Important Considerations For Overhaul And Salvage

Have a line ready to wet down debris on the pile.
Have a line ready to wet down debris on the pile. (Photo by Martin Grube)

Be careful when throwing debris from upper floors
Be careful when throwing debris from upper floors. (Photo by Mike Heaton)

Among the least glamorous tasks on the fireground are salvage and overhaul. Many firefighters don’t look at them as critical because they don’t have the excitement of the initial fire attack. As a result, firefighters may fail to recognize the dangers surrounding them and let their guard down.

Overhaul can be just as demanding as the fire attack, and it’s just as important. Numerous injuries happen at this stage of the incident, and most are preventable. Falls still rank as a leading cause of firefighter injuries and deaths, and a considerable number of fatalities have occurred during the overhaul phase.

Risk-benefit analysis must constantly be applied during overhaul. It’s not worth getting any crew member injured or killed for fire-damaged property. There’s no rush.

It may be necessary to limit overhaul until the fire cause has been determined by the Fire Investigation Unit (FIU). If investigators show up only to find a large debris pile and wooden studs for walls and bare wood floors in the fire room, you’ll hear about it.

Firefighters can’t indiscriminately throw things out of the fire building to get the show on the road; they need to preserve evidence and protect the point of origin. After a fire investigator’s work is complete, fire crews will get the OK to overhaul that area.

The FIU is part of your firefighting team. After the fire is out and life safety issues have been addressed, assisting investigators is your most important priority. Firefighters need to appreciate the bigger picture the fire service provides the community. For the FIU, insurance companies and the property owner, an incident can go on for months and even years.

The incident commander should call for the FIU as soon as the need is obvious. Suggested criteria to request the FIU are: multiple alarm fires; fires with suspicious circumstances or a “threat to burn” occupancy; fire losses of $20,000 or greater; fires that result in a serious injury or death; multiple-set fires; fires involving incendiary devices or hazardous materials; and explosions.

In the meantime, account for all your people and make sure no one is injured. Have a jiffy (garden hose) or other small line ready to decon firefighters. Chunks of burnt wood, drywall, insulation and soot should be hosed off turnout gear while the firefighter is still on air. Then send crews to rehab for a quick medical check of vital signs., Have firefighters hydrate, change out air bottles and rest.

Unless there are suspicious circumstances, make a reasonable effort to assist occupants to retrieve personal effects. They may need clothing, money, certain irreplaceable valuables, keys, cell phones and prescriptions.

Scene Safety Survey

Call the Red Cross or Salvation Army to assist with post-fire emergency social services. The fire investigation and overhaul could take hours.

If the fire is at night and the FIU will be delayed, consider just posting a fire watch until morning. Having a fresh crew perform overhaul in daylight will be a safer operation.

Otherwise, the incident commander, the safety officer and the appropriate company officers should perform a building/scene safety survey to identify health hazards. If you suspect materials may contain asbestos, limit overhaul to what is necessary to prevent re-ignition. Be aware of weakened structural members, sagging or cracked beams, broken joists, holes in floors, burned-out stairways, leaning chimneys and walls. Flag or cordon off any structural hazards and inform all personnel of their locations.

Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, unknown toxic gases and carcinogens, irritants, and other airborne particles may be present. Use a multigas detector like the MSA Orion, to obtain reading levels for oxygen (O2), carbon monoxide (CO) and Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), a highly toxic, flammable gas.

Unfortunately there are many other carcinogens present in smoke that ordinary gas detectors do not detect. These particles may be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Make sure members are always wearing SCBA and PPE during overhaul. Firefighters may resist it, but it’s the best protection we have.

Using PPV fans, like those made by Super Vac and others, is extremely beneficial. They’re not just for fire attack. They introduce fresh air and remove carcinogens that are still being produced by hot debris although there is no visible smoke. PPV air flow can cause hidden ember flare-ups exposing them for final extinguishment.

Many firefighters and fire investigators use full-face respirators during overhaul such as the MSA Advantage 1000. They are excellent for filtering particulates and dust in toxic environments, but cannot be used in oxygen-deficient atmospheres. Of course to protect the health and longevity of your crews, there’s no substitute for SCBA.

Consider frequent crew rotation during overhaul to minimize fatigue and expose fewer firefighters to the hazard zone.

Interior Scene Lighting

Provide adequate scene lighting during night operations, overhaul and post-fire watches. Interior scene lighting is usually the truck company’s responsibility. Whether you have a truck or not, this support task needs to be assigned at every nighttime fire. Even in daytime, the interior fire room can be pitch black and portable interior scene lighting should be set up prior to overhaul.

