“Training for Failure in the United States Fire Service”
Written by District Chief David O‘Neal from Akron Fire Department
Kinesthetic, or “hands on” training is the type of learning style in which learning takes place by the students carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations.
We all know this is the best style for achieving retention and skill acquisition in the fire service, but why is that the case? Chief O’Neal explains the importance of hands on training in the fire service by utilizing data from our own industry, and comparing it to the best practices of other similar industries. He acknowledges training constraints from staffing, cost, and increased call volume. As well as examines various training models currently utilized, how stress impacts learning, and how to best aid our members in retaining information. Below is an excerpt from his thesis.
We feel this information could aid in your training programs, and it puts science to what many have been saying for years; pc-based training isn’t sufficient. To view the rest of his research, please follow the link below.
Go to any large Midwestern city and take a drive down an alley, what you’ll see is an architectural feature colloquially known as the “Chicago Lumberyard”. A term that reflects the prevalence of rear multi level wooden porches extending as far as the blocks they’re built in. The wooden alley porches you see today were commonly built between 1900-1940 out of functionality more than convenience. Some offered stairs doubling as fire escapes while some did not. Before modern air conditioning, open porches offered relief during the oppressive humidity of Midwestern summers. The only other option was sleeping outside or in parks. Another common function of rear porches was a place for wood stoves and kerosene heating which just added to an increased fire hazard. Porches were naturally built off of the kitchen which allowed for easy access of fuel delivery for cooking as well as ice for those who could afford it.
Today’s rear porches come in two types, open with handrails and fully enclosed framed with windows. Most do not have porch stairs and may instead have a rear stairwell on the first floor accessed through a back door, especially in four family flats. Treated pine is the most common construction material due to its rot resistance, but over time structural integrity is slowly comprised. Modern uses of rear porches can vary greatly from social gathering places, storage, office space, and bedrooms. Typically vinyl siding has been added over the older exterior which can be anything from asbestos siding shingles to era wood siding. All these will require aggressive truck work to overhaul working concurrently with fire attack. Another feature is that the basement stairs are typically right under the 1st floor porch, so don’t automatically assume a porch fire started on the porch. Be sure to rule out a basement fire extending upward on arrival with an effective 360 size up.
Tactical considerations are similar to the principles of exposure protection since rear porches in Type lll’s will be separated by the rear brick wall. This offers a level of protection from fire spread into the cockloft, but enclosed porches are often stacked combustible construction. So you have rapid exterior fire spread to every level of the building from one source, which can extend horizontally into the dwelling on multiple levels at once. Life safety is the number one priority, especially potential victims that may be trapped above the 1st floor. Hose lines must be stretched to the proper location the first time saving costly delays in repositioning. There are many options for deployment depending on your resources and conditions.
The basic strategy here is confinement by holding the rear wall, thus keeping the fire out of the main building while searches are conducted. Since porches are in the rear you have to weigh your options when deploying hose lines. Is stretching down the gangway for exterior application going to be quicker than forcing entry with an uncharged line to an upper floor? Does an engine company respond to the rear? How about tandem lines? One goes inside to stop horizontal extension, and one to the rear to stop vertical extension lapping upwards to the roofing material additionally available to protect adjacent exposures. Traditionally the first line went to the fire floor and the second went to the floor above. All these have to be considered. If people are reported trapped the first line must go inside and hold extension at the rear wall putting water in between tenable spaces supporting a rescue effort. If there are rear interior stairs those have to be protected as well.
If your staffing is unable to stretch multiple lines quickly and must rely on only one, err on the side of probability and make entry knowing most porch fires start on the inside and typically have no doors to slow fire spread. Tenable space must be claimed early on and with expedience. Any fire attack that starts outside must have the manpower and second line ready for almost concurrent entry or you risk delaying actual extinguishment of interior spaces for exterior ones that pose less threat to valuable property and possible victims inside. Additionally re-stretching and repositioning a charged line back to the front and possibly up stairs is extremely laborious, even more so in an already understaffed situation.
Interior operations need to be cognizant of the transition between the legacy floor of the main building and lighter weight decking of a porch. The collapse potential increases with porches made of modern floor decking such as plywood covered in tile which presents a “terrazzo floor” effect. Weight is also a factor due to aging structural supports not originally designed for a fully framed room with contents. It’s not uncommon to find holes burned through right inside the porch entryway. Anyone advancing the nozzle shouldn’t enter a porch if they can’t assess its integrity. Sounding the floor decking with your heel of your outstretched foot or a hand tool is paramount. Let the stream do the work until visibility increases and operate from the building side of the rear wall if the floor is comprised.
Master stream options are limited to rear accessible areas such as alleys. If obstructions are present like light poles, wires or overgrown brush and trees a 2.5 hand line will be optimal. A portable monitor device stretched to the rear is also a choice for well off fires with exposures. Exposure protection will also be the most effective from the rear instead of trying to operate from the front down gangways that diminish your stream angles. A quick stretch to the rear with a second or third attack line should be considered. Exposures are common place with rear porches, so expect one on each side especially if wind conditions exist.
Roof ops can assist by keeping vent holes near the rear and checking the rear wall by pulling back the flashing or tar paper for any extension into the cockloft. The objective is holding or limiting fire extension to the porch side of the rear exterior wall on the original building. Horizontal extension into the cockloft or attics is number one. Guttering should be pried off in the rear to expose the layers of decking and roofing materials during overhaul. Additionally, some rear porches have scuttle openings on the top floor porch roof making vertical ventilation that much easier. A trick is to open the scuttle and force the apron wall inside for quick access into the cockloft. Careful not to unknowingly operate above a porch which is inherently weaker than the roof decking of the original building. Some are tarred over in a way it’s difficult to notice any transition. The parapet side walls will give you a clear indication of where the back wall terminates and the porch roof starts. Pull back some coping stones and make continuous checks for horizontal fire extension into the main building. Any extension found should be immediately communicated with the IC and coordinated with crews below.
These are just a few basic principles to guide by, but there are many more out there worth knowing. The main thing to remember is what inherent issues your building stock presents regarding rear porches. Become intimately familiar with your working environments using every non fire related run as one more opportunity to preplan for the fire related one.
Google “fire service pride” and you’ll see real quick how abundant it’s presence is in our industry. There are books, articles, blogs, clothing, you name it, all dedicated to the “P” word. But what happens when none exists? Even more importantly, how do you create it? Walk into any firehouse and you’ll most likely be greeted by a display case, some sort of wall of fame or something dedicated to past accomplishments and moments.
This is where my story starts. I was once new and assigned to an engine house with none of that. There were no display cases, no edgy logos, and not a single photo hanging up. It was a house of empty walls. It felt sterile and lacked character. An institutional white walled, brown trimmed look of a work place, not a firehouse. I didn’t like it, it wasn’t the place I had imagined. The three brass poles stood out like over dressed guests at a house party and the spiral staircase didn’t fit in at all. There was a watch desk, called the joker stand, which is where I would spend my day studying SOGs during probation. I didn’t mind because it allowed me to visualize what the house would look like if I had a choice.
