What is a “Routine” Fire?

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By David DeStefano

Most of us in the fire service have referred to certain fires and other incidents as “routine.” Perhaps because they are typical or are frequent occurrences we tend to categorize them together for convenience. Is this convenience contributing a cavalier attitude toward these fires that may lead to firefighter deaths and injuries?

We fight the bulk of our fires in single and small multidwellings, often referred to as “bread and butter” (“routine”) fires. Yet every year firefighters are killed and injured in these so-called routine fires.

Some of the hazards we face in these occupancies are a result of design and construction practices. Others are based on occupancy and fire load. Additionally, environmental factors add danger to our firefighting efforts on a regular basis. These factors may all play a role no matter the size of the building or the frequency of the incident.

Therefore, keeping a sharp eye on some of the most likely “worst-case” scenarios at single and small multidwelling fires may help keep complacency at bay and suppress the “routine” attitude while operating at these fires.


Structural Failure

The failure of a structural element during any stage of a fire is possible based on construction features, renovation, demolition, location and extent of the fire as well as the effect of firefighting activities. Structural failure at routine fires often occurs in the first few minutes of a fire attack, sometimes even before all the first-alarm companies have arrived. The wooden I- beams or lightweight wooden trusses supporting a floor or roof system may have been directly or indirectly affected by fire.

Scenario: The first-in engine begins its stretch to the front door, perhaps not realizing the fire is in the basement. The added weight and impact of the members causes several of the compromised wooden I-beans to collapse. The members are then dropped into the basement with the seat of the fire. In the case of a roof system being compromised, the same conditions may cause the members of the roof team to fall into and hung up in a burning loft.

In this scenario, the firefighters are likely repeating the same actions they have taken many times before at routine fires. Stretching in the front door of an occupied single-family dwelling usually works well at most fires. But performing a 360° size-up may provide important clues as to the location and extent of the fire that could cause the first-in engine to plan another avenue of attack. The roof team may have vented countless roofs successfully by working directly on the deck of a roof with a shallow or “walkable” pitch. However, if they fail to take the time to deploy a roof ladder or work from an aerial device, they run a much higher risk of death or injury if the roof system fails.


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Wind-Driven Fires

Failing to consider the impact of environmental factors on the fireground can have dire consequences. Particularly, when operating at a fire during periods of even moderate wind, members must be constantly aware of the effect increased velocity or changing wind direction may have on the intensity of the fire. During a routine fire, weather may be thought of as an inconvenience or, at best, an afterthought. However, scientific studies and actual incidents have proven that the “blowtorch” effect of a wind-driven fire, once thought to be chiefly a high-rise concern, is possible on any floor of a dwelling. Incident commanders and company officers that fail to recognize the environmental conditions under which they are operating are placing their companies in jeopardy.

In addition, control of the flow path during these incidents becomes crucial. Open windows and doors on opposite sides of the building must be controlled, or other provisions may need to be made for a safe attack on the fire.


Extreme Fire Conditions

Control of the flow path is important no matter what weather conditions prevail during an incident. The ventilation profile is a major factor when considering life safety and fire attack. However, other factors may impact the occurrence of extreme fire conditions during a routine fire. Many single and small multidwellings contain an extreme fire load brought about by hoarding conditions or large numbers of residents living in an occupancy not designed for such use. Members will have great difficulty attempting to search or advance a line in such conditions, and the increased fire load will present a scenario for fire conditions greater than those normally encountered in a dwelling.

With the time to a flashover or other extreme event in a routine fire compressed because of the composition of room contents and the tightly sealed occupancies, firefighters must be vigilant in size-up and continued awareness of the surrounding conditions; the ability to read smoke conditions and building construction has never been more important. Entering a room because the fire appears routine can be a dangerous choice. Our personal protective equipment allows us to withstand significant heat. Ignoring the warning signs evident in the smoke and other size-up factors may lead members to be involved in an event such as a flashover or smoke explosion.


Challenging Occupancy Layouts/Renovation

Firefighters should be familiar with typical housing types and layouts in their response areas. However, this familiarity should not be trusted as a certainty. Renovations and change of use in residential occupancies of all types can create confusion, decrease the structural integrity, and increase the potential for fire spread at virtually any fire. Members may see what looks like an attached garage in a residence only to find a full apartment inside. In some occupancies, structural elements may have been illegally removed to create an open floor plan or allow mechanical services to be installed.

A major point to consider is that when an incident is labeled “routine,” firefighters may become complacent and over rely on information gathered and outcomes achieved during past events. The fireground is a dynamic environment. Although incidents may share common characteristics, some differences are not as obvious as the ones that are critical to our safety and success.

Use the valuable lessons of experience, but continue to size up each fire with a fresh pair of eyes. Take no circumstances or conditions for granted, and don’t ever be comfortable calling a fire “routine.”


David DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.

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  • David DeStefano  is a battalion chief with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he has served for 29 years. He is a shift commander in the operations division. He was previously chief of training and safety and has also served as a captain, lieutenant, and firefighter in Ladder Co. 1 as well as a lieutenant in Engine Co. 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was a presenter at FDIC International 2017 and 2018.    

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