As mentioned numerous times in Fire Engineering, proper size-up of a fire operation begins with the receipt of the alarm and continues until the operation is under control. It must be an ongoing process–with changes made as conditions change on the fireground. But even with an ongoing evaluation, sometimes the fire has a way of sneaking up on us.

Photo 1. From down the street, the first look at the fire building shows what appears to be a 212-story wood-frame building with smoke showing from the upper floors. The building is one of several on the block with the same general characteristics: at least a two-family house with two separate entrances accessible from the front porch. The fire building is 25 to 30 feet wide and approximately 50 feet deep. Aside from the above description, what building characteristics should the first-due company officer be looking for?

First, note the pres-ence of storm windows. Aluminum storm windows are the predecessor of the current energy- efficient window. They worked quite well, lowering heating bills for countless people by re-ducing air transfer around and through the glass. Not only do these windows reduce the amount of air that enters a home, they also limit the amount of smoke that can exit a home. Smoke will travel the path of least re-sistance. A fire on a lower floor of a home will spread upward until it has no other path to follow. It will then start to bank back down to the lower levels. After the smoke has filled all the open spaces that are present, it will then start to seep out of any “cracks” in the outer envelope of the structure, including open windows and doors, ventilators, and the area around closed windows and doors. The tighter the house, the more pressure needed for the smoke to escape.

A second consideration when houses are separated only by gangways or narrow drive-ways is the siding used on the fire building and the exposures. Asphalt shingles, affectionately known as gasoline siding, can rapidly extend fire on the exterior of both buildings. Once the siding starts to burn, the fire extends up and into both buildings, quickly taxing the operating forces.

Photo 2. The engine company has started the first handline to the front of the building. Smoke is visible at the second-floor level as well as in the attic and eaves. The ladder company, positioned in front of the fire building, has started horizontal ventilation by using the aerial to push in the large front window at the second-floor level. The heavier smoke starts to push from the eaves and attic window.

Photo 3. The first line is charged and put into operation on the second floor. A second line is stretched to back up the first line but is not charged. The smoke condition from the attic is turning black and is really pushing under pressure. The second-due truck company raises its aerial toward the attic window. One of the firefighters on the front porch observes smoke at the first-floor level.

Photos 4 and 5. As the second aerial is lowered to the second-floor window, the smoke condition on the first floor starts to intensify. Firefighters working on the front porch realize that the fire must have originated on a lower floor. They must now force the door to the first floor and check the basement. Two problems immediately arise. First, fresh air rushes into the first-floor fire area, which intensifies the fire. Second, the area that the fire is now exposing is right next to the stairway that the first two engines have stretched up and are operating on. This open stairway will act like a chimney for the fire to rapidly extend upward.

Photo 6. The fresh air has intensified the fire. As it receives new oxygen, the fire spreads toward the new source of outside fresh air and explosively lights up. The front windows, previously heated, start to fail under the increased fire conditions. The fire spreads rapidly along the underside of the wood ceiling on the front porch. A firefighter operating on the aerial above the fire is also exposed to the rapidly extending fire. Finally, the first floor flashes over, and fire rolls out the apartment door and the two front windows (see cover photo).

Fires in private dwellings, both one- and two-family, are some of the toughest fires that firefighters face daily. Do not underestimate them, as these are the fires that kill most civilians and many firefighters per year. This fire underscores the importance of following the basics.


The IC must ensure that crews check all six sides of the fire area; exposures are also above and below the fire area. Even though this fire appeared to be an upper-floor fire, the main body of fire was on the lower floor.

All members operating on the fireground must wear full protective clothing. This rapidly spreading fire subjected several members to extremely high heat conditions without warning.

Whenever a handline is stretched and operating, a second handline should be stretched to the same location as a backup.

The IC must know when to abandon interior operations. With heavy fire on all three floors of this building, interior companies were withdrawn and master streams were used to bring the fire under control.

All personnel operating on the fireground must remain vigilant for the unexpected. Be curious. If something does not seem right, investigate.

Always notify companies on staircases or the floor above of any fire discovered below them. If a handline is available, it should be stretched to protect their means of escape.

Never underestimate the fire!

Photos by Conrad Webley

BOB PRESSLER, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, recently retired as a lieutenant 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.





Photo 1. Fires in private dwellings require searches of all levels above the fire area as soon as possible. Due to the open, unenclosed stairway in these homes, smoke, heat, and fire have an easily accessible path to extend to the upper levels, trapping civilians and searching firefighters. Firefighters arriving at this early afternoon fire were met with a heavy body of fire venting out the front door and front windows. While conducting a search above the main body of fire, these firefighters were forced out on the front porch by rapidly extending fire.

The first-due engine company stretched a handline to the front door. Once the line was charged, engine company members moved in on the now rapidly extending fire. The first-arriving ladder company found its normal access point blocked by fire.