I can’t tell you when it all started, but I can tell you it started outside with the old rusty firehouse bench no one used. I figured I might as well start there and work my way in. My senior man had recommended I always have a project, so taking his advice I got to work. Not to mention it was a great opportunity to make a good impression early on. So that’s what I did. Naturally, the green metal frame was stripped and replaced with fire truck red while the wood was refinished. Two weeks later, the firehouse had a nice new bench out front. It was the first thing anyone saw walking in and silently sent a loud statement of pride. The funny thing about that bench is what happened next. Every morning it seemed to be in a different spot. It turned out the shifts were fighting over where it should be. That’s when I learned a valuable lesson in the byproduct of pride, which is ownership. Before that bench was painted, I don’t think anyone even realized it existed at the firehouse, and now we were fighting over it. The Firefighters had made it their bench and unlike before, cared where it was located.
Prides an amazing thing, it’s extremely powerful in the most silent ways. It’s a subconscious undertone that takes hold of anyone in its influence. The trick is to be the influencer. Be the person who designs a company logo, a station T- shirt or patch. It always starts with one person that ends up coalescing the entire engine house. I learned that in a house of empty walls change starts with one little photo. It was an old 4×6 post card of our engine house showing horses turning out on a call in 1911. I hung it right next to the Tv in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before I added some others here and there, always in the kitchen since that’s where we hung out mostly. Weeks went by, some supporting comments were made but I didn’t think anyone really noticed, then something happened. One morning at shift change an officer on the most tenured crew said he had something for me. He gave me an old Manila envelope with company photos he’d had for decades and asked me to hang them up. That’s when I knew things had turned a corner. Pride and ownership is an incredibly powerful force that you can’t see or touch but is impossible to miss on display. Soon the walls were how they should be in any firehouse. Logos were made, shirts were printed and patches ordered. The influence didn’t stop at the door either, other companies in the battalion took note and started coming up with their own logos and shirts. It was to the point where each shift tried to out do the other with some sort of house project or display. It was an incredible experience over the course of a few years but in the end it all started with a project and a 4×6 photo.
The lessons to take away here are simple. Prides free and very powerful. It’s something that starts so small but can have a big impact. What I learned about pride and ownership in my first years on the job I took with me to later companies I was assigned to and the results were always the same. It’s a recipe for success that anyone can do. Its only ingredients are ambition and a decision to do it. So next time you find yourself in a house of empty walls and low morale, you’ll know what to do.
If you look up the definition of renaissance you’ll find it means “a revival or renewed interest in something, a rebirth of old ways” I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what is happening in today’s fire service. The motivation for this article came from The Journeyman Fire Conference I had just attended. Over a three-day period firefighters from across the country and Canada came to be with like-minded highly motivated individuals whose message was basically that interior firefighting is not dead, that our primary mission is still relevant as ever and we’re tired of sitting idly by while the degradation of true grit in the fire service erodes away one apprehensive article at a time. Make no mistake there is a silent majority rising up in the ranks of the trade. Its more evident with every new fire conference. Its an unbridled ambition never before seen by those who were sold gimmicks, scare rhetoric and who were persecuted for their convictions by those who never had the intestinal fortitude in the first place.
Additionally the science and studies are fantastic and if anything validated those of us in the street.
We were taught aggressive was a bad word. We were wrong to put ourselves first but yet needed better customer service. Roofs were all going to collapse under us and when someones house was on fire that they probably had insurance so don’t go in if nobodies trapped. It was that scare rhetoric which spawned an underground of firemanship. For over a decade many sat quietly gaining experience waiting for the right time. Meanwhile EMS came to the forefront, missions creeped HAZMAT, RIT training and bailout overshadowed the basics while our live fire training became less and less realistic. We were called reckless, dangerous or against change when in reality we were the most ambitious, motivated ones in our agencies. Naturally, many took jobs in busy urban departments doing everything they’ve been previously taught to avoid while seeing first hand the life saving benefits of those “reckless” tactics.
Today’s youngest generation of firefighters don’t have to sit through hours of “Everyone Goes Home” training addressing the 100 firefighters we kill every year being too aggressive. That a culture of safety is the answer and the taxpayers always come second to us. The voices calling for a cultural change aren’t nearly as loud as before. Data has won the day and the street kept us honest. Today’s audiences want intuitive knowledge and facts not rhetoric or opinions. The information at their fingertips is infinite. Millennials don’t want to hear about percentages or numbers they want wisdom, insight and tips they can’t find on a smart phone. Conversely those with the most information are those with the least amount of actual fire experience in a time when experience is at an all time premium. It will be those with it who will have the most influence.
The pendulum swung in the wrong direction far too long and now its our time to set the mission back on track. Those of us who were indoctrinated early in our careers with agendas of change by the apprehensive are now the ones filling the auditoriums. Timid minds are silenced with bold actions and that’s the type of behavior by those out front. You’re going to start seeing more and more classes and conferences focused on getting the strategy back inside the building on fire. Whether it’s the 1st line, 2nd line, search, ladders or overhaul. You can only talk about the “modern fire environment” for so long until you realize we’ve been in it for 30 years. Additionally the science and studies are fantastic and if anything validated those of us in the street. The culture of extinguishment is not only alive and well but gaining momentum. With the shift towards interior tactics comes a need for interior knowledge. In an environment that has become foreign for some it is even more important now than ever to pass on what we’ve learned from those before us. The knowledge skills and abilities honed during the war years are now being reborn and adapted for today’s fire ground.
We were taught aggressive was a bad word. We were wrong to put ourselves first…
With the proliferation of social media connecting 1.2 million firefighters, agendas are being discredited and gimmicks called out. Our youngest members have so much information at their fingertips they’re drowning in it… yet starved for more. For every ludicrous article written from behind a desk… there are twenty more being penned by those actually doing the work. It’s easy to be led astray in today’s fire service by sub par text books and initiatives claiming to be “next new thing”. But fear not. Because when in doubt look to the street, it never lies. It’s that notion fueling whats on the horizon which is a movement by those with the most passionate unrelenting desire to pass on the basics of firemanship.
There will always be debatable hot topics in the fire service, fog vs smooth, interior vs exterior, wood ladders, metal ladders, this helmet vs that one etc etc etc. These debates exist because of they’re subjectivity thus its impossible to definitively be right or wrong. One recent topic that has peaked my interest when talked about is half story construction. Most notably because it’s not a debate at all or at least shouldn’t be anyways. Terminology in the fire service can be a source of debate all in itself with its endemic vernacular, trade jargon and slang. That’s what makes this particular topic even more intriguing. It Is not a firefighting term at all, it Is an architectural term used in a firefighting context. This is important because due to the fact it’s not a subjective jargon it can conversely be defined with objective terminology making it either right or wrong. There’s no grey area with half story construction, it either is or it is not and that’s where things start to get uncomfortable in conversation especially if you’re a Chief who’s department has been sizing up buildings inaccurately your entire career.
