Into The Breech


Coordination of the basement attack





This is like artwork. It is photographic evidence of a well orchestrated suppression effort. A diverse selection of handline lengths has, in part, made it possible. Some people viewing these photos may think the lines are too long, but as a reminder, it is only 1 / 250 of a second in time. Let’s take a few more minutes to really see what’s going on. It should be noted that I don’t have all the details, but having spoken with someone who was there, I feel as though I can give you an accurate depiction of the actions that took place.

11029476_10203856466439116_2665035960093543582_nThe first engine arrives and reports light smoke coming from the dormer windows on the Delta Side of a 1.5 story single family. We are calling this a 1.5 story structure to account for the knee walls; in truth, it doesn’t matter what you call it as long as everyone is on the same page and the tactics are the same. Communication is key.

A quick talk with the homeowner confirms that the fire is in the basement and all of the occupants are reported to be out. A 200′ pre-connected hoseline is deployed from the first engine to the front door while the officer takes his lap around the structure. Among items of concern, the officer notices that the occupants must have left the door from the walk-out basement open and smoke is billowing out. As professionals, the engine crew and its chauffeur are disciplined enough not to charge the line until it is redeployed around the back. The safest way to attack the fire is from the same level or lower, which, in this case, is possible.

The first due truck arrives along with the second engine after they have ensured a primary water supply is established. The truck begins to conduct the primary search. On the fire floor, they search from the exit towards the fire, and on the floors above, they search over the seat of it first, then work their way out. Both officers as well as the majority of others on the scene are subconsciously aware that because the fire’s on a lower level, it will be easier to access, but more life threatening. If it were on an upper level, specifically of a taller building, it will be more labor intensive but typically a little less of a civilian threat. This is the fire service, however; there are no constants either way and that statement shouldn’t be taken out of context.

The second engine crew pulls an additional line from the first and, depending on the integrity of the floor below, deploys it through the front door. The purpose of the second line going through the front door is to accomplish what we’ve learned all along. While UL has provided proof that you can’t push fire and there is no change in temperature at the top of the open stairs, fire still has an uncanny ability to extent upward. Interestingly, it more commonly commutes through the void spaces as opposed to the open stairwell as we all once thought. The kitchen was heavily involved after it progressed up and into the cabinets under the sink, despite the open door at the top of the basement stairs. The line is deployed to protect immediate exposures which are far more often inside than they are out. Typically, it goes to the floor above and in this particular scenario at least, it wasn’t necessary for the second line to be longer than the first. The crew is there to protect the stairs and every other point of egress while keeping extension to a minimum and extinguishing any additional means of fire travel.

11075191_10203856466679122_2617357123192386661_nThe third engine approaches the scene strategically so they do not line up in the parade of trucks, as does the second arriving special service (rescue or truck). They layout from a fourth or secure their own secondary water supply. They had listened to the radio traffic while they were in route, but the officer will ensure that no more than two lines are taken through any opening. They are typically (not always) positioned further away from the scene and for this reason, they will usually have to make up or stretch the longest line. They are tasked with covering exposures which in this case will more than likely be the top floor. The fourth engine will act as the RIT.

While all of this is occurring, other functions that are just as important are being played out on the fireground. As an example, ladders are being thrown, primarily to the bedroom windows, and the utilities are being controlled. Sure, it is safer to raise them with two firefighters as opposed to one, but if each member puts a ladder up by themselves, more ladders are thrown. The more ladders are thrown, the safer the fireground is. Accomplishing safety through strategies and tactics is a beautiful thing. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rules such as where and how they are placed so there is no need to be critical.

The RIT is in place and they have taken their pro-active measures. Units operating on the scene are careful to coordinate the ventilation effort in a timely and selective manner. The music plays on, but soon the song is over. The band maintains their instruments until they perform again.


One thing to note that is of particular importance in these photos is the relationship between between door control and flow path, as they are aspects which are just beginning to become understood. The front door of the single family in the photo was more than likely opened after the fire in the basement had been knocked down but the kitchen was still rollin’. While I am not sure that this was what happened, it would explain why the neutral plane is halfway up the door as opposed to filling the entire doorway. Regardless, conditions like these are probably where the term “stay low and let it blow” comes from. Personally, I’ve never been one for catchy phrases or fashionable trends but I’ve always liked that one. Besides, in many cases, they seem to apply. I can think of several recent incidents where an attempt was made to attack the fire from two sides, one at grade and the other above, causing a “unidirectional” flowpath. As an example, I’ve included a photo that was taken of the aftermath of an enclosed stairwell of a garden apartment fire that recently received a lot of attention. The picture was taken from the front door of the building; to the left are the stairs going to the terrace level apartments, to the right, they ascend to the first floor. What is particularly startling is that the paint has burned off the walls going down the stairs, but there is barely even any soot on the yellow wall going up on the right. This is obviously the same compartment and a difference of only a few feet.

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Similar to the fire at 30 Dowling in Baltimore County that resulted in the Line of Duty Death of FF Mark Falkenhan, an inlet was created on the terrace level when the windows gave, the apartment door was propped open, and the first engine attempted to fight the fire from the front door of the building which was one flight of stairs above.

If an effort is made to conduct our business from two different planes (even in the coincidence of trying to protect the stairs), it needs to be closely coordinated and carefully explained. Simply put, it will be more advantageous for the crew above to keep the front, basement, or any other door that divides them from the fire, closed until the bulk of the fire has been knocked down.

Special thanks should be given to Mr. Right (intentionally misspelled), who is also known as the natural-born leader, the crew from 28 C shift, and Captain Grif for the use of their photos.


“Basement Fire Strategy and Tactics” Lewis and Moran, Fire Engineering, October 2011
“Basement Fire Tactics” Kirby and Lakamp, Magazine, August 2013
“Recognition and Attack of Basement Fires” Fire Engineering, April 2010
“Tactics for Basement Fires” Jakubowski, Magazine, June 2008
“UL Basement Fire Study” Jerrard, Magazine, August 2012

Baltimore County Fire Department, Line of Duty Death Investigation Report, Firefighter Mark Falkenhan, March 2012
FDS Modeling Analysis, 30 Dowling Circle ATF Fire Research Laboratory, December 2011
Volunteer Fire Fighter Caught in Rapid Fire Event During Unprotected Search, Dies After Facepiece Lens Melts – Maryland NIOSH, July 2012


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BillSchnaekelBioPhotoBill Schnaekel was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Bill is a fifth generation firefighter who has had eight other relatives in the fire service since 1898. He served as a volunteer for six years prior to getting hired in 1998 by the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department, one hundred years after his great-great grandfather had joined the service. In addition to his full time career as a Lieutenant in the bustling 4th Battalion, 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 both recruits and field personnel at the Fire and Rescue Academy. Currently, he is working on a degree in fire science through Tidewater Community College. 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.

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