By Brian Butler
Attic fires in urban areas are common jobs, especially for fire departments in the northeast region with numerous 2 1/2 and 3 story wood frame SFD's. Attics, like basements, sub cellars, and high rises, have their own unique dangers that firemen have to be aware of. In urban areas, attics (and basements) are converted into living or storage spaces, have interior stairway access, limited ventilation, small windows, high heat, exposed joists, and limited secondary means of egress. While some attic fires will provide the attack team with ideal conditions, other attic fire environments can be similar to what we like to call an "upside down" basement fire, because the heat path is going down the interior stairs towards the entrance door. These punishing conditions are common in finished attic spaces with interior stairs that are tightly sealed and have limited ventilation. Many of these attic spaces are not used just for storage, they are occupied living areas with furnished bedrooms, fire loads, numerous void spaces and plenty of fuel. Attics with interior stairway access are commonly converted to storage or sleeping areas containing mattresses, boxes, furniture, wood paneling, carpet, overloaded power strips, running extension cords, space heaters and an air conditioner placed at the only window in the attic. Combine that with electrical wiring, old insulation, plenty of wood, and no smoke detectors, the recipe for an attic fire is there.
Many attics, especially in urban areas, may not have WORKING smoke detectors present (there is a difference). Being on the top floor with no smoke detectors contributes to delayed discovery. Even if there are working smoke detectors in the attic, many of them are placed at the bottom of the stairs and the smoke has to start banking its way down before activating the alarm. If the occupants are not home, or they're on the first floor watching TV, the fire will progress before discovery by someone on the exterior seeing smoke push through the eves.
According to FEMA, there are an estimated 10,000 attic fires every year. Most of these fires are caused by electrical malfunctions, lightning strikes, and electrical arcing. In urban areas where the space is usually occupied, human error from overloaded power strips, running air conditioners, candles, and heating sources too close to combustibles contribute to attic fires. Most fires occur during the winter and summer months when energy demand is higher. Many of these fires originate in the attic, or have extended to the attic from the floor below. In structures with fires on the floor below an attic, open up and check extension into the attic. The knee walls are the most common place hidden fire will grow. Two Bridgeport CT firemen were killed in the attic of a 2nd floor fire that extended into the knee walls in the attic. Click here for LODD Video.
OLD vs NEW: There are some differences between the older attics vs modern attics. But remember, not all attics are the same.
Older homes with occupied attics will usually have interior stairs leading up to the finished living space, gypsum walls, wood paneling, 7-8 foot ceiling heights, cellulose insulation (some blown in) knee walls, plenty of void space and a pitched roof such as a gable or mansard. Other attics that are not occupied may have a cutout in the ceiling for access, exposed 2x6 joists, visible insulation and no floor. These are common in one story homes like ranchers. These fires will have to be fought from below. The modern attic in newer constructed homes is usually made up of triangular lightweight truss with HVAC duct work, exposed wires, no room for living space or storage, with a cutout or hatch for access. (Some newer lightweight truss attics are sprinklered in the loft due to certain codes)
TIP: Approximately 90% of attic fires in the U.S. take place in 1-2 family dwellings and cause less fatalities than fires in other areas of the structure because they tend to be unoccupied at the time of fire, or discovered in the incipient phase by the occupant who can quickly escape that space.
Not all attics are the same. In non-urban areas, especially suburban and affluent areas, attics are usually unoccupied and used for storage. Knowing building construction and recognizing certain indicators on arrival of an attic fire can help determine whether it's occupied. For example, a one story rancher will most likely be used for storage and have a cutout hole with pull down ladder for access, and a fire will have to be attacked from below. A fire in a large Victorian or Queen Anne style home with a balcony present or a fire escape coming from the third floor will tell you that it's most likely an occupied space, and fire attack from an interior stairway is possible. Many garages also have attics with overhead storage space and pull down stairs. Some large garages have occupied apartments (lofts) on top with exterior stairway access located on the side or the rear. (360°) It's important for fire personnel to determine the differences between attics and cocklofts for tactics purposes.