…my response to them is “you’re the reason why this problem exists”…
Now one might say in defense that their department considers half stories a “full story” or “attics” and I my response to them is “you’re the reason why this problem exists”. By taking a well defined architectural term and incorrectly applying it as jargon only creates needless problems for our trade and honestly it makes you sound uneducated. Now you might ask yourself why does this even matter? Why does knowing how to correctly identify this type of construction offer any value at all? Because of two very important characteristics of half story construction, knee walls and roof type. Most notably the top floor voids inherently created by knee walls that you won’t encounter in a full story. Top floor fires in half story construction are a game changer to any IC. These construction features set up a very dangerous set of conditions that are covered here in great detail… Killer in the Attic: Fire Operations in Half-Stories
The point of this article is to address the knowledge gap of identifying half stories on arrival and what the actual definition of one is. I’ve made several social media posts in the past using all sorts of visual aids and graphics to some avail. There always seems to be a portion of the audience that are either still confused or not in agreement so it’s time we clear the air and get the facts straight. A lot of the confusion can be addressed locally by becoming intimately familiar with your building stock. There’s all sorts of misleading characteristics in half stories. False dormers, split floor levels, attic windows and in some cases a hybrid full story and half story construction in the same building typically a loft over an attached garage. All these things can be ruled out or expected if you’re familiar with the buildings in your area. I know in mine 99% of the time what appears to be a half story is a half story, but it’s because I know false dormers or split levels among others aren’t prevailing construction features in my city.
The Size Up
The size up is integral, since building construction is the one uncontrollable factor of every fire ground that directly or indirectly controls everything on it. Knowledge and avoidance are the only tactics we can use for a dangerous building. Everything else… we have the tools to mitigate. When sizing up a building it is important to include half story in your radio traffic. This conveys to incoming units the inherent challenges and the fact you’re dealing with some sort of pitched roof. The limitation of any size up is it’s only as good as what you can see unless you have previous knowledge… ie a preplan. There are many exterior clues but ultimately the only definitive way to know you’re dealing with a half story containing a habitable space is by making entry. Using exterior indicators combined with local knowledge one can usually make a correct assessment from the outside. (yes, there are rare exceptions)
Keep in mind you can have a half story without an occupied space on the top floor. Many get hung up or confused on this. The use of the space does not denote the definition, the construction features do. A half story is dependent on interior wall height and where the roof line terminates. You can have this space accessible by interior stairs but not used as livable space. This still means it’s a half story… and all the inherent problems of half stories will still be present due to how it’s framed not how it’s used. If the top floor doesn’t have full 8ft ceilings thus creating knee walls and the roof line terminates at floor level on the top story making the exterior walls part of the roof then it’s half story construction. If you Google half story definition you’ll get multiple versions of the same basic terminology. Most are used in the home appraisal industry. Keep in mind any height can be a half story you can have a 95 and a half story building depending on its top floor construction. Do not confuse this definition with attics. In North America an attic is a non habitable space for storage inaccessible by stairs. In Europe attics that doubled as living space were called garrets. That’s where some of the confusion starts. Attics have different definitions depending on era and region. Half stories can have attics also and most do, accessible by a small attic scuttle and only used for running utilities or limited storage.
As already covered the big indication of half story construction is where the roof line terminates. If the rooflines above the top floor windows contain 8ft walls then it’s a full story. If it’s at floor level of the top story then it’s a half story. Your attention should be on the top floor. That’s where all your exterior indicators will be. The next big clue are dormer windows, yes there are false dormers but that’s why you rule this out by the presence of gable windows. I have never known anyone to hang a false gable window into a gable wall, that would be asinine. False dormers are usually smaller, without curtains and are accompanied by gable attic vents. If you have large dormer windows with side gable windows that’s a enough indication to include half story in a size up. It’s always better to err on the side off caution than not. There are indicators of living space also. These will be blinds, curtains, lamps and window AC units. Typically people don’t put those in attic windows.
The following are some photos with notations for reference and to show the variance of architectural styles of half stories.
All things considered there’s always exceptions but by combining multiple pieces of information one can be confident they’re making an accurate size up. I hope this article has helped those with difficulty identifying half story construction.
So, when I first decided to write this article I wanted to make it something different. Any quick Google search of “The Senior Man” will get you multiple well written articles on the subject. I thought to myself how I could make that happen instead of just re-writing about the same subject. Then it hit me, why not just ask them? Instead of me telling you about what it means to be a Senior Man of a company I’d let them tell me in their own words. It would be a unique perspective. You want to know the importance of the Senior Man? Let’s hear what they had to say.
Before we get to that, let’s take a moment to cover what the Senior Man is all about. For the most part you can go into any firehouse in America where firefighters are working and ask “Who’s the Senior Man?”. Chances are you’ll be greeted by an older, more experienced, jovial individual who, just by their body language, projects some sort of confidence or command presence. Don’t let the term fool you, women are just as likely to fill this role as men. The bottom line is no matter where you go, every Firefighter you ask can without hesitation tell you who the senior man is on their company. That should go to show you the value of these individuals. These are the members with decades of experience or have by far, the most time on amongst the crew. They’ve “been there done that seen everything” but are yet humbled and seek only to pass on what they know, not brag, boast or self-promote. They lack the typical hubris of far too many in the Fire Service. Its these defining qualities that any recognized Senior Man exudes. It’s the epitome of the informal leader, there’s no promotional exam or study material for this position. It’s bestowed upon you by your peers.
This role has many hats but no rank, just respect. It’s the “go to” person for newer members with questions. When conflicts arise, a good Senior Man will quickly step in before the Officer must. This keeping of the balance is also why they’re respected by the officers just as much. It’s a go between role between the crew and officer, a critical bridge of communication. The crew members will go to the Senior Man before the Officer and the Officer will go to the Senior Man to address issues on an informal basis. Another more practical aspect of the senior man is their level of actual firefighting experience. One can say “you follow an Officer’s orders into danger, but it’s the Senior Man who you are actually following into it”. These members provide a safety net of past experiences to the younger, less seasoned of the crew. It’s a built in over watch for when the crew is doing work that involves a high level of risk. Therefore, smart officers will pair senior members with younger ones on the fire ground. It’s a synergistic luxury if you have the means to do so. So that about covers what the senior man is all about, now let’s see what the actual senior men have to say.
Ask any old-timer, the time flies by on this job, how do you want to be remembered?
“There is definitely a thing called leadership from the bottom. It means showing up early every shift, and being able to play whatever position they need you in that day, be it senior man, acting officer, acting engineer, etc. Being a senior man means keeping an eye on newer folks, and mentoring them, not just talking about how much time on you have and what you have done. It also means having your finger on the pulse of the firehouse, and taking care of little problems before they become big ones. This mainly has to do with personnel relations, sometimes it means having sit downs with people before the officer has to, because once they get involved things have to be on paper, and that creates more tension for everyone. And finally, I would say it means setting a good example because you want to. Ask any old-timer, the time flies by on this job, how do you want to be remembered?” Jeremiah Herderich Denver Fire Department Firefighter First Grade. 19 years in the Fire Service
“Never think you know it all, ’cause you don’t. If you get to that point, give the reins to someone else.”
