Up On the Roof!

Active fire, "the hot tin roof", Minnie St. Fire, Oct. 27th, 2011. Used by permission. Photo by Eric Engman

Hey, Brother, grab yer cup.

A few tours back, the kid and I were on top of a wood frame, two-story residential.  Metal roof.  Taken there by the City’s platform (I have severe truck envy), we were tasked with eliminating the heat up there.  I love this job! The kid is the kinda fireman I like to hang on to for a while.  Solid jake, “make his Pappy proud” kinda feller.  He’s a little’un too, but stout and isn’t easily put off, …by anything.  Don’t get me wrong, there is room for growth (both in height and in experience).  But when you are looking into your options for goin’ to work on a hot tin roof, Spence is the man for the job.  For one thing, he paid attention when I taught him what to do.  For another, bein’ so small, he’s not as challenged by gravity as some others as I might mention (stop lookin’ at me like that) and maneuverin’ on that slick tin isn’t as hard for him.

In our town, getting on a roof to perform vertical ventilation isn’t really about whether you’re using the most “effective” tactic, or even being the most “aggressive”.  Its more a matter of physically being able to get on the roof in a timely manner, stay put without falling off on the snow and ice laden pitch and lastly, whether or not getting a hole cut through two or three roofs on top of one building is going to be an effective use of manpower and time.

Stripping tin off this roof back in Jan. of 2011. Under the tin, a layer of wood shake, fire crawling around all over the place. Photo by author.

Anyone that knows me, knows I love to teach and advocate the consistent use of ground ladders whenever our firefighters are operating above ground level or on the roof.  Problem is, carting your choice pick of ladders through the snow banks and across ice encrusted driveways isn’t always something that can be accomplished quickly.  Digging through 3 feet or so of hard packed snow on a roof top isn’t a cinch either.  So often, whether we like it or not, its horizontal ventilation that has to suffice.

Repetition...do it again, ..do it right...Taken at the CTC Summer Academy, July 2011. Author's photograph.

In recent years I have put much more emphasis on training to take the roof.  Our FF 1 State class requires it, but I try to go well above and beyond.  Fortunately, I have been strongly supported in this by other professionals along the way.  We have had to overcome a tendency among the older generation to avoid this training due to our environmental and construction challenges and in fairness to them, we have to teach restraint to the newer generation until they gain experience and realize there is a time to say “No” to the roof and a time to be aggressive.  In this snow town, you spend far more time chasing fire on the roof, then actually venting.  Many of the roofs we deal with have a layer of tin over two or three sheets of foam and visqueen, then sheet-rock or tongue and groove boards.  A “cold roof” squeezed into a few inches, providing lots of runnin’ room for the fire to work its way through.  I have been on top of snow laden tin for hours at sub-zero temps, digging fire out of ridgelines and along log rafters, chasing fingers of fire, all the while thinking ” I bet it ain’t like this in New York!”.  Fortunately, I’ve never slid off.

Anyway, I digress.  Challenging training on the basics of roof operations is necessary.  No breaking news there, but making your training thorough and effective is not an easy task.  Several times I have been challenged on my stance, not by ignorance, but by questioning priorities when it comes to available training time and whether we should even put people on the roof or not.  I’ve always replied, “You tell me don’t go to the roof, but at most fires, I find myself being sent there.  Let me train them to do a good job and get down in one piece.”  In order to ensure everyone has the best chance to “Go Home”, I have pursued this training aggressively, pulling in the best folks around to help me out, I’m no wizard on the roof.  I’ve learned to recognize that and have taken steps to ensure it doesn’t get my people killed.

Choosing instructors that really take the job seriously, having gained the requisite knowledge and experience is crucial. Photo by author.

But thanks to friends around the country, like many of you, I have been able to improve on my understanding of how truck can be done effectively and aggressively, without puttin’ your crew in the hurt locker. Refining your tool work, your sense of awareness in the roof environment and learning when to move faster and when to back off.  In turn, I try to pass this information on to every fireman that takes a ride with me.

So I guess that takes me back to the kid up there on the roof with me on Minnie Street.  There comes a point where you have to account for your actions.  We are forgiven for our sins because of Christ, but we can still pay the consequences of sluggardness here on good ole’ earth!  I trained him, I have to rely on my own teaching now.  Nothing like putting your own metal to the test.

I  reach out onto the roof with the hook and sound it with a hard blow or two.  Place my foot, and step off.  Over the ridgeline I can see the fire has buckled the tin opposite me, so we don’t have much time nor should I rely on the apparent strength beneath me.  We toss out a roofer over the peak and get to work.  I have to trust this young man, and rely on him to use the skills we gave him.  I wouldn’t have the confidence in him that I do if it weren’t for the aggressive roof training we’ve pushed these past few years.  And the thing that crosses my mind here is that even though out of all the jobs we get this year, we may only vertically vent on one or two, we have to get it right and there is no way of knowing which two brothers are gonna be up there “doin’ it”.

Working at height is an Instructor challenge as well as a challenge for the student but provides a real sense of accomplishment. Photo by author.

I watch him cut the first hole, aggressive, but controlled.  Good.  Smoke comes through and I go to punch through with the pike.  Thud!  Vibrations come up the handle and rattle around in my hands as I realize there is yet another Fairbanks feature at work here.  The tin roof we are working on is constructed over top a older flat roof, made of solid tongue and groove with the old tar still in place!  Nice..somebody forgot to send out a memo on that!  As further remaining fire is knocked down, the heat is out.  Most of the trusses are black, the ones we’re standing on are charred pretty good.  Purlins are burnt through.  For a moment, when the platform isn’t able to get behind us and I’m not in a position to support him, the kid gets a reminder, “Shit” as he slips on the tin a bit.   He gets it under control and after the second hole, we’re off the roof and headed down.  Had anything really gone wrong, it would have been a bit of a drop to the next roof.  No big deal.  But I’m glad we did it right and the fact that the city places confidence in our training enough to send us up there speaks volumes.

To sum all this up, lets be realistic with yourself, get the training you need to do your job right.  Train your people, trust your people and know your job, so you can lead the way.  If you are not doing these things, you’re missing the mark, brother.  Times are changing, …better be ready.

And for my other Brothers, Semper Fi!  Happy Birthday Marines!

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