Going to the Rear of the Building

Going to the Rear of the Building

By:Brett Snow

Firefighters killed after falling through the first floor into a basement inferno, victims found at the back door too late into the incident, firefighters being trapped without a second way out, and delayed hoselines to the floor above the fire may be linked to neglecting to assign companies to the rear of a fire structure. The Chicago (IL) Fire Department recognized the necessity for sending a team to the rear of a fire building many years ago. However, still today in the fire service it is not hard to find individuals who have only a vague understanding of the duties of those assigned to the rear.

For the past two years, I have been involved with helping fire departments throughout Illinois and neighboring states to improve their fireground operations. During this time, I discovered that the common response when asked if their department designates someone to the rear is, “Yes, our officer usually completes a 360º of the building before we enter.” Although this is a great practice, I question if the officer knows what to look for or has the time to complete the objectives.

Considering myself as an apprentice and a student of the fire service, I do not believe I am an expert who has all the answers. The information I am sharing comes from personal experience and information collected from very experienced firefighters and chief officers of the Chicago Fire Department. Also, I spent several years working for small departments in the suburbs and volunteering in a small farm town in down state Illinois, so I am quite familiar with personnel issues and various levels of experience. The intention of this article is not to press the ways of Chicago but to stress the important concepts learned through experience and education from others. Believe me, there was a point in my career, before I was hired by Chicago, when I thought I had this job figured out. I was wrong. The more fires I go to, the more I realize I still have a lot to learn.


This question can be answered in many ways, but I feel the following five reasons are particularly important.

Assess the conditions at the rear of the structure. Is there heavy smoke or fire? Is there a need for immediate rescues? Are there subfloor levels? Is there a secondary access to the upper floors or basement?

Check the basement. Is it charged with smoke? If so, is there a fire, or is it “cold smoke?” Cold smoke is smoke being channeled up or down from the fire floor normally by way of interior stairways or outside windows. Even though it may be cold smoke, the need for searches still exists. Understand that most people in fires die from toxic gases before suffering thermal injuries. Also, if there is a walk-out basement door, it will provide a safer route for suppressing a basement fire. Another reason for checking the basement is to shut off the utilities. Many times the utilities can be found just inside the rear door or outside at the rear of the building. If time and conditions permit, the rear team can get the power and gas to the fire building shut off.

Open the rear door to the fire floor. This serves several purposes. First, it allows secondary egress for the interior teams. This is important in commercial buildings as well as residential buildings. Doors that have scissor gates, padlocks, cross bars/boards, and other security measures, such as burglar bars and rolldown gates, can trap and prevent firefighters from escaping life-threatening conditions. Also, opening the rear door can provide a place for the hose team to push head and smoke as they advance to the rear.

Reduce the time it takes to rescue victims found at the back door. A good number of victims are found near the back door. We are creatures of habit. During an emergency evacuation of a residence or business, people choose to use the door they most often use. Ask yourself which door you usually use on a daily basis.

Open the rear door above the fire. This allows for access to begin a primary search above the fire floor and an access point for the second/additional hoseline to be placed above the fire floor.


The difficulty with answering this question lies within the reality that levels of experience or what is considered having experience varies across the country. Many truck companies throughout Chicago assign one firefighter to go to the rear. That firefighter has a radio, is experienced, and has gained the officer’s trust. It is not safe to assign a firefighter with limited experience to this position.

The firefighter assigned to the rear should meet the following basic requirements.