“The senior man is not a “test” position, it’s a position that kinda just happens to the most senior guy on truck. You get the title by being “that guy.” A lot of times you may not want the title but end up with it anyway. If you are “that guy” you need to embrace the title and position. Be the teacher to the other guys, be the go to guy on your rig. The senior man should know the rig as good as, if not better, than the officer. He should be a good station guy, do your share of house duties but be able to delegate out as well. He should be the liaison to the officers, the go between for the other guys. He should be able to weed out non-essential BS that the officer doesn’t need to worry about. But most, the senior man needs to be a “Fireman” not just an employee or pension thief or yard breather or whatever name you give. Be true to the profession and always be a student. Never think you know it all, ‘cause you don’t. If you get to that point give the reins to someone else.” Anonymous Chicago Fire Dept Firefighter 22 years in the Fire Service
“I believe that being a senior fireman on the Memphis Fire Department means setting the example, passing on my experience, and leading from the front.”
“Being the senior man means being the go-to guy, being the one to teach and instill knowledge and skills to the newer firefighters. Personally, I don’t usually tell lesser experienced guys to take task, I take it upon myself to complete the task and set an example in hopes that they follow suit. Whenever possible, I try to include less experienced firefighters and use teachable moments to share my experience and wisdom that I have gained on the job. Rather than watch a new firefighter fail at a new task, I want to assure that they have what it takes to be successful and know that they were given the same opportunities I was given as a probie. In short, I believe that being a senior fireman on the Memphis Fire Department means setting the example, passing on my experience, and leading from the front.” Hugh Doyle Memphis Fire Dept Engine 17 Firefighter 15 years in the Fire Service
“To have the knowledge of knowing when something’s not right on the fireground. You’re the one the newer members look up to and approach with questions.”
“It takes dedication on the job, as well as having a passion for the job. The willingness to share their knowledge that they have acquired over the years. They are willing to take a newer, younger firefighter under their wing and show them the ropes. To have the knowledge of knowing when something’s not right on the fire ground. You’re the one the newer members look up to and approach with questions. The biggest thing when it comes to being a senior man is training and the willingness to learn.” Ron Schroader St Louis Fire Dept Rescue Squad 2 Firefighter 29 years in the Fire Service
“I work to make my platoon to be the strongest in the firehouse. That, through my example, is the platoon that’s full of pride for the company, the department, and the fire service.”
“I strive every shift to be the senior guy that says, “Hey gang, let’s go over this. Let me show you how it’s done and why we do it this way.” and have a strong training experience. I work to make my platoon to be the strongest in the firehouse. That, through my example, is the platoon that’s full of pride; for the company, the department, and the fire service. The “go to” crew when something needs doing, whether in the station or on the fireground. When members transfer out to busier houses, I want them prepared for as much as possible in their new assignment, so their new company says, “Hey, this kid has their stuff together. We’re lucky to have them.” Most of all, I want them to become the senior firefighter in their house and be an example for the younger firefighters that come to them. That’s my take on being the senior firefighter.” Ray Clothier Philadelphia Fire Department Firefighter 21 years in the Fire Service
In the skydiving world, there’s one thing that can literally make or break your jump: is your parachute packed correctly? Back in the day, parachutes were round, so it didn’t really matter how they were packed. As long as the lines weren’t tangled, you were pretty much good to go. Today’s jumpers use a more sophisticated style of parachute that is “wing shaped” to allow for optimum flying. Because of this, the importance of a properly packed, or “rigged” chute as they call it in the skydiving world, is now extremely important. The chute must be packed just right so that it will fill with air in the correct orientation immediately upon opening, as well as ensuring the lines don’t get tangled.
Like every vocation, there is a debate in the jumping world as to whether it’s better to pack your own chute, or pay to have someone pack it for you. The consensus appears to be: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Then there’s the big question: what happens if your original chute malfunctions, or catastrophically fails? Well, that’s what your reserve is for. Reserves must be packed by certified “FAA Riggers.” To become a certified FAA Rigger one must successfully pass a written, oral, and practical exam.
I’m sure by this time you’re wondering, what’s your point? Well, in the firefighting world, there’s one thing that can literally make or break your day: is your SCBA functioning correctly? Back in the day, firemen didn’t wear respiratory protection, many grew beards as a form of primitive protection, so the only thing they had to worry about was if it was long enough to “filter” the air. This eventually transitioned to some firemen using various forms of particulate masks, or a hood. As we all know, today we use a much more sophisticated style of respiratory protection, the SCBA. Because of this, a properly checked SCBA is now extremely important. The SCBA must be checked that the pack is free of debris and damage, the bottle is full, the hoses are connected and not leaking, straps are fully extended, and the pass device and low air alarms are in working order. Not to mention checking your face piece to be sure it is clean and free of damage, your heads up device is working properly, coms are clear, and finally that all of your equipment is set up for optimal masking up time.
Unlike the skydiving world, there is no backup. What happens if your SCBA fails? Well, I guess you better hope you’re not in an IDLH environment. We also don’t have a “certified SCBA inspector” to check our pack everyday. That’s you. Knowing all of this, why would you trust your equipment to the off going shift? Not to say they’re bad firemen, but things happen. And, let’s be honest. “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
You would think by now we wouldn’t have to have this conversation, but the number of people that for whatever reason don’t fully check their equipment everyday would surprise you. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people where this is the expectation, but not everyone is. It’s one of the best feelings to walk in the firehouse at the beginning of a shift and hear saws running, pass alarms going off, and seeing guys inspecting their gear. If you’re not this lucky, be the person to influence that change. 30 year guy, or new kid, doesn’t matter. Walk in the firehouse and make it the first thing you do when you make relief, then you can get your coffee.
We are in an age of declining fire. In direct correlation to this, is the disappearance of the fire department mission and the art of firemanship. Meanwhile, resentment is rapidly on the rise. True firemen are like starving artists. Their sole focus is to be a part of an organization with passion and drive to be good at the job. They are consistently striving to find ways to perfect the craft. These are the firemen who consistently think they will never be good enough, and for once that thought is a good thing. These firemen will do work every day to be one percent better. So why do we punish them by telling them what they’re doing doesn’t matter? Fireman want to be held accountable to high standards, to train, and to serve their communities. Consistently, these firemen are being told that the thing they love, the thing they signed up to do, is less important than all of the other tasks departments have acquired. As a result, bitter firemen full of resent towards their departments take their place.
Fires have become a high risk, low frequency event. We all know that on average, less than 25% of runs are fire related, and most of those are some kind of auto alarm. In what world is that a reason to prioritize fireground skills less? Unfortunately, that’s the case for many departments across the country. Firefighters beg for education; whether it’s walkthroughs, drills, or just tips from the senior guy, but are told other tasks take priority. Declining fire should not be a reason for less fire training, it’s a reason for more. Nobody gives a shit what you are on the fireground as long as you’re capable, and that will always be true. But you better be sure they do give a shit that you are capable.
“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a very real problem for today’s fire service. Fire departments have to balance an ever growing list of duties. EMS, to prevention, fire safety, hazmat, technical rescue, and finally fire. As budgets are cut and departments reorganized, departments are forced to become all inclusive service providers. The community expects us to be able to handle any and all problems they experience. The old quote by Chief John Eversole from Chicago Fire rings true more than ever,
“Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, ‘Send me two dumb-ass firemen in a pickup truck.’ In three minutes they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve all their problems.”
