"The Basement Check"

The most common failure at basement fires is delayed recognition. 🔥⚠️


Throughout my career, basement fires have been a plague. They are tough, challenging fires. The departments I came up in were plagued by firefighters injured and killed in basement fires. Many of the most challenging I've been to have been basement fires.


The most common theme in these fires, and in other basement fires that I've studied, is that THERE WAS A DELAY IN RECOGNIZING THAT THE FIRE WAS IN THE BASEMENT. It is not the only factor, but it is often a major one.


Size-ups are often cut short by an urge to act NOW. But we cannot take the RIGHT action if we don't know what the actual SITUATION is. Yet, 360's and basement checks are often missed or delayed. And the predictable result is that we operate over an unchecked basement fire unaware - until something tragic happens. And then we want to act surprised by it...


CHECK THE BASEMENT. How departments do this varies depending on their response model, but it must be done. EARLY IN THE INCIDENT.


Houses sit on one of three things - basements, crawlspaces, and slab foundations. Only one of those can't have a fire in it...


This morning, I watched the live stream in honor of BC Joshua Laird of Frederick County, MD - who died in a residential basement fire. I had already planned on posting about this today but watching this made it even more fresh.


Below is a blog I originally posted this in 2008 when I was a firefighter with the District of Columbia Fire Department. It's 14 years old but still accurate and applicable.


Have you been "burned" by a failure to identify a basement fire early?


How does your department handle checking the basement?


Share with others in the comments below... ⬇️


⭐️ Basement fire tragedies KEEP HAPPENING. Don't let it happen to you, your friend, or your department. ⭐️

Delayed recognition is the most common cause of failure at basement fires.

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.

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!


Don't forget the lessons.

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