How to Attack Attic Fires: Strategic, Tactical and Task-Level Considerations

attack attic fires

Phoenix Fire Department Deputy Chief Jeff Case Phoenix Fire Department Deputy Chief Jeff Case spoke in January during Firehouse World in San Diego. His topic covered critical factors one should consider when creating a plan of attack on an attic fire. Chief Case took some time to speak with TargetSolutions recently to answer a few questions about how to approach fire department training for attic fires.

Attic fires present so many unique challenges. What are some of the tactical priorities firefighters need to consider when they are faced with an attic fire?

I think the first thing is to realize that you can’t approach every fire the same. The approach we take when discussing attic fires is to make sure that one considers the unique characteristics of an attic fire compared to a room and contents fire.

If you have sized it up right – upon your arrival – an isolated attic fire has not caused significant interior damage to a homeowner’s things or to the interior contents. Therefore, your primary focus should still be to put the fire out, but to also make sure that the approach you take puts a priority on saving the homeowner’s stuff versus saving their trusses.

People really don’t care about their trusses. Their roof can be replaced, but interior contents – rooms, valuables, and things we really don’t have the ability to make a decision in regards to what is the most valuable to somebody – those valuables can’t be replaced. So your approach should be to create and execute a plan that addresses putting the fire out while simultaneously salvaging a homeowner’s things.

We need to set a priority that once we have an all clear, or life safety addressed, our primary focus is on making sure we save people’s things, and that secondary damage – the damage that we cause – doesn’t add to the loss of people’s valuables. Basically, putting an attic fire attack plan in place addressing that priority is the focus of how we address attic fires.

What are some of the most critical factors on the fireground that firefighters need to keep in mind? How can these factors help them determine their strategy?

I think when addressing attic fires, the most critical factors are, “is the fire isolated?” Also known as, what is the state of the fire?

If the fire is isolated to the attic area and the smoke is not impinging in a dangerous way on firefighters. It is also important that they make that size-up early, and that they clearly communicate that critical factor early. Therefore, everybody on the fireground knows that the focus is on putting the fire out, but has also now shifted to a salvage or saving-of-things focus. To do that properly, the second most critical fireground factor needs to be the consideration of construction features, and the building itself.

In other words, recognizing that when you have a vaulted ceiling, scissor truss, compartmentalized attic you can’t take a standard approach when going inside. One can’t pull the ceiling and hope to be successful in fighting that fire. Instead, you’ve got to find different ways of getting into those void spaces and different attack points to extinguish the fire without causing massive internal or interior damage to the home.

Therefore, one needs to look at options like penetrating nozzles, options like roof attacks, and gable-end attacks. Also, one needs to look at options that factor into keeping the lid inside intact while one puts water into the compartmentalized areas of the attic.

The other critical factor would be your resources, and how you use those resources. We try to really teach members to avoid non-specific assignments like “Come in and assist,” to a second company. Rather, it is best to communicate clear plans with clear communication directives to a second company such as “we have isolated attic fire; we’re going to attack this from the east gable end. We’re going to keep the lid intact…” or “second company, come in and bring a penetrating nozzle to the interior; we’ve got an isolated attic fire. We’re going to attempt to convert this fire.”

So I would say that three most critical factors would be the location of the fire and whether it is isolated. Second would be the building construction type and how that factors into the attack that you choose. If you have tile roofs and other things under that category, that can complicate the attack. Third would be the use of your resources, and the allocation of those resources.

How do operations vary based on whether it’s a new home or an older home?

The operations vary based on your ability to perform functions involving a vaulted ceiling, scissor truss, light-weight construction, or a tile roof home. From an operations stand point, if we go in there with a standard “I’m going to go in and attack this thing from underneath,” then you go to pull the ceiling and you end up having only 10% access to that attic because it is so compartmentalized. So you really can’t be successful without causing tremendous damage on the interior.

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Therefore, you’re going to have to approach that vaulted ceiling, scissor truss home from gable ends or from multiple roof points. Maybe even from an aerial ladder or from an aerial platform ladder.

Second, critical point from an operations standpoint of construction is knowing how long you can work under an attic that’s involved. From a safety standpoint, once you’ve gotten an all clear on the home, the only real life safety issue we’re dealing with is our own firefighters. So understanding the more modern conventional framed 2-by-6 regular plywood sheeting roof; you could park a truck up on that thing and it’s going to withstand a much greater impact from the fire before collapse. With the tile roof vaulted ceiling homes, we’ve seen catastrophic collapse of those roofs due to the weight of the impact from the tile in a compromised light-weight truss.

Maybe one is a gusset plate. Wood versus nails. OSB versus plywood. In these structures, you see much early collapse and therefore compromise those working underneath it.

The other factor would be the ability to size-up a building, and what operationally would impact your ability to access gable ends. Do they have gable ends or do you need to create a false gable end to attack it? What percent of the attic space is reachable by one gable versus doing multiple gable attacks? Things of that nature.

Are there certain protocols for a particular buildings based upon the age of the structures?

One could attach a year to the building, and say that from the late 80s or 90s on you start to see much more light-weight truss constructions. And 70s or 80s homes are more conventionally framed. But more important than trying to attach a year to certain building is being able to teach firefighters how to size buildings up – how to do that quickly, rapidly, and having deliberate consideration of what you’re seeing from the home.

And so, knowing your first priorities, doing pre-plans, and driving areas to know where you have maybe balloon frame construction versus platform construction. Understanding the differences in most types absolutely plays into it, but I tend to teach more about building construction. I talk about the years and the type one through five constructions, but I focus more on size-up when you are on the scene and looking for signs. Such as signs of a vaulted ceiling, signs of a light-weight construction – all things that would factor into your decision about what your attack plan is going to be.

That really is the essence of the whole discussion about attic fires. It is important to have a plan that is specific to that structure and the level of fire that you see, and its exposure to the interior. Then we must communicate that plan clearly to everybody coming in.


About the Author

Deputy Chief Jeff Case serves as a Shift Commander on the Phoenix Fire Department. As a Shift Commander he helps administrate the department’s Command Training Center and the management of Fire, Medical and Special Operation responses. Chief Case helped design and run Mesa Community College’s (MCC) Virtual Incident Command Center. Faculty member MCC, and adjunct instructor with TEEX’s WMD/EMS response program. Bachelor’s degree, Fire Service Management and a Master’s degree in Education.

Bio and photo of Jeff Case are courtesy of To read more about Case’s presentations at Firehouse World, please click here.

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