What Our Ears Tell Us In A Fire

What sounds do we hear inside an interior operation? What do those sounds tell us? What do our probie’s from the burn tower generation hear vs. those from the burn everything for training generation? The sounds you hear on a fireground can lend great information to situational awareness of an ongoing changing interior environment. I have asked a few big names in the fire service about this topic, and amazingly, not a lot of discussion or thought has been given to this topic nationally. The goal is not to cover every single sound, but rather to bring this topic into discussion like all other facets of firefighting. Hopefully, this becomes talk at training and drills.

Recently I was talking with my friend Paul Hashagen about the sounds on the fireground. Paul retired from FDNY Rescue 1, is a firefighting author, historian, and a past Chief of Freeport Long Island Fire Department. I asked him about certain sounds we hear and encounter inside of a fire building. I wanted a story or his slant on this topic to share. The following is what Paul had to say. “A while back, before 9-11 I was having a conversation with my dear friend Ed Geraghty, (Battalion chief lost on 9-11). We were talking about the sound of irons working. When we broke in the sound of a flat head ax pounding a halligan into a door was a common one. Now with hydraulic forcible entry tools, it’s pretty quiet.
We remembered being engine guys, working hard to pull a line up a tenement stairs while the truckies were making the irons “RING” upstairs. It was a motivational sound. Get the line up there before it got quiet. Sadly, that’s lost. I remember a job where the rabbit tool broke, and we had to use irons, and the young guys wondered “What’s that noise?”

“In my grandfathers day, (1918-1944) the FDNY hook and ladder trucks had exhaust whistles attached to the rigs. The good old Buckeye! This thing screamed as the truck rolled in. My grandfather told me it was nice to hear as the engine guys scrambled to hook up and stretch into position. In an era before radios, you didn’t have to wonder when the truck was coming. You could hear them!”

Scenario: Your fire department is dispatched to a three-story walk-up brick, ordinary construction, apartment building for a smell of smoke. While riding in on the first due engine, the chief confirms smoke coming from a window street side on the second floor. The engine officer knowing the address of the fire turns and tells you and a new member to pull a 250′ 1.75” cross lay with an automatic nozzle. So out of the engine, you go with your new man in tow. He is so pumped up talking a mile a minute that for a split second it throws you back to your first job. In the front door, you go, as the police department is getting the last frantic people out to safety. They are crying and yelling as the police officer says to you “I left the door open for you upstairs.” Translation “ I am spreading this fire for you guys.” As you and your probie get up to the second-floor landing, you stop to mask up as your officer, who is ahead of you, calls for water. As you mask up, you notice how the new member has gone from excitement to having a nervous, insecure look in his eyes. You, being a seasoned firefighter, look at the fire rolling out in the hall

and pushing upstairs and I like to say “that anticipation anxiety sets in.” It reminds myself of how I would feel before my high school ball games I looked forward to. You’re not scared or overwhelmed, just definitely anticipating getting the chance to have a good knock.

Great, your line comes to life, and it’s time to make the push. As you both make your way towards the fire, here comes the truck crew loud as hell up the stairs. They go by you as you open up and knock all the flames rolling out and up into the hallway. Two truck guys go to the floor above; the others will search in the fire apartment. This quick commotion also startled your new member a bit. In training, the truck guys didn’t seem to move so fast and aggressive, but then again, they were not seasoned vets in training. As you make it to the apartment door, you can hear the fire crackling and eating the interior of the apartment. Everything hanging on the walls heats up, burns or melts and falls on the floor. It’s the first time your new member has heard a real fire consuming a structure. Now you open up the pipe and the sound of rushing cool water blasting a deteriorating hot ceiling that falls apart giving the new guy another shock to his ears. “Is the building collapsing?” he silently wonders. You, being the good firefighter you are, set a very good example at this point. He will be part of that, and it will stick with him forever. You close the pipe after a few seconds to evaluate what your stream has just accomplished. The water hitting the floor with part of the deteriorating room eases up. This is typical and also a time you are evaluating the dynamics of the initial hit. An aggressive push is good, and being smart means survival. Sounds are clues to conditions and fire dynamics. You can only get the full, real feel, inside a real fire. You have just given the new member his first real-life example of a fire in real time and speed. While this is going on, you hear the O.V. firefighter clearing out windows. You don’t even give it a second thought except for a fast mental note of “I have another means of egress on my left if needed.” The new guy, however, hears a train smashing through a plate glass window on Main street. All the while these things are happening, your officer shouts muffled encouragement to the new guy. The entire time he’s trying to process “My gosh, this is a real fire, and here I am in the middle of it, all these loud, chaotic noises.” Truck crews clearing glass, banging around, searching, starting to open up while the line is dropping pieces of the ceiling in the apartment and knocking things off tables. The sound of firefighters on the floor above and let’s not forget the six portable radios on full blast. I think you get my point. Two words: Sensory overload, for a new member.

