Thinking Outside The Box May Kill You

“Think outside the box!”  This is one of the fire service’s favorite clichés.  The problem is that by thinking outside the box so much, we have forgotten about the box itself.  Ironically, it is what is inside the box that kills us.  The box I am referring to is the structure on fire and, more specifically, the little boxes inside of it where we have to go to put the fire out.  There are six sides to every box, and to stay safe and effective, we have to consider all of them during firefighting operations.

The six sides of the box include:

  • Front (side Alpha, the point of entry/egress)
  • Rear (side Charlie, the fire room and/or seat)
  • Left and right sides (sides Bravo and Delta)
  • Top (the ceiling and/or roof)
  • Bottom (the floor and/or basement)

The Front

Often taken for granted, the Alpha side of the big box is where the operation begins.  Unfortunately, it begins quicker for some than others.  Failure to identify and prepare for forcible entry issues will set the tone for the entire operation.  If you are struggling at the front door just to get in, what does that say about your preparation, training and outlook for advancing on a good burner?  To that extent, what does the first engine have at the front door with them?  Do they have hand tools for entry or hooks to check the overhead?  Did the Nozzle Firefighter show up at the door with only the nozzle or did they flake out a working length just behind them to advance on the fire with?

Once we make entry and we get to the fire room, we are at “the front” of the little box.  Is the door open, shut, intact or burned through?  Can we control it (the door and/or the fire) while we flake/feed line into the house to move in with?  Two things are important to know prior to opening the door the little box.  The first is that you have a pretty good idea, based on your size up and current conditions, what is on the other side of it.  The second being that you have enough line, positioned inside in the structure, for advancement to move in a put out the fire.  Judging the layout of a building/room is a very difficult task without it being filled w/ smoke.  Running out of line can be a vital mistake if its not identified before the hallway and crew are compromised.

The most important point with the front of either the big box or the little box is that you show up prepared with the resources you need to finish the job.

The Rear

When talking about the big box, the rear is the Charlie side of the structure.  This area can be chock full of vital information as to building layout and/or fire conditions.  Unfortunately, most fire departments are doing well to get enough people just to go in the front.  Despite this, someone (preferably first in Officer and IC) should get “eyes on” the rear whether it be from a walk-around or by assigning a person to that side (if the building size or layout does not support a walk-around).  Plenty of times crews have arrived with “something” showing in the front, only to discover that there was “something else” happening in the rear.  Sometimes this includes fire conditions, other times its additional levels.  Get someone there.

The rear of the little box is the fire area opposite (ahead of) the attack crew.  This is where we horizontally ventilate (not behind the attack crew).  Well timed ventilation of the rear of the little box, the fire area, can change the entire dynamic of the attack, lifting or relieving some of the harsh interior conditions and allowing that attack crew to “make the push”.  This will also help to prevent some of the “unexpected” fire events that we read about.  Despite our traditions and egos, modern fires may need to be vented before we commit to the interior, then we will push in and get it.

The rear of the building can give you great information for the operations as well as help make the attack on the fire safer and more effective.  Paying attention to this side is crucial.

The Left and Right Sides

The Bravo and Delta sides of the big box can be fairly simple.  From a size-up perspective, not a whole lot happens (typically) on the Bravo and Delta sides of structures.  You may find some bathroom windows and an occasional bedroom window, however typical structures are designed and positioned with most construction features facing the Alpha and Charlie sides.  Considering the big box, any access points need to be forced and controlled and windows laddered.  Also consider that in most buildings, hallways will run from Bravo to Delta sides, so consider that when sizing-up conditions and building layout.

The Bravo and Delta (left and right) sides are very important from the little box perspective.  Our searches are based on going left or right and, as we move through the structures (as we discussed above) you’ll know that typically your egress points will not be on those sides.

Knowing the design characteristics of your response area will determine the importance of the Bravo and Delta side of the structure.  Understanding that hallways commonly run from Bravo to Delta can help you to maintain your orientation while operating inside and facilitate decision making when faced with victim removal or emergency escape.

The Top

The roof, the top of the big box, is one of the most important yet most feared positions on the fire ground.  Fear of truss collapse, lack of understanding of roof construction and materials and lack of confidence in tool selection and operation all contribute to our hesitation to commit resources to the roof.  However, like the rear (Charlie side) the roof is chock full of invaluable information critical to fire ground decision-making and safety.

Not putting someone of a roof for fear of truss collapse while simultaneously sending attack crews into that same structure is hypocritical.  Beyond the truss aspect, a hole in the roof in the fastest way to stop horizontal spread and see what is actually over the attack crews head.  In modern houses, water heaters and HVAC units are commonly placed in the overhead void/attic spaces.  Commercially, HVAC units and generators are commonly placed on rooftops.  Getting a crew on the roof to perform “roof recon” can be huge for safety of operating crews. Likewise, anyone who has ever been in a soupy building when the roof crew punches through knows how effective vertical ventilation can be for improving conditions. 

Inside the little box, failure to pay attention to the ceiling gets us into trouble.  We talked about having hooks to check the overhead.  As an attack crew, just because your job is to put out fire, doesn’t always mean you go straight to the orange.  If you have serious fire conditions, pop an inspection hole in the ceiling or pop a ceiling tile.  Make absolutely sure you don’t let fire get behind you.  Ceiling collapsing on you can knock you off of your reference point (hose, wall, etc).  Ceiling collapsing behind you can also burn through your hose, causing you to lose water at what may be a critical time in the attack.  It is simply a bad thing.  Bring an adequate tool and check the overhead.

The roof and ceiling are both critical areas for “fireground surprises”.  Getting eyes on them, either by getting on the roof or by making inspection holes in the ceiling can prove to be one of the best decisions you make.

The Bottom

Too often we see or hear about firefighters falling through floors.  The fire service has also recently had a string of serious, and deadly, incidents involving basement fires.  It is vital that we always check for basements and be diligent in determining fire origin in “smoke everywhere” scenarios.  Basement fires can be nasty yet sometimes identifying them for what they are can be difficult.  If you need to commit prior to determining the origin and suspect a basement, use that tool to sound the floor in front of you.  Sweep the floor in front with the hose stream and listen for falling water.  Be careful.  Fires involving the bottom (basement) may be categorized as a “vent first fire” if possible.

Though the bottom is mostly regarding the presence of basements, simply checking the floor in front of you as you advance is important.  Sweeping with a tool or a hose stream can clear hot embers, debris and/or drug paraphernalia from your path.  Additionally, in limited visibility, this may help identify layout of the area (little box).

Often taken for granted, the floor and floor below can, and does, create big problems for us.  Making the stairs at a serious basement fire can be very tough.  Falling through a floor makes for a bad day as well.  Use the resources you have to check the path in front of you and do not hesitate to try to improve conditions prior to committing into below grade areas.

Thinking “outside the box” is a perfectly appropriate goal for someone when faced with a unique challenge.  Yet firefighters get hurt and killed at what some would consider less-than unique fires.  Sometimes we have to keep it simple and put people in areas not only to perform efficiently, but also get us the most accurate information prior to making a dangerous decision.  Despite one of most popular slogans, maybe we should think more  “inside the box”, as well as “on the box” and “under the box”.  There are six sides to every fire and it is our job to see them all.

Thanks and Be Safe!


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