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From the Fireground
by Jason Hoevelmann

Steps to beat the residential metal roof

Metal roofing materials are becoming more common on residential structures and they present an array of problems for firefighters

By Jason Hoevelmann

We hear it and teach it frequently: Building construction and fire behavior are areas in which firefighters and officers must be well versed. 

However, we never really identify the specifics of those two topics, which are broad at best, leaving us with the same old classes of construction types and light-weight construction. It is high time we get specific with building construction and what it means tactically for firefighter and officers.

With the recent event involving a metal roof at a residential structure, it is a good idea to address some challenges when operating on and below metal roofs. Every type of construction and its components creates a different set of challenges that we must be prepared for.

Although, in this case, the residential structure was wood frame, it had components more commonly found on commercial buildings. The differentiation between residential and commercial construction methods is becoming much less obvious.

Roof basics
No matter what type of roof we are operating on there are some very basic tactics that should be employed.

  • Use a roof ladder and operate off of it.
  • Operate from the up-wind side.
  • Have more than one way off the roof.
  • Use full PPE including SCBA, and be on air when there is active fire below.
  • Have the right tools to do the job; this may include saws, blades, hooks and axes.
  • Communicate with the interior crew and command about your efforts and the effectiveness of those efforts.
  • Get down as soon as your task is complete.

Residential metal roofs aren't all that new, but we are seeing an increase in their use, primarily due to the economics and durability of the material. These metal roofs are not those of your grandparents or great-grandparents where they were just plain metal or tin. Today's metal roofs are coated to withstand ultraviolet rays and harsh weather conditions and to allow for attractive colors. 

What lies beneath
The real problem is not so much the metal roof as much as what lies beneath it. The unknown layers of asphalt shingles or other roofing material is what really creates the problems for us on the inside. 

Not knowing what and how much material is below the metal roof means ventilation may take longer — and the need for multiple tools and blades is very real. We must expect problems when operating on these roofs and venting them.

Additionally, these materials insulate the attic spaces, like they are supposed to, and when these roofs try to off-gas this insulation creates more heat and gas that has nowhere to go. The metal roof does not off-gas and deflects the heat to the only place it can, down.

Three options
This forced downward pressure can cause the interior environment to change for the worse rapidly and unexpectedly for firefighters operating on the interior. There are only three ways to avoid this, don't make the interior, get to the fire fast to make a quick knock down and finally to ventilate the space to allow trapped heat and gases to escape.

Making the push faster is dependent upon the training and experience of the suppression crew and the number of firefighters moving the line. If we don't have the resources to move the line quickly on a progressing fire, we may have to alter our interior attack tactics until we can get appropriate resources or get the space vented.

Not going in is an option, but one we don't like, especially if the space is tenable when we arrive. But, any time we are making the push on the interior and deciding to put crews inside, we must consider what is going to happen minutes from now and plan for those expectations. That might mean that we keep crews out of the building.

Venting is a viable option if we can determine some characteristics about the fire and the roof.

  • Do we know where the fire is?
  • Do we know where the fire is going?
  • Can we determine what type of roof assembly we are dealing with, such as truss versus legacy rafters?
  • Do we have the resources to make an efficient, coordinated attack with ventilation?

We cannot blindly put firefighters on any roof. We must have a very good idea where the fire is in order to effectively perform vertical ventilation on any roof, especially a metal roof. Venting at the wrong location can contribute to fire spread and making conditions worse.

We also need to understand where the fire is going. For the same reasons we need to know where it is, we must have an educated idea of where it is going. We don't want to get crews trapped on a roof by fast advancing fire in an attic or upper level.

Obviously, we have more stability and mass to deal with when operating on a legacy-built roof as compared with engineered truss roof systems. It does buy us a little time, but don't get a false sense of security. If the roof sheeting becomes compromised, falling into the space below is a real hazard.

Finally, we must have the resources to perform the tasks. You may need to consider alternate tactics like horizontal ventilation due to the lack of resources to perform all of the functions of a well-coordinated attack.

Special hazards
While actually operating on a metal roof some hazards and extra challenges that you need to be prepared for are:

  • Metal roofs can be slick even when dry, but especially so when wet or covered with ice and snow.
  • They cover older roofing materials; take extra tools that will allow you to penetrate multiple materials.
  • Look for discoloration on the metal as a sign of where the roof sheeting is very hot or compromised.
  • Roof ladder hooks may not penetrate and grab the metal roofing material, extra effort may be needed to seat the roof ladder.