  1. Have a strong understanding of how fire spreads. If you do not understand how fire spreads, especially in certain types of structures, you cannot avoid placing yourself in dangerous positions, will not know where to begin searches, and can worsen the fire conditions through your actions.
  2. Be able to read/size up a building. This skill takes time to develop, like many areas of firefighting. By properly reading a building, you can locate stairways and bedrooms, determine collapse risks, and identify the tools you need. To discipline yourself to slow down and take a look at the building before rushing in is a challenge in itself. Eagerness and anxiety tend to take control, especially in personnel who respond only to one or two fires a year. At times, I am also guilty of tunnel vision and do not read the building, especially when it has been a few work days since the last fire.
  3. Have the ability to read the smoke. The smoke’s color, the speed of its push, and whether it is high or low in the doorway help you to locate the fire, determine if the structure is involved, and indicate where to begin the searches.
  4. Know the tactical priorities for the first-arriving companies. This information will help you formulate priorities, reduce duplication of efforts, and support better decision making on what to do or not do. For example, if it is common for the second engine to stretch a hoseline to the rear and above the fire floor, make sure the door above the fire is opened.
  5. Be skilled at forcible entry. Again, it takes practice to learn how to size up the door or window. Anyone can ram or mule kick in a door, but the required skill levels involve knowing how to use the tools and control the door.

It is recommended that a team of two or more be assigned to the rear of the building. This practice improves safety and efficiency. The members work together and stay aware of conditions, set tools in the door, carry tools, and are accountable for one another. This might be difficult for departments that run with two- or three-person companies. There are a few ways to resolve this issue. First, if your department responds to or receives aid from neighboring towns, consider using members from other companies to form a team. However, if an initial-aid response is not in place, that probably should be your first priority. We all need help sooner or later. Also, increasing the run totals and potential fire duty can greatly improve members’ morale. On the other hand, if an initial-aid response does exist, another option may be to increase the number of companies responding. Be sure, however, that the added responding companies are equipped with the proper knowledge and tools.


As mentioned earlier, going to the rear is not the same as completing a 360º survey around the fire building. The size-up must be completed before beginning the tasks at the rear. The size-up should cover construction, smoke/fire conditions, fire locations, locations of stairways, the location of the first hose team, the types of doors/windows, the time of day, and ways to gain access to the rear.Figuring out how to get to the rear may not always be easy. From my experiences, adjoining buildings, taxpayers, and multifamily buildings have proved to be challenging at times. Many times, we had to force doors of adjacent apartments or businesses just to gain access to the rear. Also, once you arrive at the rear, it may be difficult to determine which door belongs to the fire building. More than once, we found ourselves forcing commercial doors that led to a location different from the fire building. Even though these mistakes may go unnoticed or be denied, they happen to everyone. So, slow down and size up the building.


  • Check the basement. Going to the rear may not always involve only that: It may mean going to the opposite entrance of the first hose team. Once the team is in position, and before forcing doors and taking windows on the fire floor, check the basement. Taking the time to pop a window or force the basement door may prove to be a life-saving habit in the long run. Many basement fires go unnoticed until it is too late.
  • Open the door to the fire floor. The most important thing about forcing the rear door, or any other door for that matter, is to control it. Keeping the integrity of the door enables the team to control the environment both inside and outside the doorway. There may be times when we have to attack from the hinge side; however, keep in mind that once the door is off its hinges, it is unlikely you will be able to hold onto or manage the door if there is a need to control the fire conditions.
  • Search the immediate area. Once the door is opened and this has been communicated to Command, it is now time to search the immediate area – usually within a few feet of the doorway or, if conditions permit, the kitchen or first bedroom. Remember that as the Rear Team, you are now in a position opposite to the hoseline; therefore, conditions are likely to change. Be careful how far you commit yourself.
  • Ventilate the rear windows in coordination with the hose team. If the hose team is not in position, the general advice is not to take out any windows. However, there are several schools of thought on the issue. Depending on the location and intensity of the fire as well as the location of the interior crew, taking out one or two windows ahead of the hose team and a distance from the fire room could allow the smoke to lift off the floor and provide some relief for the victims who may still be inside. Be aware of the changing conditions if you are in an enclosed area such as a stairwell or back porch when considering breaking windows.
  • Open the door above the fire floor, and begin your primary searches. If there is no second floor or no secondary means to the upper floor, be prepared to use ground ladders or regroup to the front or location of the first hoseline to continue searches or complete other needed tasks.


