Roof Operations in Multiple Dwellings


I remember growing up in New York City AND spending the summer days up on the rooftops of the tenements trying to catch some sun. Back then, we referred to the rooftops as “Tar Beach” (photo 1). I am not sure how that term came about, but I assume the name referred to the hot sun’s beating down on the rooftops and softening the tar. I used to go from building to building, delivering my paper route from the roof. My friends and I would play all sorts of street games, using the fire escapes and climbing up the bulkheads. Every kid knew the dangers of the roof and respected them. Some of the braver kids would show off by walking on the parapets of the outside walls. This is what city kids did. It sort of prepared me for later in life when I would join the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).

(1) Note that there was no fence there 24 years ago. (Photos by author.)

In my early days as a firefighter, it was impressed on me that nothing shall deter the roof firefighter from getting to his position and opening the roof for vertical ventilation. I was told that even if people were jumping from the windows or babies were being thrown out the windows, if I was assigned the roof position, the roof is where I needed to be.

My department operates with two teams, the inside team and the outside team. The inside team consists of the officer, the forcible entry firefighter, and the “can” (this firefighter is usually the junior firefighter; his job is to work with the forcible entry firefighter to force entry). He carries the 2½-gallon extinguisher and a six-foot hook (pike pole). The outside team generally is made up of the more experienced firefighters: the ladder chauffeur, the outside vent firefighter, and the roof firefighter. The outside team is usually responsible for vent-enter-search (VES).


The roof firefighter is generally the most senior and experienced firefighter. Like an athlete playing a professional sport, the roof firefighter is expected to be at his position at every fire. This firefighter becomes the eyes and ears for the incident commander (IC), and it is crucial for this firefighter to get to his position as quickly as possible without delay. Besides relaying critical information about things that may be happening in the rear of and on the sides of the building, it is also imperative to open the bulkhead or scuttle as quickly as possible to relieve the smoke and gases that will start to build up at the top floor. Our standard operating procedure recommends that the roof firefighter maintain the following priorities while performing his position:

  • The adjoining building.
  • The aerial ladder or tower ladder.
  • The rear fire escape.

The roof firefighter should never use the interior stairs to reach his position unless the building has isolated wing stairs or a few enclosed fire stairs. If for some reason the bulkhead door is padlocked or there is some other delay, this firefighter may end up in the flue of the chimney. If his first choice is not an option because the building is isolated or the adjoining building is not of the same height, then he would have to use the aerial ladder. If the first ladder to arrive is a tower ladder or a platform, it may be better to wait for the second ladder if it is an aerial ladder and if it will be coming in a reasonable time. When I was a firefighter, our ladder truck was a tower ladder; the other surrounding companies were aerial ladders. I found that it is quicker to wait and use the aerial because it takes more time to set up the tower ladder and bring it to the roof.

After choosing the fastest means possible to get to the roof, the roof firefighter can start to do the preliminary work of opening the bulkhead door (making sure that he does a quick probe for victims who may be trapped behind the bulkhead door), scuttles, skylights, or any other openings. He then should do a complete walk-around of all sides to check for trapped persons. While doing this, the firefighter should also communicate to the IC the location of the fire and if there is any extension to adjoining buildings or the floor above.

At a recent fire at which I was the IC, the roof firefighter gave me terrific information on a fire on the top floor of a very large H-type apartment house (photo 2). He was able to paint a perfect picture for me, and I was able to use my resources efficiently. One of the biggest concerns for the IC at a top-floor fire is whether fire is extending into the cockloft. At this fire, the roof firefighter cut a small inspection hole and informed me that there was no extension into the cockloft. I think that it is very important for a roof firefighter to transmit exactly what he sees. For example, if the firefighter opens the roof and sees heavy smoke, he should not transmit to the IC: “We have fire in the cockloft.” He should tell the IC what he sees: “Heavy smoke is coming out of my inspection hole.” It may also be beneficial to let the IC know if the smoke is pushing under pressure or if a high-heat condition is prevalent from the hole.

(2) A typical New York City H-type roof.