As with any tactic, training and knowledge are key. You must understand how these systems work and choose tactics based on that knowledge. Practice placing ladders and operating on pitches if at all possible and know the capabilities of your tools. Communicating that your progress is positive or negative is an absolute so that the interior crew can make a safe exit or alternative ventilation tactics can be deployed in a timely manner.

Train hard and learn the lessons from others and be productive. I'll see you next month, right here From the Fireground.

About the author

Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. His experience spans more than 20 years and he has been an instructor for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and is a State Certified Fire Officer II. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor's degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is currently a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative, a Board Member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the technical committee for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications for NFPA. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.

Chief Hoevelmann can be contacted via e-mail at

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.
S.j. Jones S.j. Jones Thursday, January 31, 2013 10:38:52 AM excellent insight thx again for superior technical insight that help us chirf's stay fresh.
Steve Gettemeier Steve Gettemeier Friday, February 01, 2013 6:42:38 AM Up to about 20 years ago, and it can still be found today in storage buildings such as pole barns the metal roofing was installed on what was known as skipped sheathing which is 1x6 or 1x8 spaced up to two foot apart this would allow the heat from the interior to warm the metal roof and melt any snow and ice. Skipped sheathing can be found on roofs that had wood shingles or wood shakes as the orginal roofing material it was used to again let the heat from the interior dry out the wood roofing material. Now the sheathing under metal roofing materials is some sort of structural panel like plywood or OSB.
Richard Worrell Richard Worrell Monday, February 04, 2013 8:43:20 PM An importantly and timely article. In my travels I've seen that residential metal roofs are making a comeback. Once again, firefighter safety is key here. Thanks.
Bill Doss Bill Doss Tuesday, August 27, 2013 5:42:51 AM Nice timing: I'm putting a metal roof on my home in about 2 weeks and can offer evidence to support that suggestion the you will see more steel roofs. It's a "roofover" in common local termionolgy. On my roof now I have a single layer of shingles that are 15 years old that will need to be replaced soon. I chose the roofover because the cost for shingles, paper and membrane is over $1,000 plus 3-4 days of time do a tear-off and put up the shingles. I have a reputable contractor (another firefighter) putting up the steel in 1/2 a day for less than $2,000 including a new ridge vent. Best, it comes with a 50 year warranty. The weight of the steel is less than 1/3 of a layer of shingles over the same surface area so that's not an issue. The steel is the same stuff used on a pole barn (it even comes from the place that I bought the pole barn package). I tested a piece and it cut just fine with a DeWalt 18V trim saw so I'm sure you could tear right through it with with a rotary saw or chainsaw.
Jim Fourman Jim Fourman Thursday, April 17, 2014 11:10:48 PM
Jim Fourman Jim Fourman Thursday, April 17, 2014 11:11:21 PM Great tool for working on metal roofs
Robert Duffy Robert Duffy Friday, August 01, 2014 4:52:50 PM
Robert Duffy Robert Duffy Friday, August 01, 2014 5:06:50 PM
Robert Duffy Robert Duffy Friday, August 01, 2014 5:12:28 PM Hi Jim, I am responding to you comment about Quick Step Anchor. It's amazing how you formed that opinion from just picking it up once and being confused by all its two moving part's. I will address your comments one by one based upon my 20 years of experience of being assigned to the busiest companies in arguably the busiest Fire Dept. in Massachusetts . 1. If you watched the Instructional video on you tube (which is suggested in instruction pamphlet in the box of every QSA) you would have not been so confused by the Two moving part's. 2. The Integrity of every roof will be different depending upon the stage the fire is in and the time the structure has been exposed to it, This is why all firefighters are taught how to sound a roof and Building Construction. There are times when I have gone on a roof and sounded it and immediately left it because it was too far gone. (you may also experience this one day) 3. As for OSHA 1910.27 Walking and Working Surfaces/ Fixed Ladders. Where does the QSA not meet this standard ? Welding?, Deterioration?,Load?. I suspect you don't have a answer for this. This tool is in the process of having standards developed around it due to the fact that it is so groundbreaking. Also OSHA doesn't govern Fire depts. FYI 4. Your Halligan,Pickhead Axe and Saw are not stored with your portable ladders does this hinder their use to you when you need them? ...The QSA is 18"x10"x6" weighs 11 lbs. and stores in the smallest of spaces. It can also be mounted in the bucket of a aerial. 5. When doing vertical ventilation you will bring a saw, hook and axe or halligan these you will carry up in your hands. When using QSA you will bring saw, hook and The QSA which is carried hands free with its carrying lanyard, so you are actually carrying less up with you in your hands. 