Remove the Balusters


It was one of those mornings: working overtime on an engine and just backing in from our third medical run of the day. We were just going back into service from restocking our supplies and decontaminating some of the medical equipment when the alarm tones went off. The housewatch immediately announced over the intercom: “Third due, fire in a private dwelling,” and the building’s address, as everyone hustled to the apparatus.

As units responded in, dispatch began notifying them that it was starting to receive numerous calls reporting a fire. Being unfamiliar with my unit’s response area and the street layout, I made sure that I kept a good eye on the streets and the response. I also asked the chauffeur, “Which way will we be running into the other responding units?” He responded, “They’ll all be coming up from the opposite direction, Boss.” That was good to hear—one less thing to be overly concerned about, since I was unfamiliar with this area of the city. However, it’s important to remember that, although a unit’s normal response pattern may be from one direction, it could be out of quarters and responding in from a different direction.

Arriving on the scene, the first-due engine company reported over the radio that it had “a three-story detached frame, fire on the top floor.” On our arrival, we positioned at a hydrant, and the chauffeur checked it to make sure it was serviceable. Suddenly, the radio blurted out that there was fire in the two apartments on the top floor. The chief quickly ordered us to stretch a second line to the top floor and enter the other apartment.

As we entered the three-story frame, we quickly noticed that the building had narrow wooden return stairs inside. (Return stairs are on one side of the structure on all floors; the lowest stair starts in the front and the last or highest stair ends up toward the rear of structure. Then you have to walk in the open hallway back toward the front of the building to access the stairs to the next highest floor.) Normally, these stairs have a long wooden railing and balusters running up them and down the open hallway to protect anyone from falling down the “open” stairwell. In many older buildings, the stair treads may be leaning and in disrepair; firefighters should avoid overloading them. In addition, if conditions on the fire floor quickly deteriorate and a quick retreat is necessary, our own members should not block the stairs.

While we began to ascend the final staircase to the top floor with the second hoseline, we noticed a little backlog toward the top of the stairs and in the narrow hallway. A few firefighters of the second-due truck’s forcible entry team were trying to access the adjoining apartment while trying to maneuver around the hose, the railing and newel post, and another member of the first due crew’s hoseline. This firefighter was trying to maintain their position in the narrow hallway at the fire apartment’s door to assist with the forward advancement of the first hoseline.

Realizing the need to have the second line quickly proceed to the adjoining apartment and not get pinched on the newel post, entangled with the other attack line, or be delayed by members trying to climb past or over one another, the decision was quickly made to remove some of the balusters of the railing in the public hallway. Using a hand tool, a firefighter knocked out about six of the wooden balusters to make an opening. Remember, if a hand tool is not available, a firefighter can position himself on the hallway floor and mule kick out one or two of the balusters. Then he can use one of these balusters to knock out the rest of them or continue using his leg to make a sufficient opening to fit through. Do not attempt to use the nozzle to knock out the balusters; a broken bail on the nozzle is the last thing you need in a situation like this.

Normally, the balusters break off very quickly; if there are some nails at the railing’s base, you can bend them over with a quick strike of a hand tool to reduce the chance of an injury or of damaging the hoseline. It is also important to note that when making this opening, it is easier to make it toward the center of the railing and work back toward the newel post in the hallway. This allows firefighters to more easily make the transition or climb up through the hole from the stairs below. In some situations, if firefighters find it difficult to make the transition, they can boost each other upward or, if there is a half-wall, they can punch “climbing” holes in it with a hand tool or their boot to assist in the climb.

Performing this tactic also spaced out members in the public hallway and helped speed up the stretch of the second hoseline at this fire. When crews stretched the hoseline through this opening, it kept the hoseline low to the floor. Sometimes when hose is draped over the railing, firefighters have to maneuver around it or over it if the hoseline is pulled taut. Also, if there is the need for a rapid evacuation, this tactic provides firefighters with another escape avenue off the top-floor hallway instead of everyone’s bunching up or exiting toward the rear at the top of the stairs.

Two important considerations are that not every baluster has to be removed—this could cause an unsuspecting firefighter to fall off the landing and plummet downward; and, if there is a large, open well space between the stairs and the landings, do not use this tactic, for the same reason.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 23-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 Portable Ladder H.O.T. program and an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II(Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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