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Reality Training
by Reality Training

Taking command: Balloon-construction fire

Understanding how these structures are built and how fire behaves within them are key to a safe and effective attack

By Robert Avsec

This feature is intended to spark the sharing of ideas, information and techniques to make firefighters safer and more effective. The following video and discussion points must not be used to berate, belittle or criticize those firefighters. Rather, in the spirit of near-miss reporting, please use this feature as another teaching tool to help you better do your job. Please leave your comments below and use this material in your own department. I hope you find this Reality Training valuable; stay safe and keep learning.

Many fire officers and firefighters today have not experienced a fire in a structure built using balloon-frame style of construction. Many have likely only heard of it from their department's grizzled veterans or heard it mentioned briefly in their initial firefighter training. 

There are, however, many such buildings across the country, and where they were likely once home to a large family they have now changed their stripes. They can be used as one or several small businesses, apartments, bed and breakfasts, temporary shelters or vacant and deteriorating.

Balloon-frame construction is characterized by wall studs that extend the entire height of the structure with no horizontal fire stops between the studs. This construction creates a channel through which fire and products of combustion can easily travel from the basement or first floor to the attic. Those grizzled veterans will tell you that if you locate the fire in the basement, your next hose line better be to the attic.

Watch the following video of an old and unoccupied balloon-frame dwelling. Use the discussion questions to help your members develop a better understanding of fire behavior in this type of structure and how to manage such a fire.

Discussion questions

  • How does balloon-frame construction influences fire behavior?
  • As you viewed the progression of this fire, what assumptions can you make about the fire behavior in this structure?
  • As the incident commander, what would be your incident action plan for this fire based upon your size-up?
  • Would you ventilate this structure, and if so, how?
  • What are the key operational and safety aspects of conducting safe, effective, and efficient fire operations in a balloon-frame building?
  • As this fire unfolds, what do the smoke conditions teach you about the fire behavior and the effect of suppression activities?

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Dave Adams Dave Adams Wednesday, May 28, 2014 4:06:58 PM Why is that firefighter with the pike pole climbing and descending the ladder without help?
Thursday, May 29, 2014 4:53:51 AM After action report- poor truck placement, ladder and engine should be opposite due to overheads. Million $ piece of equipment not being used
Larry Baker Larry Baker Thursday, May 29, 2014 6:35:24 PM Slow, lack of gear, too few ladders, yelling, poor equipment placement, but they got drinking water on the first one. Bravo.
Dee Moulton Dee Moulton Sunday, June 01, 2014 10:39:04 AM wow, no leadership , no organization,,,,sad...You guys need training
Carl Youngblood Carl Youngblood Sunday, June 01, 2014 5:39:48 PM no leadership should have had aerial on side where the pumper is could have done positive ventilation then on the first 1.this 1 here they should have been packed up on the way had water ready & flowing already don't water the grass should be having water going into the structure already. the store 1 taking 2 long to get hose out & should have water flowing to save the next building .should be on 2nd alarm already need more training
Chris Wiebeck Chris Wiebeck Sunday, June 01, 2014 10:00:12 PM You want positive pressure on a balloon frame structure, Carl? That's a quick way to light the house
Bill Chadwick Bill Chadwick Monday, June 02, 2014 4:58:59 AM Boy lots of sniping hear-- hey boys I see an advanced black smoke pushing fire that is knocked down in 8 minutes. Wet stuff on the red stuff put that in you pipe and smoke it!
Juan Carlos Guillen Juan Carlos Guillen Monday, June 02, 2014 5:41:05 AM demasiado lentos
Donald F. Hayde Donald F. Hayde Monday, June 02, 2014 7:46:49 AM PPV????? Really? I don't know how many balloon frame fires you've been to, but that is surely the best way to lose the structure. Actually, for a baloon frame structure, they didn't do a bad job for the resources they had on hand.
Terry Jones Terry Jones Monday, June 02, 2014 11:23:51 AM No one hade there SCBA'S on arrival, looks like no command structure setup, bad ladder placement. One guy didn't even have he's turnout gear on not sure if he was a driver or not.
Rob Groszewski Rob Groszewski Tuesday, June 24, 2014 12:22:43 PM Hey, I agree with Bill. If the video time frame has not been altered, those guys did a hell of a push up into the fire area and put some water on it. The only thing they did wrong was forget the magic wand and couldn't give it to the Safety Officer to wave at the fire and make it go out. They did it the tried and true old fashioned way...Gear up, go get it. I might have tried to get the roof open a bit quicker, but all in all, good job guys. I think a bunch of the comments are coming from people who don't get to do this very often. Just remember, a lot of times the best work done at a fire is far from view of the camera angle.
Jeffrey DeWitt Jeffrey DeWitt Tuesday, September 09, 2014 1:08:10 PM Big City Fire Dept. putting out a fire the way it should be done.
Andy Herron Andy Herron Tuesday, September 09, 2014 1:57:20 PM You only get so much from a video and only two sides of the structure. This appears to be actual time. A lot of smoke but not angry smoke. Looks like the brothers need a great job aggressively attacking this fire. Wonder if they used a smooth bore? Water can and some pike poles to finish her off. If there were no civilian or FF injuries, I'd say "Hell of a job"!
Tom Defina Tom Defina Wednesday, September 10, 2014 12:13:12 AM If it wasn't for the poor placement of the engine, the truck co would have had a nice shot at the roof to support the interior crews with vertical ventilation. Two hand lines to the top floor and crews with hooks to open the ceilings up quickly and they should have it. That pretty much looks like what they did. Nice job. Love the commentary from the bystanders thinking they can do a better job. Thin black fast smoke towards the rear is where that 2nd floor line needs would need to be.
Dan Michels Dan Michels Wednesday, September 10, 2014 4:07:43 AM Definately poor apparatus placement

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