The Hazardous Urban Occupied Attic: Sleeping area, television, overloaded power strips, hoarding conditions, space heaters and AC window units. Also, consider the numerous vacant structures in your district occupied by vagrants/squatters. Assume life hazard, as there could be children sleeping in the attic, especially in urban areas.
Attic vs Cockloft: Like the "basement vs cellar" distinction, there are many definitions differentiating between an attic and a cockloft. Generally, most firemen consider the cockloft the unoccupied space between the top floor and the roof with no interior stairway access, whereas an attic does have some form of access and can be used for living space or storage.
According to Francis L. Brannigan: "A cockloft is a small space created when the roof is raised above the level of the flat beams to provide a pitch to drain rain and a vented air space to reduce top-floor temperatures. This is called an “inverted roof.” In row buildings, it is often the case that while brick nogging might have been used in a naïve attempt at a fire barrier, the cockloft is continuously open from building to building. An attic is created when a steep pitched roof is built to shed snow or heavy rain loads, or for appearance. The attic is usually high enough for storage and may even be used for living space, particularly when dormer windows are provided."
Attics and cocklofts are also referred to as lofts, crawl spaces, sky parlors or a garret.
TIP: It's important that ALL firemen know how to release drop down ladders on fire escapes. Many living attic spaces in urban areas will have them on the exterior specifically for escaping during fire. (See our fire escapes page)
While they may have their differences, both cocklofts and attics are located under the roof area. When involved in fire, both are dangerous and full of voids which conceal and spread fire. Major cockloft concerns for the IC will be ventilation and preventing fire from spreading horizontally in a row of connected homes sharing a "common" cockloft. Attic concerns are similar, but additional considerations such as occupant rescue, access/egress, storage, fuel load, and additional void space.
SIZE UP: Size up starts at the initial dispatch. Knowing the weather and time of day immediately gives us a head start as to potential fire conditions such as wind (wind driven fires), snow accumulation (laddering building) and early morning-late night life hazards (sleeping occupants). Gathering as much information from the dispatcher and CAD system while enroute gives us even more information. Familiarity with the street and it's building construction is also very helpful. If it comes in as an attic fire and the crew already knows from prior calls that the street has a row of connected 3 story wood frame homes, it helps determine the amount of preconnect hose you will need to reach the attic or what size ground ladder to grab. Are there numerous calls, reports of entrapment, or do we see a column as we leave the station? Before we even arrive, obtaining as much information as possible will make our "on approach" size up a bit easier. In addition to reading the smoke, watching service lines exposed to fire, locating the fire, and the direction of other incoming companies, we have to make sure good apparatus placement is achieved. Knowing what door leads to the fire and how many sections of hose will reach are initial considerations for the attack team. Attics are top floor jobs, so estimating the stretch and choosing the proper nozzle is an important duty for the nozzleman.
TIP: In many urban areas, the first due engine usually leads with tank water. The second due locates the hydrant and supplies first due engine.
For the truck company, attic fires are ideal for using the aerial. Unfortunately, when numerous wires and obstructions are present, the demanding task of throwing numerous 35" ground ladders (and roof ladders) to the attic area for horizontal and vertical ventilation is the alternative to putting the stick up. Extra manpower should be assigned to help truck companies with hauling saws, hooks and roof ladders to the peak for ventilation.
DIVISION or STORY? Depending on the department or individual preference, the use of "division" is sometimes used in describing what story or floor the fire location is. The term "division" is despised by many firemen, as most prefer using "floor" and other specific locations like "porch, garage, basement and attic" when reporting fire. A 2 1/2 story with an attic fire should be announced as "fire in the attic", not "division 2.5" or "third floor." The identification of fire in the attic by the first arriving engine company automatically lets responding truck companies know it's a top floor job, peaked roof, and to start preparing for roof operations before they even arrive.
Half Story: Common belief in the fire service is that if a SFD has a loft or living space between the ceiling of the 2nd story and the roofline, it counts as a 1/2 story. Meaning. a third level attic that has gable ends or dormers with windows is a considered a 2-1/2 story house. (Pic below)
Photo 1: Some dormers are for decoration only and sealed off with drywall. Breaking these windows for ventilation or to provide egress may prove useless if the walls aren't penetrated.
