Many of us, when we heard the saying, “It’s out the windows,” used to breathe a sigh of relief that we now knew the fire’s location. Plus, we hoped that once we got into the structure, the fire would be very easy to find since the smoke would be off the floor and the byproducts of combustion would be self-venting out the windows and into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, in some instances, some firefighters had blinders on and didn’t size up the structure while making entry and found themselves in a jam when they quickly proceeded to a visible fire’s location. Or, they took the window’s location as where the fire’s origin was and were unhappy to find out it wasn’t the seat of the fire. “It’s out the windows” has had a lot of meanings and lessons learned over the years, and that’s why you need to be careful when you window shop.
If you pull up on a large home on a hot and humid day after a violent thunderstorm rolled through town and fire is venting from the large attic, many of us are going to proceed there with our first attack line. Some might miss that the Old Victorian or turn-of-the-century dwelling is balloon-frame construction and that the fire originally started in the basement and is presenting in the attic because the fire traveled up the outside walls.
Don’t be afraid to immediately send someone to the basement to search for the seat of the fire. Many times, with lighting strikes, the cold water ground wire has blown off the copper tubing and caused a fire.
If the fire is on the stairwell side of the dwelling, punch a few holes in bays up the exterior wall to check for fire or go to any outside wall of the home and pull the baseboard molding to check for fire travel. Do so before you stretch up to the narrow third-floor stairs and suddenly find out fire is below you.
Over the years, we’ve had jobs in vacant buildings with fire out the front windows on arrival and stretched with no masks on up to the fire floor with not an ounce of smoke. All the heat, smoke, and gases were venting away from us, and the air entrained with the hoseline quickly extinguished the fire and ventilated the room.
One memory was beating the engine to the location and making it to the top of the stairs with the fire coming toward us; one member went to search the bathroom and another searched the other bedroom, only to find a homeless individual packing his bag to exit through the rear porch. At other jobs, because of today’s modern furnishings and plastics with expanded hydrocarbon makeup, we’ve entered pitch-black environments trying to locate the fire out the window’s location, and it has taken a while. So, just because it’s out the windows, don’t assume until you get in there!
When firefighters perform the 360°-degree size-up, it’s easy to hear fire is visible from a specific location or exposure. But don’t be surprised if you enter and must fight your way toward that location. Fire may be present from the minute you enter the structure until you make your push into the rear section of the dwelling. There have been times when nothing showing in the front other than some smoke at the windows was a full-blown firefight once you entered the structure, so be prepared.
If fire is showing from the rear second-floor window of a two-story dwelling, why are we stretching to the rear? First, think about the obstacles: The fence that may or may not be locked, the cars in the driveway, the patio furniture, and the landscape planters or trees and shrubs add to the stretch impediments. Do you have daytime or nighttime response numbers for your volunteer department? What are your staffing numbers, and how far away are the other arriving units?
Stretch a dry line rapidly to the rear yard with minimum staffing, open up your line (of course, after you bleed the air), hit the fire for a few seconds with a straight stream pattern (to reduce providing more air to the fire, which a fog pattern will do), and then try to stretch the now heavily filled hoseline back through the maze you came in to stretch back into the front door and up the stairs to the second floor (hoping the fire regrowth isn’t severe). That seems like a lot of work and creates fatigue, especially when initially stretching right up the interior stairs (where most of the heat won’t meet you until the top floor) is a basic tactic and so much faster and easier.
Think of many of our homes’ construction: In center hall colonials and most cape cods, the stairs are very close to your entry into the structure through the front door. As for line protection, once you make the top stair and turn either way, your stream is going to reach each end of the hallway if you’re in the straight stream position. Plus, if needed, you can use the wall to protect yourself while initially operating the hoseline down the hallway. However, the most important part is the trapped civilian who might have been somewhere on the second floor.
We preach in fire prevention efforts that seconds count, but are we putting our victims first in all our exterior window attack situations. Stretching distant lines and bringing them back take more time and effort in most cases. Time is essential in saving lives. Let’s follow our own creed and make each second matter!
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 32-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 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 .