First Due!


The alarm comes by a knock at the fire station door. Excited civilians tell the firefighter on house watch of a fire on the block behind the fire station. The house watch turns out the company, and you respond as you radio in the alarm. Receiving a verbal alarm at quarters, especially late at night, may cause some concerns for the company officer. Foremost among them, especially for single companies, is that they will be arriving alone and there will almost certainly be a wait for additional companies. The company officer must make a comprehensive size-up based on fire conditions, building type, life hazard, and the fact that help will be several minutes away.

An engine responding from a double station or on a normal first alarm usually will have a truck company arriving to help with immediate fireground duties. But arriving alone and with the first ladder still minutes away, the engine officer must also evaluate what truck company duties may need to be done, either before the engine can get a line in place or simultaneously, depending on the number of personnel.

Photo 1. On arrival, what are your first impressions? What type of building is involved as far as construction and occupancy are concerned? Is it currently occupied? Where is the fire located, and what tasks should be done before help arrives? Our initial size-up shows what appears to be a three-story, mixed-occupancy frame building. Smoke is showing from what appears to be a storefront on the first floor, the second and third floors, as well as the cockloft on the exposure 2 side. A small amount of fire is also visible near the entrance to the upper floors at the right hand, or exposure 4, side of the building as well as high up toward the rear on the exposure 2 side. Although the building does not look as though it is well kept, all the windows on the upper floors are in place.

Photo 2. A check of the exposure 2 side shows a heavy fire condition that is just breaking out of a side window and is rapidly spreading up the combustible siding. Fire is also visible on the second floor and is showing through the roof in this two-story setback.

What factors should influence your attack plans?

First, until proven otherwise, all buildings must be considered occupied. Even buildings that look vacant must be searched for vagrants or other people who may be in the building. Second, the visible fire must be evaluated.

At this fire, several danger flags should be evident. The fire is showing at two very distant points of the fire building-at the rear exposure 2-3 corner and at the front entrance to the upper floors at the exposure 1-4 corner. This indicates either two separate fires or a fire that has spread throughout the first floor. Either situation requires a better look or evaluation. After looking at the exposure 2 side, fire is now visible on both floors and through the roof. The smoke pushing through the siding and creating a wall of smoke on the exterior of the building indicates fire in running void spaces. The smoke is not coming out of the windows or doors; it’s pushing out through the siding on the building. All of this is happening in a wood-frame building. The fire has evidently bypassed the only fire protection in this type of building: plaster or drywall. The walls and ceilings of these buildings are the only protection the wood structural members have. Once fire gets behind these “shields,” the fire starts to attack the structure’s support system. The fire can enter these voids through several different means. To continue to safely operate in this type of building, these ceilings and walls must be opened up to expose the hidden fire.

Searches, starting with the most severely exposed areas of the fire building, should be made as soon as possible. The heavy fire toward the rear will limit the searches there. Closer to the front of the building, searches may be conducted in the store on the first floor and the front rooms on the upper floors. Start these searches as soon as staffing and fire conditions allow.

Photo 3. The first arriving company (companies) has several immediate concerns. Fire is showing at several places in the building. Smoke is pushing from the side walls and cornice area. Although the building is not in the best shape, the windows are all intact, indicating that this may be an occupied building. A line or lines must be stretched and operated on the main body of fire-in this case, the first floor rear. The line could go in the side door, where the companies were forcing the door, or in the main store entrance. If the truck company is on the scene, it can do a quick search of the first floor after forcing the main doors and also see if the fire can be reached by the front door. It is possible that the main store is not connected to the rear portion. In this event, either the line should be repositioned to the side door or a second line should be stretched to that position. Fire is also starting to show on the second floor of the three-story or front section of the building. Conditions in this building are rapidly deteriorating.

Photo 4. As the lines are being stretched and the trucks are performing forcible entry and laddering the building in preparation for conducting searches, a civilian appears out of the smoke onto the second-floor fire escape balcony, where he is quickly spotted. He is barely conscious, having been trapped above the fire for several minutes. Firefighters quickly adapt to the changing fireground. Several firefighters position a ground ladder to the balcony; one firefighter climbs up to assess the victim’s condition. Smoke continues to push from all the cracks in the building, as the fire spreads through the building.