It is in this struggle for mastering versatility that the mission has creeped away, and with it, the morale of the crew. Resentment quickly takes its place.
Hiring pools are getting smaller every year, and EMS runs steadily increasing. As a result, departments are desperately searching for EMS providers. Some have even gone so far as to hire paramedics with no fire training, and will send them to a local academy. On the other hand, they won’t hire someone with fire training and no medic card. We all know paramedic school is significantly more expensive than a fire academy, and that administration often makes the final decisions. But it still speaks to the fact that priorities have shifted.
I firmly believe in highly skilled, professional, and passionate EMS providers. No one can reasonably argue against the need for that. How that looks for your organization: first responders, cross-staffed dual role fire-medics, or separately staffed departments is up to you. Regardless of what you’ve chosen, it must not be to the detriment of fire protection. Departments must determine a way to balance all of the tasks they’ve taken on the responsibility for managing. Without this balance, we are slowly becoming fire departments that have shiny fire trucks parked in the bays with dusty tool compartments- and that’s dangerous.
Fireground skills are an art, and are definitely “use them or lose them.” Meaning if you’re not using them at a working fire and/or training consistently, you will become less capable of performing them effectively. This is at the detriment of the property you’re tasked with protecting and the lives you’re required to save. Think of your last fire- how many things went right vs. went wrong? Did you hear the iconic phrases, “we put the fire out” or “at least no one got hurt?”
“Fireground Tactics” by Emmanuel Fried is probably one of the most tactically relevant texts written. In the intro Fried states,
“Decisions on proper technique in fighting any fire will depend on many variables. Probably the most important is experience, which helps one to make the right judgement. However, because of the relative infrequency of large fires, many fireman- even officers and fire chiefs – sometimes lack such experience. That is the principle objective of this book – to provide specific, detailed information on the most effective firefighting techniques.”
You can infer that his point isn’t if you don’t see a lot of fire you can never be a good fireman, but that you must study and learn from those around you with more experience. If you can’t gain experience from fires on your own, you must get it from those who do. This includes everything from conferences and HOT classes, ride alongs with urban departments, and most importantly, your senior firemen. So why is it, that we whine about how many questions the new kid asks, and then complain about how bad their skills are in the next sentence? If you’re both complaining about someone being a bad fireman and refusing to help them improve; it’s not them that’s the problem, it’s you.
Lack of preparation is unacceptable. We’ve all heard the risks associated with this laxness, the very worst being the loss of a citizen or a LODD. We all say we’re “here for them,” and yet actions speak louder than words. Our citizens are expecting us to be fully prepared, trained, and ready to work. But it’s become far too easy to bad at the job, and if we’re unable to do what’s required on the fireground, we’ve failed. The list of reasons why departments don’t train is endless: “We run too many calls,” “I have a report to write,” “The floors still need mopped,” “The truck is dirty,” “We don’t have enough staffing and/or we can’t take a truck out of service.” These are no longer acceptable answers, they’re excuses for laziness. Departments that do this struggle to keep people on staff and to keep the remaining members engaged. They wonder why morale is at an all time low, and resentment at an all time high. Yet, when members beg for training or support, they’re consistently told in one form or another, “not today.” Don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to morale? Pay attention to the mood around the firehouse after a fire, or a good day of training.
This all being said, you can not worry about the others on your department. You need only concern yourself with your own level of education and training. Someone threw a ladder wrong? Didn’t know to open the wet wall and the fire spread to the second floor? Unless you’re the officer that isn’t your problem. You need only worry about what you can control, and that is your own skills, time spent in the books, and attitude. Use it as a mental note for what you can personally do differently in the future and move on. Like many other things the fire service likes to complain about, worrying about whether your fellow fireman is swinging a tool right is just a distraction from the task at hand.
So what do we do? How do we provide all of these services, bring back the mission and perfect the art of firemanship? New kid, you’re excited about the job, keep a hold of that passion, and try not to let the naysayers get to you. Understand that there is fine line of reigning in your passion and getting along with your crew and stifling it. Find mentors, and never stop asking questions. Remember, your place is to learn everything you can about the job. Be excited, but know that sometimes passion can come across as arrogance. Don’t let your excitement make you overly confident. Ask questions, not to see what everyone else knows, but to learn everything you can. Make sure you’re studying the job from the inside out, rather making the mistake of studying it from the outside in. Meaning, start with your department’s SOG’s and learn your officer’s and crew’s expectations. Then seek guidance and tips from your senior men, and finally outside resources.
Senior guys, take the time to teach your crews. You know the intimate details of your city like no one else. Try to remember what it was like to be the new kid, and pass on what you wish someone would have taught you. Also, have the guts to learn from your new firefighters. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes or a new question is exactly what you need. There’s something to be learned from everyone, even if it’s what not to do. And finally, aim to be a “Jack of all trades, master of one.” Short staffed members will argue that on their departments, you have to be able to do everything, and that’s true. However, it is also an excuse. What better excuse for being “okay” at everything, and “great” at nothing than to say it is required? Frankly, it’s a reason to settle. The fireground doesn’t settle for anyone, you can’t either. Find what you’re passionate in and become “that guy” for your crew.
Departments must find a way to prioritize the members, and the mission again. Simple changes will make all the difference, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Leave the medic in the station and roll the ladder on fire runs rather than letting it collect dust in the bay. Empower your people to take on projects to make the department better: paint tools, clean off the work bench, pre-plan new buildings. Make the rookie pick a subject and teach the crew for 30 minutes. Take 10 minutes on an auto alarm to talk through truck placement and line deployment. Quiz your guys on building construction as you drive through the city. Little things create buy-in and in turn increase morale among the crews. Feed the artists. The most dangerous phrase in the fire service isn’t, “this is how we’ve always done it.” It’s, “we should, but don’t.”
There is a quote that we believe represents the vast majority of the fire service concerning buildings, it reads;
“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray.”
Simply put, we all see buildings but few understand what they’re actually looking at. That’s a problem, a really big problem and for two important reasons; which are a building is the one thing that directly or indirectly effects everything we do on the fireground, and the only thing we can do about a compromised building is avoid it entirely. We show up with no solution to sagging roofs, crumbling walls, or missing floors other than staying away. We can mitigate smoke, fire, and rescue trapped victims but we can do nothing about the leaning wall. It’s this stark reality that many forget and have paid the price. You can know all there is about fire behavior, your tools and strategies, none of which hold any value if you’re unfamiliar with the space in which they are relied upon. Some may say all fires are the same, which is true until you put one in a building. Behind every door are an infinite amount of variables, some known, some unknown, and some unexpected. This is why nothing’s routine till it’s over and why knowing your buildings on a visceral level is paramount. If you want to be able to forward think you must understand the data you’re receiving.
This will be a five part series exclusively examining five different types of legacy construction, each with its own article as it pertains to firefighting. The types of buildings were selected based on their prominence in today’s main streets and historic districts. These specific types of buildings exist in small towns from coast to coast but more commonly found East of the Mississippi River where our national building stock originated before moving Westward.
