Common Cockloft Fires in Wood Frame Dwellings



Fires in wood-frame buildings with a common cockloft may present one of the biggest challenges your department will face firematically.  These fires can often start out as “bread & butter” kitchen or bedroom fires, however due to the lack of fire stops and other construction features the fire can get a jump before anyone even phones in the initial alarm.  Much like any successful operation in the fire service, it’s not magic and hope that prevail.  These fires are fought & won with a good understanding of basic fire-ground skills /building construction and well-designed SOPs that put each Co. and member in a position to be efficient and effective.


Buildings Construction:


“The building is your enemy. Know your enemy.”- Francis L. Brannigan


As defined in Collapse of Burning Buildings by D.C. Vincent Dunn (FDNY, Ret.), a cockloft is defined as “Concealed space above the ceiling”.   In the case of the “common cockloft”, we’re talking about the space above the ceiling below the roof that runs the length of numerous buildings and in some case an entire block!  The general make up of these buildings are balloon frame construction with flat roofs, ranging in age from 75-100+ years old.  The two biggest issues faced here are the ability for lateral fire spread in the wide open cockloft & the resulting drop-down in walls/voids from the balloon framing. 



Apparatus placement & Water Supply:


These fires will show your strengths & weaknesses in a big hurry. On a typical single family dwelling fire, if the engine parks right in front or the truck doesn’t get the best shot, we can usually fudge our way through it and in an hour’s time, it’s all over with. 


Not here, getting the initial alarm Engine Co.’s in position for multiple lines off and long stretches is key. What direction is your tail board? Will your pre-connect reach to exposure 2C? What’s the plan for extending a line? Can your MPO pump multiple lines of varying lengths? 


For greater alarm engines, what’s the plan? “Nosing” into the block may be easy and the temptation to park the rig and bring the whole crew up to operate in the building is strong, I’m guilty myself.  Realistically big water will be needed here at some point whether it’s for multiple 1.75’’ and 2.5” lines operating in buildings or for mutliversals and elevated master streams/ tower ladders. To make all that work, greater alarm engines should be backing into the block in preparation for laying a line out from a Ladder Co or split laying with an initial engine go to augment their water supply.  This is a good time to mention a few water supply pet peeves; 1) Having your hydrants labeled for estimated flow ranges/ main sizes helps immensely when we’re 6 buildings deep and want max water. 2) The ole “two 3” lines are equal one 5” line” is fake news.  LDH will allow for significantly higher GPMs/ lower friction loss, knowing that you may face 600’-1000’ lays to get to “good water”/ a different main the difference between the two becomes rather apparent. 


From the Truck Co. side of things, getting the rig in a spot to use the ladder-pipe/ tower-ladder guns is probably not a shocker, but how we use them may be. The “Shower Ladder” never saved a block.  If it comes down to using the master streams, remember that getting the water “up and in” is 100% more effective than dumping a few thousand GPMs down from above either on a partially burned through roof or into a small hole. Tower ladders are generally designed with this in mind and work well, ladder pipes can have a hard time. It’s not illegal to place a 30-degree elbow off the pump panel on the ladder pipe to be able to achieve the steep angle needed to hit the cockloft. Again, the basics apply make sure if you’re using a pre-piped water way it’s pinned to the last fly and try to have the ladder only 3/4s of the way fully extended to keep some rigidity and not put all the nozzle reaction on the last fly. The same goes for ground monitors / multiversals; get the base tight to the building and get the tip/ stream as vertical as possible to actually make it in the top floor windows and into the cockloft. More than once it’s been said “you’re” filling the dresser draws but not putting the fire out” don’t be that Co. 


Initial Size Up & Operations:


Obviously checking for extension in exposure buildings early on will be key to determining where to start placing lines and how much help will be needed.  Whether you call it flow path (2015) or an Air tract (late 19thcentury) we all know if we start to poke holes in places, we will end up with fire. Check for extension wisely by using the butt end of hooks and in confined spots like a closet where you can shut the door and limit fire spread before the line is in place.  



Depending on the initial assignment and overall staffing, the IC may choose to “skip down” or “write off” a building that has signs of advanced fire in the cockloft initially, this allowing for a little more time to get in position in the next building down. 





Stopping heavy fire in a cockloft form the interior / topside (roof) certainly is doable. This will require coordination & effort. Once the starting point (A building that has little or a manageable amount of fire in it) has been determined, get lines to the top floor and members on the roof. 


The roof members will set the initial pace here, the best move may be a strip or “trench” cut depending on where you are in the country they mean slightly different things. The goal here is to make a fire break, that means on the roof AND directly below our hole.  Cutting the “Y axis” if we looked at the roof as a line graph from above or from back to front/front to back will be the move. How deep is that span, 30’ give or take? So we need a 30’ x 3’ hole, how many members, saws & hooks can you throw at it off the rip? Four members with two-three saws, and four hooks is a good start. All saws aren’t created equal for this, chain saws seem to take a beating from all the tar/roofing material and quit. If available circular saws with aggressive toothed blades work well, if not know how to maximize your chain saws. 


Once the hole is cut and being pulled, we can start to really open up below and play our lines into the cockloft. This is not to say while to hole is being made engine members are sitting idle, they can certainly make a reasonable sized hole, stand on the refrigerator and operate the line, just don’t make an opening so large the fire over runs your position. 


These fires take a lot of manpower, if you’re the average sized urban job, you have enough to get started but help isn’t right around the corner. This is where autonomy of Co.’s can be useful. Instead of asking for a Truck Co. to pull ceilings, accept that you as an engine and maybe even an engine officer may have to do it yourself while other members of your crew run the line. Chances are most of the Truck & Rescue members will be on the roof to start if we’re trying to offensively put this fire out.  


The Devil is in the Details:


These are marathons fires, they can take an hour or two to get under control and longer to fully extinguish. This means the little things add up; do your incoming mutual aid departments have the same hydrant connections, can they talk to you on the radio? How many SCBA cylinders will you need, how can you fill them? What’s the plan for getting fresh members, how legit does rehab need to be? 


Above everything else, Chiefs, Co. Officers & Members all need to be committed to the task at hand and stick it out until the job is done.  We all signed up to go to fires, not take blood sugars. 

Buildings that share a cockloft can present challenges unlike any other type of construction type. Solid SOPs and disciplined Co.’s/ members are a must.

Buildings that share a cockloft can present challenges unlike any other type of construction type. Solid SOPs and disciplined Co.’s/ members are a must.

Adding a 30 degree elbow off the pump panel to the ladder pipe will allow a steeper angle and deeper penetration into the cockloft. Care should be taken to not put too much nozzle reaction on the ladder.

Adding a 30 degree elbow off the pump panel to the ladder pipe will allow a steeper angle and deeper penetration into the cockloft. Care should be taken to not put too much nozzle reaction on the ladder.