By Tom Brennan

When do you cut a roof? and Where do you cut? We have reviewed this subject too many times. So why review it again? Because again it popped up and was very costly in terms of injuries to a brother.

Let’s start with a few simple rules from which to build a training bulletin.

First, you don’t cut all roofs! The saw and ax should be going to the roof with the vertical ventilation team when the fire is on the top floor OR in a one-story building. To reword this simple axiom: Be prepared to cut roofs AFTER you open for top-floor fires or in one-story structures. Refine this for private dwellings (sometimes converted to multiple dwellings). Cut at the center of the highest peak. Perform any of the “microbatics” you learn from the wizards at courses and seminars, but cut a hole. The reason for this statement is that teams are reporting cutting peak roofs as near to the ladder safety as possible—that means at the ends of the house over the vertical enclosure wall or (worse) where the ladder touches the gutter line. This was responsible for three seriously injured firefighters recently.

For flat roofs, the size-up rule is still the following: Divide the roof into quarters and cut not closer than five feet to any enclosure or bearing wall. You should be able to decide front or rear from the sidewalk and left or right when you get to your objective—the roof.

Offensive to defensive. Speaking of aerial devices (we were?), let’s talk about tower ladder operations and, in particular, the big switch from offensive to defensive operations. You know the hysteria—a calm command post asking, “How is everything going, Tower 6?” changing to, “Get water to that thing now!” One thing you do have on this switch is time—time to reposition if necessary; time to change the bucket tool collection for overhaul; and, most importantly, time to check on interior operating personnel. Too many locations switch to crushing tower water operations without waiting for acknowledgment that all forces have exited the structure or at least the fire division.

The tower team: The officer (at the street level), the chauffeur (at the turntable), and the two members operating the controls and the stream should ensure that the handlines they see do not have operational forces at the nozzles within the structure. Like it or not, too often the initial operations of tower water supply applications begin too soon.

Remember, you have just declared this structure to be a piece of junk, so make sure it is not occupied. The command post may just have overlooked that matter in the quest for rapid outside attack!

Weakest walls. Do you know the weakest walls of a structure that is on fire? Since more firefighters are injured or killed in collapse of fire buildings OUTSIDE THE STRUCTURE than inside the structure, it makes sense that all operating forces know that simple truth. Generally, the wall with the most openings in it is the weakest wall. Guess where that is! In front, generally where the outside handlines are creeping closer and closer to the structure and into the collapse zone. It is where the capital budget of most departments await destruction—the apparatus and equipment!

Second to that is the fact that a support wall (bearing some weight) is stronger than an enclosure wall (the other two). Check which walls have the roof or floor beams supported.

The next tips are almost for Mayday discussions. Walls with moving cracks and/or bulges in them are the weakest of all. We are not forgetting the parapet: An unsupported wall standing on a wall defying gravity is always the weakest wall of all and certainly a collapse factor at all structure fires at which they are found.

Scuttle ladders. They are for the owner of the building to use. That is a great safety tip for us all. Vertical ventilation personnel should (almost) never go down the ladder of the fire occupancy. And interior personnel should never use the ladder within the fire building until the fire is under control and you need to get help to the roof or check the cockloft visually. It is a death trap during the firefight!

Keeping SCBA with you. The best method to use (in my opinion) to keep your SCBA with you when you are in confined spaces during search or escape is to PUSH the bottle ahead of you and not PULL it after you. I have seen the pull method taught at classes recently—the instructors must never have had to unsnag a twisting and turning bottle and supply assembly. If you push it ahead, it is impossible to hook anything!


People are still laughing at me when I say that this fighting fires in structures is simple stuff—risky but simple. Let’s keep it simple and safe.

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 was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Un-plugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He is a regular contributor to

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