The five buildings are the old house, the taxpayer, the old mill, the vacant theater, and the bowling alley. Each of these will be examined along with inherent hazards and a play book for handling fires specific to each occupancy. Additionally since many of these buildings are found in small towns with departments that may not have the adequate resources, there will be a section based on short staffed responses for each. The objective of this series is to present the most useful amount of information in the least amount of space. Each of these buildings are worthy of their own book in themselves, this series is meant to be concise and simple information for any level of firefighter. As with any article on architecture, regional vernacular and Departmental jargon may vary. Nothing in this piece is the final say, only the individual reader and their streets can make that claim.
The Bowling Alley:
Bowling has a long history, and is still one of the most popular sports today. Some say the origin of bowling dates all the way back to Egypt, as early as 3200 BC. In the United States, its history can be traced back to the mid 1800’s, but it didn’t really gain popularity until the early 1900’s. During prohibition, bowling alleys separated themselves from saloons, turning themselves into family friendly gathering places. Prior to this, bowling alleys were found in basements and known to attract undesirable elements. Some older buildings may still have the remnants and inherent hazards in the basements of what is today a modern business, storefront or dining establishment. Interestingly enough, many private schools still have smaller bowling alleys in basements. These were installed as legal loophole so alcohol could be served on Sundays. After prohibition was over, beer companies started sponsoring teams, and with the rise of television, bowling continued to gain popularity. This culture gave rise to the 2nd floor bowling alley which was intended to offer a more family friendly feel as opposed to basements. Many of these still exist, and are in older buildings which pose their own set of challenges that differ from a more modern single story establishment. Between 1950-1960, bowling alleys became automated, and rapidly spread across the country.
The various construction styles, bowstring roofs, exposure buildings, wooden floors covered in wax and oil, and endless hidden voids make bowling alley fires a recipe for incendiary disaster. These fires are notoriously difficult battle spaces for even the most skilled fireman. Knowledge of the layout, roof features, and general construction can determine whether or not you lose the building, and your firemen with it.
A Peculiar Thing
What’s interesting, and what makes these fires even more hazardous than their inherent construction features and fire loads, is the fact they’re obscurely documented. This seems to be one type of fire that we’ve beat around the bush for over a century. In all of the fire service lexicon that exists, one can not easily find a single book nor comprehensive document specifically addressing bowling alley fires. Why is that? Is it because these fires are unwinnable? Will most we encounter will be lost? No victims are found, and no property saved? It’s very ironic that every news story or interview shows a Chief explicitly describing the dangers of bowling alley fires, yet there’s nothing to cite in fire academia other than one’s experience. What are those dangers? Why does it matter? What do we do about them? These are the questions this article tries to answer.
The most recent publication found was over 50 years ago by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, titled “The Fire Hazard of Bowling Establishments” due to a prevalence of these fires at the time. Aside from that, everything we know about these fires as trade exists as undocumented first person knowledge and news stories. Given that fact alone, articles such as this provide at least a starting point for others to critique and expand on for future learning.
Bowling alleys are unique in that they have a wide range of occupancy purposes. Where else do you find a single building with the potential to house a bar or restaurant, arcade games, machinery, hollow floors, and high fire loads such as storage rooms full of oil and cleaning supplies? Knowledge of building codes, and routine fire inspections can help you keep control of these buildings. If the first time you step in your bowling alley is when it’s on fire, you’re already behind.
A common hazard in bowling alley fires is the presence of Bowstring Truss Roofs. When it isn’t hidden, it is the most easily recognizable roof type, due to its arched top. However, these are commonly hidden by parapet walls or rain roofs, so getting out and examining these buildings ahead of time is essential. There are endless examples of fires in bowstring buildings. And many of the most memorable fires that have resulted in deaths of firemen are a direct result of the collapse of a bowstring roof. A prime example is the Cardinal Lanes Bowling Alley Fire in October of 1967. The explosion, and subsequent roof collapse, caused a concrete wall to trap 10 firemen, 5 of which did not survive. The most notable example of bowstring failure is the 1988 Hackensack Ford Dealership Fire. As a result, these roofs are overemphasized for the potential of sudden collapse earlier than expected. The reality is, the same can be said for any roof. When it comes to bowstring or arched roofs just understand what you’re looking at, specifically the fact they push walls outwards onto far more firemen than have been buried under the roof of one.
The design of bowstring truss roofs is very similar to other truss types; triangles transfer the tension from the bottom chord, and the weight from the top chord onto the load bearing walls. The significant difference, and hazard, with these is that due to the shape of the structure, the compression forces the walls outward, and not just down, significantly increasing collapse potential. Some arched roofs contained a steel tie rod to help with stability, but as temperatures increase these rods will fail, ultimately resulting in collapse. Bowstring truss roofs were commonly used in industrial or commercial settings prior to 1960, as they required no supporting columns and allowed for large open floor plans.
Failure of first arriving firefighters and officers to recognize and relay a bowstring truss roof can result in catastrophic loss. Common reports from these fires are heavy smoke conditions from the outside, while firefighters on the inside report little to no signs of smoke. If you have these signs as you’re entering, use your hook to pop a ceiling tile, preferably from a protected spot such as a doorway, and take a look at what you have overhead. Heavy smoke and fire conditions need to be communicated to command, so they can weigh the risks of continued interior operations under a bowstring roof.
Bowling alleys also contain the potential for endless void spaces, in some cases caused by the aforementioned bowstring roof construction. Where exposure buildings are concerned, bowstring truss’ were sometimes anchored into the dividing party wall, creating a void that fire could pass through from one store to the next. Knowing how to protect these exposure buildings is important. The heat and flame produced by these fires have the potential to be volatile. Foreseeability is key, without it your bowling alley fire can quickly spread to the adjacent buildings.
The floors themselves are also full of void spaces; in between each lane is a track for the ball return, that runs the length of the lane from the pins to the player’s seating area. These are separated from the lanes themselves; however they can allow undetected fire to run the length of the lane. Many of the lanes and flooring themselves can have voids that also run the length of the building, and are several feet deep. There is no fire wall between the pin machines and lanes, so fire in the mechanics can quickly spread to the rest of the bowling alley. If there is a fire in the mechanics of a ball return or the pin placers, you will need to open up multiple sections of flooring to check for extension.
Due to the layout of these buildings, mechanical rooms can sometimes be difficult to access in the rear or may be below grade. Between arcade games, ball returns, pin placers, and restaurants, there is the potential for a lot of power to be running through these buildings. Because of this, getting control of the power early on these scenes is more important than normal, you’ll want to readily know where the access to these controls is located. For small fires, each machine will have its own emergency shutoff, and there is typically at least one power source that controls all of the lanes as well. One often overlooked hazard is interior furnishings. These buildings are old and usually not updated so you’ll have things like wood panelling, heavy varnished wood work, curtains and carpeting. Again, don’t wait until the building is on fire to go looking for the first time.
The MSDS sheets of various oils used to treat the lanes advise that fires involving these chemicals should be treated as an oil, or Class B Fire. They advise that the “oil will float on water, and could spread the fire”. The oils may splatter once they reach their boiling point, and the polymer film will burn rapidly. Many alleys store cases in the back for routine cleaning and maintenance of the lanes. This means the oils will be both in large quantities in a storage room, and across the alley floors. Universal-type foam is highly suggested.
