Attic fires and the latest research in fighting them by Bill Schnaekel
I always wanted to be a fireman. The closer I got to getting hired, the more I wanted the position. I didn’t want anything to get in my way.
When I was a teenager, I can clearly remember hearing that one large Metropolitan fire department (Prince Georges County, MD) was going to mandate the installation of sprinkler systems in all single family homes. With youth comes adolescence and I had convinced myself that once other communities took notice of their success, fire departments across the nation would no longer respond to structure fires. I was certain that nothing would burn. It was difficult enough to become employed as a firefighter, but this, I thought, would certainly seal the deal.
It took me a few years to realize that sprinkler systems were not designed to extinguish a fire; rather, they were installed to give the occupant(s) enough time to escape. Not to mention, many of those same mandates do not require heads to be installed in void spaces, including the ceilings, floors, walls, and attic spaces. It wasn’t until later that I took into consideration all the other homes and buildings that were built prior to these codes taking affect. Now that I’m older and a bit wiser, I don’t think we’ll have a shortage of building fires anytime soon. This is good for us in a sense because it is what we are trained to do and we appreciate the challenges associated with firefighting. As professionals (regardless of compensation), we believe and intend to do well. We don’t want anyone’s property to burn, but it will and when it does, we all want to be there. We feel we are prepared and assume that few will perform the task better.
All of these regulations exist for a reason, nonetheless, and more than likely, they were the result of an unfortunate and tragic incident. While the cause of these of mandates may not be pleasant to think about, the building codes that are written as a result are typically a good thing. They have saved countless lives and decreased the number of fires that we are responding to. But you and I both know they aren’t enough. Truthfully, our primary mission is to save lives and protect property in every aspect; it is not just to celebrate in the glory of a firefight. The fact that we are dispatched to fewer fires is just one more reason among many to remain proficient in our skills. Take every opportunity to enforce these standards without stepping over your boundaries. If you see a violation, bring it to someone’s attention. If you are not doing this, you are not doing what you swore or took an oath do to. It may sound like a conflict of interest to train for an incident that you hope to prevent but this is concern in which we must constantly strive to succeed. It is our responsibility to determine the safest, most efficient, and effective way to suppress fire. It is just as important, if not more, to keep it from occurring in the first place.
We will not know the results of UL’s Study of Residential Attic Fire Mitigation Tactics and Exterior Fire Spread Hazards on Fire Fighter Safety for another couple of years as these procedures are still being tested, but why are we waiting to take action? Why not take matters into our own hands and try to determine the best way to extinguish these types of fires in the interim? Is that not what we said we would do?
In the first of a two part series, I would like to discuss our tactics in regards to fighting attic fires, with the intent of reviewing exterior fire spread tactics on a later date.
As a member of the fire service, I can tell you that it is common to hear about all the different ways construction features work against us. Very seldom do we discuss what works in our favor. It has only recently been discovered that you can literally have an advanced fire directly under your feet while you stand there, almost completely unaware of the deadly conditions underneath.
Some of the same building materials that might otherwise camouflage a fiery environment below is used in the ceiling as well. This typically works to our advantage as it may be easier to evaluate with a thermal imager and has the potential to be more accessible when you are fighting the fire. It comes with the disadvantage, however, of knowing that our efforts usually cause more damage to the contents of the living space below than an attic fire above ever will.
Using the photo provided as an example (taken by the Cornelius Fire Department), the image shows the resulting damage of an attic fire. Consider the conditions above the ceiling of the top floor and look at the unaffected area below.
Watch the videos that are also included. Take into account the experience of firefighters that were there. Here is an excerpt from the nighttime fire. “Firefighters were dispatched for a smoke investigation. Upon arrival, an Engine Co. found a single story home with heavy fire showing. After calling for additional units the crew went to work, ensuring all occupants were out of the home. After locating the fire, firefighters pulled the ceiling while exposing a heavily involved attic space.” Reading this, it would be fair to assume that the fire department was aware of the fire in the attic before the occupant was. I am not sure if that was the case in this particular scenario, but I can assure you that any firefighter who has been around long enough and runs calls on a routine basis will tell you that the occurrence is not as uncommon as you think. If we dissect the clip frame by frame, there are several lessons to be learned here. During your observations, note that on occasion, you can see the open front door with little or no smoke emanating from the opening. You should also note that throughout the duration of the video, you can clearly see the pictures and paint on the walls in the hallway.
Another video, a daytime fire in Burbank, California will further exemplify several of the points I am referring to within the content of this article. As you watch, imagine all the rooms filled with furniture and other family possessions. It is important to note that I do not fault either of these departments or the fire service in general. These firefighters are doing what they were taught to do, and doing it quite well for that matter. On the contrary, I am asking what we could collectively do better.
With the examples included and aforementioned in mind, is there a more effective way to mitigate these types of fires? I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there is. For starters, public relations will be heavily dependent on our salvage work when we respond to and work at attic fires. Where this type of function is typically an afterthought (if at all), fires involving the attic offer a unique opportunity for us to slow down a little and perform this task simultaneously as we attempt to extinguish the fire. Let the home’s features do what it is designed to do by separating the two spaces. If the fire has burned through the roof and you can’t use steam to your advantage, gain access and get up to the same level as the fire. This can usually be accomplished either by removing the gable vents or by creating a hole in the ceiling of only one room. A good chauffeur will have the folding ladder by the front door for you, but if it isn’t there just call for one. It shouldn’t take long as they are on engines and trucks. Don’t wait until you get it though; use what you can find to get the nozzle on the same plane as opposed to pulling the ceiling in each and every room and hitting it from below.
On that note, make sure you have a hoseline available and nearby before you start looking for the fire above you. It never made any sense to me how a company can hook the ceiling, looking for and expecting fire, but not have a plan to extinguish it. I can picture it now. “Yup, it has extended, now what?” As a homeowner, how much confidence would you have in your fire department if you heard them screaming that they found more fire and they need a line brought up to them immediately? Of equal importance, be cognizant of where the burning material is going, or more specifically, what it is landing on. It doesn’t do any good to pull the ceiling, only to have it rest on and burn through the hoseline that you brought in with you.
In closing, I will remind you that this list of suggestions is obviously not all-inclusive, nor is it means of pointing out any deficiencies as stated earlier. When I believe in my heart that there is a better way to do things, I consider it my responsibility to study different ways and advise you of the same. This being the information age, the resources available on this topic alone are endless. Like this article, it is up to you and your organization what you wish to do with it. As always, I welcome your comments and concerns and look forward to any feedback that you have to offer. I appreciate the dialogue and the opportunity to talk shop. Take care, be ready, and be safe.
Bill Schnaekel is a truck chauffeur in the bustling area of Tysons Corner in Virginia, running an average of close to 2,000 calls a year. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Bill is a fifth generation firefighter who has had eight relatives in the fire service since 1898. Bill served as a volunteer for six years prior to getting hired in 1998 by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, one hundred years after his great-great grandfather joined. In addition to his full time job, Bill works part time as a firefighter / chauffeur with the West York Fire Department and as a State Suppression Instructor in Pennsylvania. In the past, he has served as a Battalion Training Officer and assisted in training the recruits at the Fire and Rescue Academy as well as veteran firefighters within the safety and survival program. His formal education includes working on a degree in fire science through Tidewater Community College. He is currently on the Lieutenant Eligibility list and eagerly anticipating promotion. In February of 2013, he created the Facebook Page “Holding1and1”, a resource to discuss fireground operations and firefighter interests with his friend, Lt. Mike Dowling.