Photo 2: What are some size up indicators at this taxpayer? It's ordinary construction with siding over brick on the B side. The access door to the apartment appears to be the white door on the A-B corner, but what if there's a rear entrance? A 360° may be difficult as the fence with an obstruction in present. Throwing ground ladders will also be a challenge due to an awning in front of the store, the fence access to the B side and numerous power lines. There's an exhaust duct from the bodega kitchen below running up the B-C corner. If the fire originated in the kitchen and ran up the exhaust to the attic, you may be advancing up the stairs ABOVE the fire without knowing it. In this scenario, it's critical to get a report from the rear. Additional resources will be needed to cut fencing, locks, bars, forcible entry to the interior stairs, locating the fire, primary searches in the living space and exposures.
Photo 3: Other little indicators can tell the IC what rooms are occupied, exposure hazards, access and best ventilation methods. Ladder guys love porch roofs as they are ideal for laddering, VES, emergency egress and clearing windows from a sturdy platform. The dormers can be used for access, egress, and ventilation. With these flat roofs, window unit air conditioners can be pulled out and placed on the roof out of the way so they don't drop down and hit a fireman working below. Even the presence of satellite dishes in certain neighborhoods may indicate a possible language barrier issue. (Photo 3 is a 2 1/2 story semi, not a 3 story)
REMEMBER: In urban areas, many attics are occupied by children and adults. These rooms and the bedrooms below are a primary search priority. Company officers need to note all indicators of occupancy, location of life hazards, and the best way to access these areas from the interior/exterior for suppression and rescue.
TIP: When needing a report from the rear but not possible by the first arriving company officer, radio the responding BC and have him go to the alley in the rear or assign this duty to the RIT team, safety officer, Chiefs aid or another company. The chiefs car can access difficult narrow alleys more easily than the fire apparatus. In addition to helping the IC determine his strategy and tactics plan, it also keeps the chief away from the front of the building until all arriving fire apparatus is properly placed.
CONSTRUCTION: According to FEMA, 90% of attic fires occur in one and two family residential structures. Most buildings with attics are of wood-frame construction, but in urban areas you will see many attics and cocklofts with ordinary construction built with ineffective brick firewalls ending at the attic level. Many multi-family dwellings and taxpayers will have attics, cocklofts and numerous other void spaces. In addition to lightweight truss, the most important type of construction to identify during an attic fire (or basement) is balloon frame. What appears to be a fire on the exterior roof area or in the attic, may have originated in the basement. Going above the fire without recognizing fire below can have deadly consequences. It's important to check the basement. If a 360° is not possible, take a quick look down the B and D side (270°) and the basement windows.
Other types of construction like a hybrid may indicate a renovated dwelling with a lightweight truss addition over an ordinary constructed building, or a boarding house death trap with partitions, fortified exterior entrances and subdivided apartments. Identifying these hazards will help identify forcible entry, ventilation, rescue and fire attack concerns.
FIRE SPREAD: The major issue when it comes to fire spread in attics are contents fires progressing to structure fires. Concerns are the numerous void spaces (pictured above) duct work, balloon construction, wind conditions (eaves), open space, soffits, plenty of wood, delayed discovery and drop down fire. Other concerns are backdraft and the acceleration of other hostile events when opening knee walls, and ceilings above with heavy fire waiting for an oxygen source. Fire will vertically spread from a second floor fire up to the attic above. Always have a charged hose line present when opening up the 2nd floor and attic to check for extension. Be cognizant of basement fires running up the walls and chimney fires extending into the attic/loft area. Halting fire spread in cocklofts are more difficult, especially "common" cocklofts that can spread down a row of houses, condos or garden apartments. Truck companies will have their hands full getting ahead of these fires and vertically venting the roof. Soffit vents, ridge vents, whirlybird vents and gable vents in attics move air and will contribute to fire spread. Commercial attics and lofts with larger exhausts will be a bigger problem.
