As firefighters and officers, we pride ourselves on being prepared for anything that’s thrown our way, especially when it comes to fires. One of the most important skills to have mastered as a company officer is first-due tactical decision-making. Most firefighters and officers are pretty good at pre-connect-type house fires. But what do we do when we’re thrown a curveball?
Specifically, what do we do when the majority of the fire is on the exterior and working its way into an exposure? Exterior fires are actually quite common; examples include sheds, porches, decks and even vehicles. (Garages could also be included, but I won’t address them in this article.)
We have all used the mnemonic RECEO-VS to assist us in making tactical decisions, but how does it apply to exterior fires with exposures threatened? In this article, I’ll discuss first-due considerations for exterior fires, as well as how to support your tactical plan with later-arriving resources.
Obviously, rescuing savable lives is our number one tactical priority in any fire. In exterior fire situations, rescue may not be necessary, but evacuation of exposures is definitely on the top of our list. The occupants of exposures may not even know there’s a fire.
If the exposure is not yet involved and there’s no smoke hazard, you may consider having police or even civilians evacuate the structures while you prepare for fire attack. If the conditions within the exposure present an IDLH environment, you must make a decision: Enter the exposure for search/rescue and fire control, or attack the fire on the exterior and assign later-arriving resources to enter the exposure.
When you encounter a fire problem on the exterior of a building, think of it as a pipe leaking water. We can place a bowl under the leak, but that doesn’t fix the problem. You need to stop the leak. Going interior will help contain the fire and hopefully prevent it from extending through the exposure, but it won’t stop the problem. If you enter the exposure first, you risk being overrun by a developing fire from void space extension while you search for occupants and fire. In addition, if and when you locate the extension, you’re also fighting against the source of the fire which is on the exterior of the structure.
It may be more advantageous to place the first hoseline on the exterior fire to knock down the BTUs that are threatening extension to the exposure. The most effective way is direct application on the exterior fire followed by the occasional “cascading” stream on the exposed building. Once you get a knockdown on the exterior fire, go inside to check for extension in the void spaces.
If you have multiple resources arriving at the same time, the second-in unit should enter the exposure to search for occupants and extension while the first-in unit attacks the exterior fire.
Size-up and building construction are important on every fire—company officers should always determine where the fire is, and even more important, where the fire will be when we carry out our tactics and tasks.
The thought process for an exterior fire is no different. After the exterior fire is knocked down, or at least being kept in check, it’s important to size up the building to determine where fire could have penetrated it. Typically the attic space nearest the exterior is the first place to check for extension. Other areas to check: soffit areas, doors and windows near the exterior fire.
Remember to treat fire victims’ possessions how you would like your own things to be treated. If you don’t see an immediate hazard, take the time to deploy salvage covers. That being said, keep in mind that all damage at a fire is fire damage. Don’t be afraid to pull ceiling and check walls to expose all extension.
Many factors must be considered when determining where to start searching a building. When searching an exposure building, crews can usually see and conditions are not that bad yet; take advantage of that by making a thorough search. It’s very important to give consideration to void spaces that the fire could have gotten into. Start searching from the wall near the exterior fire, checking the void spaces in that area (e.g., feel for heat, check wall temperatures using a TIC or open up the wall if necessary). Then start working your way back.
When searching exposure buildings, you need to keep in mind your assigned tasks. Were you assigned to check for extension while another crew searches for occupants? Or is your crew assigned to the exposure and you’re now responsible for searching for fire and occupants? Either way, it’s important to have access to a hoseline in case you find extension. A good engineer should have a hoseline at the entry point to the exposure building. Based on your size-up of the exposure building, you may or may not choose to take the line inside.
Fighting an exterior fire with exposures can be a challenging endeavor. It’s important to make sure that you never combine attack strategies in the same area. If you’re entering the exposure building, make sure the firefighters on the exterior know you’re entering the building. In most cases, a face-to-face communication between company officers or division/group supervisors prior to entry will help you avoid the possibility of opposing handlines which never works out well for interior crews.
Ventilation is another very important tactical consideration. Positive pressure ventilation (PPV) may help keep smoke and heat out of the exposure. It’s not recommended to use PPV if you have fire extension into the void spaces. Adding PPV where a fire has extended into the void spaces could cause unnecessary extension. If fire has already extended into the attic space, vertical ventilation should be considered. PPV can also be used in conjunction with vertical ventilation. If you can keep windows and doors on the exposure intact in the area near the exterior fire, fire spread into the exposure should be kept to a minimum. If doors and windows are opened or broken near the exterior fire, PPV can assist in keeping fire, smoke and heat out of the exposure.
Exterior fires may seem simple, but when exposures are threatened, it adds a whole new element to your tactical considerations. As a first-due company officer, you have a lot of decisions to make:
- Is there an immediate life safety problem that needs addressed?
- Will a quick exterior knockdown save time and effort in the long run?
- Do I have resources coming soon?
The bottom line: If you don’t have an immediate life safety issue, the priority should go to fixing the problem—putting out the fire. Even if you do have a life safety issue, the best way to save lives may be to put out the fire before it becomes a bigger problem.