Check the Stairs


A life might depend on the follow-through





It’s not a question as to whether or not you have any high rise structures in your area. If there are stairways that terminate on the roof of a building in your first due, this post applies to you.

How many times have you been ordered to check the top floor of stairs during fire ground operations? Have you heard it being assigned to a latter arriving unit? Is it even in your department’s SOPs?

I know that prior to taking this picture; I’d be pretty pissed if I was ordered to do it. I might have even been tempted to take a short cut and holler up the stairs. After all, it’s a pain in the ass to walk up all those stairs and what are the chances we’d find anyone trying to evacuate on the roof anyhow?

All things considered, the odds might surprise you, especially if you work in a low income area or one with a higher population of homeless. You have to remind yourself and your crew that while some of the building’s “occupants” might attempt to evacuate to the roof, others might have been there long before the alarm came in.

While we were reviewing and discussing fire protection features, we were a little startled when we reached the top of the stairs in one of our buildings the other day.

There she lay, peacefully at the top of the stairs, almost as if she were hiding from the rest of society. Normally, you wouldn’t think the homeless would seek shelter during any other season other than the dead of winter but that simply isn’t true. The heat from the sun can be and has been a killer.

As I stepped over the woman, being careful not to knock over the large open cup of urine, I couldn’t help but to feel bad for her. I wondered what went wrong in her life that she’s made this small landing her new home. She awoke from her slumber and I apologized that we were so noisy. Some would consider her a “delinquent” but it’s not my place to judge. I asked if she was okay and if she needed anything to which she gratefully replied “no, thank you”. I noticed the door to the roof was padlocked and voiced my concerns, reminding her of the shelter just down the street. She acknowledged me but perhaps she had a bad experience or two there before. She wasn’t in a hurry to leave and I didn’t want to bother her any more than we already had. Quite frankly, I’m not sure if she could afford any other option and the only real one we had was to educate her and hope for the best. If the exit path was charged with smoke, there would be absolutely no way out. Sure, each stairwell has a fire rating but that’s only applicable if it isn’t propped open or not being used for the attack. Could you imagine the repercussions of finding someone who died from carbon monoxide up there long after the incident was stabilized?

So what’s the take home from this message (since you probably have one to go to)? Take your assignments seriously. Be respectful and don’t take anything for granted. Don’t be judgmental either. Regardless of their financial status, these are the people you’re supposed to protect.

The devil’s in the details and every detail tells a story. Don’t let it become yours.


Photo courtesy of author


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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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  • debra ohton says:

    I read this and found myself covering my own face with my hands in disbelief but knowing this is another place we hide. This is so very sad for the Fire Responders and also for those who remain “hidden”…

    I pain for many and wish for healing.

  • Indeed it is Debra. Thank you for your reply and more importantly, your concern.

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