House Fires Require Firm Control of Fireground
The Volunteers Corner
Because the average house fire is a one-line job, we have to constantly be alert for the situation that calls for an all-out fireground effort. Sometimes this means a tremendous effort with limited manpower in the initial response.
First of all, it is vital that the fireground commander maintain control of the operation. He must develop a strategy that considers the extent of the fire and the number of companies and manpower he has to save lives and property.
If companies go to work without being part of the chief officer’s strategic plan, they will nullify the chances of success for the planned attack. Needed manpower will be lost to the plan of attack until they have been brought under control and repositioned. This means lost time and a lost opportunity for an aggressive initial attack.
Search and rescue: In any serious residential fire, search and rescue is a must. However, when the rescue problem is truly serious, it must be a coordinated operation. It must be coordinated with ventilation and the stretching of at least one hose line, and it may also involve laddering the building. Thus, just to get a search team into a building seriously involved in fire requires at least two and possibly three concurrent operations.
Ventilation is necessary for two reasons. First, immediate ventilation will alleviate the interior temperature so that search teams can get to more sections of the building, and it can ease the smoke situation so that the searchers have better visibility. Secondly, ventilation may make the difference between life and death for residents trapped in the building. By venting, you allow the hot fire gases to escape and be replaced by cooler air from the outside. This cooler air gives the trapped victims some relief from the heat that is threatening their lives and impelling them toward panic. Furthermore, as the toxic fire gases flow to the outside, they are replaced by outside air with more oxygen for the victims to breathe. By rapidly venting a house, you are buying more time to reach those trapped inside before they succumb to carbon monoxide and other fire byproducts.
Buying time is the name of the game when a difficult rescue must be accomplished. A hose line stretched into the building to prevent the fire from advancing on them buys some more time. If you can at least confine the fire that is too powerful to knock down with the initial attack line, you protect the search and rescue operations area.
Vertical ventilation: The fact that horizontal ventilation is usually adequate in residential fires makes it all the more necessary for the first-in fireground commander—who may be a company officer in the first few minutes—to recognize situations that demand vertical ventilation—opening up the roof. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the fire is visible only on the first floor of a three-story house. The superheated fire gases are rising to the third floor and banking down from the roof.
Unless the roof is opened at once, the hot gases will continue to build up and bank downward. This in turn leads to increased buildup of heat on the lower floors.
It may not look as though a hole in the roof will relieve heat and smoke from the lower floors, but the proof is in the doing. Cut a large hole in the roof, probe it with a long pike pole to knock down any ceiling material, and then watch the smoke erupt from the hole. That’s when you know conditions are improving inside. Roof ventilation also acts to prevent ignition on the top floor by convection.
Spread of fire to the top floor is a particularly critical problem with balloon frame houses, and opening up the roof is the answer to that threat.
Hose line decisions: We mentioned the need for stretching a hose line to protect a search and rescue effort in a serious fire. There are other hose line alternatives that must be evaluated. For example, it may be possible that the size of the fire and its location makes it practical to immediately attack the main body of fire and darken it down.
Remember, knocking down the fire minimizes all your other problems. It reduces the rescue problem and it eases the ventilation problem. Note that we said it minimizes— not eliminates—these problems.
It is also vital to order the initial line to be large enough to do what it is intended to do. The trap is that a 1 ⅛ -inch line can handle most residential fires. But we have not been discussing the ordinary residential fire. The first-in engine company officer must recognize the larger fire and make his initial line 2 1/2 inches. He must recognize when a flow of 100 gpm is inadequate and when 250 or.300 gpm is necessary. Yes, there are situations where a master stream should be the first one on the fire because that’s what you would otherwise wind up using.
Coordinating search and rescue, the stretching of the initial hose line and ventilation require disciplined company operations. If the fireground commander is to succeed, he must have firm control of the operation so that he can deploy his available manpower to the best advantage.