Basement fires: 3 fires, 5 lessons

Robert Rielage

Recently, I was sitting in the office of Colerain Township (Ohio) Assistant Fire Chief Allen Walls when we began to discuss basement and below-grade fires. Every year it seems that across the country several firefighter line-of-duty deaths occur during basement fires.

Colerain itself had such a fire on April 4, 2008 when a kitchen floor collapsed over an intense basement fire killing both Capt. Robin Broxterman and Firefighter Brian Schira. From those tragic deaths came an extensive review and changes to Colerain's standard operating procedures for basement fires.

Chief Walls said that despite their diligence and additional training on operations at such fires, the department still has to be prepared for the unexpected.

Our discussion centered around three recent Colerain fires. The first occurred last fall in a home that had been built in the 1920s. The officer of the first-due engine found heavy smoke from the dwelling, and his 360-degree size-up found fire on the first floor near the A/D corner.

Since the occupants had already evacuated, the initial attack line came through the front door to directly attack the fire. This quick knockdown helped clear the smoke, allowing firefighters deploying a back-up attack line and see visible fire in the basement midway on A side.

This new information was immediately communicated to both the incident commander and the initial attack crew.

Following Colerain's SOP for basement fires, the initial crew pulled back to the safety of the front door, while the back-up crew removed the basement windows on the D side and knocked down the fire from the exterior before having crews move down the basement steps to finish the extinguishment.

Only then did it become apparent that the area of origin, while originally designed as a concrete coal bunker, had been turned into a sleeping area for one of the occupants. The fire was ruled accidental and caused by either careless smoking or the improper use of a candle, since the occupant had been using both earlier in the evening.

Stubborn fire
Another fire in their jurisdiction also had some unexpected twists. It occurred in early winter at a residence in a subdivision built in the early 1950s.

The single-family dwelling was 1½ stories with ordinary brick-and-frame construction. It had been renovated to include newer thermal insulated windows.

A neighbor called just after 8 a.m. on a weekday morning reporting heavy smoke and fire from the front and rear of the structure. The communications center provided updated information from subsequent callers that indicated the owners may be trapped inside. The communications center also indicated that there had been multiple EMS runs in past few months for one of the occupants.

The first-arriving engine company confirmed heavy fire in the first floor living room through to the rear kitchen. A primary water supply was established from a hydrant across from the residence. Several windows on both the A and D sides had been completely blown out with other windows bulging outward on the B and C sides.

The officer completed a 360-degree size up and believing that the house was still occupied, placed the first attack lines through the front door to attempt a quick knockdown on the main body of fire so a primary search could be conducted. However, he noticed that every time he believed they had knocked down the fire, it would flare up again with the same intensity.

Suspicious in nature
As subsequent units arrived, a secondary water supply was established and units began to give the incident commander a clearer picture. The seat of the fire appeared to be fed by a natural-gas release located in the basement.

The crew of the first arriving truck company was assigned to secure the outside utilities. However, because of the age of the structure, the gas and electric meters were located in the basement near the seat of the fire.

Once a primary search was completed, the incident commander withdrew the interior crews and firefighters removed the smaller glass-block basement windows on the D side. The initial fire attack lines were repositioned and directed into the basement from the exterior windows before deploying another fire line to the C side that could directly enter the basement through an attached, single-car garage.

An emergency crew from the Duke Energy secured the natural gas flow at the street shut off. Once the gas line to the structure was secured, the fire was quickly brought under control. A secondary search found no one was home.

The subsequent fire investigation confirmed the early suspicions that a natural-gas explosion was the cause. The investigation also revealed that two gas lines in the house had been cut or tampered with, allowing gas to accumulate in the house. The ignition point was the water heater pilot light, which had not been altered.

Following several days of additional investigation, one of the occupants was arrested and charged with aggravated arson. Although the home was unoccupied at the time of the explosion and fire, aggravated arson, a first-degree felony, could be charged since the lives of firefighters were directly placed in jeopardy.

5 lessons
The third was a kitchen fire that had quickly spread to other areas of the dwelling. On arrival, the officer of the first-arriving engine found fire on the D side, with heavy smoke from the front door and fire traveling throughout the first floor.

The engine secured a nearby hydrant and deployed an initial attack line toward the structure, but then the unexpected took place. The initial arriving engine wouldn't engage into pump gear.

Fortunately, following the department's SOP, the second engine, unaware of the mechanical issue with the first due engine, had secured a secondary water source and laid another supply line to the fire.

The attack lines were transferred to the second engine and their combined efforts quickly knocked down the fire. It was later determined that a faulty solenoid had caused the difficulty in engaging the pump.

Taking a step back, Colerain fire officers evaluated these fires for the lessons learned from each of them. Here is brief synopsis of their thoughts.

  1. The 360-degree size-up is essential before deciding initial tactics, but smoke and/or fire can obscure some key indicators of the actual location of the fire.
  2. The 360-degree size-up needs to continue throughout the fire to determine subtle changes or indications that the fire is not being controlled by the initially selected tactics.
  3. The age and construction of a dwelling can both help and hinder fire control. For example, in the basement fires with older construction, the heavier lumber floor joists was a plus in keeping structural integrity, but the concrete coal bunker obscured the actual location of the main fire.
  4. Information from dispatch may not always be accurate. Fire officers must use a risk vs. benefit analysis to decide if a primary search can be completed to confirm whether the dwelling is occupied with viable victims.
  5. The first-due engine should always take its own water supply, and the second-due should either stage on secondary water supply or bring it in with them in the event there are any problems getting water on the fire.

Fires such as these serve as experiences that should be etched in each of our minds. Undoubtedly something close to these scenarios could occur again anywhere with potentially more serious consequences.

Always expect the unexpected and anticipate the need for Plan B.

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