LOCATION & EXTENT: This is where knowledge of building construction, collapse signs and reading smoke can determine whether structural members have been weakened and compromised. These fires (above) are already well ventilated, not necessarily a bad thing. These fires can still be attacked via the interior stairs. Some factors to consider are response time, possibility of a delayed discovery, pre or post flashover, fire load, color of the smoke, and reflex time. Always assume the joists are unprotected and exposed to the fire in attics. Take these in consideration when determining an interior attack. Fighting the fire from the bottom of the attic interior stairs may actually provide some protection from heat, debris and joist collapse. Raising an aerial and blasting an attic with 1000 GPM will ensure the fire department completely destroys the home and makes an indoor pool out of the basement. Is the first and second floor savable? Can a quick knockdown be made?
TIP: Firemen have been trapped, injured, and killed by advancing into an attic fire with no visible signs of fire on the floors below. Even with crystal clear visibility, hidden drop down fire between the studs and other voids, or fires originating in the basement in balloon frame construction trapping unsuspecting firemen in the attic. Using a TIC can help ID fires on lower floors,.
Fires in newer condominiums with lightweight construction will most likely have some form of foam board insulation, vinyl siding, vinyl soffits, and numerous voids. Many of these condos are have sprinklers inside the apartment, but fires on the outside or lapping out of windows running up the exterior siding of the building into the soffit will extend into the loft. By the time any residential sprinklers activate, they will not be effective. With lightweight truss construction and heavy fire burning in the loft, these jobs will most likely be defensive operations.
Entire row with common attic. Quick vertical ventilation can prevent losing the block.
An attic is one place you definitely want a charged line ready when opening up.
Using a TIC can help locate the fire in poor visibility or hidden fire during overhaul.
Take a mental note of secondary egress points on approach.
During attic and cockloft fires, the aerial should always position for roof operations.
Construction (Rancher) and wind direction can help decide the best tactics for attic fires that have to be fought from below.
LODD: Chicago Attic Fire in Renovated Balloon Construction:
This video summarizes NIST's analysis of a Nov. 2, 2012 Chicago house fire to provide insight into the conditions that unleashed a surge of searing gases, leading to the death of a firefighter. Computer simulations were conducted using the NIST Fire Dynamics Simulator and Smokeview.
A 2-year-old girl died in a house fire Wednesday afternoon in Taneytown, officials told 11 News. Firefighters were called at 3:45 p.m. to a duplex in the 100 block of West Baltimore Street. The toddler who died in the fire was in the attic, where the fire was contained.
Minneapolis Firefighter Ladder Slide Close Call Window Bailout.
Dramatic video of firefighters pulling a fellow firefighter to safety after he got trapped in the attic of a burning home in Syracuse, New York. The rescued firefighter was taken to a hospital where he was treated and released.
Firefighters in Milwaukee are doing something that could change the way firefighters across the country do their jobs.
Fire Attack: There are a few different ways to attack an attic fire. Some tactics are good and some.... try to avoid.
*Attack it from the floor below by opening up the ceiling in sections and applying a fog pattern. VIDEO ABOVE
*Find the cutout with the pull down stairs and hit it from there.
*Start a transitional attack through an exterior window while the hose team is advancing up the stairs.
*Rain down 1000 GPM's from a tower ladder and ruin the entire structure. (Not So Good)
*Mount an aggressive interior attack it from the interior stairs.
*Dig it out from the roof, eves, soffit, chimney, gable vent or other. VIDEO (link)
*For garden style apartments and cockloft areas, water application from gable vents combined with roof ventilation or trench cuts is an option.
Obviously, if there's a small fire a water can is capable of handling, that's the best method.
The problem with some of these methods is the fact that you might be doing more harm than good. Attempting a transitional attack through a small window from the street or yard is most likely going to be ineffective, especially a stream that breaks on its way to the intended target. "Surrounding and drowning" a home will destroy all the lower floors and won't accomplish much. Remember fire burns up, and when it goes through the roof, your fire spread concerns shift to drop down fire in the voids, especially in wood frame (balloon) structures. If the fire started in the attic and the lower floors are not affected, there's not much left to collapse after the structural members and roof burns away and you have a convertible.