In fires such as this, the inside team has two options. First, the officer and remaining members can stay at the front porch and wait for the engine to get water, then move in behind the engine to conduct searches. Second, the officer and one firefighter (if the inside team has three members) can go to the rear of the house and see if they can make entry from there. Even if they are able to gain only limited entry to the rear rooms, any trapped civilians trying to exit toward the rear may be found.

Any time they make entry from the rear of a house that has heavy fire toward the front, searching firefighters must keep in mind that as the engine company gets water and starts the advance, heat, smoke, and even fire can be pushed in their direction. Coordination between the engine and truck is extremely important so truck personnel can avoid being overrun by fire.

If the department uses positive-pressure ventilation as part of initial attack procedures, rear entry is virtually a suicidal move. Once the fan is started, it will push fire toward the opening that firefighters are using for rear entry.

When the ladder company is fortunate enough to have three firefighters, the remaining member should stay with the engine and search off the line as the others advance; or, he can perform vertical ventilation for the engine once those members get water. If the inside team has only two members, both should go to the rear to search and then return to the front when the engine gets water, performing vertical ventilation as they return.

The outside team should be placing portable ladders at any windows remote from the fire area that they can access, with special attention directed to the level above the fire. These ladders may be used for firefighter access or any trapped civilians` egress. Prior to the engine company`s getting water in the first line, members must accomplish window venting with the know-ledge that the fire will start to spread in the direction of this new supply of fresh air, especially on the floor above. With a heavy fire condition at the front door, rapid spread up the interior stairs is almost guaranteed. Opening a window in any room in the vicinity of the stairs will turn the staircase into a virtual flue.

If any trapped victims are reported to be on the floor above, members may choose to vent windows and attempt to enter these rooms (VES). On entering the room, the firefighter should attempt to reach the door and close it, if possible. This will slow down the “draw” on the fire. After searching the room, the firefighter may choose to crack open the door to the hallway to check on conditions or just leave the room via the ladder and then move the ladder to another window. At all times, try to keep in mind the location of your second means of egress.

Photo 2. As the small room at the front of the house on the second floor flashes over, firefighters are forced down the ladder to safety. A handline that was being stretched into the exposure building to check for extension is pressed into service to shield the retreating firefighters.

Firefighters searching above the fire should always take time during their initial size-up to determine which building features may be used if an emergency escape is required. These include porch roofs, fire escapes (if present), and even windows that are closer to the ground in case members have to hang from them and then drop to the ground.

During your building size-up, windows often can be an indication of the building`s layout. In this house, the single window sticks out from the adjoining group of three windows, indicating a separate room. Even if only three individual windows are present, the window over the front door will normally be in a small room that is served by only that window. (Even in this house, a closer look will show that the porch appears to be an add-on or recently enclosed area. The front door is at the left of the photo and is indeed under the single window.)

Other windows that are easily (most times) identifiable from the exterior are stairway windows, which are usually out of line with other windows, and bathroom or kitchen windows, which often are smaller or horizontal or–in the bathroom–frosted.

Place portable ladders adjacent to and above all fire areas. These will serve as escape routes for all firefighters operating in the building. If anyone gets trapped above the fire, many times members–even one member–can roll a ladder already in place to the trapped person`s window.

Photo 3. Even at fires in taxpayers or strip malls, the placement of portable ladders is extremely important. When placing ladders at windows, put the tip just below or at sill level. This is the proper level for rapid egress from a fire area. If the ladder is adjacent to or in the window proper, any movement out of the window will require the firefighter to get his body up high into the window area. This may needlessly expose the firefighter to high heat conditions. By placing the ladder low in the window, the firefighter can slide out to the ladder either head first or, in real emergencies, leg first. Either way, the firefighter is only as high as his body is wide in the opening.

When placing portable ladders to a roof, the general rules of ladder placement apply. Try to pick a ladder that is long enough to reach the objective and that has enough left over to extend at least five rungs over the parapet. This makes the ladder easier to spot when conditions deteriorate on the roof and immediate escape is required. The ladder pictured is only one rung over the parapet. It is also at the highest spot in the wall. If the ladder is moved just five feet either way, two rungs will be exposed. This is better than one but still way short of the required five. The six firefighters and officers on the roof will have a hard time finding and getting down this ladder if the fire continues to spread.

Photo 4. As in most fires, good practice dictates that ladders be raised to as many areas as possible. A wider view shows that in addition to the original portable ladder, two aerials and one tower ladder also are raised. The tower ladder is being used to darken down fire that has spread out of the interior and is burning across the roof surface and threatening the adjacent apartment house.

Be careful when using exterior streams at roof level. Do not direct streams into any ventilation openings, whether burn-throughs or cuts made by firefighters. This will only drive the fire farther into the cockloft.

The additional aerials are placed to the rear of the operating roof teams, giving team members an area to which to “retreat” as they continue to ventilate the roof. Working toward these secondary escape points stops the firefighters from having to pass any fire or ventilation openings en route to their original portable ladder. n

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.