Firefighting Operations in High-Risk Fire Environments

Your fire company is activated for a report of fire in a commercial occupancy. When units arrive, they observe fire through the roof in the rear of a 100- × 200-foot one-story commercial building. While responding to a working fire in a private dwelling, the first-arriving unit reports that there are confirmed people trapped on the second floor of a two-story private dwelling. Heavy fire is showing from four windows on the first floor. Or possibly, you arrive on the scene of a structure fire and observe fire showing out of the cellar windows. The above-mentioned scenarios have a common denominator: They are all considered “high-risk fire environments.”

High-risk fire environments are situations that present a high degree of danger to the operating forces. Every one of these fire scenarios has at times resulted in serious injury or line-of-duty firefighter fatalities. Unfortunately, firefighters must operate in extremely hostile environments. Through knowledge, training, and experience, you can help limit the dangers that you may encounter.

Some Fatal Fires

It is important to examine a few historic examples of past fires that illustrate the inherent dangers that operating forces encounter.

Firefighter fatalities are stark realities of a hazardous profession. Each fatality is heartfelt. We must learn from our history. Refer to for information on firefighter fatalities. As demonstrated by the above-referenced tragedies, when events go bad, the outcome can have severe consequences. This article examines and discusses high-risk firefighting environments in greater detail: strategies, tactics, and warning signs.

Commercial Buildings

Common Hazards

The hazards you will most commonly encounter include the following: large uncompartmentalized areas (compartmentation/partitioning of the building may hide the volume of fire); large floor space; maze-like conditions; heavy fire load potential; open interior shafts; mezzanines; hazardous materials; limited windows (warehouses, factories, storage facilities); high collapse potential (lightweight construction, lightweight truss roofs); heavy floor loading (racks, refrigeration equipment, machinery, stock); security measures: rolldown gates (may conceal fire, delay forcible entry); steel plates in the roof; gypsum roof material (eliminates vertical ventilation); heavily fortified doors (forcible entry nightmare); large overhead doors, which are especially dangerous in a rolled-up position; marquees; and voids and plenums (they create undetected fire travel).

Size-Up Considerations

Among the factors to consider are the following: time of day; size; number of stories; building construction: Type I Fire-Resistive, Type II Non-Combustible, Type III Ordinary (noncombustible walls and a wood roof or newer type of lightweight roof system supported by reinforced masonry), Type IV Heavy Timber, Type V Wood frame; roof construction (roll bar truss, bowstring truss, wood truss, gypsum plank, metal q-decking, asphalt, “rubber” membrane); roof features (skylights, skylights that may have been roofed over, scuttles, open shafts, bulkheads, and heavy machinery such as heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units)—how these units are secured (are the steel girders tied into the structure or are the units lying on the roof system?).

Also, the size-up should encompass the following information: the locations and conditions of sprinklers/standpipes; occupancy type: manufacturing, service, retail, office/professional; whether the building is occupied or vacant: nightclub/offices vs. storage facility; hazards present such as acetylene, oxygen, radiation; whether the structure has windows or is windowless; the number and locations of exits; the volume, color, velocity, travel directions, and location of smoke; the location, size, and extent of fire; the personnel and other resources on scene (mutual aid, multiple alarm, recall); the type of apparatus available (elevated stream, master streams, large-diameter hose); and the availability of a water supply (main size, serviceable hydrants).

Firefighting Strategies and Tactics

Preplan. Is there a preplan in place, or does the department have a critical information dispatch system that will alert units of any alterations, unique construction features, potentially dangerous areas, and hazardous or unusual conditions that may not be apparent to units from outside the building? In gathering this information, the incident commander (IC)/first-arriving officer can formulate an operational plan. The decisions the IC makes in these crucial first minutes will dictate the outcome of the fire and the safety of the operating forces.

Time. How long has the fire been burning? Steel and engineered structural components have a finite amount of time before they fail when exposed to fire [reference Frank Brannigan, Vincent Dunn, Christopher Naum, and current National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) studies related to building collapse]. The IC must pay constant attention to the amount of time that has elapsed. Factors the IC must consider include the following: Has the inside team found the main body of fire? Does the engine company have water on the fire? Are fire conditions improving (the IC must observe visible fire and smoke conditions from the exterior)? If the answer to these questions is no, the IC must consider withdrawing the operating forces and mounting a defensive attack.

