A picture is worth a thousand words. While operating at a fire we don’t have time for a thousand words, but the view from the roof can paint a very detailed picture. Let’s be honest, sometimes a 360 by the incident commander (IC) is realistic, but in many cases it is not. It is now questionable if it is practical at many private dwelling fires with the increase of today’s “McMansions” much less a strip mall or the local home improvement store. The firefighter(s) assigned to the roof are in an excellent position to obtain and communicate perimeter information. New and catchy buzz words are always the cool thing in the fire service now; so we’ll call this a “perimeter survey.” Oh wait, that’s not new or catchy… which probably explains why it works.
There are a lot of tasks that need to be accomplished upon arrival at the roof, so the need to prioritize is paramount. If we are lucky, our department has a set SOP/SOG or at least a common practice of what the Roof FF’s need to accomplish. If SOP/SOG’s are in place, much of the prioritizing will be done for you at drills and in discussions, and NOT under fire conditions.
The first step is to locate a secondary means of egress. This can be a portable ladder, aerial device, or as simple as crossing to the roof to an adjoining building (if available). Once we have determined another way off of the roof, we can start our primary mission of vertical ventilation. First we attack the natural openings. Forcing the roof bulkhead door or breaking out skylights are very quick, and require little effort. Just by performing these quick tasks, which usually happen to be over the hallways and/or interior stairway will assist occupants evacuate. In addition, this also assists firefighters en route to the seat of the fire to conduct searches and advancing a hose line. Think of taking a skylight or roof bulkhead as cutting a 3′x5′ hole in the roof, in a near perfect location, WITHOUT starting a saw.
Now we can take a minute to conduct a perimeter survey.
What should we look for while conducting a perimeter survey? Well, we are still the fire dept. and we still (occasionally) go to fires! Our top priority is to locate smoke and/or fire, and communicate (if needed). A simple transmission to your officer, or Incident Commander explaining that you see “light smoke showing from two windows on the second floor in the rear” or “fire showing from three windows on the top floor in the courtyard” can be very helpful. This quick transmission will assist firefighters attempting to locate the fire, and give them a direction work towards. This information may also help an engine company officer decide if a standpipe, a dead-load (longer stretch) or a preconnect (shorter stretch) will be used. Another engine company may even pick up on this information, and realize that they may have to assist with a stretch.
Simultaneously while looking for the location of the fire, we should be on the look-out for any victims that may be hanging at a window or may have jumped. A transmission stating, “there is a victim hanging out a window on the B (2) side” is better than no transmission, but that transmission could be a little more specific. What floor are they on? How many people are there? Can they be reached with ladders? Perhaps the most important and often overlooked questions is: Are they in imminent danger? All of the aforementioned questions will most likely be asked if you do not provide the information. Save the radio traffic and include the information in your initial radio transmission. Providing all details in one concise report will cut down on unnecessary radio traffic, and allow you to move on to your next task. Don’t forget to take a quick look on the ground for any occupants that may have jumped.
Abnormal, unexpected, or faulty construction features are also critical pieces of information that must be communicated IF it will effect the fire area. The presence of air and light shafts, setbacks, and damaged fire escapes can have a direct impact on firefighting tactics. Fire from windows in air and light shafts can quickly auto-expose to upper floors, or across the shaft to a completely separate building. The Roof FF is in a PERFECT position for monitoring a shaft fire. The IC must receive clear and concise information. Most likely, a company will be needed to check for extension in those suspected areas. A broken tread or railing on a fire escape may be as equally or more important. Upon receiving this information, the IC may elect to assign personnel to ladder the unreachable area, and firefighters operating on the fire escape will be aware of the issue. It may also alert interior firefighters that the fire escape may not be the optimal option if a hasty retreat is necessary. Additional information may include the presence of heavy HVAC units on commercial fires, cell sites, or weakened parapet walls.
What else? Put yourself in the shoes of every firefighter in each position on the fireground. What would you like to know about? As stated before, we don’t have time for a thousand words, but if you are unsure…more information is better than not enough. A report about large dogs in the rear of the building may be of little value to the nozzle team, but will be appreciated to the firefighter(s) operating in the rear! It isn’t “unnecessary radio traffic” it is being “heads-up” for the brothers and sisters that may encounter such problems. It is much easier to deal with a problem when you know about it ahead of time, and not surprised by it.
Floor numbers can be a source of confusion in radio transmissions. If a Roof FF sees smoke three floors above the ground in a four story building, how do we relay this information? How are the floors laid out inside? How are they numbered inside? Are the floors lettered with numbered apartments? The quick answer is, we have no idea to the answer to any of these questions from the roof! The correct answer is, the fire department should be using our own numbering system. Regardless of the building’s signage and numbering, the floor we enter should be the first floor. Many buildings have “trendy” newfangled numbering systems. The floor you enter may be the “Lobby”, the second floor the “Mezzanine”. Then apartments will start on the first floor (which is actually the third). Very confusing, ESPECIALLY when dealing with callers initially reporting the fire or subsequent callers reporting themselves unable to exit. When taller buildings are encountered, due to the angle we look down the building, the floors appear to blend together from the roof. It may be easier to count down from the roof, rather than from the ground up. A report stating “I have fire from one window on Side 3 (C), 2 floors below the roof” is a little more practical than trying to count the floors from the ground on a 14 story building.
I know someone is thinking - how is it possible that it is impractical for the IC to walk around the building for a 360 but it is practical for me to walk the perimeter of the roof? Its not. As you pulled up in front of the building or as you got off and grabbed your tools you should be able to see two sides of the building. When you get to the roof you walk to the opposite corner from the two sides you already have seen and now you have seen the entire building! Yes, I know some buildings are irregularly shaped and may require you to stop at a few more corners to see the entire thing but it is still much quicker than walking the entire perimeter.
Someone may be thinking: “But being that close to the edge of the roof is very dangerous!” You are correct, IT IS DANGEROUS, so we should take steps to insure our safety. Safety does not require another firefighter or officer in a white hat and vest. It requires good habits, good training, and a little common sense. As you approach a parapet to look over, quickly probe it with a hook to check stability. If no parapet is present, set your tools down and lay on your stomach with ONLY your head hanging over the edge. Standing up and leaning your entire body over the edge with an SCBA on your back is not the safest practice, and can easily result in a loss of balance.
The Roof Firefighter or Roof Team is a vital part of a successful and safe fireground operation. Everyone knows the value of ventilation, especially when coordinated with the engine company’s attack. The Roof FF/Roof Team is in a position to rapidly obtain vital information, and communication from their vantage point is often overlooked and underutilized. When you are on the roof get all of the information you can and share the important stuff!