If the fire involves the top floor, the roof firefighter should, in addition to his other duties, start taking out the top-floor windows for ventilation while waiting for the saw to arrive. Generally for top-floor fires, we are trying to avoid extension into the cockloft. By performing horizontal ventilation here (before the use of the hoseline or coordinated ventilation), we are slowing the spread of fire vertically, which is the lesser of two evils. Once the roof is cut, the ceilings will be pushed down, and the open windows will assist in moving the heat and smoke through the vent hole.

The other firefighters can use the tower ladder to bring up saws or any other equipment that will be needed on the roof to open it up.

Just the other morning, the units in my battalion were called for a smoke condition on the top floor of a seven-story multiple dwelling, a converted loft building in New York City’s SoHo (south of Houston Street) district. The building was taller than the two adjoining buildings on either side; there was no rear fire escape that went to the roof, and the aerial would not make the roof. It turned out to be just a defective oil burner. This is very common in the fall, when people start using the burners for the first time since the previous winter.

After we were finished with the call, I grabbed both of the truck companies and we talked about what we would have done had we really needed to make the roof. I suggested that perhaps, instead of putting the aerial at an impossible angle, we would keep the first-due ladder company in front of the building to use for VES. I would then have the second ladder company set up the aerial ladder on the exposure 2 (B) building. From there, the roof firefighters can work together and bring a 20-foot straight ladder to use on the adjoining building’s roof. This is also the reason it is so important that engine companies and chief vehicles keep the fronts of the buildings clear. Had the roof firefighter tried to climb the aerial, it would have been a very precarious climb. The tip of the aerial ladder should clear the parapet by at least five feet, for safety. It is not uncommon to have front parapets that extend to about seven feet from the roofline and are not visible from the street.

Tragically, a few years ago a young firefighter was killed at a fire in a commercial building when he was climbing the aerial ladder with a saw and a hand tool, along with his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). When he went to get onto the roof, he lost his footing and fell about 75 feet to the ground. It is much safer to transport tools up in the tower ladder’s bucket, if necessary and if the tower ladder is available (not all departments have boom tower ladders; some have aerial towers). Size-up is a crucial component of the roof firefighter’s duties. It is important to size up the conditions and take the tools that will be needed.

When I was a roof firefighter, my company had a policy of taking the saw to all fires above the third story in our many six-story renovated buildings. It was very common to have fires extend up the numerous shafts in these renovated buildings into the cockloft.

I was assigned the roof position in a fire in a similar type building as the one where the young firefighter lost his life. It was the dead of winter, and the building was in the factory district down near the Hell Gate Bridge. The winds were whipping strongly off the area where the two rivers meet. It was a seven-story building. I knew that our 75-foot tower ladder was not going to reach. I used the adjoining company’s aerial; it was fully extended and at a very steep angle. I threw the saw on my back along with my SCBA and halligan hook. As I made my way up the aerial, the wind was making the ladder sway, so it was a slow, difficult climb. I remember saying a prayer or two on the way up.

When I reached my destination, I realized what a dumb move I had just made. Had I done a good size-up, I would have realized that the roof was poured concrete and there was no need for my saw. I had just put myself in a very dangerous situation because I failed to take a moment to think about what I was doing. Sometimes we succumb to peer pressure because we feel that certain things are expected of us. The truth is that your safety should always come first. If you feel uncomfortable performing a task, don’t do it. You can always get that tool where it is needed another way. I think that at that time I felt that if I left the saw behind, the senior members would give me grief when we got back to the station.


Operating on the roof is inherently dangerous, even when there is no working fire. There are many shafts, scuttles, skylights, and walls without parapets. Owners of buildings frequently cover old skylights and scuttles with just a sheet of plywood and some tar. We have had many firefighters walk off roofs and into shafts. Recently, on a very warm, beautiful, sunny day, a company was out doing a building inspection in a three-story, wood-frame building. Wood-frame buildings are generally attached and are built in groups of three to as many as 15. To provide air and light to the middle rooms, there is an air and light shaft in the middle of the roof. The firefighters were inspecting the roof. While doing so, one of the firefighters walked right into a shaft and fell three stories. Fortunately, he escaped with only minor injuries. Imagine if this can happen in broad daylight how much more dangerous is it when the building is on fire and there is a heavy smoke condition? It turned out that there was no parapet surrounding the shaft.

