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Reality Training
by Reality Training

Reality Training: Reading flashover and backdraft signs

Knowing the signs of flashover and backdraft will protect against unnecessary injury and death

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.

All personnel arriving on the scene of a working structure fire should be visually sizing up the situation as they proceed with their assigned tasks. The initial incident commander has a limited view of the incident, especially in its early stages and if he or she is also engaged in tactical functions like helping to stretch the initial hose line. 

This video shows several key pieces of information about this incident as initial resources are arriving and preparing for tactical operations and as those tactical operations continue.

The first personnel enter the structure at the 1:50 minute point in the video. At the 3:19 minute mark, fire appears in the upright roof opening and at the 5:00 minute mark significant fire has erupted from multiple points on roof of the single-story section. The original three personnel are still in the structure.

At the 6:20 minute mark, a smoke explosion takes place that drives the personnel from the structure. Six firefighters — lucky to be alive — exit the building following this event.

Discussion questions

  • What do you see upon arrival? 
  • What is the significance of those observations?
  • What's your read on the smoke as the video progresses? 
  • What would be your response as the incident commander?
  • What would you do if you were assuming command at the 5 minute mark of the video?
  • What were the predictive signs of the smoke explosion that went unheeded?
  • Discuss the characteristics of a flashover and a backdraft. Did this fire exhibit the characteristics of either?

