Gravity always wins, I have never seen a firefighter fall off of or through a roof and not have gravity win. The moment we leave the ground gravity is at work trying its best to bring us back down. When we are called to go to the roof for roof top ventilation we have two forces working against us. Gravity is trying its best to bring us back down while the fire is trying its best to devour the very structure that is keeping us up.
A year ago the following is how my post began after watching the video of the Captain from Fresno, California fall through a roof on March 29th, 2015.
This video sickens me, as I watched I could not help but think the worse. The person videoing the incident took the words and emotions right out of my soul. Only by the Grace of God has that not been many of us.
. The entire purpose of my post a year ago was to try to prevent others from the same fate or worse! I felt that I had to try to get information out to as many as possible before it happened again. Well……… I did not succeed!
Here we are again watching videos of firefighters going into roofs only this time it is our department. Fortunately we came out with no injuries and lots of teaching opportunities. No doubt, mistakes and close calls are opportunities to teach and to learn. BUT it is imperative that we learn from others mistakes so that we do not repeat them!
I absolutely love and respect firefighters that are willing to do the job and get it done! God has called me to do what I can to pass along useful information that will allow firefighters to be safe and at the same time get the job done efficiently and effectively.
Without being critical or judging let’s use this as a learning opportunity. One of the areas that we as a profession have the least experience is Vertical ventilation, cutting holes. The vast majority of firefighters will go through their career with never having been called on to cut a hole. So what happens when suddenly a firefighter or an officer with no experience is called on to go to the roof? Do you have an idea of what to do and how to do it? Do you know what to look out for on your size up and or how to know if your roof is sound? Do you know how to sound a roof or the red flags that tell you the roof is bad? Do you have a plan for cutting holes under different situations, different types of roofs and does the crew your with today know your plan. As much as I feel the need to address all of these issues I am going to limit this article to the Safety aspect of Roof Top Ventilation. I am going to address the, what and how’s of performing Roof Top Ventilation as SAFE as possible. Reading the roof: Size Up, Size Up, and More Size Up. It actually begins when you are dispatched and continues until you leave the scene. It is absolutely critical for safety and to ensure we get the job done. As you initially arrive on scene and then as you do your 360, you should be sizing up the roof and the structure but especially the roof. There are two primary methods of sizing up the roof. Number one is visually, called Reading the roof. This is the first method that you will always begin with but, is not always possible due to potentially heavy smoke and darkness obscuring your visibility as seen below.
When I’m reading the roof my number one concern is bad decking! I am certainly concerned when my rafters and ridge board are going bad as we all should be, but weak rafters with solid decking will normally give a slight warning before giving way. Weak or compromised decking regardless of how strong your rafters are can dump you in with no warning. I am concerned about trusses but not nearly as concerned as I am about the decking, with OSB being our nemesis! I have had more roofs come apart on me over the last 12 years than I had the first 25 and OSB has been the primary reason but not the only reason. Decking can become compromised due to fire, age, the elements, rafter spacing, previous damage substandard material or any number of other reasons. So what are we looking for?
This is where you attempt to observe type of construction, pitch, type of roofing material, the visual condition of the roofing material and the visual condition of the roof as a whole.
As you climb the ladder and before you step off on the roof, attempt to read the roof again. I will use the TIC but most of all I am visually reading the roof and its condition.
The two primary conditions or signs to look for that indicate bad decking are:
#1 Smoke pushing out through the shingles, this is a sure sign that the decking is being compromised. It will look like pencils of smoke coming through the shingles or sometimes it will resemble tiny tornados, as in the first three pictures
Notice the sagging of the roof decking and rafters just to the right of the smoke pushing out of the shingles. Also notice the absence of smoke pushing out of the soffits. This is because this roof had self-vented seconds before, relieving the pressure. This roof had all of the NO GO indicators!
Remember roofs are built to be water tight, you should expect to see smoke coming around the perimeter, out of the soffit’s/eaves and through functioning ridge vents. You should not see smoke coming through the roof itself. Smoke pushing through the shingles is a no go sign for that area of the roof which should not be ignored.
#2. The roof starting to sag and showing the rafter locations. This is a sign of either wide rafter spacing, thin decking material or a sign that the decking itself is getting bad! Also be looking for: * is fire already in the attic? (The first visible sign from the exterior that the fire is in the attic is smoke coming out of the roof vents and eventually as it becomes pressurized, the soffit’s.) Is the fire isolated to only a portion of the attic or does it have total control of the attic? Read the smoke conditions and use the TIC to determine the amount of involvement * is the roof starting to sag between the ridge and the outside wall plate? This is a sign that the rafters or bracing are
starting to get weak or fail. *Is the roof starting to sag on the ridge? Could be an indicator that the rafters on both sides and the ridge board are getting bad. (We just had a house on January 2, 2016 that this very thing happened. The IC had called for the first truck to come in for Roof Top Ventilation due to very heavy smoke conditions. When the Senior Captain sized the roof up he called and relayed to the IC. the fact that the roof was bad. He had noticed the roof sagging in the center on the Alpha side. He also relayed that he thought it was going to self-ventilate, which it did! The fire had originated in the attic and had significantly weakened the rafters and decking.) Great call
Sounding the Roof:
Absolutely the most critically important step to getting the job done safely.