At a fire in East Harlem, in an Old Law tenement, I went to the roof of an adjoining building. Three feet from that bulkhead door, there was the roof edge with no parapet. I stopped just short of walking right off the roof and down five stories.

While operating at a fire one night when I was a probie, a firefighter fell off the roof, down an air and light shaft. It was around midnight when we received a call for a fire on the third floor of a five-story Old Law tenement. We were assigned first due, but we were delayed; we wound up second due. Generally, the firefighters assigned to the roof position will try to take a different route to ensure that at least one of them will get to that position. It turned out that the firefighter working in the other truck company had just about a year on the job and was brand new to the area. That night the officer assigned him to the roof because two of the other firefighters working were still on probation.

The firefighter first tried using a front fire escape, but he realized that it wouldn’t get him to the roof, so he took the adjoining building. (Front fire escapes in New York City end at the top-floor landing, not at the end at the roof.) It is a code; the assumption was that the FDNY ladders could reach the persons trapped. Our roof firefighter used the other adjoining building, which was the exposure 4 (D) building. When he got to the roof, he saw something very peculiar: Tools were on the roof; the bulkhead door was still shut, and no firefighter was around. At that same time, I was on the fourth floor. We had heavy fire on two floors, and I heard on my officer’s radio a Mayday. A firefighter had gone down a shaft. I was thinking that someone may have gone down a hole in the floor because the fire had burned through the floor in the apartment in which I was working.

What had happened was that this firefighter went up the exposure 2 (B) building, which was on the corner; the entrance was on the side of the building. When he got to the roof, he made his way to the parapet. He probed with his tool and found solid roof on the other side. Heavy smoke was coming up the shaft at this time. He then tossed his tools to the other roof and climbed over what he thought was the parapet, but it was really an air and light shaft. The shafts were diamond shaped, and he must have gone over the narrowest part and lost his footing and fell down five stories. What saved him was about 15 feet of rubbish that was piled in the bottom of the shaft.

A New Jersey firefighter went through a tarred-over skylight at a fire. Just a few weeks ago in SoHo, we had a roof fire. While we were operating, the building manager informed the chief in the street that we should be aware that there were tarred-over skylights on the roof. He then relayed that information to me because I was in command of the roof. After he informed me, it then became apparent that the raised humps were tarred-over skylights.


Up until just the past few years, roofs were thought of as just a means to keep the snow and the rain off the top-floor apartments. Today, the uses for roofs have changed. As a covering battalion chief in Lower Manhattan, I see the rooftops of multiple dwellings three stories or higher being used recreationally now more than ever before. Actually, it is more unusual to find a roof that doesn’t serve some function other than to keep out the weather. People are using the space for decks, patios, penthouses, solar panels, cell phone towers, and pools. In one section, there is even a small farm on the roof. How does all this affect the fire service? Significantly. Operating on a roof at a fire is dangerous enough without these added activities. These obstacles at a top-floor fire will slow down the very important task of cutting the roof.

At a recent third-alarm fire, I was assigned as the safety chief. The fire was in a five-story tenement. The initial call came over the dispatch as a fire on the top floor; the second call came in as a fire on the roof. I was listening in my office as the radio transmissions were coming in and going out. The battalion arrived on the scene and transmitted a signal for a working fire on the first floor. I thought that it was peculiar and told my driver that we should pay attention to this because if the alarm escalates we will be responding. I usually try to pay attention to what the callers have to say—two different callers reported a fire on the roof.

Sure enough, the alarm escalated to a second alarm, and we were assigned as the safety battalion. I already had a good picture in my mind based on the size-up and the phone calls. The fire got out of the first-floor apartment and went up the air and light shaft and extended into the top floor. What I never heard was that the top floor also had a penthouse and was a duplex apartment. This changed everything for me.