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.
Steve Kady Steve Kady Monday, December 09, 2013 4:56:24 PM buy'm books and all they do is eat the covers
Dave Bain Dave Bain Monday, December 09, 2013 7:32:51 PM I found this video deeply troubling
Patrick Godfrey Patrick Godfrey Tuesday, December 10, 2013 6:30:07 AM Ok I'm a rookie so go easy. I understand venting the roof, and how it works, for the most part, but in this case, why not get the firefighters out of the inside and spray a fog through the vents in the roof for an initial attack to cool things down? Would this only make it worse?
Stephen Levesque Stephen Levesque Tuesday, December 10, 2013 6:43:03 AM I'm a rookie as well, and I totally agree. Once that smoke turned as black as it did, it would've been better to empty the house and start attacking it from the outside. A lot safer for the guys.
Ken Gilbertie Ken Gilbertie Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:15:29 AM I think New Chicago needs to get a new fire department. A few quick observations: Horrible initial stretch. Why pack a cross lay for deployment when all you are going to do it drop it on the ground in a heap and then stretch it out? Who was in charge? Was it the white hat with no SCBA that kept making entry in the front door? Why was the guy doing the roof venting alone and not supported by a roof ladder or working next to the extension ladder for that matter? When he finally left the roof, he descended the ladder unassisted. Why was the IC working with hand tools? Why did he NEVER do a 360? Why did he never keep an overall view of the incident? Why did guys keep making entry alone and with no SCBA? Why, why, why? Please, if you are a member of this department or know the guys from this department, do not try to defend them or justify their actions. Don't tell me that they had to act this way because the were understaffed. If you do not have the personnel, then don't go in. Did you ever hear of 2 in 2 out? If there was a life hazard then why was there interior operations for almost 6 minutes? A primary search on a residence of this size should have taken no more than 5 minutes. The search team exits and exterior operations until more help arrives. If you do not have it on scene or en-route, call for it. We have a tool in the fire service, it is called a radio, it has been around for years, use it, you would be surprised at how beneficial it can be. So again please do not justify the actions of these firefighters. If you do, you are only part of the problem and no better than they are. Learn form this incident. Watch it a 100 times if you have to. The only good that came out of this fire is that everybody went home.
Ken Gilbertie Ken Gilbertie Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:28:02 AM Pat, the purpose of venting is to let heat and smoke leave the building to increase visibility and cool down the area. Just like a chimney does for a fireplace or a furnace. If you were to 'cool things down" with a hose stream as you suggest through the vent hole it would have the opposite effect of what you are try to accomplish by venting. You would put steam and water vapor into the area that you are trying to clear, increase the room temperature making it untenable for anyone inside. That does not just mean firefighters, but a building occupant that would need that relief to escape or have more time while waiting for rescue.
Patrick Godfrey Patrick Godfrey Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:38:11 AM That does make sense. When is the sign to evacuate and start fighting from the exterior though? It looks like they waited way too long to do that in this video!
Ken Gilbertie Ken Gilbertie Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:53:46 AM Pat, the sign to evacuate would be when the smoke went from light gray to dark gray/black and charged as it left the building. The fire breaking out in the area where the single story section meets the two story section. Had the IC been outside directing crews and observing the deteriorating conditions and the crews operating on the inside notifying the IC that interior conditions were not improving with their efforts, a decision to evacuate would have been given before the smoke explosion that was shortly followed by a flash over. Thank God that no one inside was injured from the explosion and they all safely evacuated before the flash over which would most likely have had a much different outcome for the interior crews.
Patrick Godfrey Patrick Godfrey Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:59:11 AM I shoulda known that. Its been pounded into my head to watch for the darker smoke. I'm a volunteer on a small fire dept, so I've only been on a couple small structure fires. I've hounded this website since I started and it's been nice to learn everything! Thank's for the help Ken!
Ken Gilbertie Ken Gilbertie Tuesday, December 10, 2013 8:13:25 AM My pleasure Pat. The best advice I was ever given when I started in the fire service is; never be afraid to ask questions, never be afraid to speak up and most importantly, your training never ends. I started out as a volunteer 31 years ago, if by the grace of God I do this for another 31 years, I might be a great firefighter. Good luck in the greatest job in the world.
Shawn Jarvela Shawn Jarvela Tuesday, December 10, 2013 8:22:42 AM There so many things wrong wi. th this video. They leave their partner alone on top of the roof. Nobody there to hold the ladder when he gets down. Somebody goes it into the structure with no helmet. People are going into the structure when still smoking with no mask on. I can't believe it
