Jim Duffy: It’s Just a House Fire

By Jim Duffy

It’s just a house fire, a routine house fire. But, is it? This is the fire the North American fire service goes to every day in big cities and small towns alike. In fact, we will go to more than 1,000 fires in private dwellings in the next 24 hours. It is probably because we go to these fires so often that we consider them routine. Do we become complacent? Do we always think “we got this”? Yes and yes.

We need to remind ourselves why it is dangerous to become complacent. Number one is that there are many risks presented by residential fires. About 70 percent of our civilian fire deaths occur in residential structures. On an average day, we lose about nine civilians to fire. In addition, a large number of our line-of-duty deaths and injuries occur in these fires. Why are the life hazards so great?

About half of the civilian fire fatalities occur between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when most residents are sleeping. More than half of the fire deaths (55%) occurred in bedrooms even though only about 7% of the fires started there. Many homes have an open staircase to the upper floors, creating a chimney that brings smoke and other products of combustion to the sleeping areas where, in many cases, the doors are open. Rarely are there secondary mean of egress from these upper areas. These occupancies vary in construction from pre-1800 post-and- beam balloon frame to modern-day truss construction with large open floor plans. There has been much discussion over the past few years about legacy construction vs. modern construction and the modern fire environment. We must add this to our thought process. We cannot assume that a building built in 1920 will behave as a legacy building because it is highly probable that there have been renovations such as replacement windows, insulation, walls removed, and so on. The furnishings will also more than likely be modern with plastics, foam, and other hydrocarbon-based materials with a high heat-release rate. These conditions create ventilation-limited fires and earlier flashovers.  

We do a great job at these fires, but the statistics suggest we can do better. We can do a better job with public education, explaining the benefits of closing doors and lobbying for residential sprinklers in new construction.


To be successful, many tasks must be completed on the fireground. They include fire attack, ventilation, and search, which all must be coordinated through command. First, we need to complete a size-up of the incident. Whether you are the first-in company officer or the battalion chief you have to identify what the problem is in a relatively short time to come up with your priorities and plan. Let’s begin with a short scenario.

Scenario. You arrive at a 2½-story private dwelling at 3 a.m. with fire showing in a window on the first-floor A/B corner. The main entrance is in center of the house, a car is in the driveway, and there is a basketball net in front of house. What are the facts? It’s 3 a.m., fire is showing, it is a residential occupancy, and a front door is in middle of the house. What are your resources and water supply?

Based on your experience and training, what are the probabilities? People are in the house in the second-floor bedrooms; the staircase is right behind the front door; and smoke and fire are possibly extending to the second floor.

Fire attack, ventilation, search, and water supply should be part of your initial plan. Initial actions must include gaining entry through the front door, quickly deploying a 1¾-line; putting it in operation; and moving it toward the fire on the left, protecting the interior staircase and the means of access and egress for the search and occupants; and ultimately extinguishing the fire. The search team needs to get to the second floor to look for sleeping victims because of the time of day and their probable location; the ventilation crew needs to vent opposite the engine company. Obviously, more needs to be done—for example, ventilation; searching the rest of the structure (the engine company should always be on the lookout for victims as they stretch); and overhaul.

The fire is showing in multiple windows on the A side. When you arrive, Mrs. Smith is on the front lawn; she tells you, while pointing to the second-floor window on the D side, that her son is still in the bedroom on the second floor. I would add vent-enter-search (VES) to the D-side, second-floor window to the above mentioned tasks. Yes, isolate has always been a part of VES.

Although this is not an article on vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS), a very brief review of the steps involved follows:

            • Ladder to the sill of the window.

            • Mask up.

            • Clear the window completely, including removing the curtains.

            • Sweep and sound the floor.

            • Enter, staying low.

            • Close the door.

            • Search the room.

Closing the door will buy time: The products of combustion, including vision-obscuring smoke, will lift; and the open window should have no negative impact on the fire. VEIS is a great tactic at private dwelling fires; it greatly reduces the time it takes to get to victims, especially if you know the room in which they are located.  

The brief scenario above seemed simple enough, but it was all based on good training; experience; and, hopefully, good standard operating procedures. It does not happen by accident. If you are not getting enough fires to sharpen all your skills, you need to train more on things like getting a hoseline stretched to the correct location and quickly putting it into operation with the correct flow quickly, raising and climbing ladders, and venting window and roofs. You may think these skills are simple, but you need to be at your very best for the victims who may be trapped because “good enough” is not good enough. There are no do-overs!

Just as important is training to improve your size-up and decision-making skills. You can do quick drills using buildings in your community and discussing using different options if there were a fire in one of them. You can use the simulations on fireengineering.com or look at actual fire responses on Youtube and many of the fire-based Web sites. View them with an incident commander’s eye taking into account your resources and arrival times. What worked? What did not work? Do not be judgmental. Use the incident as a learning experience in your classroom or at the kitchen table. Posting negative comments on social media does nothing for the fire service as a whole. Finally, attend classes on fire behavior, building construction, strategy and tactics, and so on at your local, county, or state fire academy. There have never been more opportunities to attend seminars and conferences such as those at FDIC International. Make it a point to attend on a regular basis. In addition, read something about your craft as often as possible. It will make you a better, smarter, and safer firefighter.


Jim Duffy has more than 35 years in the fire service, 24 of them as a career firefighter. He has been a battalion chief/shift commander in the Wallingford (CT) Fire Department since 2000 and instructs in the Recruit/Firefighter 1 program. Previously, he was a captain in the Mineola (NY) Fire Department. He is a nationally certified fire instructor and an adjunct instructor for Middlesex County Regional Fire School. He co-hosts “Fireground Strategies” on Fire Engineering Talk Radio with Anthony Avillo. He has been published in firefighter trade magazines in Canada and the United States, including Fire Engineering. He is a co-author for the Tactical Perspective DVD series (Fire Engineering) and the lead on the Search DVD. He was the division chief in charge of the Yale School of Medicine Survivability Study on the Last Chance SCBA Back-Up Filter. He lectures throughout the country and is a regular presenter at FDIC International. He is a member of ISFSI, IAFC, and NYSAFC.



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