More on Cellar Fires

More on Cellar Fires

Volunteers Corner

In my last column, I talked about fires in cellars. This month, I’d like to continue with this subject, because cellar fires are such a punishing and potentially dangerous job.

One point I made last time—that when we decide to descend into a cellar, we should do so with dispatch— cannot be overemphasized and bears repeating. Don’t stop on the staircase! You’re actually going down a chimney to get to the seat of the fire, and the body you burn will be your own.

Most stairs serving cellar areas are partially open, and rising convection currents from the fire make the top half of the stairway unbearable. If you “believe” that the base of the stair is more tenable, then get there as fast as possible.

Another item that’s most important before you enter a cellar is your mini roll call. You must know how many firefighters are down there, and who they are, in case of an emergency. Talk to one another before descending. “Do we have enough hose not only to reach the bottom of the stairs but to allow for a rapid advance to the fire?” “Is the hose properly laid out to allow the smooth movement of the line without knots and snags?” “What’s the position of the nozzle? Is it on straight stream?”

We don’t have the luxury of allowing fog to turn to stream in our heated vault (the cellar). We want to get down as rapidly as possible and hit the devil in the face.

“Mike, you and I will go down first. Don’t stop.”

“Joe, when we get to the bottom, you follow as the third person.” In a cellar fire, this third person is crucial to the success of the operation. Most interior stairs parallel an exterior foundation wall and terminate close to an adjacent wall. It also seems the fire is always in the opposite direction of the descent of the stairs. As we make the necessary U-turn with the handline, the third person down stays at the bottom of the stairs and feeds line to the advancing nozzle team. Snags caused by sloppy and cheap construction, lack of aisle space, and lousy housekeeping can halt an otherwise efficient advance. It will be the third firefighter’s responsibility to see that such snags are momentary and corrected. This position also enables the firefighter to be more aware of fire that might threaten the stair shaft from another direction.

The hose line must do more than move smoothly around the newel post; it must be kept from riding up the banister. If a hose line rides the banister, the nozzle team can’t follow it back to the base of the stairs if a quick retreat is necessary. Obviously, this position should not be filled by a probie.

The third person on the line must also feed the line at the same pace as the nozzle team’s forward movement to avoid looping and kinking. The nozzle team might not be advancing as quickly as it would in an upper-floor fire, because of limited horizontal ventilation.

Venting a cellar is always a challenge. Most cellar windows are small, but naturally, they’re located at the top of the foundation, so they’ll be as efficient as possible. The biggest problem with cellar windows is that they’re limited to one, or at best two, sides of the building, and this reduces the natural cross flow that we experience at upperfloor fires. Vent the cellar windows without hesitation. With the interior cellar door open, smoke and heat will also vent into the main section of the house. The windows on all floors above the fire can be opened to allow the house to vent.

At a real stubborn fire, you can also consider cutting a hole on the floor above the fire. If a hole is called for, cut the hole above the fire near an outside wall or close to the largest window available. It helps if the hole can be on the opposite side of the fire from where the nozzle team is attacking.

Completely vent the large window that’s near the hole, not just opening it, but completely cleaning it out.

After the hole is cut, but before it’s pulled, make sure you have a third charged line. (Remember from last time that the second line is at the top of the stairs). With this third charged line in position, use a fog pattern out the window to mechanically vent the escaping gases and to protect the first floor from igniting. Don’t direct the line into the vent hole; that tactic is as murderous as using opposing handlines in this situation, and you’ll severely injure the advancing cellar team by blowing the fire onto those firefighters.

In venting cellars, smoke ejectors, either electricor gasoline-powered, are useful. If your department carries both, go for the gas-powered first, because it doesn’t require electrical hookups and can be placed in sendee more quickly than the electric version.

We now have our line in position, attacking and venting this stubborn fire. Simple? Wrong! In the next issue, we’ll discuss the overhauling, construction, and storage problems that make fighting cellar fires so unique and dangerous.

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