So I write this article because I’m sure many of us have experienced a few occasions like this in recent years. I have been interior and have had to reassure newer members the banging and stuff falling from the wall and ceiling are completely normal when inside a fire that is eating up a room or apartment. After watching newer members operate interior that graduated from the burn building era, we can notice a lot more apprehension and startled body language than in the past with recruits. This is not a slight to the more recent brother and sisters to come aboard, but a recognition of how we need to talk about the differences they will face on the fireground vs. training in terms of speed, noises, and overall atmosphere. Anticipating a skittish reaction to the sounds of the firefight should be expected for new folks. It’s not the same as someone who is truly scared to work interior, rather someone hearing noises and sounds that can’t always be replicated in today’s recruit schools. We all have had that first fire experience. Excitement,

butterflies, respect for the situation at hand, and not wanting to let our brother and sisters down. Remember the adrenaline rush after your first knockdown? Going over every little detail with anyone who will listen. What you heard, saw and did. Looking for that positive nod and reinforcement from your peers. It’s certainly a big deal in one’s career.

What are the some of those sounds they will hear? What do they translate to the brain about the environment they are operating in? Some sounds are very clear as to what they should key-up in our minds. Others can be a challenge for new members.

First the low hanging fruit of sounds we may encounter.
1) Pass alarms: If anyone doesn’t know it’s sound and meaning, shame on your leaders. 2)Radio traffic: Keeping it short for this article, obviously the radio provides a wealth of

information, and all should hopefully be assigned one.
3)Voice to voice contact, both with members and the public fleeing: Communicating with those fleeing has benefits and helps paint a picture of what you have ahead, victims, location of the fire, etc.. Voice contact with our own members to share information as situations change and progress.

3) Everyone’s favorite, the automatic alarms piercing the air with a high pitched shriek that takes forever to shake. They serve a purpose, but it is mental torture to work with those inside a fire until the electric burns out or someone can silence.

4) Noise of arriving apparatus should translate into the second or third due is arriving. This tells you the full team is arriving to the fight, and you can expect second and third due tasks to be completed.

Now let’s get into some of the other sounds members will hear when operating inside and what those sounds tell us.

Window glass being broke and failing. A distinct difference between the two.

1a) Assuming you are working in limited or a no visibility environment, on searching the floor above and the fire auto exposes to your floor. One of the windows on your floor gets the heat and direct flame impingement from below. Eventually, the glass will fail. When this happens, you will hear a consistent, rather quick, failing/shattering noise followed immediately by an impact on the floor. If you hear no floor impact, you could have a piece of furniture, such as a sofa or bed directly under the window. Assume the worst; it could even be a victim the glass has landed on. Move to the sound of the failing glass to search asap. Will your new guy hear the glass break and key in on all the variables? Will he or she recognizes this is a failure of glass and not the O.V. taking the window? Will it dawn on them I now may have fire entering the room I am in? My clock to work just lost valuable time? Don’t overlook these types of things in training.

1b) Window glass being taken by the O.V. This is pretty easy to hear and process. The O.V. firefighter taking a window is not as mellow as a failure due to heat. It’s usually loud and unmistakable, especially when they start clearing the sash, and the ac in the summertime. This sound from the O.V. should key the probie to the fact conditions should improve, and I have another means of egress.

Also, the O.V. may give a shout to see if anyone is working the room so he can go on to other areas. Make sure we replicate this in training.

2)The roof firefighter and his saw going. On top floor fires, this means relief from heat and improved visibility. This also means one of the tactics that need to happen in rapid-fire succession is being carried out as it should. I have been to a few fires where the roof had been neglected until an interior member calls out to ask how is the roof coming? The response ” we are working on it.” Translation: “we forgot”! I worked one fire in a 2.5 story wood frame with an early 1900’s tin roof. I had the nozzle in the attic and was getting beat by the heat. A fire started on the second floor and got up into a fuel loaded attic. The lieutenant behind me couldn’t get an answer via radio about the roof. Not hearing the saw operating or the truck idle up to deploy the ladder, we realized we were not getting the roof support needed anytime soon and had to retreat. We ended up with a new house at this location. The officer in charge let us down. More importantly the homeowner we serve.

3) Other members operating. Where you hear them working can give you a mental picture of the fire ground operation coming together. What you hear them doing, forcing doors, stretching the second line to the floor above. These all should key us up mentally to what’s happening around us.

4)Those in colder areas of the country with chimney fires can tell you how it sometimes sounds like a jet plane racing in the chimney and walls. Leaving you no doubt you have a chimney/structure fire.
5)The sound of a victim struggling for life. From faint gasps for breath to a frantic scream for help. Move to the sound.

So fire ground sounds can tell us many things. It enhances situational awareness, can serve as motivation, or a way to validate a certain task is being carried out. Most importantly it can save a life. Let’s ensure we talk to and train all our members on those fire ground sounds and what they mean to the incident at hand. Knowing sounds is adding to our mental encyclopedia of fireground knowledge. To those who already incorporate the above in recruit training awesome! To those who don’t, we need to start. If we can replicate those sounds in training, and stop the evolution to quiz the recruit on what they hear and what does it mean to them and the overall operation, we are sowing the seeds of real, potentially lifesaving fireground knowledge.

Stay safe.

About the author:
Ed Dolan is a 29-year member of the Catskill Fire Department in New York. He has served sixteen years as a chief officer and currently assists with the department training program. He is a frequent contributor to many different firefighting forums.