On arrival, I reported to the IC and advised him that I would head to the roof to check on things up there. He agreed. The fire now had extended into the cockloft, and a third alarm was transmitted. The units now had the very difficult task of trying to vent the roof. My main concern as the safety officer was the fact that the penthouse and the bulkhead literally split the roof in half. I was also concerned about the firefighters operating on top of the penthouse with no viable second means of egress. One of the first questions every firefighter must answer before operating on any roof is, Where is my second means of egress if the way I came up is cut off? If you take the aerial to the roof and the ladder chauffeur needs to reposition it for a rescue, he must communicate that to you, and you must verify that you have an alternate means off the roof. The firefighter must also reposition the aerial back to the roof as soon as possible.

This was one of the first fires we have had, to my knowledge, that involved both the top-floor cockloft and the penthouse. It was a very difficult operation and involved a lot of cutting. The penthouse had a finished hardwood floor and was built up on 2 × 4s over the cockloft. The members had to work very hard to vent the top floor and cockloft. In the end, we were able to keep the fire contained to the building of origin with only some minor extension to the cockloft on the exposure 4 (D) side.

It appears that this will be the wave of the future. Every time I open the paper, I read about someone, somewhere, putting solar panels, food gardens, or mass communication centers on top of their buildings. In cities of all sizes, space is becoming more valuable. The question of how we will be able to keep up with this ever-growing problem needs to be answered.

One of the four biggest issues we have at every fire is roof access. When building owners make these plans and they are approved by local building departments, no one ever asks the question, How will this affect the fire department, and how will they vent the roof? The first thing we need to do as a fire service is to make sure that when we do our building inspections, we make note of these different issues and put them on a Critical Information Dispatch System card or use some other method that will get the information to the units that will be responding in an emergency. It may be helpful to make a list of all the buildings in your area that have any peculiarity and post it in the fire station. The next logical step would be to have familiarization drills with the surrounding companies on how you will deal with the issues.


From a tactical standpoint, if I have a building that has some sort of addition to the roof, the first thing I do is call for additional help. For FDNY, that would be an extra engine and ladder in addition to the first-alarm assignment. In your department, that may mean a second alarm or mutual aid. I plan on using the second-due chief as a roof sector commander and dedicate a ladder company just to operate on the roof. I will probably call for a hoseline to the roof as well, depending on the circumstance.

If the fire involves the cockloft, be careful where you place your primary ventilation hole. If you don’t cut directly over the fire, you may run the chance of pulling the fire into uninvolved portions of the building. When cutting a ventilation hole, ensure that you push down the ceiling with your hook and that the cockloft is vented. Firefighters in my department have been killed and severely burned because what appeared to be a vent hole was really just a hole over the fire—the tar from the roof actually had sealed the sides of the hole, meaning that the cockloft was not venting. If the building has a scuttle or a skylight, it also is a good idea to open the returns to ensure ventilation and to get a visual look into the cockloft.

Recently, I visited a building in SoHo where a company was conducting an inspection. The officer brought me to the roof and showed me the duplex apartment with a penthouse and a huge wooden deck. It was so large that there was hardly any unused space. Besides the penthouse and deck, a large air-handling unit was on the roof, to the rear of the building. Ironically, the building had a fire on the roof that started on the deck and spread to the top floor a few years back. When the renovation was done, a sprinkler system was added, but the fact of the matter is that we still have this huge potential fire problem. This building has a huge skylight; breaking the glass and opening the returns would be a great way to effect roof ventilation. Some buildings may not allow you to cut a ventilation hole over the fire. If that is the case, you may just have to resign yourself to that fact and get as much horizontal ventilation as possible.

Knowledge is power, as they say. If we are vigilant and stay current with what is happening in our districts, there will be no surprises. Hopefully, one day it will be a national law that all the hazards in a building will be marked on the front. Until then, we must rely on ourselves for protection against the inherent dangers in a structure.

DANIEL P. SHERIDAN is a 23-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), assigned to the First Division as a covering battalion chief. He is a National Instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is also the founder of Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America. Sheridan is a recipient of three Class B Medals and several Unit Citations.

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