Coordination of the search and line placement. The search in a commercial occupancy must be slower and methodical. It is important to coordinate the primary search with ventilation concerns and line placement. In residential structural fires, the search team can take a more aggressive approach to conducting a primary search. Residential buildings tend to be smaller in dimension and have windows and multiple means of egress. Commercial buildings can be maze-like and have large open spaces and unexpected obstacles, unenclosed access stairs between floors, open shafts, open floor pits (auto repair garage), mezzanines, multiple office cubicles, and self-closing and locking doors, just to name a few hazards.

The hose team (handline) and search team must be in verbal distance of each other. If there is too much separation between the two teams, the search team may become trapped and cut off. The search team must continually observe fire conditions using the thermal imaging camera (TIC) and use hooks to open up overhead. A common mistake search teams make is to not open up completely. When using the hook to open up ceilings, do not just pull down the ceiling tiles; make sure the hook exposes void spaces between floors or the underside of the roof. It is common to have multiple ceilings because of building renovations. If left unchecked, the hose and search teams can have fire burning overhead and behind them. It is critical that fire does not pass overhead and get behind the interior operating forces. The hose team must extinguish fire as the two teams advance through the building.

Search rope. This is a vital and necessary piece of equipment at commercial building fires. The basics of deploying a search rope include the following: Use a TIC (don’t depend solely on the camera; use good search techniques and make mental notes of landmarks as you search). Tie off in a clear area outside the building (a telephone pole, parking meters, or signs; never use a piece of apparatus). In multiple-story buildings, tie off in an enclosed stairwell one or two floors below the fire floor. Tie off as often as practical. Keep the rope high, at least two feet off the floor (once the rope lies on the floor, it is hard to discern it in water with a gloved hand). It is important to make a mental note of the distance traveled by the team with the search rope. This is the same distance that must be traveled to get out of the immediately dangerous to life or health environment. Therefore, pay attention to your air supply (heads-up display in the face piece, remote gauge); if you consumed half of your air supply going in, you have only half a cylinder to exit.

Check cellars, the floor below, and adjacent occupancies. At the 23rd Street Wonder Drug fire, the fire building reported originally was on 22nd Street. In buildings with cellars, always check the cellar as early into the operation as possible. Also, especially in taxpayers (one- or two-story strip stores), a common cellar may exist through the whole occupancy with only partition walls. Commercial building fires can become unpredictable, as in the case of the Deutsche Bank fire in Manhattan on August 18, 2007 (two firefighters became trapped in the maze-like conditions of a high-rise building). The fire began on the 17th floor and dropped down to the 15th floor. If you encounter a high-heat condition without any visible fire, immediately check the floor below.

Cellar/Below-Grade Fires

A cellar has more than half of its height below grade. A basement, on the other hand, has more than half of its height above grade. There are significant differences between cellars and basements. Basements tend to have a second means of egress from the basement level. They also tend to have full-size windows that can provide additional means of egress.

Cellars have very limited avenues for ventilation. The interior staircase is, in most cases, the only means of escape for the products of combustion and heat.

Dimensional lumber floor systems have more mass and can withstand fire conditions without structural failure for a greater period of time vs. lightweight engineered lumber (laminated beams, engineered I-beams, parallel wood truss, steel C-joists), which has a higher failure potential. According to the Underwriters Laboratories-NIST Study (2013), “Engineered floor systems can collapse as early as 2-3 minutes after the structure becomes involved in the fire and can account for more firefighter fatalities than dimensional lumber.”

Tile, mud, and terrazzo floors with wood support beams conceal heat and flame impingement (undetected advanced fire conditions). The combination of increased floor weight and the insulating properties of masonry can collapse without warning.

In older construction, you may find open tread (stairs without risers), narrow staircases. Heat production can make the staircase untenable for operating forces.

Size-Up Considerations

Determine the building construction. Types III, IV, and V have a higher collapse potential; Types I and II will be content fires with possibly a higher heat condition.

