As the truck company ap-proaches the fireground, the firefighters prepare to go to work. Not sure of the exact type of building to which they are responding, they start to assemble the standard tool assignment. Being a four-member company, they know that the type of building will have an impact on their tool assignments.

As they pull into the block of the fire building, the officer hits the glass partition between the cab and jump seats, letting the firefighters know that they have a fire.

Brennan: Top-Floor Fires

The ladder truck pulls up in front of a three-story building of ordinary construction. Heavy smoke obscures the front of the fire building at the top-floor level. The smoke is pushing from around the windows and is already showing through the seams of the cornice. As the firefighters dismount, they quickly review their tool choices.

The inside team of the officer and one firefighter knows that forcible entry will be the main objective. The outside team of the remaining two firefighters knows that ventilation–vertical and horizontal–will be required.

What are the tool requirements for the inside and outside teams? What factors–determined by fire location and type of building–determine our selection of tools? The type of building, based on occupancy and construction, is the first variable we use for our size-up. This, coupled with the location and extent of the fire within the building, will help us start to address the basics needed for a good foundation from which to operate.

What are the general duties of the ladder company on the fireground? The truck usually performs multiple tasks, including forcible entry, ventilation, search and rescue, ladder placement, and checking for fire extension. These tasks are performed inside and outside the fire building.

In the above-mentioned fire scenario, a top-floor fire, especially late at night, will require an aggressive search operation by the interior team, coupled with immediate vertical and horizontal ventilation from the outside team.


The interior team first normally has to provide forcible entry into the fire area or apartment. In private dwellings, the forcible entry problem is usually at the front door. Once this door is forced, there are rarely any other doors within the house that need forcing. But even these doors present a greater challenge than in the past. Most doors on homes today feature a deadbolt-type lock complete with a key in/key out feature–a key is required from the interior as well as the exterior to unlock the door. It is common to find civilians overcome behind the locked door because they were unable to find the key to unlock the door. Thus, after forcing the door, it is imperative to immediately check behind it.

In apartment houses or other types of multiple dwellings, the individual doors on the inside of the building must also be forced. Instead of the one door at the exterior entrance, you must contend with doors at the entrances to the individual apartments. In a four-family apartment house, you may have to force five doors–the door to the outside and four separate apartment doors inside.

On the fire floor, the heat and smoke pushing around the door may make forcing the door difficult. Use caution when the door is ready to open. Operating units must maintain control of the door with a short piece of rope as the door “pops.”

Even on the fire floor, it is wise to force an adjacent door in addition to the fire apartment. This will serve not only as a place to flake out any extra hose from the engine company but also as a place of refuge if conditions in the fire apartment become untenable. This is especially important when operating above the fire floor. Reduced visibility, high heat, and the fact that the locked apartment door is momentarily blocking your place of refuge make this position above the fire a dangerous place from which to operate. If conditions on the floor above are nasty, it is wise to force the adjacent door first. This way, if the fire comes up the stairs, members will have a place to go.

For most doors on houses, the halligan and ax are sufficient to force entry. In apartment buildings that have metal doors in metal frames, the entry problem becomes compounded. When confronted with these doors, use a hydraulic entry tool to make forcible entry that much easier. For a top-floor fire in a multiple dwelling, the inside team should take a set of irons–a halligan and flathead ax–at the very least. If it is available, also take a hydraulic tool such as the rabbit tool. The other desirable tool for the inside team is a six-foot hook or pike pole. This tool has several uses on the fire floor including pulling ceilings; helping trim baseboards; and, should the fire be coming out an open door, pulling the door closed.

An optional tool, depending on how many firefighters are available, or in the absence of a rabbit tool, is the 212-gallon water extinguisher. This versatile piece of equipment can be used to knock down incipient fires, drive fire back across the ceiling to get a door closed, or hit fire burning through the top of a closed door. It is amazing how much fire can be held in check with just 212 gallons of water.

Another option is to substitute a sledgehammer or maul for the flathead ax in areas where companies frequently find multiple locks in metal door and frame assemblies.


