Ventilating Peaked Roofs: The Milwaukee Method

By: David Rickert

Ventilating Peaked Roofs

The Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD) has a long history of aggressive interior attack combined with equally aggressive vertical ventilation. Truck companies are comprised of four or five person crews and are well versed in peaked-roof ventilation. Milwaukee’s typical peaked-roof scenario is a two and a half story wood frame private dwelling with some type of steeply- pitched, raftered gable roof; composed of roof boards, cedar shake, and shingles; add to this the possibility of ice, snow, and or sub-zero temperatures six months out of the year, and it is no wonder Milwaukee truck crews have developed their own system for venting peaked-roofs.

This is not some fly-by-night system hastily drawn up on a chalkboard and used once on the training ground during a sunny day in June. Rather, it is a method which has been tested and tweaked, on thousands of roofs, out in the field, in real world conditions. I feel it is the fastest and safest method for opening up almost any roof; but is especially well suited to the stoutly built, steeply-pitched roofs found in Milwaukee and the Midwest. For lack of a better term, I’ll refer to it as the “Milwaukee Method.”

The Milwaukee Methods’ biggest departure from standard operating procedure (SOPs) of most departments and the generally accepted textbook method(s) is the use of a second roof ladder. The minimal time needed to deploy a second roof ladder is far outweighed by the increased safety and efficiency.

This increase in efficiency and safety comes in part from working in concert with one another instead of waiting for just one person to perform all the functions. In addition the second roof ladder:

  • Gives you the security of always working off of a roof ladder.
  • Gives you another means of egress
  • Allows you to easily reposition to another part or side of the roof
  • Provides redundancy in case one roof ladder is compromised or fails
  • Allows separation of working crew members operating power tools in limited visibility
  • Enables you to make an effective opening without having to lean too far off the roof ladder or stepping off it entirely

A well trained crew using this technique will be able to open up a larger hole quicker, which not only benefits the engine crew, but decreases the amount of time the truck crew is exposed on the roof. I’ve been involved in hundreds of roof openings without serious injury to myself or any member of my crew and when called for the roof can be opened within five minutes including set-up.

Roof Composition

Besides being steeply-pitched, roof composition also contributes to the difficulty faced by Milwaukee truck crews. Roof boards range from ½ “X 6″to 1″X 10″. These boards are old-growth, cold-climate lumber making them unusually hard. Furthermore, they are secured to “real” 2X4’s or 6’s with sixteen or twenty penny nails. Cedar shake was the original covering for many of these old roofs and more often than not has simply been left in place and shingled over. This practice of not stripping the roof usually means that two or more layers of shingles are atop the shake and roof boards. The combination of roof board, shake and shingles will leave you with a roof “sandwich” between two and a half to six inches thick

The Equipment

1. 35 ft ground ladder or aerial ladder
Given the choice, most Milwaukee truck crews, me included, will choose a ground ladder over the aerial ladder. The reason for this is that in most cases a ground ladder is much more quickly and precisely deployed than an aerial.
2. Two roof ladders
Which two you take depends on the length of the roof run, which can be deceiving from the ground, so err on the long side; my preference is to take a 20′ and 14′.The 20′ will tag most peaks, while the 14′ gives you flexibility to easily work around chimneys, antennas, satellite dishes, and other roof obstructions.
3. Roof hooks on both ends of 20ft. roof Ladder

This is useful when you have to flip over to the other side of a roof, instead of having to lift the roof ladder over your head and “helicoptering” it so the hooks are on top. Just simply slide the ladder over to the other side and deploy the hooks on the bottom.
4. 8lb. pickhead axe & spanner belt for each member on the roof
All Milwaukee Firefighters are required to carry an eight pound pickhead axe in a spanner belt. If they aren’t, then they don’t belong on the roof. This is the most versatile of the “heavy hitting” tools (sledges, mauls, axes). It allows you to smash, chop, pry, and even improvise holes for roof hooks. We purposely keep them on the dull side and use them more as a smashing tool rather than a sharpened cutting tool, which would have a tendency to get stuck in the multiple layers of roofing material. An accompanying piece of equipment I recommend is a spanner belt. Some refer to these as “truck belts.” The spanner belt will give you easy access to your axe or other tool, and leaves your hands free to do other things when you’re not using it.
5. K-12 “type” cut-off saw or chainsaw
Due to roof composition, Milwaukee Truck crews only use a circular type cut-off saw. We currently use these saws with a 14″, twenty-four-tooth carbide-tipped hybrid blade…I’d love to shave ten pounds from my roof equipment, but in our experience chainsaws just lack the necessary power, durability and versatility. Additionally, you need to use both hands while using a chainsaw and must cut in a more upright position. This means you lose an important point of contact (your hand on the rungs of the roof ladder) which makes it more difficult to lean into the roof while making your cuts. This becomes especially relevant when working on steeply-pitched roofs.
6. Attaching a large carabiner or gated hook to the saw

