For the past few months, we have been concentrating on truck position at combustible structure fires. Since this is still the “back of the book,” I would like to ramble on more about truck stuff and, in particular, vertical ventilation-the roof.

In my mind’s eye, we seem to be losing more firefighters in basic structures in which combustibles are burning. Our brothers are getting disoriented, are running out of air, and are getting lost in the search operation because of a lack of visibility, a lack of communication, heat, super fast fire spread, and other conditions.

The trick here, at least for all the burning structures that I have been inside, is to employ a two-pronged strategy, and one tactic depends almost always on the other. The primary action, of course, is to put the fire out. It sounds simple, I know. But with today’s restrictions of responding personnel (levels are almost criminal), our great “new breed’s” high level of service enthusiasm to get something done even if the basic extinguishment support is not and never will get in place, and the mistaken belief that hose stretching and operations can be put on hold if a rescue is to be accomplished, fire extinguishment and all the benefits of its ongoing operation are in place too late.

The second component of the strategy is the support that gets that primary task (tactic) accomplished-truck work. There just never are enough firefighters available at the right time to make the building behave.

Fire is allowed to cause additional entrapments of the civilians within and, more importantly, our firefighters who are bravely looking for them. The uncontrolled burn weakens structural members, causing partial collapse and resultant and immediate reshaping of the building’s interior within which our blind brothers are operating. It is easy to say, “We do not have enough firefighters here to do much good.” Those words strangely come out of the mouth of the supervisor who, through his silence, allowed the staffing to dissipate to that level simply by believing that the “next one” wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t be on his shift.


But, what cannot be put on hold as the first handline penetrates to the seat of the spreading fire within the building is ventilation-almost always, vertical ventilation. Monday morning quarterbacks tell us that the roof is a dangerous place. But the fire building is Utah Beach without prompt and proper support from that area to the fire building. The flue of the fireplace must be open to ellipse.. aw, you know. But, what about the unsafe part for the roof team? Where did these ideas and magnified stories come from?

Sure, we have had injuries and firefighter deaths directly related to the operations being conducted on the roof. But, it is better to make the battleground safer than to give up the country.

Let’s go a little deeper into the safety aspects that could surround our operations on a roof of a burning building.

  • Peaked roof. It is the flimsiest structure in America. It has the smallest dimension of sheathing allowed by law on private dwellings. Support members are farther apart from each other than ever before. For safety, if the structure is of balloon construction, get help and stay with it. Opening this roof is the key that will keep all fire spread surprises inside the structure in check. Conversely, if the structure is not balloon construction, forget the roof until it becomes a problem. Get the hoseline(s) in place and the people out.
  • Flat roof. In my time of responding to fires, I, too, lost some friends. Some succumbed, and some were so severely injured that their career and most of their style of living were sharply altered. Some fell through weakened roof membranes and into the fire below (located on the top floor); others were hit by falling objects from roof assemblies; some were trapped on the roof by spreading fire or building construction. A few just “ran out of roof” and fell into a blind (to them) shaft or off the rear or side of the building to the ground below. One cut himself into his own hole as a covered skylight opened under him like a trapdoor on a gallows.


But, what could have practically prevented some of these events? Entry onto the roof by aerial device is usually up and over the front wall of the building. The wall that extends over the roof line is the parapet and is the weakest wall in America! It is free-standing on top of other stone or nailed on other wood. Stone is in place on top of the masonry parapet, known as “corbeling.” It is heavy, decorative, and off-center (eccentric). Because of age, it has lost the adhesion it had with the concrete. Stepping on this is dangerous for the roof firefighter, but such a wall also killed a friend who was entering the building with a handline from the steps directly below the parapet. The deteriorated lime mortar binding, no longer effective, allowed the stone to fall from its resting place. Next time, more dangers on the rooftop itself.

TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He is the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999).

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