Numerous injuries and deaths have occurred during roof operations above the fire. All firefighters should know the hazards associated with working on a roof so they can take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety when they are assigned to roof duty.

Working in teams, as is recommended in NFPA I5(X), f ire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, enhances safety when performing roof, ventilation, forcible entry, and search and rescue operations. Hopefully, a member of the team would be able to summon assistance should an unexpected emergency occur. In the real world, however, a lone firefighter may have to initiate roof operations. This firefighter must take all precautions and constantly think safety.

In all eases, communications with the roof sector should always be maintained for operational as well as safety reasons. Communication makes it possible to provide frequent reports on the situation and changing conditions. Firefighters on the ground can inform firefighters operating on the roof of dangers they cannot see (fires extending to the upper floors, for example), and the roof crew can communicate to firefighters on the ground conditions—such as HVAC units or a heavy snow load on the roof or an impending collapse —that threaten the safety of attack crews inside the structure. The availability of radios also will permit the roof sector to summon help if an emergency develops. While visual or verbal communications may be used in some daylight situations, radio contact should always be used if possible.


Roof safety actually begins with a complete size-up of the incident that includes considerations such as the following: Where is the fire? How is it spreading? What is the wind direction? Is fire in the cockloft or attic weakening the roof supports? What is the type of roof construction? If possible, determine this information from the prefire plan or through a physical check. This size-up information is needed to determine if it is safe to assign personnel to the roof and where to provide the means of access.

Access to a roof may be from an adjacent building or by an aerial device, a fire escape, or a ground ladder. Regardless of the approach, firefighters must ensure a safe footing, especially if there is smoke or it is dark. When stepping from a ladder or platform or over a parapet, know how far it is to the roof and whether the roof is there. Test the roof with a tool to ensure that it will support your weight. When using a ladder or aerial device to get to the roof, be sure it is extended so that it can be readily seen and reached. A good rule of thumb is to position the ladder four to six feet above the roof or parapet—high enough to see it. This escape route should be left in place, and a second means of egress should be established. Never allow the fire to get between you and one of your escape routes.


Tripping and falling are two major causes of firefighter injuries. Once on the roof, be extremely careful so that you do not trip over wires, mechanical equipment, access covers, skylights, and a variety of other objects. Watch for open ventilation shafts, lightwells. and other mantraps. Exert extra care also when roofs may be wet or slippery as a result of weather conditions or fire streams. Caution is especially needed when working near the edge of the roof. Smoke and darkness make it easier to walk off the roof or fall over a parapet to the ground. During periods of obscured visibility, always test the roof with a tool before transferring your w’eight. Failing to check your footing before taking a step can cause you to trip, fall into a hole or through the roof, or walk off the roof.

Peaked roofs that are wet or covered with snow or ice require a roof ladder or aerial device to maintain safety. It may be necessary to ladder a peaked roof from one of the ends so you can walk or crawl the ridge or peak, maintaining good stability, and work from this position.

A roof ladder may be required on any type of roof to help distribute the weight. If it is necessary to operate on roof decks of questionable strengths, such as when dealing with lightweight construction, top-floor and/or cockloft (attic) fires, or any other weakened condition, place a roof ladder before attempting to work on the roof and use it as a working platform. Leave the roof immediately if conditions worsen. Some roofs have a bounce or sponginess inherent in their construction. Do not confuse these roofs with a roof that is weakening from fire below. Preplan and understand the characteristics of these inherently “spongy” roofs; this can be learned only through experience and training.

Many firefighters have died as a result of roof collapse. Lightweight roofs (such as wooden I-beam) and truss (lightweight wood and steel) roofs can fail soon after first-due companies arrive; numerous such rapid failures have been documented. Identify these roofs in advance and note them on preincident plans. Current construction trends involve reducing costs by using less and less materials in the roof, increasing the importance of knowing how the roofs in your response area have been constructed. Many lightweight roofs are not safe to indiscriminately walk on even when uninvolved with fire. You can keep from stepping through these roofs only by being trained to read them and knowing where to step. In hot. dry areas, a ⅜-inch plywood deck often will warp, looking life a waffle. In daylight, the waffle-like appearance will indicate supported—but not necessarily safe—paths.

Francis Brannigan in Building Construction for the Fire Service, third edition (NFPA. 1992); Vincent Dunn in Collapse of Burning Buildings (Fire Engineering Books, 1988); and John Mittendorf and others in numerous articles have covered roof construction, including lightweight construction and collapse, in greater depth than can be covered in this column. If you have these hazards (and few fire departments don’t), acquire these materials and study them in earnest.


Before opening a roof for ventilation, review the wind direction and your escape route. Make your cuts such that you are between the cut and the wind. In Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics (Fire Engineering Books, 1991), John Norman suggests the following ventilation safety practices:

“1. Ensure the stability of the area before entering.

2. Always have two means of escape.

3. Plan the cut and inform fellow members of its layout.

4. Arrange the sequence of cuts to keep the wind at your back.

5. Cut adjacent to joists for maximum support and the least bounce.

6. Never step on the cut.

7. Don’t cut the roof supports.”


Another immediate safety concern in roof operations is handling of hand and power tools, especially under conditions of poor visibility. Using power saws carelessly can cause serious injuries. Stop the blade as soon as a cut is completed. For rotary and chain saws, you can stop the blade by raising it just above the cut, releasing the throttle, and placing the blade on the roof. Always wear full protective clothing, including SCBA and gloves. Ear and additional eye protection may even be warranted. Designate a “safety man” whenever possible to monitor conditions and progress of the cutting firefighter and provide assistance/support if necessary. Tools used for cutting must be properly sharpened and in good operating condition. Firefighters assigned to the roof should be proficient in the use of the tools required for ventilation and forcible entry.


On multistory buildings, it is necessary to open roof hatches, scuttle holes, or bulkhead doors before cutting holes for ventilation purposes. Never try to enter one of these openings when the floor below is heavily charged. Use care when opening plastic skylights. Their resiliency can cause your tool to bounce and strike you or cause you to lose your balance. It is safer to remove the skylight.

When performing horizontal windowbreaking ventilation from the roof, first make sure all on the ground are safe.

The safety of a firefighter on a roof is never guaranteed. Assigning experienced officers and firefighters to topside tasks enhances safety. These personnel have learned through training and fire duty not only the dangers of roof operations but also the pitfalls of letting down their guard. Operating on roofs is dangerous, and you must respect these dangers at all times. You must protect not only yourself but all members of the roof team sector.

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