Heather Langston Heather Langston Tuesday, December 10, 2013 10:26:44 AM There was a definite lack of scene control; no one had eyes on the building and this department is extremely lucky that no one got hurt. Roof operations were fool hardy with flames breaking through the roof; no to mention the yellow helmet that left his partner alone on the roof. This agency needs to invest quality training time.
Rob Barker Rob Barker Tuesday, December 10, 2013 1:19:10 PM Wow where to start First Due parks with his pump panel opposite of his crew, then No size up conducted, men working without proper PPE. Men free lancing. Black Smoke chugging from the house and no one seems to even take the time to notice. These Men should have been Evacuated sooner in my opinion. Another question i have was any one in the structure or were these guys risking it all for property?
Steven Sanders Steven Sanders Tuesday, December 10, 2013 4:39:56 PM Why is the Chief going inside with no pack on coat open, as a chief you have to make sure the crews are safe, this starts with training, if you are going to have a Chief Officer going in and out of the fire with PPE and a pack with mask you are telling the FF it is ok to do the same,and after the horns go off you are telling everyone to get out, that does not mean to keep going back inside with crews, Safety has to be number one one Fire ground
Mike LaGarde Mike LaGarde Tuesday, December 10, 2013 5:36:43 PM This is terrible!! I would be ashamed to have the trucks shown with the names on them
Doug Bahrenburg Doug Bahrenburg Tuesday, December 10, 2013 6:09:17 PM Im not the type to Monday quarter back a fire a I was not at, but Several Rookie Mistakes from the beginning , no 360, no smoking reading, High energy fire, NO VENT made large enough, Front door was wind side of fire, This fire had the makings of killing someone. The smoke color and energy it was pushing alone showed the smoke explosion was to happen, the color of the flames showed starving high energy fire. Im just glad no one was killed..
Ian Moravec Ian Moravec Tuesday, December 10, 2013 8:21:19 PM WOW! that was just awful from the start of that to the end! It's a good thing no one was killed.
John Crosby John Crosby Tuesday, December 10, 2013 9:33:41 PM Are they trying to burn this house down along with a few firefighters? I will use this video for training on not what to do!
Larry Perry Larry Perry Wednesday, December 11, 2013 8:27:52 AM I disagree that a size up was never done. Check the video again, you will see a red hat coming from behind the building at one point. There is certainly a host of mistakes being made here. A lack of clear leadership seems to be he most obvious problem. If the IC is one of the guys with the white hat, then he is engaged in hands on operations, and he or she is not standing back and co-ordinating the teams and individuals. Partner safety is being neglected for ventilation operations. From the production of black smoke, its obvious that an enclosed space is heating up without oxygen. The seat of the fire has not been located. The decision to ventilate was correct. However, it failed to ventilate the enclosed area and this eventually erupted as a back draft. When it became obvious that the seat of this fire was not being addressed, the IC should have called for defensive operations. Unless there are lives at stake, there is no reason to risk firefighter safety any further. That said, its easy to get caught up in the attack, and loose sight of how serious the situation is becoming. Its easy and unfortunate that we tend to jump on the negative band wagon, when these things are caught on video. Lets hope that our bad days are not. (Motive), this group of firefighters were earnestly trying to extinguish a building fire. I didn't see any signs of indifference, or lack of effort. They may have made serious mistakes, even dangerous mistakes, but I could clearly see the heart of the firefighter in their efforts. That is also important.
Darian Gonzales Darian Gonzales Wednesday, December 11, 2013 11:08:51 AM why are some working by the structure without SCBAs and not with all their PPE?
Darian Gonzales Darian Gonzales Wednesday, December 11, 2013 11:09:50 AM and going in without SCBAs on?
Dan Delage Dan Delage Thursday, December 12, 2013 7:54:01 AM It was like watching a bloopers video. Hope no one was seriously hurt and hope the home owners didn't see it. How about the house next door ? Did they loose that too ?
Kathi Ivers Mitol Kathi Ivers Mitol Thursday, December 12, 2013 8:16:09 AM I am curious, New Chicago is a volunteer dept.: Hobart (a paid dept across the street) also there. Same zip code, who is the lead dept. in charge, the experienced, trained dept., or does it automatically fall under jurisdiction?
Andrew J. Giambattista Sr. Andrew J. Giambattista Sr. Thursday, December 12, 2013 8:26:31 AM WOW!?!??!
D Barry Anderson D Barry Anderson Thursday, December 12, 2013 9:56:28 AM too many bad things to even start on. Somebody needs a lot more training on interior attacks
James Garlock James Garlock Thursday, December 12, 2013 9:57:26 AM Well from the start you could tell they were going to let the house burn to the ground and not try to do anything. At the time they try to put water on the tip is just till late lol.
Jorge Lopez Jorge Lopez Thursday, December 12, 2013 10:12:35 AM I agree!
Blake Mayo Blake Mayo Thursday, December 12, 2013 11:28:10 AM This appeared to be a chimney fire on arrival that was beginning to spread into the hip roof on the lower level. The volume of smoke and the dark brow to black color of smoke tells me that a flash over is likely. The white helmet in this scene needs to be better trained in size up and command. upon arrival I would have had a crew on the roof venting this fire and as soon as that was done then attack the fire I also would have a crew making entry into the structure after venting was complete. If this company would have been more aggressive it most likely would not have gone to the point it did. If I were to assume command 5 minutes in or more I would want a ladder to assist with vent the main structure and then get crews on the inside.