Lighting up the fireground improves overall safety. Any fall or tripping injury is a costly price to pay for working in the dark when we don’t have to.

Salvage actually starts with the initial fire attack as that begins to reverse destruction. Depending on resources available, certain salvage efforts can take place during the fire attack, but typically salvage takes place simultaneously with overhaul.

Salvage covers and tarps range in size. Visqueen plastic covering is popular now because it is disposable. Crews can pre-cut and roll sheets of Visqueen to cover carpeting and long thin sheets can be used as hall runners.

Water vacuum units with backpacks are used to remove standing water from floors and carpeting along with squeegees and dewatering pumps.

Use ladders and tarps to construct water chutes directed outside when a fused sprinkler head is flowing. It can take some time to drain large sprinkler systems after shutdown. Be quick to make large water catchalls to limit damage to hard wood flooring.

Personal Property

Certain salvageable property, such as antiques and heirlooms, can be moved to non-involved rooms before overhaul begins, or covered with tarps before pulling walls and ceilings. Personal photographs should be collected, boxed or bagged and given to the owner. These are memories and will help comfort the family and may be useful for insurance claims.

Overhaul is the search and final extinguishment of hidden fire. Experience also plays a big role here.

Because we have the ability to tear apart floors, walls, ceiling and attics, it’s easy for some firefighters to become overly aggressive. Keep the enthusiasm in check. This is an emotional event for that family, and it’s important – and professional – that we do not cause more damage than the fire.

SCBA Is Eye Protection

Use the right tools for the job – axes, power saws, pike poles, rubbish hooks, pry bars, Halligan tools, and scoop shovels as necessary. Remember, SCBA is also eye protection.

The thermal imaging camera is a great tool to check for heat in hidden spaces. But it takes training and experience to know the difference between residual heat images and smoldering heat images. Don’t become complacent; visually check if there is any doubt.

There are several types of blown-in insulation, and these can be real problem areas. The smallest ember can travel to a remote part of an attic and smolder for hours in the insulation before it flares up and starts a rekindle. I speak from experience here. The dilemma for the company officer is: “How much insulation do we remove?”

Determine where the debris pile will go before firefighters start overhauling so burned material is only moved once. Cement driveways are preferable; but lay out a few Visqueen sheets and wet them down if you must use lawn areas. This will make it easier for the owner to remove the debris and restore the lawn.

Keep the debris pile away from combustible material, fences and property lines and continually wet it down. Never use an elevator to take out smoldering debris and avoid throwing it from upper story windows. Throwing a mattress or a sofa out a window can fan embedded embers and re-ignite it on the way down. I once saw this happen to a sofa. It flared up, hit the ground and bounced into a window on the first floor. Not good.

Protect Those Below

If it’s impractical to carry debris down the stairs, break down the mattress or sofa into manageable pieces and soak them in a garbage can filled with water before throwing them out the window.

Protect firefighters below. A hoist can be rigged using a ground ladder above the discharge window as an anchor point. A garbage can rapidly transporting debris up and down will keep the pile concentrated. A hoist is especially useful when working on a third floor or higher.

Wet down the debris one last time, and cover the pile with Visqueen. This will deter kids from excavating dangerous and unhealthy “treasures” later and looks professional.

Many civilians don’t understand why the fire department seems to be destroying a house after the flames have died down.

If possible, quickly walk the building owner or occupant through when it is safe. Point out the dangerous areas and explain the respiratory health hazards that will be present for a few days. Remind them to limit exposure if returning later.

Let owners know power and utilities have been secured and warn them not to attempt to turn them back on. Leave that to the insurance companies and the professional salvage companies. Many fire departments have an “After the Fire Is Out” brochure with a checklist for victims, along with phone numbers and contacts for relief agencies.

Secure the building from unauthorized access. Cover holes to protect the structure from the elements and use plywood to cover first-floor doors and windows. Try and leave the building as safe as possible.

Since fire departments are responding to fewer structure fires, firefighters need to learn best overhaul practices. Frequent drills will help them develop good work habits. Overhaul is often the only evidence owners see of our service. Make sure it leaves a professional impression.

Finally, and most important, use the 2/10 rule of thumb to prevent rekindles. (I’m speaking from experience.) Unless you leave a fire watch a fire officer should revisit the scene at least two hours after the incident and again at 10 hours. That’s twice in a 12-hour period—one of which should be in daylight—whether you are a volunteer or career department. Rekindles or equipment left on scene make the whole department look bad.

Two good references are Truck Company Operations by John Mittendorf and the Firefighters Handbook by Delmar Publishers.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo is a 27-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6. 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 U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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