Following are some areas of caution for the Rear Team. To begin with, the Rear Team needs to be aware of the dangers of enclosed areas. As a Rear Team, you will find yourself in many enclosed areas such as interior stairwells, enclosed porches, foyers, and mud rooms, for example. Be aware that your actions can rapidly change that area, so have a Plan B or a second way out of windows, adjacent apartments, roof hatches, etc. Also be sure to control the door if you need to advance to the floors above. Closing the door to the fire floor until you have gained access to the upper floor or forcing it after you have gained access can help maintain workable conditions within the enclosed area. Before forcing the door to the fire floor, consider sizing up the door above. If not, you may find yourself trying to force a door with several locks or burglar gates in poor visibility once the fire floor door has been opened. Also, you do not want to get caught in an enclosed area above a fire floor without an escape route. Therefore, again, shut the door to the fire floor or open the door above first.

One of the most dangerous situations for any team is to be above the fire floor, especially without a hoseline. Members of squads and truck companies routinely face the dangers of being above the fire. This is certainly a time when you need to have a certain level of experience and to be able to stay aware of your surroundings and fire conditions.

I will not get into many details of search and rescue; this could be an entire article in itself. However, here are a few things that I have learned over the years. First, stay within voice contact with your partner. Unless you are in a home with oversized bedrooms or in a commercial building, primary searches are faster and more effective when each person searches a room. Talk to each other, and communicate pertinent information, such as finding bunk beds, a staircase, or holes in floors.

If smoke conditions are heavy and there is little heat, you can vent windows; some may even recommend venting just the top pane. In my experience – and from what I have been taught – if you are going to vent a window, make a door out of it. Clear the entire window because you or someone else may have to use it in an emergency. It is a good practice to take out the top pane first if you are venting a window from the inside. Doing so may release the hot gases and the ceiling level, helping to control the room conditions. However, with today’s new replacement windows, one hard swing from top to bottom and pulling inward removes the entire window and sash, leaving a clean window frame. Also, if conditions permit, simply remove the top and bottom sections by hand. If you choose to vent a window, be prepared; have a plan to get out if conditions begin to worsen. Know where the windows are, and use doors to control the environment.

During a search, get in the habit of checking the floor in front of you as you advance. You may not be able to see holes in the floor, especially if the fire is below you. Also, bouncing a tool on the floor in front of you can help locate weak spots or fire in the floor spaces below you. Another good habit is to shine a flashlight across the floor while putting your face to the floor and following the beam of light. This can help locate victims, fire under closed doors, doorways down the hall, and other conditions. Furthermore, while searching above a fire without a hoseline, monitor your environment. Popping inspection holes in void spaces is another good practice. Always check for fire conditions as you move through the structure. This is not time consuming and will not interfere with your primary search. A quick poke with an ax or pry bar is all it takes.


One void space location I want to stress is knee walls. Knee walls are typically found in frame construction with gable roofs and a finished attic/half story. These spaces can contain a large amount of fire and hot gases that will rapidly change the conditions of the attic living space; this condition has injured and killed many firefighters over the years. Photos 4 and 5 are of a 2½ story frame and an unfinished attic, showing an example of how much space can be found within a knee wall.

As you make your way up the stairs into the attic, pop a hole in the walls on both sides to check the conditions of the knee walls before committing yourself to the attic space. Pulling the wrist portion of your glove over the back of your hand and sliding your hand up against the wall as you climb the stairs is another way to monitor the conditions for fire in the walls.

Going to the rear is a critical assignment that incorporates many facets of fireground operations. You may find yourself throwing ladders to vent-enter-search (VES), stretching a hoseline, forcing multiple doors, and performing primary and secondary searches. To be an effective rear team member, you will need to advance your training in the areas discussed here and train in them on a regular basis.

Note: There are situations when you have to access the upper floors by ground ladders to search targeted rooms because other means of getting to the upper floors are exposed to fire or bottlenecked with fire companies. This can be very dangerous, but it is necessary. VES should be a separate area of discussion.

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