Photo 5. The narrow fire escape platform makes it extremely difficult to move the victim, and fire starts to show from the siding below the fire escape.

At this point in the operation, it is extremely important for the officer in charge to ensure that two separate and distinct operations continue. One, sufficient personnel must be committed to removing the civilian from the fire escape. Both the civilian and the firefighters attempting to remove him are in a dangerous position. The fire is continuing to spread and is now in the room that fronts onto the fire escape (photo 6).

Taking the nearly unconscious victim down the drop or portable ladder will be difficult at best. The drop ladder is in a near vertical position, and its condition is questionable. The portable ladder, although at a better angle, still presents quite a challenge in removing a dead-weight victim. Placing an aerial ladder or, if possible, a tower ladder adjacent to the fire escape will give the rescuers a horizontal target to which to move the victim. Once the victim is moved onto the aerial, the ladder can be moved away from the fire building, out of the smoke and heat (photo 7).

Secondly, the officer in command must ensure that someone is still fighting the fire! It is very common for all personnel on the fireground to want to get involved when people are trapped. Lines get dropped, pump operators abandon their positions, and all hands may try to get involved with the rescue. This is especially true when the victim is a firefighter. Someone has to continue to fight the fire. At this fire, several lines were stretched to protect the victim as well as the rescuers. At the same time, other lines continued to attack the fire at their respective locations. These lines remained in place, keeping the spreading fire in check until the victim was removed onto the aerial and eventually to the ground. Once the victim was removed, the attack went from an interior attack to an outside attack with master streams. Remember, while lines are being stretched and victims are being removed, the fire is not waiting for us. It is spreading through the building, feeding on available fuels. In wood-frame buildings, once the fire gets into the void spaces, the structure’s support members are being attacked. It is not a question of “if” the building will fall down, it’s a matter of “when.” From the outside of the fire building, look for telltale signs that the fire has entered the void areas. Smoke pushing from between the shingles, showing around window frames on upper floors, or showing from the walls and eave lines for a lower-floor fire are all indications that the fire may have entered the void space.

In older construction, fire entering the ceiling void would spread from bay to bay along the floor beams. It would eventually reach an outside wall and then spread to the floor above, by that bay in the wall. Even though the fire will be on two floors, it will be running individual bays. It may be in several bays, but its spread, both horizontally and vertically, will be somewhat restricted. In newer construction, where gang-nailed trusses are used for floor assemblies, there is nothing to restrict horizontal fire spread. Fire that pierces the protective “skin,” usually drywall, will spread in all directions. Once it reaches the outside walls, it spreads rapidly to the floors above, and usually by several bays.

These changes in construction techniques, as well as numerous renovations to older buildings, coupled with the high heat-releasing fuels of today, make a comprehensive size-up of the fire conditions and the fire building imperative to help firefighters do their job and stay alive. n

BOB PRESSLER, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a retired lieutenant from Rescue Company No. 3 of the Fire Department of New York. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate’s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University. He is a technical editor for Fire Engineering, a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and a member of a volunteer department.





You are the officer of the first-arriving engine company for this fire. As you proceed down the street toward the address, smoke is visible rising into the afternoon sky. The chief reports that he will be delayed, so the fire is yours to run. The initial response to this incident is two engines and one truck company, with a total of 12 firefighters.


Photo 1. Your initial size-up should show a 112-story, wood-frame structure approximately 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep. Immediate forcible entry will not be a problem, as the front door is wide open. The building is occupied by some type of recreational surf and snowboard business, which is evident by the advertising signs visible on the front of the building. The building is newer looking, and there is a strong possibility that the roof assembly is constructed of lightweight wood trusses. The fire`s location is not easily determined from the exterior, but most fires in commercial occupancies start toward the rear where the utilities and work areas are often located. The heavy, dark smoke indicates an advanced fire and that you should summon additional help.

By using the rules “A.D.U.L.T.S.” for handline selection (see “The 21/2-Inch Handline” by Andrew A. Fredericks, December 1996, page 40), you find that you are unable (U) to determine the fire area, and you may be dealing with one (L) large, uncompartmented fire area. These two factors suggest that a 21/2-inch handline should be stretched to attack this fire. The larger handline gives needed fire flow, reach, penetration, and knockdown capabilities while affording the crew protection. Accordingly, you will order the first engine company to stretch a 212-inch handline to the front door (photo 2).