Mike Peck Mike Peck Thursday, December 12, 2013 12:44:20 PM What a bunch of assclowns! The homeowner ought to sue the Fire Department for incompetence.Looks like an operation you would see in some backwoods town in the South where everyone is related!
Nolan Arena Nolan Arena Thursday, December 12, 2013 12:46:57 PM Depends on who the area falls under, that area could be in paid dept. and volunteer coverage, city limits or not. Typically whoever arrives first and has tenure (Chief, Asst Chief, Battalion Chief) would assume command, then if necessary hand-off to anyone with more experience or designated as such, as they arrive. Additionally, depending on politics, Vol dept.(which could also be paid per call) could always provide assist depending on paid dept. manpower, area or response type/times. County and City are usually different but can be known to aid each other depending on the coverage or manpower available, the type of call...small structure vs large factory structure, etc. I know in my area we have City and County. County consists of a few paid stations while outlying stations are volunteer only. City is all paid stations, with their own volunteers, and only responds within city limits. I have seen County dept's handle structure fires better than paid City dept's. Ultimately we all stand with one another as brothers fighting the same fires, we all go to the same academies, and we all are required to have the same minimum training as paid or volunteer in my neck of the woods. Now for some this can depend on politics, ratings and who provides ratings for your area (ISO, etc.)
Thodoris Livanos Thodoris Livanos Thursday, December 12, 2013 1:02:35 PM I have one question. Why there is no second attack line? As time goes by I think its obvious that is urgently needed
Kathi Ivers Mitol Kathi Ivers Mitol Thursday, December 12, 2013 1:24:59 PM Nolan Arena Thank you.
Kathi Ivers Mitol Kathi Ivers Mitol Thursday, December 12, 2013 1:36:23 PM .uhm, yeah. You hit the nail on the head there. I live in New Chicago, Its not in the south, but pretty much everyone around here IS related.
Andrew Mitol Andrew Mitol Thursday, December 12, 2013 1:58:54 PM now now.... they'd use the pages to roll a few blunts too... i mean give'em a little credit haha
Andrew Mitol Andrew Mitol Thursday, December 12, 2013 2:06:57 PM here's something to rack your brains....the one that first pulls up is the new chicago engine... which came from about a block away in the direction the newer looking one came from... that one came from clear across town, a good two miles at least... but yet they arrive within seconds of each other....
Bobby Ramsey Bobby Ramsey Thursday, December 12, 2013 2:11:25 PM so many things wrong!
Brett Butler Brett Butler Thursday, December 12, 2013 3:49:43 PM The only thing I saw being done correctly was flushing the hydrant...
Rob Carson Rob Carson Thursday, December 12, 2013 5:45:27 PM what a joke. engineer is pulling the attack line.bc is inside. engineer is tagging the hyd. where is the hose. how many guys went in to attack the fire. fire is venting there is a trk co on scene. two guys on the roof 1 with no pack. again there is a trk on the scene. you never leave 1 guy behind. the all out alarm should have been longer. you never go back in after calling a defensive attack. again where is the tower ladder. scba boys.
Tone Murillo Tone Murillo Thursday, December 12, 2013 7:40:33 PM Freelancing at it's finest!!!
Matt Kenna Matt Kenna Friday, December 13, 2013 6:08:10 AM Wow That dept needs to go back to basic training, There's to much to write about this video. If i was the home owner i wouldn't want to watch the video & see there local dept look like they have no clue whats going on. The dept & Chief should be ashamed of themselves
RonandLinda Butler RonandLinda Butler Friday, December 13, 2013 6:25:16 AM While all of those questions are good, here are a couple more. Is the Chief that's running around command or operations? Either way, why is he so involved? In those positions you have to stand back and command, either the scene or your sector/division. Why does he not have a pack on? He is on the roof and in the door without proper PPE!! The roofman is doing a good job just remember, stay on the upwind side of the vent hole.
Shaw Bryson Jr. Shaw Bryson Jr. Friday, December 13, 2013 2:43:12 PM house could have been saved...did you see the back section was fine but they waited too long to put water on it. Poor Property Conservation.
Neal Davison Neal Davison Saturday, December 21, 2013 1:04:11 AM Ok quick question.....why do you guys go on a roof thats already breached by fire thus already venting and start cutting a new vent beside it, it seems a pointless dangerous exercise, we obviously do things very different down here so I'm prepared to be educated
Gary Ronzheimer Gary Ronzheimer Saturday, December 28, 2013 4:40:52 PM I hope the critique was valuable and department personnel learnedfrom this. Glad to see noone was injuried.
Robbie Rector Robbie Rector Tuesday, December 31, 2013 1:03:08 PM WOW. The dude with the white helmet needs to go home for awhile. They are all lucky. They made it out.
Robbie Rector Robbie Rector Tuesday, December 31, 2013 1:04:41 PM How many times did he go inside with no pack on?

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