This gives you the capability to safely secure the saw when not in use and still have it accessible when needed. I don’t believe in attaching long straps or slings that can and will get hooked onto or into something when you least want it to.
7. Pike Poles?
Most of the roofs we open are two and a half stories, and rarely require the use of pike poles. However in the case of one and a half or two story structures you should add them to the list of tools to be brought up to the roof.
8. A hands-free light
Due to the highly reflective nature of smoke, interior crews often times don’t like to operate with lights of any kind. However, during roof operations it is indispensable, and the brighter the better.
Helmet lights work best due to the fact they are always pointed
in the direction you are looking and working. My preference is for one of the many powerful LED lights now on the market.
9. A 24″ piece of webbing with a carabiner on each end.

This can be used to secure the ground ladder to the gutterline.This is not always possible but is desirable when the ladder has to be raised and climbed at a steeper than ideal climbing angle, or in winter when the gutters are full of ice and very slippery.

The Method

For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the terms pointman, middleman and swingman to describe the three firefighters going to the
roof. We don’t use these terms in the MFD, but feel they generally describe each of their functions for ease in conceptualizing the
overall operation.
The following drawings will attempt to illustrate the basic method we use for setting up and cutting the hole. There are other
slight variations we use and each crew will have to decide for itself what works best for them, but this will be a good starting point.
The firefighters have been numbered in the following graphic descriptions to help keep track of them and what their functions are:
1-Pointman 2-Middleman 3-swingman

fig.1–The crew at this point has already decided on ground ladder placement, raised it into the house, and has begun to set up the roof
ladders. The pointman (1) has ascended about 2⁄3′ of the way up the ladder and is waiting for the long roof ladder (usually an 18’ or 20′)
to be raised into him. The middleman (2) is butting the ladder. The swingman (3) has deployed the hooks and is raising the long roof
ladder up to the pointman, and in this case, is using the ground ladder as a butt point.

fig.2–the pointman (1) with the help of the middleman (2) is beginning to lift the roof ladder up above the gutter line to its tipping point,
or the point at which it will cantilever over onto the roof. I prefer doing this on a single beam as it affords me more control over the
ladder. The gutter line should be just below chest height, (this allows you to grab the gutter for stability in case the ground ladder begins
to shift while still letting you control the roof ladder above the gutter line. During this time, the pointman(1) should also be surveying the
roof for changing conditions, hazards, obstacles, and features which could not be seen from the ground. The middleman(2) is helping
push and guide the roof ladder up; this may not seem like much, but he can really take the load off the pointman and make his job
much easier. The swingman (3) continues setting up and raises the smaller roof ladder (usually 14′) into position. He may also choose
to butt the ground ladder at this point if it is on bad footing, in a precarious position, or icy conditions are present.

fig.3–The roof ladder has been driven to the peak by the pointman (1); he can now just tip it over into position. Sometimes due to roof irregularities such as vents, uneven roof surfaces, and most often ridge caps or vents, the roof ladder will snag and become difficult or impossible to push up over the ridge. In this case just flip the roof ladder onto its hooks and pop it up over the ridge.
The middleman (2) now has the second roof ladder (usually a 14′) and is preparing to bring it up and hand it to the pointman (1).
The swingman (3) is butting the ground ladder and watching his partners carefully to see if they are having any problems.

fig.4–The pointman (1) has climbed onto the first roof ladder and is taking the second roof ladder by the hooks from the middleman (2).The swingman (3) continues to butt the ladder and observe.

