Ventilating Garage Fires with Exposed Lightweight Wood Truss Roofs

For our profession, vertical ventilation has become an almost automatic assigned task for the first-arriving company officer. But, are we ignoring near-miss reports by putting our members at risk by automatically assigning them to vertical ventilation? Shouldn’t we first evaluate the fire and then determine if vertical ventilation is the best option?

A Great Tool, But …

Vertical ventilation is a great tool and vital for our profession. Whenever we can relieve our interior companies when they are making a push toward the seat of the fire, searching, or performing any other function, vertical ventilation is a positive and creates a more survivable space for any trapped victims.

Considering all the photos and videos available from which to learn and all the firehouse Monday-morning quarterbacking that occurs around the country, how many of those videos and pictures justify having our members operating on the roof? Are we sending our companies to the roof because that is our department’s custom, or are we really taking a good look at the building and the fire conditions?

One thing that can’t be disputed based on the near-miss and line-of-duty-death (LODD) investigations and other data collected over the past decade is that wearing complete personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential, whether you are assigned to the nozzle, to search, or to vertical ventilation. Yes, this includes the hood, the mask, the structural gloves, and the helmet.

If assigned to vertical ventilation after donning your complete PPE, start up your power tools on the ground prior to getting onto a smoky and probably compromised roof. Trying to start the tools on the roof makes the job much more dangerous because of the roof’s pitch and reduced visibility in smoky conditions. This is something we can all agree on when beginning our climb to a pitched roof.


Unfinished Garages

Many fires tend to start in the garage where the car is kept. Also found there are lawnmowers, gasoline, and whatever else we can’t get rid of or fit in our homes. The overall weight of any roof and a well-established fire in the attic space increase the chance that the roof will fail.

In my first-due areas, most garages are unfinished, which in a fire means a rapid weakening of the truss system. The heat the large fire load produces in the garage without any drywall to protect it quickly compromises the truss system, and the roof area above can shortly become very unstable. Each fire department is responsible to know and preplan its first-due area to avoid a catastrophic event.

Depending on your department’s response time, a fire can become well established rather quickly. If the fire service is checking boxes and automatically assigning companies to vertical ventilation, this can create a very dangerous situation. Without proper policies and training for your members, your department and your members could be the next reported near misses or LODDs.

In the Central Valley of California over the past 10 years, we have experienced three near misses that I know of that involved firefighters falling through garages while performing vertical ventilation. I am one of those near misses.

Most of us have read and learned from the 2015 Cortland Avenue incident1 in Fresno, California; the 2010 Coston Avenue incident in Modesto, California,2-3 which left two firefighters seriously injured; and the 2016 Riverside incident in Modesto in which I was involved.

Riverside Incident: My Near Miss

I was a new truck company officer with the Ceres (CA) Fire Department when we were dispatched to a working fire. The fire was in Modesto. With a no-boundary agreement with our surrounding departments, we were on the run card. The incident commander had assigned Modesto Fire Department (MFD) Truck 1 vertical ventilation initially, but that assignment changed because my company arrived on scene. As the first-due truck, we were assigned vertical ventilation.

Some things went right: I did a 360° walk-around of the building, the first-due engine company was aggressive and started flowing water into the garage while waiting for two-in/two-out to be established, we had good ladder placement, and we took a safe route to the first ventilation hole. We used the ridge of the roof on the Delta side of the structure and crossed over the peak of the roof to get to where we thought was a good place for our ventilation hole.

What went wrong? We were unsure of where the fire was; at the time, this did not raise a red flag in my head. The smoke was brown, was not under pressure, and was banked down to the floor throughout the residence (photo 1). That did not raise a red flag.

The garage’s construction was unknown. As you can see in photo 2, we were walking near the peak of the roof where the construction all tied together. My company cut the rectangular ventilation hole to the right prior to my falling through the roof. I fell partway through the hole on the left.

At the time, I was confident in this construction. However, it was a two-car garage that was two cars deep instead of two cars wide. The garage allowed two cars to park end to end instead of in the more usual side-by-side arrangement. I could not have seen this from my 360° walk-around of the structure. The garage was unfinished and extended the complete length of the house alongside the living quarters. The roof peak of the garage met the roof peak of the house (on which we were operating) at a right angle.

The fire started in the rear of the garage around the water heater. The rear of the garage was used as a bedroom, and a queen mattress that was suspended in the air by chains was directly below where I fell partway through. The roof had seemed solid the entire time we operated on it until I fell through.

Photos courtesy of author.

(1) Photos courtesy of author.

Photos courtesy of author.

As I was sounding the roof, it opened like a trap door beneath me. Through training and maybe out of instinct, I spread my arms wide and caught myself in the rafters at armpit level.

Without the proactive engine company operating the hoseline, my story could have been different. Without the help of my engineer and my firefighter who pulled me out of the hole, my story would have been a lot different. Although the MFD has a policy that states no ventilation over garages, Ceres does not. What does your department say about ventilation over garages?