Keep in mind, if the floor is burning, you will need to check the void space below for fire spread. Doing so requires lifting a floor panel, typically you would do this away from the fire, but the lanes are divided by the ball returns. In this case, you would need to check in the area of fire, and lifting floor panels may break the foam layer. Also remember, you most likely have a limited amount of foam available. If you can’t sustain applying foam until the fire is extinguished, you’ll be washing it away as soon as you use water. In our research we were unable to find a bowling alley fire that used foam, would this have made a difference?
When understanding an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for bowling alleys, there needs to be a clear distinction between the three types of buildings you’ll encounter. This should be known, preplanned information, well before it’s transmitted in any size up. These are; legacy sub grade/basement, legacy 2nd floor, and single story modern. Depending on which of these three you have, the orientation and location of the lanes within the building will dictate a wide variance in tactics. This article doesn’t describe specific tactics; but instead highlights general points on which an agency can use their SOGs and capabilities they feel best suits them.
The Sub-grade/Basement bowling alley
Due to the difficulty of sub grade fires in general, any bowling alley fire in a basement progressing past the point of incipient stage should be approached with great caution. Perhaps an option here for a well off fire condition would be flooding the basement with foam. The lane conditioners are of a highly combustible oil and other chemicals that would be made worse with water, same as any Class B fire.
The play here is a strategy of life safety oriented confinement as the main objective in your IAP. The point being to address any life safety hazards such as unaccounted workers or trapped patrons. Fire and smoke behavior in bowling alleys is so volatile in nature that the common methodology of locate, confine, extinguish may not be suitable in a basement even in favorable conditions. Instead emphasis is placed on securing egress routes with the most amount of GMP in the least amount of time as opposed to complete extinguishment. Traditionally smoke isn’t something a stream would be particularly focused on aside from impending backdraft conditions but this is that time. A free burning fire in a basement bowling alley will likely be inaccessible due to the aforementioned conditions. If conditions permit or there’s a report of persons trapped, a large diameter line or two, quickly stretched to the bottom of the stairs will give you the best vantage point for a few reasons.
1. It’s typically a straight run stair so large diameter lines will not have to make turns.
2. It gives you a vantage point to play water on a large area from one location since bowling alleys are wide open spaces.
3.You can scan a large area with a TIC for reported victims while securing your egress and theirs simultaneously.
Any lines stretched to a sub grade fire in a bowling alley need to have at minimum the same diameter hose line as a backup holding the first floor. The first floor back up line must maintain discipline by not needlessly deploying elsewhere into the building leaving the entrance and basement stairs vulnerable for being cut off.
Exterior access points such as basement windows will be key for two reasons; opening a window closest to the fire in a vent limited condition will relieve to a degree the pressure pushing out the entry point and give you access for direct application of hose streams. Both tactics should be utilized as conditions present opportunities to do so. Due to the intensity and limited access challenges, exterior streams through windows on or near the seat of the fire should be your primary tactic for a well involved fire. Even if there’s a report of victims trapped, getting water on what you can early will be the best chance for entry for both us and them. If water can’t be applied immediately using large caliber hose lines, then a defensive posture is the only play. Exposure protection should be accounted for early, before the fire has extended upward from the basement.
Many basement bowling alleys were located in connected rows of buildings or the bottoms of private schools. This sets up a unique challenge for exposures not only for the exterior, but also below grade where buildings may have been connected. In the case for basement bowling alleys in old private schools the exposure concern is the main building above. These bowling alleys were commonly found under the cafeteria or gymnasium for their required large footprint. Keeping these fires contained in the building of origin will require similar tactics used in warehouses where crews hold the protected portions at choke points and corridors with manned or unmanned large diameter hose streams.
The Second Floor Bowling Alley
These fires will almost always be found in buildings of legacy construction consisting of Masonry Type 2 or 3 with a reinforced steel frame and concrete floors for the inherent heavy loads. Having a top floor fire offers some opportunity for roof ops, but historically these fires are so advanced upon arrival that anything other than a confined storeroom or kitchen fire will render vertical ventilation impractical. Knowing this allows a roof crew to triage certain opportunities if presented such as opening skylights and scuttles before attempting saw work.
Another tactical advantage of a top floor fire is the opportunity to deploy a deck gun at an effective angle of attack on arrival. This can’t be done in basement or single story bowling alleys. If on arrival you have fire showing from the front of the building of a second floor bowling alley, now’s the perfect time to deploy your deck gun.
When arriving on scene of a second floor bowling alley, tactics will depend on whether or not the buildings connected or separated by gangways. If the buildings connected in a row then you have to evaluate two additional aspects. How many sides is it connected on and are the adjacent buildings taller or the same height as the fire building. The following scenarios can present themselves:
1. Connected exposures on both sides
2. Connected exposure on one side
3. Connected exposures on both sides of equal height
4. Connected exposures on both sides of greater height
5. Connected exposures on both sides, one equal and one greater height
6. Connected single story exposures.
Out of these possibilities, exposure severity from highest to lowest are
Exposure of greater height
Exposure of equal height
Single story exposure
The severity is based on the fact that if an exposure building is higher than a top floor fire building than any fire through the roof will pose a serious threat, especially if the exposure building is downwind and has windows on the windward side. This also limits roof operations for ventilation since any roof openings made above the fire can affect the adjacent downwind exposure.
If the exposure buildings are of equal height, then your primary concern is the common cockloft void and cornice work on the building’s facade. These two avenues of extension, combined with expectation of poke through construction in fire walls and partitions over time will allow you a certain degree of strategic foreseeability in where to best utilize resources. The play here is confining the fire to the top floor of the main building while additional lines are to be stretched into downwind exposures as soon as possible along with monitoring roof conditions.
Access for second floor bowling alleys is typically a single straight run stair right off the street. This allows for a relatively simple advancement of a large diameter hose line or multiple lines without advancing around corners. There should be a side or rear entrance also, if these are used just be cognizant they most likely access utility, kitchens or back rooms making advancing a large diameter hose line less advantageous in those circumstances.
Top floor bowling alley fires that go defensive, and most do, will be easier to utilize aerial master streams due to the obvious access you’ll have when the fire burns through. Any well off second floor bowling alley should by default, position aerial apparatus for master stream operations before the situation even calls for it. This will save you valuable time on the back end when securing water supplies, when exposures become threatened, or in the event of an unexpected collapse.
One Story Modern Bowling Alley.
These are the quintessential bowling alleys most know to exist across the country. As with any large building, light smoke showing is really a lot of smoke anywhere else. Meaning don’t let the lack of heavy smoke conditions you’d see in a house fire trip you up. These buildings are large so any smoke showing from the front door on arrival had a lot of energy to get it there. As stated before, the presence of highly combustible oil based lane conditioners stored in bulk form and applied to the lanes will create a unique fire hazard that water will make worse, such as any Class B fire. If the alleys or the store room is what’s burning then foam should be utilized as necessary.
