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

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?

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