There are two different schools of thought as to where you should be positioned as initial IC. One says stay at the front of the fire building, establish a command post, remain there until relieved by a higher-ranking officer, and then meet up with your company. Another says give the initial size-up on arrival and remain with your company for firefighting operations. The level of experience and training of your company officers will determine which option you choose. In a well-trained fire department, the officer may stay with his crew, as the second- and third-arriving officers will be able to see the tactics he has already employed and do what is necessary to support them. Letting the officer remain with the company usually ensures that the line will get advanced to the seat of the fire.

If you decide to stay with the handline, certain things must be covered while the line is stretched and charged. You should take a quick look at as many sides of the building as possible; by going to both front corners, you see three sides of the building and determine how deep the building is.

You must also ensure that you have or your chauffeur will establish a water supply. Some departments operate off booster tank water while water supply is being established. This tactic is up to individual departments and is based on many factors, including fire size, booster tank size, time of the second engine`s arrival, hydrant locations, and experience of the firefighters operating the handline. Whether you drop your own feeder line or are to be supplied by the second engine, your chauffeur should notify you when he has hydrant water.

Photo 3. On arrival, truck company personnel must look to support the engine company`s advance. They should look to perform horizontal ventilation both front and rear and report back to you on conditions on the side(s) of the building that you have not seen or on any changes in conditions that will affect the attack.

At this fire, two skylights in the rear of the building on the exposure two (B) side of the building have self-vented, and fire is roaring 10 feet over the roof line. The location of the main body of fire inside the building is now known.

The truck company should also have spotted the side doors that are directly under the venting fire. These doors should now be forced, and if the engine company is having trouble advancing through the occupancy, a second line may be able to be brought in through this entrance to attack the fire. If this back door is used, the interior crews must be notified before water is started so that they can withdraw to an area of safety.

Photo 4. At this fire, the second line was stretched to the front door to back up the first line`s position. Some horizontal ventilation has been performed, but due to the visible decals on the front windows, the entire glass panes were not removed. The second half of the front door is still in the closed position, and this should be forced open before the second line proceeds into the fire building. This will give both companies a larger area to back out through in case conditions deteriorate.

Two members of the truck company, the inside team, should join with the advancing engine crew and perform searches as the line advances. These firefighters should also open some examination holes in the ceiling to check for extension in the attic area above the advancing engine.

Photo 5. As additional resources arrive, a third handline is stretched and the tower ladder is supplied. Because the inside teams were not able to advance through the store to the fire area, the third line was used through the rear doors, and the fire was darkened down.

The master stream was also used on the tower ladder but through the skylights. Use extreme care when operating streams into ventilation openings. This practice only serves to prevent the fire from venting and usually will spread the fire throughout the area under the vent area. At this fire, the tower ladder bucket might have been used from ground level and the stream directed through the side doors and up into the involved attic area.


Size-up is an ongoing process that starts with receipt of the alarm and continues until the fire is extinguished or the building burns down. The IC must be able to evaluate new information, such as the self-venting skylights, and change the attack plan accordingly.

Handline size should be based on fire conditions, and all personnel must know when to stretch what size line. Too small an initial handline will only let the fire increase in size and spread farther into the structure.

When dealing with buildings that may have lightweight roof components, a decision should be made early in the attack as to whether roof ventilation will be required and if it is safe enough for firefighters to perform it. A heavy smoke condition or advanced fire in the attic space should influence the IC`s judgment. When in doubt, don`t send them out. If operations are to be performed, use all natural openings provided, like these skylights, or cut the roof and then abandon the roof positions.

Do not operate outside streams into ventilation openings. This only tends to spread the fire. Windows that are vented to assist the engine`s advance should be completely cleaned out for maximum air movement. All door openings should also be made as wide as possible to facilitate firefighters` moving through them.

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BOB PRESSLER, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with Rescue Company No. 3 of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate`s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University, is a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and is a member of a volunteer department.