On arrival, the location of the fire may not be evident. Look for signs from the exterior, flames coming from basement windows (you must perform a 360° walk-around), smoke-stained windows, or exterior siding burning. Use the TIC. Question occupants for fire location.

Determine the size and the intensity of the fire—color, velocity, density, direction of the smoke. Is the fire area tenable with a direct fire attack (advancing the handline to the immediate fire area)? Or, is the more prudent plan to mount an indirect attack (operate a stream through a window, cut a hole in the floor, and place a distributor nozzle in the hole)? Can the truck company advance into the cellar without the protection of a handline?

To access a below-grade fire, determine where the interior entrance to the cellar/basement is. Is there a second way into the cellar through an outside door or stairs? If an outside door is present, firefighters can enter the fire area instead of having to go down the cellar/basement stairs, making the fire attack more tenable. Does the building have a staircase that services the cellar and the first floor?

The engineer must establish a positive water source. Ensure that the engine is connected to a serviceable hydrant.

Strategies and Tactics

Open up baseboards to determine if there is fire below. Check the vents in the floor to determine if there is fire below. Note: If the structure is balloon frame, check all floors above, especially the attic, for extension.

At an advanced cellar/basement fire, no one should attempt to advance in front of the hose team. Truck companies should search behind the handline. The first line should protect the first floor and advance to the seat of the fire if possible. If it is impossible to advance into the below-grade area, have the first line hold its position at the top of the stairs and have a second line advance to attack the seat of the fire. Have a backup line in place as soon as possible. Make sure there is adequate line flaked out to cover the below-grade area and the first floor.

If there is inadequate ventilation, consider cutting a hole in the first floor under a window.

Use sound search techniques. Consider leaving a firefighter at the base of the stairs to act as a beacon. Use the TIC to determine if fire is below. The TIC will aid the search for victims and fire; more importantly, it will help monitor fire conditions overhead. It is especially important to have a search rope when operating in a subcellar. The search rope acts as an umbilical cord to safety.

When possible, the truck company members should try to close the door to the fire area, awaiting the advancement of the handline.

Position a firefighter or an officer at the point of entry to keep track of the number of firefighters operating below grade. Limit the number of firefighters entering the cellar/basement level.

Continually monitor your air supply. Remember, the deeper you penetrate, the longer the exit time.

Continually monitor the radio.

Operating on the Floor Above a Fire

There are two purposes for knowingly going to the floor or floors above the fire: to search for victims and to search for fire extension. An example of the dangers of operating on the floor above is evident in a fatal fire that took place at 62 Watts Street in the Soho area of Manhattan. On March 18, 1994, a fire that originated in a three-story 20- × 46-foot brownstone building of ordinary construction (Type III) claimed the lives of Captain John Drennan, Ladder 5, and Firefighters Christopher Seidenburg and James Young, Engine 24. While attempting to search the second floor for victims, Drennan and his inside team were engulfed by fire and heated gases on the second-floor stairway. The most severe location in a fire besides the immediate fire area is the room or apartment directly over the fire. Heat and fire rise and find voids and spaces in which to travel, exposing the floor above to immediate danger.

Without a Charged Hoseline

Size-up. Observe smoke (its position in windows/doors, color, velocity), fire conditions from the exterior (size/extent, fire location in building).

Visually access as many sides of the structure as possible: Does the truck company have control of the door to the fire area?

Note the building construction (if it is balloon frame, hidden fire, if undetected, can rapidly trap firefighters on the floor above). Types III, IV, and V are the most dangerous building construction types because of wood’s combustibility.

Note windows, doors, balconies, fire escapes (are any means of egress blocked?), air-conditioners, window bars/gates, plywood over window/doors.

Note the access stairs to the floor above. An open staircase (found in private dwellings, brownstones/row frames) is the most dangerous. An enclosed stairwell can aid firefighters in going to the floor above if the door to the fire floor is closed. The enclosed stairwell can also aid in providing an area of refuge.

Are portable ladders and aerial ladders in place? (Make mental note of position and location.)

Check the positioning of hoselines (step on the line to see if it is charged). Does the engine have water on the fire?

Is the building occupied or vacant? Are victims reported trapped in the building? Gather information from witnesses; question family members.


Monitor the dispatcher’s reports and initial reports from the first-in units.

