Book excerpt: ‘401 Things Veteran Firefighters Can Teach You’

Tips, ideas and tricks of the trade that experienced firefighters have shared to help others become better and safer firefighters

Chief Ludwig’s book “401 Things Veteran Firefighters Can Teach You” features 401 tips, ideas and tricks of the trade that veteran and experienced firefighters can teach fellow firefighters about how to become better and safer firefighter who’s a cut above the rest. Topics include tips for rookies, building construction, engine and ladder operations, incident command, safety and survival, training, tools, understanding smoke conditions, and more. Chapter 9 focuses on strategies and tactics.

Chapter 9: What Veteran Firefighters Can Teach You About Strategies and Tactics

Veteran firefighters have been there and done that. They were schooled by veteran firefighters before them, and they now have experience under their belt. Each year of experience has taught them what works and what does not work on a fire scene. They learned from textbooks and they did drills on the fireground at the fire academy, but none of that could show them what it is really like when you mask up and crawl into a house you’ve never been in before. All along the way, through trial and error, they have built up a repertoire of knowledge on how to deal with fire when they fight it. The following are what strategies and tactics veteran firefighters can teach you about fighting fire.

291. Fire Down Below

No!  This is not the Steven Seagal movie. Any firefighter operating over fire is dangerous. This applies to any firefighter operating on a roof directly above the fire or on the first floor, directly above a fire in the basement. Do a search on the NIOSH website and you’ll see plenty of firefighter deaths where the floor or roof collapsed underneath them, and they fell into the fire.

If firefighters go to the second floor, they also need to ensure that there is no fire on the first floor. Often firefighters will stretch hoselines to a 1st or 2nd floor because of heavy smoke conditions but they cannot find any fire and there is no heat. In reality, the fire was in the basement. This why 360s or walkarounds are so important to determine possibly where the fire is at.

292. Basement Fires

I have no explanation for this, but veteran firefighters taught me this early in my career: whenever you pull up to a house fire and you have smoke showing, including smoke coming out of the chimney, there is a 90 percent or greater chance that you also have fire in the basement of the residence. I must attest that it always seems to be true.

293. The Truth about Basement Fires

If there was a fire in a fireplace, would you consider going down the chimney to put it out?  Would you consider going into an enclosed container to put a fire out?  So why do we go down basement steps to put out a basement fire?  First, the steps are nothing but a chimney for heat and smoke in a basement fire. Going downstairs to a basement fire is dangerous practice. If conditions deteriorate, your exit is back up through the chimney. Second, most basement steps are made of wood. Wood that may have been burning can become compromised structurally and may collapse under a firefighter’s weight.

The best strategy is to attack a basement fire from an outside door. Always attack a basement fire from the same level. If possible, the door on the first floor to the basement should be shut to prevent fire spread up the stairs to the first floor.

If there is no basement door from the outside, consider fighting the fire from basement windows.

Lastly, I’ve seen this strategy and personally used it successfully in vacant structures that were too unsafe to enter – just flood the basement. At the fire where I successfully used this tactic, there were no outside doors to the basement and the only way to the basement was through the first floor of a vacant house with rickety steps. The basement ceiling was so low that you could not stand up straight, and it was loaded with trash and debris. It was a no-brainer. No sense in getting firefighters hurt or killed. Just flood the basement. You can do it with master streams through the windows or stretch and hang some lines into the basement windows.

Make sure you vent all basements by taking out the windows. Never consider standing on the first floor over the fire and cutting a vent hole in the first floor. Standing over the fire is not a good idea, and you can also spread fire into the first floor. Many firefighters have died by falling through the first floor into the basement. On April 12, 2015, a 38-year-old firefighter died in a floor collapse while working above a residential basement fire in South Dakota.  In January 2020, a West Peculiar firefighter was killed after falling through a floor while battling a house fire.

294. More Basement

On basement fires, if you must enter the first floor, you should sound the floor just like you would sound a roof.

295. Safe Basement Stairs

There are times when it is all right to use the basement steps if there is no entry from a basement door. The only time firefighters should consider using basement steps is when there is evidence of a small fire in the basement. Light smoke that is not pushing and contains very little heat is evidence of a small fire in the basement. If you can see the basement floor from the top of the stairs, you are probably safe to use the basement stairs.

296. Overhauling Basements

The fire is out and there is no smoke. Time to overhaul the basement. You should remain on air until a CO reading can be taken of the basement. Enclosed basements are good for trapping carbon monoxide from a fire and will produce high readings until sufficiently vented. This practice should be used for any floor or room of a building that has had fire extinguished.

297. Attic Fire Dangers

There is danger in any attic fire. Have you ever gone into an attic when it’s not on fire during the summertime?  If it holds that much heat without fire, imagine when it is on fire! It is nothing but a basement inverted – and maybe even worse. There is generally no door from the outside, and there is only one way in (the stairs or an entry hole in the ceiling). Many times, there are no windows to vent. It’s a death trap.

Frontal assaults on attic fires is extremely dangerous for firefighters. Veteran firefighters have learned how to flank an attic fire to keep themselves safe. Veteran firefighters know it is best to attack an attic fire in ways other than a frontal assault. If at all possible, firefighters should not enter an attic to fight fire. The possibilities of firefighters being compromised are many.

Think of all the bad things that happen in an attic besides only having one way out. These include flashovers, stepping through a ceiling if there is no floor and only rafters, or getting entangled in debris or wires running through the attic. Consider pulling ceiling with direct line attacks or using piercing nozzles. Another method on one-story ranch homes is to pull the soffit on the outside of the home, exposing an opening into which straight streams can be directed.

Lastly, some attics have windows, dormers, or vent louvers that direct streams can be applied through. If there are no openings, you may have to create your own. Once, we had a stubborn attic fire in south Memphis on a two-story wood frame with no windows, dormers, or louvers. In order to attack the fire, we cut holes through the Alpha side of the building from an elevated platform and used a master stream to knock the fire down. Not a single firefighter was hurt.


‘401 Things Veteran Firefighters Can Teach You’

© 2020 by Gary Ludwig

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