Sounding the roof is your and our last chance for determining if where we are about to place our feet is safe. There may be no indications of a bad roof visually on our initial size up or it may be that we literally cannot see due to smoke or darkness. These thing happen often due to the very nature of our profession. We should never get on a roof without sounding it and the areas ahead of where we are going to walk and operate.
Be extremely cautious anytime you move from one roof to another. This type of move can rob you of the gradual opportunity to notice changes in how the roof feels. Pay extra attention to the visual size up and sounding the roof. Avoid sudden impact loads.
The Officer should sound the roof confirming a safe route to the ridge. Sound about 3 to 4 ft. wide in a straight path up to the ridge. Your crew should know to follow the same path to the ridge that you walk and sound. I sound the roof using an 8 ft. steel New York Hook, an 8 ft. pike pole would also work. You want something with reach and a small surface area so that you can identify bad decking early. I am trying to drive it through the decking looking for any soft spots and or a change in the feel as compared to what I initially felt when I first began sounding the roof. We are sounding for two different things, decking and rafters. We hope that we have a hard time determining where the rafters are because this would be an indication that we had a solid type of decking material which was making it difficult to feel the rafters. 3/4 inch Ship-lap and 5/8 or thicker plywood will do this. OSB, smaller plywood or rafters on wider spacing allow so much give that it is easier to identify the rafter’s location. I have a hard time identifying how strong the rafters are by sounding them. It is the overall way the roof feels as we walk on it, the amount of spring that will cause me concern. I in no way mean that you sound the roof with your feet or by bouncing, quite the opposite. We want to walk light and try to stay near the rafter locations if you can find them. But pay attention! You will be able to feel if the rafters have any give it will show up in your knees. If the decking gives you will notice it more in your feet or ankles. Flatter pitched roofs will typically have more give than steeper pitched roofs. You should never get a lot of give and for sure it should not feel like you’re walking on a bed. Only training by getting on different types of roofs in non-emergency situations will give you an indication of what to expect as a norm. When you step off of the rafters and you feel the roof flex under your feet this is an indication of weak or thin decking. If the decking when you initially got on the roof was solid but now flexes it should require closer attention. Always sound before you step onto a new area. It is very important that the Captain sound a larger area than where you intend to cut prior to beginning.
It is also imperative that anyone who is required to walk anywhere other than where the Captain sounded the roof, sound it for themselves! Apply a heavy dose of common sense.
TOOLS: Everyone must be proficient with the hand tools that we take on the roof. This requires training and practice before hand. None of the tools we use can differentiate between a leg, an arm, or a roof. It imperative that our firefighters become proficient with the equipment before we lead them onto a roof. With
that said we all know that sometimes the first time some of our firefighters ever use the equipment is during a fire which creates a very unsafe situation for everyone on the roof and below.
Tools that I want on the roof are: Vent Chain Saws: It is safer on a pitched roof. The fact that they have a chain brake and that the chain stops quickly on its own is the #1 contributing factor. Saw Safety: All Saws should be initially started on the ground prior to climbing the ladder. This is done for two main reasons. To confirm they will start and because it is much easier and safer to crank them on level ground where we can see. With our Vent Chain Saws, we can crank them, ideal them down and set the brake which allows us to safely move them while they are running. With our circular saws this is not possible. With them we would need to crank them, ideal them down and turn them off. Then we carry them to the roof and re-crank them on a pitched roof under less than ideal conditions. Circular saws work great but are very dangerous because the blade continues to turn even after we turn it off. Everyone should be taught to keep the blade close to the material they are cutting, and to stop the blade after turning it off and before lifting it up. This is done by pushing the blade into the material that was being cut. All of that said it seldom happens and I can relate some horrible accidents because of circular saws. For that reason I opt for Chain Saws. A Flat Head Axe: A Flat Head Axe is the most dependable ventilation tool I have ever used. I have never had one that did not start. It will however run out of gas quick when I’m using it. The Flat head Axe does an awesome job of cutting through all types of decking without wedging and getting stuck when it is used backwards using the flat head. 6ft. Rubbish Hook: This is our primary tool for opening up. It is not a good sounding tool because it has too large of a surface area. It can also be used as a long foot hold on steep roofs. It can be driven into the roof using an overhead home-run swing, driving the two picks into the roof. Then the handle is held by a firefighter who is staged on a roof ladder. 8 ft. Steel New York Hook: I use this to primarily sound the roof. It gives good reach and allows you to identify questionable decking from a greater distance allowing you more time to react.
A Thermal Imager: I have had great success using the TIC. The more I use it the more confidence I have in it. We have to remember it is only a tool; we must still use our brains, experience and common sense. I will scan the roof from the tip of the ladder before stepping onto the roof. It has really helped on the roofs where we get there when the fire is just getting into the attic and we have no other visible indicators of where to establish our vent hole. I prefer the color mode when it is available.
