Setting up scene lighting is one of the less glorious tasks on the fireground. In many fire departments, this support assignment is the responsibility of the truck company. Whoever performs the task, it must be assigned at any nighttime fire. Even during the day, the interior fire room can be pitch black. Interestingly enough, in the strategy and tactics books I have, there is little, if anything, mentioned about interior scene lighting.
After the fire is out, there is no need to continue working in the dark. The emergency is over and the incident is de-escalating. Having interior lighting in the fire room is simply safer for firefighters. Fire crews may say they don’t need them, but I have never heard firefighters complain and demand to turn off the lights. The reason is obvious. They can see what they’re doing!
Lighting and Overhaul
There are a variety of reasons to stress the importance of lighting during overhaul operations.
Remember that overhaul can be just as demanding as the initial fire attack. Many firefighters let their guard down during salvage and overhaul and fail to recognize the dangers surrounding them. Numerous injuries happen at this stage of the incident, and most are preventable. Even worse, many firefighter line-of-duty deaths have occurred during the overhaul phase. Firefighters must constantly apply risk-benefit analysis during overhaul, because now the only life hazards on the fireground are the firefighters. It is not worth getting any crew member injured or killed for fire-damaged property. There’s no rush, so slow down.
Adequate lighting makes it easier to help occupants retrieve certain personal effects. The fire investigation and overhaul could take hours; occupants may need clothing, money, keys, cell phones, prescription medications, and so on.
It also helps firefighters perform a building/scene safety survey. For example, lighting allows firefighters to identify weakened structural members: sagging, cracked breams; broken joists; holes in the floors; burned out stairway; leaning chimneys; and so on. If you suspect materials may contain asbestos, limit the breaching of such materials to what is necessary to prevent reignition. Flag or cordon off these structural hazards, and inform all personnel on the fireground.
It may be necessary to limit overhaul until fire investigators are done with the scene. Before the investigation and overhaul begin, investigators may request that you set up portable lights. Don’t be tempted to simply lay a string of lights across the floor. Though quick and easy, it doesn’t provide the most efficient illumination—and, it’s sloppy and unprofessional. Firefighters can trip on electrical cords or step on light fixtures. The less you drag your lighting equipment through the dirty water on the floor, the less you’re going to track back into the storage compartment of the apparatus.
Although most industrial lighting is weather-resistant, avoid using water to clean off lights. Try to keep them as clean as possible. If you’re going to take the time and effort to set up lights, you might as well do a good job. Set the lights up high.
Here are a few lighting techniques using string lights that your company can drill on. With practice, you can perform these evolutions very quickly. If you want something more challenging, practice setting them up in the dark. That’s how it’s going to happen anyway. Remember to practice like you play.
Evolution 1: Hammer and Nails
When the interior requests lights, teach your crews to grab hammers and nails first. Depending on the length of the cord, string lights usually have anywhere from five to 10 bulbs. Space out the nails accordingly, and use the rubber hanging tab on the light fixture to hang the lights.
Evolution 2: Tripod Light Stand
Sometimes portable lighting needs to be set up in the middle of a large room or an open area away from any walls. Stanchion lighting would be ideal, but it is expensive and has limitations. Your crew can build a tripod light stand using string lights, a baby ladder, and a pike pole. Separate the baby ladder to create an A-frame. Lash the top rungs together with a body loop or webbing. Then secure a pike pole to the A-frame for added stability. Now you have a stand to drape the string lights on. String lights allow you to point numerous light fixtures in any direction. The stand is also strong enough to hang additional halogen lights.
Evolution 3: Horizontal Light Rack
A baby ladder or a roof ladder can be used to create a horizontal light rack. This rigging is excellent for concrete walls. Extend the baby ladder and lash the sections together in the middle using a body loop or webbing. Working as a team, have the crew prop up the ladder using three pike poles. This will take some experimentation on your part. The level of the ladder will depend on the length of the pike poles. Ideally, two of the pike poles should be the same length. The third one should be about a foot longer, but it’s not necessary. This rigging can be accomplished using a pike pole at each end of the ladder. The example shown here is using three pike poles of different lengths. At least one pike needs to prop the ladder under the top horizontal beam to prevent the ladder from tipping away from the wall. The pike poles supporting the bottom horizontal beam help support the weight of the rigging. D-handled pike poles work best.
