As we all watched a very close call for three firefighters from Dearborn, Mich., I was reminded of the dangers associated with doing roof top vent. Ventilation is the means by which smoke, heat, toxic gases and even fire are allowed to escape through an opening made in some portion of the building. As was the case in this Dearborn, Mich., dry cleaner, the ventilation opening was to be in the roof. Though departments across the country still perform this ventilation practice, the dangers associated with lightweight construction have made roof operations less favorable.
When I first became a volunteer member of Chesterfield Fire Department in 1976, roof top vent was a more frequently used tactic. As stated previously, roof construction was stronger then than now. The use of wood trusses and steel bar joists allow for cheaper construction costs, but create a nightmare for firefighters. Roof collapse has become the norm rather than the exception in fires with these roof systems. The failure of one or two trusses or steel bar joists has resulted in catastrophic failure of the entire roof.
My observations of the Dearborn, Mich., fire are in no way meant to cast stones, but every near miss should be evaluated to ensure that this never happens again. I was reading some posts made on the Fire Engineering website, where one person asked what the roof was like when it was sounded? Sounding the roof is done by striking the roof with a tool to determine its stability. Reports from workers stated that the entire place was on fire, shortly after their escape. Another important point to make was that everyone was out of the building when firefighters arrived, which meant that this was now a building on fire and not a life safety problem. Our department used to have three statements on the wall of every fire station: “Risk a lot to save a life; Risk little to save little; and, Risk nothing to save nothing.” After reading the aftermath reports, it sounds like the business incurred a total loss.
Of what I remember about roof top vent, it must have a worthwhile purpose before deploying firefighters to the roof. Burn time and roof construction must be taken into account, in making this decision. Once the decision is made, the most experienced firefighters, usually those assigned to the truck or rescue company, should perform the task. The roof is usually accessed by an aerial ladder or ground ladders. When going to the roof of a business, the parapet must be taken into consideration. Our department required the use of ladder belts and a tether. The problem with our tethers was that they were tow straps and not tethers made to absorb the shock if you did fall. Once the roof is sounded and firefighters get on the roof, the work must be done quickly and safely. Roof top vent should definitely fall under the “work smarter not harder” principle. If there are openings on the roof, such as skylights or vents, then these should be used. If not, then one firefighter makes the cut, and the other firefighter serves as a back up. Once the opening has been made, including the ceiling below the roof, firefighters need to get off of the roof.
I am thankful that the three firefighters in Dearborn. Mich., were able to go home to their families. Of what I could see, this building would have been considered a loser, and needed to be fought defensively. I remember when Turner TV burned in Chester, which incidentally sat four or five buildings from Station 1. When firefighters entered the building, they made it in about twenty feet when the officer decided to pull everyone out; moments after exiting the building, the roof collapsed. I’ll end this by exhorting every firefighter that reads this to watch out for each other and themselves.