Basement fires: Tactics and tips for firefighters

Research, train, and follow best practices and standards when fighting any fire

The basement fires of today are not the same as the basement fires of years past. It seems we are hearing more and more often about firefighters falling through floors early in an incident.

First-arriving units are making the front door, as they have been taught, to search for fire and victims, then end up in a sublevel inferno.

Basement fires are dangerous and challenging. Here we'll provide some guidance to keep you safe.

FSRI conducts a basement fire experiment.
FSRI conducts a basement fire experiment. (Photo/UL's FSRI)

Building construction and basements

It is paramount that we understand what type of building construction we are dealing with in our areas. It is our responsibility to know if they are traditional, legacy construction or if they're newer with low mass, engineered construction.

This will require you to get out and look around. Stop by the subdivision and take note of how new homes are being configured and the location of basement access points.

In older homes, the basement may not have an exterior access point or it may be in the garage. In addition, the older homes typically will have steeper and narrower stairwells. Further, we may need to take extra care going down the stairs. Older homes with basements also tend to have smaller basement windows.

These homes weren’t built to have basements with bedrooms and living spaces in them, so the windows typically do not meet current codes for egress. This also makes it tough for us to get ourselves out those same windows.

Fireground size-up at basement fires

Size-up is one of the most important tasks that we perform. The size-up actually starts while you're poking around in your still area, and an active size-up is necessary to determine conditions, the resources needed, and the tactics that you will employ.

We have to get around the building. There may not be signs of a basement on the front side of the building. In addition, we don’t want to miss a victim that may be in a window, door or yelling for help on the rear side.

This is when you need to look for signs of fire and smoke:

  • Is there fire low on the house?
  • Is the smoke pushing out from around porches, decks or from under siding?
  • Can we see basement windows with charring or dark smoke?
  • Is there a bulkhead charged with smoke?
  • Do we see curtains in the basement windows?
  • Are there signs of heating devices like woodstove pipes coming from the basement?
  • Is there an exterior access that we might be able to use to get to the fire?

These are not the only considerations during the size-up, but there are no limits to what you may see that indicates a basement fire and/or victims in the basement.

We also need to consider the fact that the basement could contain commercial operations that would not normally be found in a residential home. In addition, daycares use basements to separate the living space of the caregiver and the daycare itself.

Basement fire tactics

Your tactics will depend on what your operational guidelines are and based on what you find during the size-up. Don't get caught up in a "cookie-cutter" mentality. If you feel that something different needs to be done to be successful, then do it. Think and act. Use your experience and best practices.

Don't rely totally on a thermal imaging camera to determine if you have fire below you. Studies show that the camera will only read the ambient temperature of the room and materials. With fire below you, the subfloor, padding and carpet can show much lower temperatures than what actually exists.

We have a responsibility to search for victims whenever there is any question about the occupancy. In some instances, it may be more appropriate to make access to the basement from an exterior access to directly attack the seat of the fire while a search crew makes the floor above.

This must be determined from the size-up, and communication is key. This simultaneously puts water on the fire, improving conditions while victims are being searched for.

When we must make the floor above, the most important consideration is to OPERATE like there is fire below until proven otherwise.

Sounding floors is paramount, but with today’s building materials, you have little to no notice prior to a collapse. Have a backup crew ready and at the door for the protection of the first crew.

Heading down the stairs will be challenging. It will be hot at the top of the stairs, but you must be cautiously quick getting down them. Feet first, one foot at a time sounding the stairs and feeling for stability. Have the hand line ready to knock back any fire that may want to vent up the stairwell.

At the bottom, use the same skills as you would for any other fire. However, speed is your friend here. Find the fire and get it knocked down. Follow your suppression guidelines – and train on them whenever you can.

Final thoughts on basement fires

These considerations are merely snapshots of what to look for on a basement fire. This is in no way the ultimate list, just some simple suggestions.

Make sure you train, research and follow best practices and standards when fighting any fire.

As always, train hard, be active in the profession and stay safe. During your tour ask yourself, "What have I done today to make me and my crew better?"

Editor's note: This article, which was originally published in 2011, has been updated.

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