BY TOM BRENNAN
The roof can be a killer when you are on it, and it is certainly a killer if you never get there. Roofs of fire buildings tend to look a little crowded in today`s fireground pictures in fire magazines. I recall a disaster in my own department in which six firefighters were killed when a supermarket roof collapsed. One of the lessons driven home to us who cried for lessons in disasters was that more than six firefighters could have been killed! Many, many more (too many) firefighters were on that roof that day. The unfortunate ones fell into the roof and were trapped within the burning roof structure–the truss assembly. The survivors fell all of the 15 or more feet to the selling floor of the building or scrambled to safety back to the parapet wall ladder for removal by fire department ladders.
The additional sad commentary on this subject is, “How many firefighters need to be assigned to this position to get the job done, and how many can we afford to send based on the `bone scraped` staffing situation we have in most of today`s fire service?” The answer to that question can range from the number “zero” (because no one is available) in criminally undermanned fire trucks that race to the emergency scene and accomplish nothing (relatively) to “as few as possible” in those departments still struggling with just “inadequate” personnel problems. (But, that is another editorial direction.)
From my personal experience, there are a few possible reasons for having too many people on the roof, none of which excuse the use of the word “many” instead of “few” when describing the number of firefighters who should be operating on the roof in today`s structure fires. (Some of you will not like what I say, but many will nod in agreement.)
The first reason for the “overcrowded” roof is that the roof of a fire building can be a very popular place to be today! If there are no priorities, if assignments are not given to firefighters prior to arrival, if training is classified from “whenever we get to it” to “none,” then the inexperienced or unknowing firefighter will gravitate to the place that will enable him to take part in the firefight and still be seen by other firefighters, spectators, and the media–the roof. Not too much thinking going on there–little punishment, and yet all on the fireground and those seeing the pictures will attest to your participation in the firefighting effort.
I remember one unimportant fire officer (gold) telling everyone who cared that, “If anything, in my career, I was a great roof man.” Shoot, anyone can be a great roof man. Almost all the time all you have to do is get there and then open anything that has smoke coming out. If you start to understand the job, you will eventually know when to cut the roof or simply open the available openings. And again, I thought as I looked at this undependable fellow, “Sure, it`s a nice clean place to be during a structure fire!”
Another reason is parallel–lack of training or understanding of the value of great roof operations. Anyone assigned to roof operations should have had a great deal of time operating within structures involved in fire and should know the value of an “expertly” opened roof, whether as part of the truck team or a nozzle team that now can (after the roof has been opened) make it up the stairs to the fire floor or get down the hall of the dwelling unit on the top floor to the two “rear” bedrooms that are actually on fire.
Another reason is the lack of understanding of the difference in operations at a fire located directly under the roof (the top-floor fire) and a fire that has not yet extended to that position, a lower-than-top-floor fire. With the fire on the top floor, you will be operating up there “all day.” You will get the priorities accomplished in the lower-floor fire and then get off and help inside.
So now the subject of this month`s column: When you are finished with the roof, how do you get off and do something else that needs to be done? Again, this answer depends on the location of the fire–whether it is on the top floor, for example.
The nontop-floor fire. The first priority for anyone assigned as a roof person or to a roof team, after size-up, is to get there and get there fast and not to have to wait for a significant level of command to arrive and give an order. An aerial or portable ladder is best; a fire escape that is remote from the fire location or on an adjoining building is next (if available, it makes the aerial available for other duties); adjoining, attached, and buildings similar in height are last.
Now, you are there. Open things. You know from your size-up that you have a structure fire and you can guess the floor and the location within the building. If the skylight is there, open that first. Don`t forget to break away the dust cover or screening located at the interior ceiling level below it.
Next, attack the assemblies that give tenants or owners access to the roof from the interior of the building–the bulkhead enclosure at the top of the stairs or the scuttle cover over the vertical ladder that goes to the roof. The reason for making the skylight the first priority is simple (as most fire tactics are): The skylight is easy to get “done” and affords the most instant relief to human beings below it. The other openings are more difficult. Today, they are chained and padlocked shut to keep out the drug-filled invaders who seek money and shelter. Also, these assemblies don`t relieve the structure as well as the skylight over the staircase or workplace. Scuttles are “popped” open, and bulkhead doors are pried. The tactical trick with bulkhead doors is to keep them open, since they are legally required to have self-closing hinges. Look around for roof debris–a piece of wood, a concrete block, a roof tar can, a television aerial–anything. If you are on the only roof in your district that is that clean, break the top hinge on the bulkhead door. That breaks the integrity of the door, and it will hang in an open position. If there is an additional skylight on the top of the bulkhead enclosure, get that next.
More next time.
TOM BRENNAN has more than 33 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department 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).