Attacking an attic in a one story home from the first floor by opening up the ceiling is better than spraying water into a vent on the side of the house. Just open up small pockets at a time and extinguish with a nice efficient fog pattern-while opening the roof.
The best way to attack an upper floor attic fire in a residential structure is to use the interior stairs that lead you to the seat of the fire. If there's good coordinated ventilation, the bottom of the stairs actually offers some protection, despite the fact that attic fires are still hot and dangerous.
VENTILATION HAS TO BE COORDINATED: Without ventilation, the heat and gases have nowhere to release and will bank down towards the stairs below like an upside down basement fire.
RESIST THE URGE, GET OFF THE STAIRS, CHASE KINKS, PULL HOSE: The stairs leading up to the attic are very narrow in many homes. The stretch will be difficult if you are stretching up a porch, through a door up 2-3 flights of stairs and around banisters. To make things worse, SOME firemen will step over the hose, ignore the kinks and won't help the attack team pull line because it's a "shitty" job and a duty they may feel is beneath them. It's extremely frustrating when the attack team is pulling hose as it's stepped on by other firefighters who are in a hurry to just block the stairs, accomplishing nothing in the process. If a member of the hose team runs out of air, has his mask dislodged or tries to escape a flashover, those spectators are in the way.
Force Entry: During fires in an attic, the only difficult issues with forcible entry will be from heavily secured doors in taxpayers, exterior entrances, fences/gates and the rare possibility of having to work off of attic accessible fire escapes with chain locks around the drop ladders. Most attic living space and loft bedrooms will be a simple hasp/padlock or slide bolt, if they're even locked. Bars on exterior windows may have to be removed. Truck companies assigned forcible entry during an attic fire should be ready to make a quick transition to opening up and bring the proper tools for both. No need for a 6'2" fireman to bring a 12' pike pole to a 8' attic. The irons brought for force entry can be used to open up the walls and ceiling in an attic, most of which are going to be the side area knee walls and pocket areas near where the triangular studs/joists meet the floor.
Another assignment that can be given to the forcible entry team is to enlarge gable vents and attic windows for water application and egress.
There are usually only two ways out of an attic. Attic windows are small and located on upper floors. Ground ladders should be placed at these windows quickly.
Checking for hidden fire in an attic will require some exterior peeling of the siding, especially by the knee wall area, and when fire is extending from floor below.
Forcible entry isn't an issue with attic fires, outside of removing bars off windows and forcing residential doors, or cutting fence to access rear of building for ladder placement.
Consider splitting RIT into 2 teams. One team of 2 firemen on the landing below the attic, and 2 on the exterior working on egress (enlarging windows, ladder placement).
Attics are top floor jobs and the first due truck company should head to the roof and ventilate if possible. It may be beneficial to go lower and cut a second hole behind the knee wall.
When on the roof pay attention to deteriorating conditions and signs of collapse when cutting the hole. Remember the fire is burning right underneath.
VENTILATION: For fires in the attic and cockloft, getting to the roof to perform vertical ventilation is priority. It's a top floor fire. Steep pitch roofs can make this task difficult at times, so work from a roof ladder, a tower or an aerial. When venting the roof is not possible, horizontal ventilation has to take place using dormers, vents, windows, BUT it will be nowhere near as effective as roof ventilation. The 4x4 hole has to be made. If not, the fire will burn through the roof and vent itself. In urban areas with rowhomes and semi-attached structures, gaining access to the roof can be accomplished by using nearby exposures.
In one story rancher style homes with attic fires, roof ventilation is much easier. Coordinate ventilation by directing a fog pattern into the space from below as the roof is being open.
RIT: Would a designated rapid intervention team have been successful in helping these trapped firemen (videos above) escape a burning attic? Probably not. Attic fires, like basements, high rises and taxpayers, require a different strategy for RIT assignments, not a "one size fits all" method. RIT duties should be tailored to the specific incident to benefit the rescue of trapped firefighters.