Listen to the engine company: Are there any water issues (for example, the engine is not connected to a positive water source), a problem getting the rig into pumps, a frozen hydrant, a broken hydrant spindle, a burst length, problems with the hose stretch (stretched short, not enough line to reach the seat of the fire), is there trouble finding the main body of fire, is no water on the fire, or is the engine team backing out?

Communicate to the IC your intentions of operating on the floor above; this is critical for your team’s accountability.

Communicate with the engine company officer so you have eyes on the fire floor and the officer can alert you to the progress of the nozzle team.

Consider and evaluate these factors before going to the floor above. Continually monitor the radio while operating. Communication is one of the most basic and crucial skills necessary on the fireground.

Physically check in with the engine company before making a move to the floor above the fire. Let the engine boss know that your team is advancing to the floor above so the officer can advise if fire conditions change and allow your team time to escape. If the engine boss does not know you are operating on the floor above, the search team will be in a world of trouble if the nozzle team backs out and discontinues the fire attack. Have a member of your company in radio contact with the floor-above team to apprise the members operating above the fire of the progress of the nozzle team.

Clear the Path and Eliminate Obstacles

Remove any clutter on the stairs (shoe racks, coat racks, bicycles, boxes). Clear and remove balusters from stair railings (if you need to bail out down the stairs, this will give you unencumbered access to the stairs).

Try to keep stairs clear; if possible, position a member (preferably an officer) at the bottom of the stairs. This will keep other members off the stairs, and the officer can account for the number of members operating on the floor above.

Limit Openings

If your team entered from the exterior, completely clear the window. Take the sash and make the window a door; this identifies this as your main means of egress. Leave the sash in any remaining windows.

Close the door to the room you entered as quickly as practical to isolate the fire and not draw it to your position. Leave a tool, a hand light, or an additional member at the window to help identify your way out should conditions change.

Do not take windows without having water on the fire or having a handline in place on the floor above. Depending on heat conditions, it is a good idea to make a small observation hole or holes. You can do this by inserting your halligan tool into the baseboard to check fire in a wall/bay (this will also confirm balloon/platform frame construction).

Check voids/pipe recesses and closets for vertical fire extension. In attics, make a small observation hole in the knee wall as soon as practical. Only a very small opening (six to 12 inches) is advisable without a handline in place.

If you discover fire, immediately call for an additional handline to the floor above and retreat to a position of safety until the line is in position.

The TIC can help you find fire and victims while conducting operations on the floor above.

Secure an Area of Refuge

This tactic varies according to the occupancy type (private dwelling, multistory apartment building, high-rise). In a private dwelling, the only area of refuge may be an adjacent room closing a door or a well-positioned ladder. In an apartment building, the area of refuge may be an adjacent apartment (force the door immediately to establish an area of refuge) or possibly an enclosed stairwell. A tactic that will provide a degree of safety is to position a firefighter as a “beacon”; this firefighter can keep in voice contact with the members conducting the search.

Have an Escape Plan

If conditions go south, know how you are getting out. If you accessed the floor above from an interior staircase, as soon as practical, locate a window with a fire escape or a ladder as a second means of escape. If you gained access to the floor above by an aerial or a portable ladder, try to find another ladder as a secondary means of escape. Note: There can never be too many ladders on a building.

Inexperienced firefighters should not attempt firefighting operations in high-risk environments. Even firefighters with a high level of experience and knowledge may find themselves in a fire that goes sideways and throws an unexpected curveball at them, causing them to be lost or trapped. Before you commit to any of these firefighting scenarios, consider the dangers.


Paul Mastronardi is a 22-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He is a lieutenant assigned to Squad Co. 1 of the Special Operations Command. As a firefighter, previous assignments included Rescue Co. 4, Squad Co. 252, and Engine 280. He is an instructor for the FDNY Technical Rescue School. He is a deputy chief fire instructor for the Suffolk (NY) County Fire Academy. He is a New York state-certified fire instructor I/II and technical rescue instructor. He has a B.S. Ed. from Hofstra University (1985).

Paul Mastronardi will present “Firefighting Operations in High-Risk Fire Environments” at FDIC International 2019 in Indianapolis on Friday, April 12, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m.

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