Roof Ventilation: The Cut Is the Easy Part

Roof Ventilation: The Cut Is the Easy Part


When it comes to opening the roof, there are a lot of details that need to be worked out ahead of time. It’s not so much about the actual cut–just like it’s not just about opening the nozzle–it’s all the steps that it takes to get your crew and your equipment to the right location as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It would be tough to figure out every possible crew configuration that may be assigned to take the roof. It may be a full truck company, a split truck company or maybe even the third engine company. Regardless, the crew assigned to the job needs to know how to get the job done. So let’s break it down.

Tools of the Ventilation Trade
In this article, we’ll talk about a ground ladder-based roof operation on a peaked roof, which has a pitch that requires the use of a roof ladder. So to start, we know we’ll need an extension ladder and a roof ladder to the building. In addition, we’ll need specific tools to carry out plan A and/or plan B: a chainsaw; a flat axe or Halligan (irons); and a 6-foot-long hook (or a longer hook depending on the peak). This may not seem like much, but add to that two ladders and all your personal gear, and it’s quite a bit.

Tool Transport
We’ve assembled the gear and now need to get it to the building–in one trip! Here’s the deal: If the roof needs to be opened, then it needs to be opened now. There’s really not time to walk back and forth from the rig to the building a couple times to assemble all the equipment you need. A little training and practice ahead of time can set you up for success before you ever reach the fireground.

There are a couple ways to get the equipment to the building. One thing to consider is that you can’t wear the crew out before they ever get to the roof for the cut. Although that seems obvious, what usually happens is crews load themselves up with as much as they can carry and then stumble their way to the building, exhausting themselves along the way.

An easier way to move all the needed equipment: Stack the ladders and carry or drag them to the location where you’ll make the roof. With a two-person crew, you can easily stack the ladders, load the gear on top of them, and then pick them up and walk to the building. With a larger crew, simply split up the equipment so it all makes it in one trip.

There are many different ways to move the equipment efficiently. You and your crew need to figure out which way works best for you. Training on the method you choose is the only way to ensure that crews instinctively carry it out on the fireground.

Set the Ladders & Climb
Now that you’re at the building with all the gear, you need to get up top and open things up. If possible, try to have one crewmember raise the extension ladder while the other preps the roof ladder. Obviously, this will depend on the size and weight of your ladders (check out my June column “Fireground Ladder 411” here). During training, figure out who can throw what so you’ll know that information on the fireground. If you can’t get the extension ladder up with one crewmember, then use two. The bottom line: Move efficiently knowing that there’s a lot more left to do.

Once the extension ladder is up, it’s time to make the climb. The first crewmember up should take the hook and a hand tool (axe or Halligan). An easy way to free up your hands is to put one hand tool in the SCBA strap and rest the hook on the ladder rungs.

When nearing the top, it’s time to receive the roof ladder from the crewmember on the ground. Some roof ladders are light and easy to handle and others are not. If needed, foot the roof ladder on the base of the extension ladder (hooks already opened), and raise it to the guy on the ladder (hooks away).

Once the hook ladder is vertical, it’s time for the crewmember on the ground to load up with the rest of the gear, and begin making the climb and moving the roof ladder up. The top crewmember is trying to get to the point where they can lean the roof ladder out and onto the roof and then slide it up. There’s a point in the climb where the roof ladder will pivot onto the roof and its weight will shift from the crewmember to the roof. At this point, the top crewmember can usually take control and push it up the rest of the way.

As the roof ladder is set, the bottom crewmember can make their way to the peak with the remaining tools–saw and hand tool (axe or Halligan)–and hand up the saw as they transition to the peak.

Make the Cut
Once the saw reaches the cut location, it’s time to make the cut. This is where our cutting skills come into play (a training session for another day). Step-by-step: Open the roof; knock the decking or boards out of the hole; communicate with attack crews; push the ceiling down to vent the interior; tell command via radio that “the roof is opened”; and get off the roof. This part of their job is done, for now, and there’s plenty more left to do on the fireground.

Drill on It
As mentioned, the best way to ensure your crews do everything noted above is to train on these skills. To conduct a training evolution on this topic, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Engine or truck with vent equipment and ground ladders; and
  • Peaked roof structure. (If you don’t have a peaked roof, use a flat roof and simply get everything up and onto the roof.)

Set up a two-person roof team to perform the operation. If you typically have a three-person team, this should help you figure out what else the third person could be doing.

Start by positioning the rig so there’s a short travel distance to the building (allowing time and distance to practice the equipment movement), and then assign the crew to take the roof. The drill isn’t about speed right now; it’s about going through the motions and ensuring that everyone is on the same page. If you’ve got a different system and it works, then use it. Again, the point of the drill is to practice 1) getting your crew and your equipment to the roof, 2) opening the roof and 3) exiting the roof. All of this should be done as safely and efficiently as possible.

The Devil Is in the Details
This is a pretty standard and straightforward fireground operation, but the devil is in the details. The cut is the easiest part (usually) and often the end-result of a series of other overlooked skills. It’s the movement from the rig to the building with the required tools that can really make or break the roof operation. After all, how often have you heard one crewmember say to another, “Where’s the saw? You were supposed to bring it up!” In short, take the time to get everyone on the same page so that when it’s your turn to get the roof, it goes smoothly.


  • Jim McCormack has been a firefighter for 19 years and is currently a lieutenant with the Indianapolis (Ind.) Fire Department. McCormack is the founder of the Fire Department Training Network ( ) and the author of Firefighter Survival and Firefighter Rescue & Rapid Intervention Teams.