The outside team also bases tool selection on a quick size-up. At this fire, the team`s initial observation shows an immediate need for vertical and horizontal ventilation. Depending on your department`s SOPs, the members can work together or split up and try to accomplish more than one task at a time. If your members work alone at any time, they should be in constant radio contact. Although working in pairs is preferable, many times fire conditions and staffing do not permit it. One solution may be to team the member from the interior crew with the member going to the roof. The remaining member of the inside team can team up with members of the engine company. The lone outside team member can use the ladder for ventilation either by ascending the ladder and breaking windows or using the ladder itself to take out the glass.

When using an aerial ladder to remove windows, do not extend the fly section through the window. The correct method is to extend the ladder to the upper section of the window and then lower the bed section so that gravity breaks the glass.

For this fire, the outside team stays together. If the aerial can be used for roof access, the operator will place the ladder to the roof. As the ladder is being raised, the second member assembles the needed tools, including a ventilation saw, a six-foot hook, a set of irons, and possibly a lifesaving rope of some type. One member takes the ventilation saw and the hook. The second member is responsible for the remaining equipment. It may be hard to climb the ladder with these items, but it is a lot easier than going back down to the street to get the one tool you left behind.

Once on the roof, the members have several tasks to accomplish immediately. One member should proceed directly to the rear of the roof to get a look at the conditions in the rear of the building. He may be able to locate the main body of fire or may find trapped civilians. The other member should start to look for any natural covers on the roof, including scuttles, skylights, and bulkheads. He should remove the covers on these openings or clear the glass out of them. He can use the adz or point end of the halligan to pry up the covers. An overhead swing will usually drive the tool into the material and bury the point into the hatch cover. If the cover is held in place only with a hook and eye-type latch, you should have enough leverage to lift the cover. Use the halligan, ax, or hook to break skylights. This will start to provide some relief on the top floor.

After opening up these natural ventilation points, focus on the front and rear windows. By lying on the roof surface and using a six-foot hook, you usually can reach the top-floor windows in the rear. If not, use the halligan with a short piece of utility rope. Tie the utility rope to the halligan using either a pre-tied loop or a clove hitch and binder. Then lower the tool until it is even with the window you want to vent. Hold this measurement in one hand, and pull the halligan back to the roof level. While maintaining a grip on the rope, throw the halligan away from the building. The tool will go out until the rope is taut and then arc back into the window. This will work even on replacement windows but might require several attempts.

After taking the rear windows, then take the front windows. Because of cornices and other styles of fronts, it might be hard to see, let alone break, the front windows. One member may have to go back out on the ladder and try to reach with the six-foot hook. If you cannot reach the windows by any other method, then use the aerial ladder itself. This will require that the original operator leave the roof or, hopefully, a later-arriving firefighter may be able to assume the position on the turntable. Before this firefighter removes the ladder from the roof, the two members operating on the roof must be notified. This may be their only escape route, especially in the case of an isolated building. Once the ladder is moved, communications between the roof team and the member operating the aerial must be maintained.

Once all the windows have been re-moved, you must decide whether to cut the roof deck or not. Base your decision on information from the inside companies as well as visible observations. (Remember, this is a top-floor fire.) Once you decide to cut, determine the proper spot. You can cut the roof with a power saw or an ax, but the saw is much easier. After cutting the hole, use the halligan to remove the roof covering, if necessary, and then the roof boards themselves. You can also use the six-foot hook to remove the roof boards. If you use the ax on the boards, you must break them instead of remove them. This is possible on tongue-and-groove boards but difficult on plywood.

Other tools used by the truck company on the fireground include ground ladders, lock breakers, and other types of hooks and pry bars. It doesn`t matter which tools you use to accomplish the tasks on the fireground, as long as your personnel know how to use them safely and properly.

Photo by Ron Jeffers.

Photo b Ricci B. Ruschioni.

Photo by David Handschuh

Photo by author.

Bob Pressler, a 23-year verteran fo the fire service, is a retired lieutenant with Rescue Company No. 3 of the Fire Department of New York. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering vido 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.

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