Basements Part 1: “The Basement Check”

Basement fires are the most dangerous fire you can go to.  Or at least its one of the most dangerous….  Throughout my career, some of the most hellacious fires I have been to started in the basement.  Unfortunately, a few of these have involved near-fatal firefighter injuries.  

Two of the most common issues at basement fires are the destruction of flooring members beneath crews operating on the 1st floor and difficulty in accessing the basement.  I’ll discuss these issues in an upcoming post.

There are a few reasons these fire are so hazardous:

  1. Delayed recognition.  I think this is the #1 hazard – we do not always immediately recognize that there is fire in the basement.  It’s not uncommon for the fire to extend to upper floors and while we battle the extending fire, the building is burning out from underneath us. IF YOU CAN’T FIND THE FIRE, THINK BASEMENT.  Beware the house with smoke from everywhere… In the photo below, the action looks like it is on the first floor.  This fire was in the basement.
  2. Most of what we do will be above the fire.  Even if there is an exterior entrance from which we can attack the fire, we still have to get above the fire – protecting the first floor so that rescues can be affected.  
  3. Limited access & egress.  There aren’t too many ways to get in and once you’re in it’s tough to get out.  Ventillation is typically very limited.  This is especially true in “cellars”, where the basement is only accessible via the interior stairs.  At that point your only way in & out is basically a chimney.
Beware the house with smoke from everywhere... The action looks like it's on the first floor but this fire was in the basement.

Beware the house with smoke from everywhere...

Our policy regarding basement fires in the DCFD directly results from the May, 1999 line of duty deaths of FF Anthony Phillips (E-10) and FF Louis Matthews (E-26):

At all reported structural fires, the 2nd due engine company provides a “basement check”

This means that the 2nd due visually checks the basement for smoke/fire conditions and reports it’s condition via radio to the IC.  Every time.  Fire showing from the 10th floor of a high-rise?  They still check the basement.  Nothing showing from a 2-story SFD?  They STILL check the basement!  Maybe for your department it can’t be the 2nd due… Maybe the truck will do it.  Whatever, someone has to do it.

If there is nothing going on in the basement, that company can be put to work else where.  This is the kind of policy you can’t have some of the time, it has to be ALL the time – so that it is automatic.  Don’t get caught off guard, KNOW the status of the basement immediately!


7 Responses

  1. Nick,

    I can’t agree more!
    Basement checks are an invaluable task on every fire. As we both know personally, basement fires are deadly. The picture you used in your example of the 2 story SFD is a great example of how smoke can lead you to believe your attack will be somewhere other than below you.
    Just because you arrive on scene with fire showing from the top floor windows or cockloft/attic does not mean you don’t have fire below you. Balloon frame construction can easily spread a fire from the basement to the upper floors before it is detected by the home owner. Pipe chases and remodeling voids are also common ways that basement fires spread. Beware of high heat during your search for the seat of the fire. If the heat around you is intense and you can’t tell which way it is coming from think basement. (Truck Companies need to be aware when venting basement windows!!!! Make sure you are not opening up before there is a charged hose line in place and look for smoke stained windows BEFORE you break them.) Transom windows are small and hard to see through in many cases. Look before you break. There could be a smoldering fire in that basement that is just waiting for that fresh air. All the heat from a sudden flare up has to go somewhere and that’s up. Your brother firefighters are going to catch hell if not aware of the circumstances and could easily receive very serious injuries.
    I know every firefighter out there is drawn to the flames like a moth, but everyone has a job to do on the fire ground and you can’t always be in the fire room when performing that job. The safety of your crew should always come before your ego. The 30 seconds you take to check the basement and give a report to the command post will not make you miss anymore action than anyone else on the scene. It might just keep people alive though!

  2. well put nick…I couldn’t agree more

  3. Nick,

    Excellent post. I equally agree on many of your points but would offer that in addition to the ideals you offer in identification of the basement fire personnel should give a lot of thought to performing the “lap” of the structure. Or at a minimum, dedicate a company to give a view of all sides. This simple step only takes a few moments to complete by just may give you the opportunity to identify the house has one story in the front and two in the back with fire showing in the basement.

  4. Excellent point Dan!

  5. speaking of “circle checks”…
    in march around 3am we had a 1 story balloon frame in Laruel with smoke showing from all four sides.. initial company found no fire but minimal heat on the #1 floor…the RIT team from 715 found a room off in the basement while doing the “Lap”…
    the house was a “colliers mansion”.. newspapers from floor to ceiling, basement steps blocked by a refrigerator..

  6. All good points….

    I like the idea of the lap, but I think a true “basement check” also has to include an visual look at the inside of the basement as well. There may be nothing obvious from the outside, but a good hidden fire going inside. Especially on larger or more cut-up buildings…


  7. Vent Vent Vent!!!

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