For large well-involved attic fires, RIT teams should be split into two teams of proactive firemen. YES FOUR MAN RIT TEAMS CAN BE SPLIT IN TWO TEAMS OF TWO. One team dedicated to finding a secondary means of egress from the exterior, while the other team proceeds to the floor below the attic ready to assist any firemen in need. Stationing four members in the street in front of the fire building with the RIT KIT stokes loaded with every tool ever created spread on a pretty tarp has well intentions, but it's counterproductive. The RIT team should grab the specific job related equipment needed and proceed to the potential egress and rescue areas. In many cases, you will have several firemen without a specific task already on the landing below, and when a MAYDAY is called, there's no chance they are going to move for the RIT team coming from the street.
Another more effective option for RIT duty at an attic fire is to assist the truck company position the stick (aerial ladder) tip below an attic window and attempt to enlarge that hole if needed. The team staging at the landing below the attic can take the RIT bottle, while the other team equipped with an EBSS (Emergency Breathing Support System or Universal Air Connection) SCBA stages at the ready on the turntable or near the tip below a windowsill. There's usually two ways out of an attic; the stairs and the window. We should learn from past incidents as seen on VIDEO.
REMEMBER: The first due truck company at a well involved attic fire is going to have its hands full. Whether it's salvage, forcible entry and primary search or throwing numerous ground (and roof) ladders to quickly vent the roof, the IC assigning RIT to help them out might be a better option if manpower is an issue. Consider enlarging small openings and windows on the exterior of the attic.
SALVAGE & OVERHAUL: During attic fires, overhaul is going to be a physically demanding task. exposing hidden fires above collar beams in finished attics, behind knee walls, the floor below and other hidden voids. Fires in cocklofts will be far more labor intensive, especially if a row of homes are involved. These fires require additional alarms to assist in opening up and roof ventilation because the fire will spread horizontally down a row of homes, an entire multi-family complex (videos below) or garden apartments. Securing gas and electric before overhaul and checking for extension in the exposures are additional duties that need to be assigned by the IC.
When it comes to salvage duties during attic fires, water damage on the floors below are major concerns. Using 500 gallons of water on a mattress fire says "bad aim" all over it. Excessive water cascading down to the floors below will ruin the home owners belongings. Tarps and salvage covers should be placed over computers, electronics, appliances, furniture, bedding and picture frames on the floors below.
REMEMBER: During an attic fire, what appears to be a room and contents fire, may be a structure fire behind the void space. A cockloft is a void space. A finished attic is a room with void spaces behind the walls. If it's one room you want a charged hoseline present when opening up, it's in the attic. Just ask any firemen that have had several attic fires in their career or the men diving out of attic windows in the videos above.
This tells you the attic is a living space; most likely a sleeping area. Lower the drop ladder on the fire escape or ladder this balcony for access/egress.
Using the aerial to enlarge attic windows for rescue or horizontal ventilation is a good tactic. In urban areas, wires and other obstructions can make this difficult.
Porch roofs are ideal stable platforms for truck company firemen to ventilate, and VES. Air conditioner units, glass and frames can be pulled out without falling to the street below and striking a firefighter.
Additional alarms for manpower will be needed to ventilate cokclofts before the fire runs the row. Firewalls in ordinary constructed rowhomes may not be effective enough to stop a raging top floor fire.
Not all attics have floor decking. When entering an non-living space attic from below, be aware that there may be no floor decking. Just insulation and drywall.
While overall causes of attic fires are from lightning strikes, urban attics with interior stairs leading to a living space are caused by carelessness from space heaters, candles, overloads, and kids playing with fire.
Firefighter Kyle Wilson was killed in a house fire intensified in the attic space by winds as he was on the second floor. Click here for video module simulator.
Attic windows are usually small. So small that firefighters would have trouble exiting them. It's important to enlarge that hole for ventilation or egress when firemen working in the attic space.
While a firewall may be present, fires in garden apartments can still run the building horizontally. Prepare for vertical ventilation or trench cuts.
Mid-rise buildings will obviously be difficult because of the height of the building. This hospital fire started in the attic. With plenty of wood for fuel, these can also be very dangerous and will benefit from aerial use.
Loft space provides easy access for fire venting out of the windows or door of this one story motel.
Throw a ladder quickly!