fig.5–This is the most critical part of the operation because it is when the pointman must decide, based on his size-up, where he wants to open the hole. Here the pointman(1) has run the 14′ to the peak and is setting up to the left of the ground ladder; he could also set-up to the right, flip over, or even go all the way to the other end of the roof if he felt it was necessary. It will be up to the middleman and swingman to follow his lead. The swingman (3) has brought the saw up and handed it off to the middleman (2). Set-up is now pretty much complete…time to make a big hole!
There are many options and slight variations available to the crew during the opening-up phase. Some of these variations will be dictated by timing, positioning, fire conditions, and crew fatigue. There is no one right way; as a crew, you’ll need to find out what works for you and adapt accordingly.

fig.6–. The pointman(1) has placed the 14′ roof ladder where he wants it (when all roof ladders are finally in place, they should be about four or five feet apart, no more-no less).The reasons for this are threefold: you want them far enough apart to be able to make a large enough hole; you want them close enough so you are able to move from one to the other; and you want them close enough so you will be able to actually pull the hole when finished cutting. The middleman (2) has run the saw up to the peak and handed it off to the pointman (1). The pointman (1) has made his horizontal cut and is now making his vertical. The swingman (3) is waiting to assist.

fig.7–The pointman (1) has finished his vertical cut and handed the saw off to the middleman (2). The middleman (2) is completing his vertical cut. The swingman (3) has swung around past the middleman and will now begin to pull the hole along with the pointman (1).*Remember to keep your head below the level of the opening when pulling the roof boards; there is a tendency to try to get on top of it for better leverage, which you will get, along with, in some cases, a faceful of fire or superheated smoke.

fig.8–The Roof is pulled and the vertical vent is complete. Your hole should be something on the order of 3 ½′ X 7’ or slightly larger. Life is good for the truck, and getting even better for the engine.*While pulling, you will be generating fifteen to forty pound chunks of roof; these will slide down and off the roof. The firefighter at the gutter line will have to be sure to warn anyone in the vicinity and operating on the ground of the impending hazard. These chunks may also slide into the ground ladder itself which may cause it to tip or fall. Always know where your pulled roof boards are going!

A Brief Synopsis Of The Functions Performed By Each Crew Member:
Point Man –first person up the ladder, places the first and second roof ladders, operates off second roof ladder, and makes first two cuts; may pull roof boards.
Middleman-second person up the ladder; helps pointman push up first roof ladder, takes saw from swingman, and brings it to the peak to hand to pointman; makes one vertical cut and pulls roof if swingman doesn’t.
Swing man-raises roof ladders to hand off to pointman and middlemen, brings saw up ground ladder to give to middleman; can swing around middleman to pull roof or be sent down to retrieve more tools or stay at gutter line.
This entire operation can be performed with just two people, but ideally becomes a three person operation.

Peaked Roof Ventilation Tips:

A short 6′ to 8’ roof ladder
We call these “dormer ladders,” they are mostly used during overhaul operations to get to those nooks and crannies on roofs and or dormers which are hard or impossible to access with normal size roof ladders. It can also be hooked to other roof ladders to extend their reach. Simply cut an old 14’ roof ladder down to size.
“That axe pick isn’t just for prying!”
Occasionally due to roof type, ridge configuration, or position, you may be unable to set the roof hooks over the ridge. In this case, you can use the pick-end of your axe to make holes that the hooks can be set into
Do not lock into the ground ladder
When pushing the roof ladders to the peak, the ground ladder will have a tendency to be forced sideways; and if your weight shifts enough, you will not be able to prevent it from falling. This is especially pronounced when: the gutters are icy, the ground ladder is at a steeper than ideal angle; or extended to its maximum height. If you are locked in when this happens, it is very difficult to shift your weight to take corrective action. I instead prefer to not lock in. I extend one arm through the rungs of the ground ladder and hold onto the gutter to stabilize the ladder while I push the roof ladder to the peak. This still allows for three points of contact with the ground ladder and gutter.

This particular hole is 3½′ X 8′ and was opened in less than four minutes; starting from the time ladders began to be pulled off the truck upon arrival. You can clearly see each of the layers: ½″ roof board, cedar shake, and two layers of shingles. This roof is about 2 ½″ thick which made it an “easy pull.”

The Summary

There are myriad methods of peaked-roof ventilation practiced by urban fire departments; and the “Milwaukee Method” may seem cumbersome and time consuming. However, this method of peaked-roof ventilation has, for decades, given Milwaukee’s truck companies the capability to operate safely and efficiently on all types of peaked-roofs under some extreme conditions. Quite frankly, I find it surprising that this technique is not used throughout the fire service to provide safe and effective peaked-roof ventilation.

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