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Ladder Ops for Attic Fires

Issue 8 and Volume 9.

In a previous article, I discussed using a ladder company to assist in fighting attic fires from above the roof. This topic generated much conversation, so this article will take a more in-depth look at how we fight attic fires, and how a well-versed ladder company can offer a different approach.

New Construction, New Challenges

As innovations in building construction continue to create access challenges for firefighters, new theories have arisen on the best way to attack an attic fire. Since most houses—including attics—are compartmentalized, I am a huge proponent of steam conversion via a fog pattern to execute an indirect attack. The indirect attack style of firefighting has been around since the mid-1940s and uses the method of snuffing out the fire by absorbing heat energy. Given the expansion rate of steam, this is truly the most efficient way to fight fire while protecting the greatest amount of property.

A less efficient method for fighting an attic fire is to drop the entire lid of the house. Although this tactic seems to be common, there are several drawbacks: we lose the ability to utilize steam conversion, we turn an attic fire into a contents fire by pulling burning materials into the livable space, and we destroy property that could have otherwise been salvaged.

Interior Considerations

When it comes to fire attack, operating interior comes with challenges that often delay getting water into the attic space. Many newer homes have vaulted ceilings that cannot be reached with an attic ladder (which should always be brought when going interior for attic fires). New homes also may have multiple roof lines where attic space is inaccessible from many portions of the house. Getting ahead of the fire can be difficult when interior walls and rooms create a maze for firefighters, and if smoke banks down into livable space, visibility can be drastically hindered. In addition to all this, working overhead is extremely tiresome and fatigue can set in rather quickly.

Structural collapse is always the big hazard when working an attic fire. As we often associate danger with a crew falling through a roof, we occasionally get a false sense of security with regards to collapse when working inside of a structure. If conditions promote caution when working above the fire, however, then the same concern should be assumed for those working underneath it. Danger is danger whether you’re above or below.

The View from the Roof

When it comes to attic fires, the military strategy of taking to “higher ground” offers many tactical advantages. For one, reading smoke and identifying fire behavior and spread rates is much easier to do from the roof. Getting ahead of the fire and using steam conversion becomes less challenging, as attic vents or smoke indication holes can be used to see where the fire is going and how fast. Where interior crews cannot “sound” an overhead truss to check its integrity, roof crews can probe the roof and look at its plane to determine the probability of collapse. Access to the attic space is also simplified because crews don’t have to contend with vaulted ceilings, interior walls and closets, or insulation falling on their masks.

While fighting fire can be fatiguing, operating the nozzle from the top down can save a lot of energy, as crews can use gravity to their advantage. Accountability is also improved by operating on the roof, as there are no bedrooms, closets or hallways for crews to get lost or separated in. If crews need a quick exit off the roof of a building, it’s easy to retreat to unburned areas and exit off a ladder (though a secondary means of egress should already be in place). Roof operations also improve communication, as hand signals can be easily seen and the potential for weakened radio signals is all but eliminated.

Tactical Approach

While attic operations from the roof offer many advantages, the approach requires roundtable training, whiteboard sessions, and turned-out training drills prior to operating on the fireground. Tasks that should be practiced include:

• The Size Up: As always, get a general impression of the building under fire. If the building looks like it would collapse even without fire, get a quick all clear and get out. If the house is newer, expect numerous attic spaces and vaulted ceilings. A fixed window over a front door may be a sign of a vaulted ceiling that could create access problems. Many homes will have patios that carry the same truss design as the interior, which gives clues to the interior ceiling line. In ranch-style homes that may have an open attic without multiple spaces, a gable-end attack may be an option for fires that have already consumed a good portion of the attic.

• Read Smoke: The ability to skillfully read smoke is crucial. Determine where the fire is most intense and which direction it is traveling. If the attic is well-involved with fire, don’t go up, and crews should not enter the structure other than to rescue occupants.

• Access the Roof: Start at the unburned portion of the roof and work towards the fire. Crews should advance using the load bearing wall, which will be down on the roof line.

• Advance the Hose: This should be done at the same time the roof crew is accessing the roof. A fog or piercing nozzle are both acceptable tools to get water into the attic space. Whichever you decide to use, make sure your department carries one in the ready state, eliminating the need for assembly at the fire. Determine the fastest way to get the nozzle to the roof; we found that pulling a dry crosslay to the base of the ladder, then shouldering about 20 feet of hose up the ladder worked best. Other options may include drop bag operations or taking a compact load (i.e. Cleveland Load) to the roof and dropping the female end down.

• Charge the Line: Since a charged line becomes heavy and has a tendency to pull downwards, flake an adequate amount of hose (50 feet was adequate for us), and throw a loop over the ridge. This allows the hose to stay in place, and if more hose is needed it can easily be pulled across the roof without dealing with gravity. In order to keep the hose even more maneuverable and still maintain efficiency, play with different water pressures in training to see what best fits your crews. We pumped ours at 100 psi on 200 feet of 1 ¾” hose and had plenty of water while maintaining the luxury of moving the hose around as needed.

• Snuff Out the Fire: Creating holes into the attic space serves two purposes: 1) enabling firefighters to read smoke, and 2) creating an access point to insert the nozzle. Smaller holes will give a good read of smoke while reducing the potential of “pulling” the fire. While operating on trusses that are not impinged with fire and working close to the load-bearing walls, cut triangle holes just large enough to fit your nozzle through. Start toward the unburned side and cool off holes that are producing pressurized smoke as you work towards the fire. Keep the nozzle pattern on fog, and keep water flowing for short, five-10 second bursts and reevaluate the conditions. On occasions where distance needs to be achieved with a water stream, a larger hole may be needed to maneuver the nozzle at a different angle. Remember: Newer constructed homes may have numerous attic spaces. If a smoke indication hole is cut and does not produce smoke, the fire is in a different compartment.

• Overhaul: Once fire control has been gained, overhaul will need to be completed to prevent the dreaded re-kindle. Remember property conservation, and provide customer service by protecting the occupant’s belongings prior to dropping the ceiling. The two most common types of insulation you’ll find are cellulose and fiberglass—more extensive overhaul may be required with the cellulose as it tends to smolder, whereas fiberglass will melt.

In Sum

Building construction constantly changes, and attic fires are getting more and more difficult for interior crews to fight. An attic fire is just a compartment that happens to be above other compartments, and the challenge becomes finding the best way to access attic space with our water. Ladder operations from the roof offer many advantages, and though the tactic is simple once learned, it has many unique facets and needs to be trained upon before using it on a call.