A Roof Ladder: We do not as a rule work off of it but it is our Safety Net. o Ladder Safety: It should go without saying that ladders should be placed at a proper climbing angle of 70-75 degrees. As a Safety Officer this may be one of the areas I have to address the most. I consistently see 60 -45 degree angels which increases the likelihood of having them kick out and gravity once again coming into play. It seems like we are letting the rule about having 3 to 5 rungs extending above the roof line, supersede the proper climbing angle rule. In truth the 3-5 rung rule is a minimum not a maximum. More is ok. Get the climbing angle right! o Extension Ladders should always be tied-off before climbing to prevent unexpected retraction. (If you had ever heard the sound of a firefighter hitting the ground from 2 ½ stories up you would always tie off.) Halyards are supposed to be anchored on both ends. When we take delivery of new extension ladders they come with one end pre-tied to the fly section. The other end comes
wrapped around the bed and fly section tying them together so that during shipping they are not sliding back and forth. After delivery we are supposed to untie them and anchor the loose end to one of the lower rungs on the bed section. Failure to do this can have grave consequences on the fire ground. o We should choose an area of the roof to ladder that we believe to be sound. We should always confirm the roof is solid by sounding it before we step on it. We then move from this sound area toward where we think we are going to cut our hole, sounding out ahead and of us in 3-4 ft. arc confirming that we have solid decking. o Pay close attention when moving from the ladder onto the roof. This is where many experience gravity’s power when they push off of the ladder to get on the roof without having it footed. The ladder slips and Gravity wins! You must have a plan on how to move from the ladder onto the roof without pushing laterally on the ladder. I personally always step one rung higher than the roof line and let gravity pull me down onto the roof below. There are other methods out there but find the one that works for you. o We should always have a second ladder placed to the roof as a secondary means of egress.
The Officer should always back up the firefighter that is doing the cutting. Always have a solid grip to keep them on the roof and out of the hole. It is this rule along with the “get low on a bad roof “that we can attribute to saving one of our firefighters a couple weeks ago when he fell partially in but his officer was able to pull him out. Have a plan and review it with your crew on a regular basis. (We can never be too familiar with our plan. Unlike on all the training videos most of our work is done with limited or no visibility
Have pre-assigned jobs and tools Put a roof ladder on every roof
Safety: An Officer’s number one responsibility is safety. That means making the right decisions no matter how difficult it is
Sometimes it means that when your size-up shows a no go condition you relay that to the IC. We will gain more respect by knowing our job and making wise decisions than trying to prove that we have no fear.
Sometimes that means putting the right person in the right spot regardless of rank. If an Officer finds that they have less experience than one of their crew then decide who is best suited to make life or death decisions. You will still be responsible and still be in charge but until you have enough experience to make those decisions chose someone who can.
The Officer should do the following or see that the most qualified person on the crew does the following:
Be the first one on the Roof: Confirm the structural integrity of the roof. Sound a larger area than your hole. Choose the proper location for the hole… Back-up the firefighter cutting the hole. Be the Last one off the roof
Safety on a bad roof: We should all know that the ridge and valleys on our standard framed roofs are two of the strongest areas on a roof. They are strong because it is normally a 2X6 or 2X8 that runs the length of the roof and is sandwiched in between rafters from both sides. The ridge is where we all set our sights when we are looking for a solid area to walk or secure our roof ladder. It is the area we trust the most on marginal or very steep roofs. Think of how many times you have thought. ” If we can only make it to the ridge we will be ok “ Be Aware this only pertains to standard framed roofs. It Does Not Pertain to Light Weight Truss Roofs. On light weight truss roofs the ridge may actually be one of the less secure areas. There is no ridge board on light weight truss. There are normally braces near the ridge but they are normally located several feet down from the ridge. If you stand on a light weight truss ridge you are literally standing on the edge of two sheets of roof decking. So pay attention! If you ever find yourself on a bad roof and you still need to get the hole established, get down on your knees. This spreads your weight out and puts your hands only about six inches from the roof instead of 3 feet. If you were to begin falling through you can spread out much quicker to stop your fall. On our knees is the same way we cut steep roofs.
*If you ever have a roof start to come apart on you do not try to walk or run. Roll away from the area and hopefully to a solid area. Away does not mean down the roof. This would be a challenge of your good common sense. The most critical thing you can do when a roof suddenly starts to go bad is spread your weight out. Then get your crew and yourself to a safe area, re-evaluate the situation and make the appropriate adjustments. This may mean you abandon the roof but there are times on large roofs that it simply means get to a safe area and complete your assignment.
Have a plan for if things go bad and someone goes in. The idea is to not let it happen but plan in case it does and train on that plan.
A few absolutes:
Stop thinking it won’t happen to you! Plan for and Prepare for the worst.
Everything we do inside, outside and on top of a burning building should be directed at being OVERKILL. We should always be doing more than we expect so that when suddenly things go wrong, we can be the one, to tell our near death experience. Not have someone else stand behind a pulpit and tell our story.
Be Trained, Be Safe!