Although we did not know that we were operating over a garage, a better knowledge of the building, a reading of the smoke, a change in truck company culture, and communication might have prevented my incident.

Attic Fires

The construction of an unfinished garage and an unfinished attic is similar. A fire that starts in the unfinished attic or an outside fire that has extended into the attic is burning in an unfinished compartment.

If you say no ventilation over garages, does this go for working attic fires? If we are putting our members on a compromised roof for vertical ventilation, why? Is it because it is procedure or because it is warranted? We are talking about a working attic fire on arrival, a fire burning in a compartment space directly under the roof we are planning to walk on. Is there a better use for our companies on these types of fires than having them on a roof performing vertical ventilation?

Other Options

Who decides that the company will vertically ventilate? Is your firehouse culture flexible enough that a company officer can decline the assignment? A few things need to happen before declining the assignment. It is essential that the truck company officer perform a 360° walk-around of the structure and consider roof/smoke conditions, the fire’s location, and ladder placement before deciding to put firefighters on the roof. Can a firefighter cut the roof from the safety of an aerial or tower ladder if ventilation of that space is needed?

Evaluating whether the building can be horizontally ventilated is another option, but does your department train on horizontal ventilation and on the timing and the communication of the engine company and the outside vent firefighter?

Communication

Communication for any ventilation job is extremely important, as we all know. We learn this early in our career and from our experience on the fireground. But, sometimes it happens, sometimes not. This communication must take place! A coordinated fire attack with ventilation, whether horizontal or vertical, is essential for our effectiveness on the fireground.

Take it a step further and consider how our engine companies assign ventilation at an incident. Do we assign them vertical ventilation, or should we do better and give them a broader assignment? Maybe we can change our fireground language and allow our truck companies to decide which method of ventilation to use. Can we instead assign “assess for ventilation”? This change in fireground language will allow our truck companies more options and enable them to use their experience to make the appropriate ventilation choice for the incident and for the members’ safety on the fireground.

The engine company probably wouldn’t want its truck companies telling them how or where to stretch their lines, and truck companies feel the same. Trusting our truck companies to evaluate the structure and to determine the best course of action may be a beneficial tactic to incorporate on the fireground. Delegating that decision to the truck company and letting it make its own independent plan and communicate the best option will take a lot of pressure off first-due engine companies.

Truck Staffing

Are there three or four firefighters on your truck? This can also drastically change the way you lay out your fireground assignments. My department operates a three-person truck company. If we operated with a two-team concept, we would be able to focus more on search with two firefighters and one firefighter would be assigned as the outside vent firefighter. Or, if the company officer decides on vertical ventilation, we would operate as one team.

Our truck does not do search very well; maybe that’s partly because we have a culture of sending our truck company to the roof often when vertical ventilation is not needed, or maybe it is because we have not changed our culture through training to effectively meet our needs on the fireground. With a four-person truck company, we can operate as two teams regardless of the situation and operate either “all in for search” or “all out for vent” as needed.

Other jobs we can use our truck company for include assisting by opening up a large hole in the house and getting an attic ladder set up for that engine company to send the nozzle firefighter into the attic to put water on the fire. The truck company can also assist with salvage and overhaul while the engine is applying water in the attic.

Our culture used to be to chase attic fires around room by room, which was time and labor intensive. Once we started sending the nozzle firefighter into the attic to extinguish the fire, our work became much easier and less labor intensive; also, there is far less damage to the home, and we have been able to save more property.

You need to discuss this in your department and decide what best fits your needs. Is it worth the well-being of your members to put them on compromised, unprotected roofs? Or, can first-arriving officers do a better job and not check boxes but think outside of the box and put your members in the best situation to succeed? Can you better communicate to all of your companies on the fireground and allow them to make the decisions that improve the outcomes on a daily basis?

My hope is that these conversations will happen in your fire department and help you with your tactics and decision making—and maybe even effect policy change or development. The best way to prevent something bad from happening is to learn from others’ mistakes and humble ourselves. The near miss I experienced opened my eyes and made me a better company officer. I also know that many people had quite a bit to say about my incident, just as is the case for other incidents, but few of my brothers and sisters came to me and asked or talked to me about that day we had on Riverside Avenue.

I would have preferred that they would have made it a point to come and talk to me about the decisions we made that day because many people out there know a lot more than I do and they are the people from whom I want to learn.

References

1. Fireengineering.com. (01/20/2016) “Fresno (CA) Fire Department Releases Report on Incident Where Captain Was Burned.” https://bit.ly/2FSVxgb.

2. Firefighternation.com. (August 18, 2010). “California Department Releases Close Call Report; Firefighters Fall Through Roof at Garage Fire.” https://bit.ly/2Hx6V2S.

3. Modesto Fire Department. (January 1, 2010). “Coston Fire Investigation Report.” https://bit.ly/2sQ8RsN.

 
 

Dominic Magagnini is a captain with the Ceres (CA) Fire Department and a 15-year veteran of the fire service.

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