Operational Safety at Basement Fires: Close Call

Basement fires in both residential and commercial occupancies are one of the most challenging tactical operations that present numerous risk factors that required the highest degree of situational awareness, training skill sets and continuous incident monitoring and assessment to gauge building structural integrity, fire behavior and crew integrity and performance. 

An explosion rocked a Fairdale, Kentucky neighborhood this past weekend while the homeowner was in the process of doing remodeling his basement. A Camp Taylor (KY) firefighter survived a floor collapse that momentarily trapped him proximal to the seat of a working basement fire. Camp Taylor (FD) Captain Mark Long sustained second and third degree leg burns after falling through the floor of the burning home and subsequently being rescue by other fire department personnel. 

Fellow firefighters, including his brother-in-law, who was right behind him prior to his fall, were yelling and screaming at Long to hang on.  They managed to get a ladder to the basement and it was up to Long to find the strength to get out.  He says “I started to try to climb up. I got two, I lost my grip, fell flat into the fire.  I was so exhausted.” On his third attempt, he did find the strength and pulled himself up the ladder and out of the flames.  

According to published reports a coordinated fire suppression effort was undertaken, with heavy fire involvement extending throughout the house and into the roof area. Interior fire attack was commenced, and as crews began moving across the first floor area above the seat of the fire, the floor subassembly failed causing an isolated collapse and compromise of the structural floor system and sub-floor decking, resulting in Captain Long falling into the basement. The fire originating in the basement was the result of the homeowners’ use of acetone as a floor treatment when the chemical vapors were ignited by the hot water heater causing an explosion and resulting fire. 

Safety Considerations related to Residential Occupancies (non-inclusive) 

  • Conduct a thorough fire size-up and communicate the findings to all personnel on-scene before entering the building.
  • Conduct an assessment of the Building Profile ( building construction type, structural assembly systems and features and age) and assesss fire behavior and intensity levels.
  • Ensure an adequte Risk Assessement is conducted and that Risk versus Gain is determined
  • Maintain situational awareness throughout the tactical deployment of crews within the interior of the structure
  • Conduct a 360 degree perimeter assesement when feasible to determine access and egress points, fire location and travel and other mission critical operational perameters.
  • Incident commanders and company officers should be trained and experienced in structure fire size up to avoid putting fire fighters at unneeded risk of working above fire-damaged floors.
  • Do not enter a structure, room, or area when fire is suspected to be directly beneath the floor or area where fire fighters would be operating, or if the location of the fire is unknown.
  • Never assume structural safety of any floor (regardless of the construction) having a significant fire under it.
  • Conduct pre-incident planning inspections during the construction phase to identify the type of floor construction.
  • If pre-planning is not conducted, assume residential construction and small commercial buildings built since the early 1990s may contain engineered wood I-joists.
  • Report construction deficiencies noted during preplanning to local building code officials. For example, engineered wood floor joists should only be modified per manufacturer specifications—usually limited to cutting to length and removing pre–cut knockouts for utility access. Report damaged or cut chords or webs to building officials.
  • Develop, enforce, and follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) on how to size up and combat fires safely in buildings of all construction types. Rapid intervention teams (RIT) should include a portable ladder with their RIT equipment when deployed at basement fires.
  • Ensure Time Compression is considered: Ensure Command has the ability to monitor progress or elapsed incident time and adjusts strategic and tactical plans accordingly and in a time effective manner. 
  • Provide training on identifying signs of weakened floor systems (soft or spongy feel, heat transmitted through floor, downward bowing, etc.).
  • Make fire fighters aware that all floor types can fail with little or no warning.
  • Use a thermal imaging camera to help locate fires burning below or within floor systems, but recognize that the camera cannot be relied upon to assess the strength or safety of the floor. (Refer to the recent UL Test Data and Operational Safety Considerations “Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions” available at http://www.uluniversity.us/ )
  • Fire fighters should be trained on the use of thermal imaging cameras, including limitations and difficulties in detecting fire burning below floor systems. (See reference to UL above)
  • Immediately evacuate and, if possible, use alternate exit routes when floor systems directly beneath the floor where fire fighters would be operating are weakened by fire.
  • Use defensive overhaul procedures after fire extinguishment in structures containing fire-damaged floor systems of all types.
  • Consider becoming active in the building code process and influence requirements for fire resistance of floor and ceiling systems to further fire fighter safety and health.
  • Ensure RIT personnel area staged and have complete a site assessment of the building and occupany upon thier arrival and set-up
  • Ensure that a rapid intervention team (RIT) is on the scene as part of the first alarm and in position to provide immediate assistance prior to crews entering a hazardous environment

Here are some resources and case studies resulting from operations at floor collapses;

Incident links; HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE 


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