Next, tie the pike poles off to a stationary object so they don’t kick out. You can use heating radiators, conduit, wall brackets—whatever works. For example, a firefighter can punch through the drywall and tie off to a wall stud. Or a firefighter can punch two holes through the drywall to thread the webbing through the holes. You can also pound a nail in the floor to butt against the D-handle. With concrete walls and floors, prop a heavy object against the pike pole—a planter, a small file cabinet, office furniture, and so on. This merely prevents the pike pole from kicking out; it is not supporting any weight of the rigging.
In essence, you are creating a triangle between the wall, the pike pole, and the body loop. The body loop webbing is tightened by pulling the end of the pike pole away from the base of the wall. Once you create that angle by setting the pike poles, the ladder is firmly wedged against the wall and can easily carry any lighting fixtures you may have. Thread the string light across the ladder or hang halogen lamps anywhere off the ladder.
There are lots of creative ways to hang emergency interior portable lighting. These evolutions aren’t the only way to get the job done. I know the Boston Fire Department has wooden poles with notches in the end. The electrical cord of the string lights fits snuggly into that notch. Personnel simply jam those poles into the ceiling and set the other end into the floor—simple and fast.
Drivers should also maximize the lighting capabilities on their apparatus. Most new rigs have halogen spotlights, but they often are underused or overlooked altogether. Ladder 6 (my rig) is equipped with telescoping, fixed-mounted Kwik-Raze high-intensity floodlights (Alpha 2000 series) by Havis Inc. (www.havis.com). They provide excellent illumination of the scene, but the area is limited by where the apparatus ends up parking at the incident. The same limitations can occur with an engine company. The apparatus can be equipped with state-of-the-art emergency lighting, but if the rig is down the street pumping on the hydrant, it’s out of position to provide any beneficial illumination to the emergency scene.
The tip of our aerial is equipped with two high-intensity spotlights from Collins-Dynamics, a subdivision of Havis Inc. These spotlights incorporate a spun aluminum reflector that is polished and vacuum metalized. This unique process creates a high-quality mirror-like finish that emits a consistent focused beam that produces 30 percent more light output than sealed beam bulbs. Aerial ladders that aren’t committed to rooftop operations can be used to illuminate the emergency scene from overhead.
Provide adequate lighting during nighttime operations, overhaul, and postfire watches. Help improve the safety culture in your fire department by lighting up the fireground. Any fall or tripping injury, like a sprained ankle, is a costly price to pay for working in the dark when we have the ability not to.
RAUL A. ANGULO, a veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Seattle ladder companies use string lights by Daniel Woodhead Industries/Molex Company of Northbrook, Illinois (www.woodhead.com). Industrial string lights come in various lengths ranging from five to 10 bulbs. They are made of heavy-duty neoprene rubber, making them resistant to oils, solvents, heat, and weather. They have no exposed metal and are meant to be used and abused. The light bulbs are protected by a clear, hardened, plastic bell-shaped cage. They are not wired in series, so if one bulb goes out, you don’t lose the rest of the strand. They provide lighting options and flexibility that you can’t necessarily get with stanchion lighting.
They are relatively inexpensive for fire department budgets. String lights range from $300 to $600 per strand, whereas industrial stanchion halogen lights range from $1,500 to $2,000 per unit. Though tripod-stanchion halogen lights provide superior lighting, they are top heavy with a 30- to 40-pound cast aluminum light fixture. With all the activity of opening walls and pulling ceilings during an overhaul in tight quarters, crews must be careful not to bump into them or knock them over. These expensive lighting units are better suited for exterior operations, away from firefighters swinging axes, using pike poles, operating chain saws, and wearing size 14 boots.