6. The QSA is actually used for more than one thing and is anything but limited. It is a robust, sturdy, level, Adjustable, platform to work on while venting a peaked roof, it is a anchor point for FALL ARREST and EMERGENCY BAILOUT, it can be used down low off a portable ladder if your roof ladder is too short to reach the peak, just anchor the QSA and set the roof ladder then use a second QSA for footing to vent., use QSA on a porch roof when its not possible to use a roof ladder. The QSA can be used on any roof except clay tile, Its recommended that you don't use it on a slate roof due to the fact that slate and clay tile roofs cannot be sounded and are prone to collapse prematurely due to the high weight load of them, it will actually anchor on a slate roof but for the aforementioned facts it is recommended to not use on a slate roof and for that matter I recommend that no one go on a slate or clay tile roof. QSA works very well on metal roofs and its actually a strong suit for QSA. The only time you would not want to use QSA,pickhead axe or Halligan on a metal roof is when the metal is attached above the actual roof about 2 or 3 inches on nailers you will know you have this condition when you sound the roof and the metal caves in. This is a rare occurrence and may actually be against code in some places but it is worth mentioning. You can use QSA for a chimney fire if you wish, it takes three shingles to repair the kerf cut. I know this because I am a roofer and have actually repaired kerf cuts. 7. I am surprised that you cant figure out a scenario when you would have to rappel off a roof. Go to you tube and enter firefighters trapped on roof for a first hand look at WHY? Its about as Ludicrous as bailing out a second or third story window when your trapped there. ask some firefighters who have had to bail out of windows and roofs if they were glad that they had that option available to them. speaking from experience I was Very Glad I had that option. Do You also think that using a halligan,axe for a anchor point or bailout rope is also Ludicrous?? 8. The price of the QSA is what it is due to the material,craftsmanship,hardware,and specially designed Fire resistant safety lanyard that comes with it. It is virtually indestructible and will last many, many years. it works out to less than 10 cents a day over a 30 year period, which QSA will far exceed. You get what you pay for. 9. Jim If you really are all for Firefighter safety and you want to profess this to the world in writing Please do your Homework before you publish a haphazard, rushed ignorant posting about a tool that you admittedly picked up once and were confused by?? My response to you is based upon frontline firefighting experience of using the QSA not on picking it up once and never even looking at the instructional video. What you have done is called "contempt prior to investigation". I try not to do this because it doesn't give me enough information to make a sound decision about any person, place or thing. As a Officer this tends to be a liability and never a asset to the officer and his crew and can also be DANGEROUS. ( My Opinion) . 10. The QSA also frees Up the firefighter who would have been solely dedicated to the foothold of a pick head axe,halligan, trash hook or the firefighter who would have to provide weight to the roof ladder if a LEDGE was attached to it to stop it from SWINGING OUT LIKE A PENGULIUM AND CAUSING THE SAWYER TO FALL OFF THE ROOF ( The other product your trying to promote). The QSA essentially doubles your manpower because that second firefighter is now free to help and pull the sheathing when the cuts are made which will get firefighters off the roof faster. REAL TEAMWORK. 11. Last but not last you asked for a honest review of a product. The author used the QSA and wrote his article based upon real life experience. YOU on the other hand wrote your review and opinion is based upon never watching the instructional video,never using the QSA and picking it up once. need I say more. Well Jim Fourman I appreciate the time you took to express your opinion, Stay Safe Robert S Duffy Ladder 8 C Springfield Fire Dept, Massachusetts
Derron Suchodolski Derron Suchodolski Monday, August 04, 2014 5:59:38 PM
Friday, August 15, 2014 9:20:14 PM May I add the following. #1) It is very difficult to sound these metal re-roofs. Also, the underlying material could be completely burned out while the outer steel is perfectly intact. The sheeting is so light that it might show zero signs of collapse. So if the decision to vertically ventilate is made, throw an aggressive ladder. Treat the roof as you would a tile roof. Minimize traveling and make your cuts off a roof ladder if practical. 2) Chainsaws equipped with RDR chain (Stihl) rip through metal roofs with ease. No need for a rotary saw. 3) Fire often spreads through the original roofing can look like the entire roof is on fire due to smoke spread. These roofing material fires can be slow moving and difficult to put out without ripping off the metal sheathing (very man-power intensive). One technique is to cut a strip at the ridge-line and run water down to the eaves. If you're interested in some picts from an actual incident, let me know.

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