The play for these like all heavy fire load occupancies is putting large diameter hose lines in service as quickly as possible, supported by vertical ventilation where feasible. The one tactical advantage these buildings give you is their wide open space lacking turns and obstructions for line advancement and stream access. Bowling alley fires typically start in one of two places: kitchens or the pin setting machines. Knowing this, you can make the best choice of entry on such a large building instead of needlessly advancing through the front all the way to the back where a rear door was to begin with. The rear access from the inside is almost always along a side wall in a depressed walk way. This is important to know if you find yourself lost or disoriented so you can radio to the RIT or follow this exterior wall to safety.
If you’re afforded the conditions to make entry, a TIC snd inspection above the drop ceiling must be made and continue as long as crews are inside. Drop ceilings are notorious for concealing large amounts of advanced fire conditions. This can give crews a false sense of security as they get themselves deeper into a building. Any well off fire conditions located above the drop ceiling warrants immediate evacuation as the structural members have been compromised for an unknown amount of time.
If your town’s hydrants are sparse, or your flows must be augmented by tanker shuttled drop tanks then these fires will be defensive by default. There’s nothing wrong with that unless you show up not realizing it and waste valuable time “pissing in the wind” instead of spotting rig placement for master streams outside the collapse zone. When operating in a defensive posture, as most will be at these fires, remember to position aerials on corners and expect bowstrings to push walls outward. Set up collapse zones early on and maintain the discipline post fire as well. The collapse hazards still exist even after the fires out, a lesson too many have learned the hard way.
If you have a report of workers trapped, think about where most workers are in bowling alleys. Ask what their job is, the cashier will work upfront near the entrance. Are they the bartender, cook, or manager? How about the maintenance worker? Perhaps with that information your best place to start would be the rear by the pin setting machines. Knowing that roof scuttles typically open up in rear storage rooms, this may be a life saving vent choice for those trapped in proximity. The point here is to understand these fires are so volatile and your window of opportunity is so narrow that you have to consider only limited precise searches based on the best information provided.
The stark reality of bowling alley fires is that very few if any fire department shows up with the adequate amount of resources in the amount of time needed to successfully extinguish a well involved fire from the interior.
The Short Staffed Response
The tactics discussed above apply to short staffed departments as well – just use your heads and know your limitations. Get in and preplan the building, you most likely only have one, so there is no excuse not to know it intimately. Prior knowledge of the basics such as the location of the lanes, mechanical room access, utilities, etc. will make the first few minutes of your scene run smoother.
Understand with bowling alleys you may have a high GPM demand early on and continued throughout the scene, so you must consider the need for more engines for maximum pumping capacity. The main challenge smaller, less resourceful agencies will have isn’t manpower but instead water supply. When deploying two or three large diameter lines such as a 2.0 or 2.5”, tank water is not going to get you in the door like a normal one line off fire would. Forward lays are ideal in these situations with the next in company making the connection unless they are a ways out, then your engine driver may have to obtain their own supply.
IC’s are going to have to consider many different variables to call for, so pre-plan as much as you can. As discussed above, know your hydrant limitations and have tanker shuttles going early if necessary. Consider calling for additional officers as well as manpower, if for nothing more than to help control the scene and have an extra set of eyes on the building. Early application of foam on lanes and storage rooms is an asset on these fires. You must know how much you have on board your rig, and call for more early on. If the building is heavily involved, this won’t be worth your time; but if you can catch it early, it may make the difference in getting a good stop. Multiple aerials may also be needed, so rural operations will want to get those in route as soon as possible. Like every other fire we’ve discussed, preplanned mutual aid will make your life a lot easier.
Don’t let auto alarms make you complacent. “Nothing showing” on arrival doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no fire. Depending on the design of your bowling alley, there can be a massive void space above the drop ceiling that will hold a lot of smoke and fire, until it doesn’t. Regardless of staffing; if you suspect, or know, that a building has bowstring construction, focus needs to be on opening the ceiling and checking for fire above. If there is visible fire in the trusses upon opening the ceiling, serious consideration needs to be given to going defensive. There is no way to tell how long the fire has been burning, or how close you are to collapse. Same can be said for a basement fire, if you’re going to try to make an attack, you must protect the stairs.
The most common answer to the question of “what was unique about your bowling alley fire?” is consistently how quickly the fire seemed to spread. These fire scenes are described as “fast.” This is an important fact for short staffed or rural departments to remember as their response times may be longer. Later arrival times and fast moving scenes make for a dangerous combination if command isn’t thinking clearly or paying attention. These buildings have a high fire load, and if backdraft mitigation isn’t possible, exterior operations may very well be your only option.
There is a lot of debate on 2.5” vs. 1.75” for big fire attack. You can put out a lot of fire with a 2.5”, that is, if you can maneuver it. These fires don’t give you a lot of time to mess around before you lose them. Luckily these buildings are wide open and lack a lot of small rooms which is ideal for large diameter hose lines. This allows a minimal amount of manpower to get a 2.5” in place from a decent vantage point of relative safety. If you choose a 2.5” but either have to park it in the yard, or flow for a few seconds, shut it down to move and it takes you twice as long to advance, the 1.75” may be the better choice. Simply put, you know your staffing limitations, so pick which line(s) you’re most efficient with and get to work. If the fires reported in the machine room or the rear a 1.75” may be your best bet since maneuvering will be key.
Due to the construction and design layout of these buildings, sometimes by the time detection systems and sprinklers are activated, the fire is too powerful to be suppressed. If interior operations are unable to be completed for whatever reason, utilize what you have; 2.5” lines, deck gun, aerial waterways. Just remember, don’t park your rigs, or your firemen, inside the collapse zone.
Remember, like we discussed with the old mill; a small fire in a big building is a large fire anywhere else. Don’t let the size of the building distort your view of these fires. Know the specific hazards of your building: is it below grade, second story, does it have a bowstring roof? Do they store chemicals for treating the floors? Where are victims likely to be found? Know the hazards that accompany these unique features, but don’t let them cloud your vision for the rest of the scene. Have a general idea of how you would approach a fire in these structures, but be flexible enough to change tactics as the situation dictates. Our hope is that this article opens a dialogue on these unique fires, and that more knowledge can be passed on for further learning.
Many individuals were consulted in the writing of this article, their knowledge and experience greatly influenced the hazards and tactics discussed above. Due to the nature of how common trade knowledge, jargon, terminology and methods are passed down amongst the fire service much of the articles information can not be cited as a proprietary source to one particular piece of work, individual, group or otherwise.
Dunn V. Collapse of Burning Buildings: a Guide to Fireground Safety: 2nd Ed. 2nd. Ed. Tulsa, OK: Pennwell; 2010.
Dunn, V. (2007). The strategy of firefighting. Tulsa, OK: PenWell.
Fried, E. (1972). Fireground Tactics. Chicago, IL: H. Marvin Ginn Corp.
Hill HJ. Failure Point: How to Determine Burning Building Stability. PennWell Publishing Company; 2012.
Mitchell, U. S. D. of L. J., & Connolly, B. of L. S. W. (1953). The Boy Behind the Pins: A Report on Pinsetters in Bowling Alleys, Bulletin (170), 1–47. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books
NFPA 220: Standard on Types of Building Construction. (06.2018).
Pindelski, J. (2007, September 12). Truss Roofs: Do You Know Where the Firefighter Killer Hides? Retrieved March 15, 2020