation. One step in this effort during this type of firefight should involve shutting down the heating/air-conditioning/ventilation equipment to prevent the spread of smoke and potential fire into the structure. Coupled with this building system could be natural gas piping that needs to be secured to prevent additional fueling of the fire. Ensure that building utilities (gas and electric) are turned off early.

With a fire knocked down, shift the focus to overhaul. However, this is usually not an ordinary overhaul situation. Depending on the extent of the fire and its communication to the adjoining structure, firefighting crews could have their hands full with work. It is important to determine if the fire extended or was contained in areas such as the space under sheeting or membrane (beware of multiple roofs) or whether combustible materials in these areas are smoldering. A thermal imaging camera can assist in locating these areas. Use a power saw to remove the roof decking, membrane, and sheeting when faced with these situations. A fire contained in these areas can “run” all over the space, adding to the extreme challenge. Inspect roof mansards and the areas under the roof (inside) for the presence of fire. Additionally, separate the stored materials, which will be melted and wet, and remove them from the roof, to prevent a rekindle. You will need more personnel and extensive hand/power tools for this step in the operation.

At any safe point during the operation the IC should consider salvage activities, because at the start of this incident the roof area may have been open because of the work in progress or is now open as a result of fire damage or firefighting operations. In any event, the building can become a giant sieve that necessitates extensive salvage work to protect contents inside the structure. Depending on the occupancy, the building could contain thousands, if not millions, of dollars worth of contents. The activities related to this operation will have an additional impact on personnel resources.




• Additional units are needed to act as brand patrol units. These types of fires are known to produce large flying embers and brands that can fly in many directions, causing smaller spot fires.

• Searching the floor below the fire must be an initial tactic also; the fire can drop down from holes in the roof, from hot melting tar, or from the flame of the roofer’s torch. It may be advisable to stretch a line to this floor as an initial precaution.

• If it is a windy day, firefighters on the roof must stay upwind or on the leeward side and not operate downwind because of the speed of the fire’s travel.

• You may need a hazmat team because of the flammable materials often found at these locations.

• Position aerial, tower, and portable ladders all around the structure to provide access and egress.

• Firefighters operating the hoseline should use the reach of the stream to put out the fire and should realize that a straight stream may knock the roofing materials all over the place, increasing the problem. Using a narrow fog or cracking the straight stream nozzle half open may reduce the chances of this occurring.




A fire on a rooftop under rehab will test the resources of any fire department, big or small. Strictly adhere to safety practices. The way to achieve success in this operation is to create and implement an effective plan of attack. Preplan this type of incident; go out into your areas to identify this work in progress. If possible, contact the roofing contractor on-site for an opportunity to preview the work in progress. The more intelligence gathered, the better off it will be for all affected parties. The moral of the story is to keep your eyes on those rooftops and prepare yourself for the extreme challenges.

WILLIAM SCHULTZ, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is deputy chief of the Wheaton (IL) Fire Department. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program and has a master’s degree in public administration from Governors State University and a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University along with a CFO designation. He is an Illinois licensed paramedic and has more than 20 certifications from the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal that include fire officer, incident safety officer, fire prevention, fire investigation hazardous materials, and technical rescue. He instructs with the Illinois Society of Fire Service Instructors and is a part-time faculty member of Southern Illinois University.


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles



Fire Engineering Archives


No posts to display