Clutching at Pearls Over Roof Ventilation

By Bill Carey
27 January 2023

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) responded to a fire in a mixed occupancy structure (businesses on the first floor and apartments on the second floor) in the city’s downtown area. 

The incident began as a police matter involving the arrest of a battery suspect. The suspect began throwing objects at officers and had set his apartment on fire. He later jumped from a balcony and was taken into custody.

Video of the fire showed fireground operations and attention toward firefighters working on the roof of the burning structure. The firefighters performing vertical ventilation involving multiple cuts drew the distaste and indignation of many on social media.

Images and videos on social media of firefighters doing vertical ventilation are usually a source of great argument on the pros and cons, the risk and benefits, and the sanity and insanity of the department involved. Rather than be pacified by accepting how a fire department works (unless working for the said fire department), viewers begin clutching at pearls, beating a dead horse called ‘tradition’, and repeating false information about firefighter fatalities.

The LAFD Explains

In an interview from the scene, the LAFD explained why its firefighters were on the roof and followed it up with additional details in a press release.

“This is something we do train for. That’s our business, and we will take all of those extreme, times where we put ourselves out there based on the fact that there may be lives at risk, and this was one of those events. If we didn’t have any occupants then the lives at risk were the firefighters inside.”[1]

LAFD Assistant Chief Dean Zipperman

“In a matter of minutes, heavy fire was consuming the 2nd floor. This was an occupied building with residents or business owners possibly still inside therefore firefighters initiated an aggressive offensive operation. Fire attack entered the building and ascended to the 2nd floor but were met with extreme heat and heavy fire, forcing them to back off until the truck companies could perform vertical ventilation.”  

“As the truck company cut multiple holes in the roof to vent the flames, heat and gases, conditions started to improve and fire attack gradually made their way forward. However, the fire extended up into the attic, necessitating more ventilation to ensure the interior fire attack crews were provided the safest environment possible to conduct their operation. The truck company continued cutting holes while moving back towards their ladder. Their dedicated efforts gave the necessary cover for firefighters inside the building to knockdown the fire.”[2]

Captivated by Fire

Roof ventilation gets the attention it does for the images it has. The very nature of the work, without seeing it happen, creates the mental image of working over flames, treading on an unstable surface, and cutting it, all the while possibly plunging into the inferno below. The imagery can be related to Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Rogier van der Weyden’s painting “The Damned Plunging into Hell,” and Dante’s “Inferno” which is Italian for hell. 

The sermon and art are not critical of the action, but they and other images like them are in our minds and are recalled with fear and anxiety when ventilation is seen. Likewise, the knowledge of firefighters killed while doing vertical ventilation is added in, especially with the imagery of those tragic fires on their anniversaries. This visualization is not as easy to have when talking about firefighters killed in flashovers or structural collapses because we don’t see the work going on inside like we do on the roof of a burning building.

More Die in Less Risky Situations

A low or zero number in a line of duty death activity does not mean that the risk has been lessened. Instead, it means we may be working smarter. Maybe we are not getting onto roofs as we did decades ago. I doubt that and since we have no way of measuring our success all we do is agree on the facts from the data. It is certainly not luck.

It has been 11 years since a firefighter died specifically falling through the roof of a burning structure at the point where he was beginning to work. Tomorrow we could wake up to the news that this streak has been unfortunately broken, but it is still a good streak. Meanwhile, deaths involving firefighters driving apparatus are the highest they have been in 10 years. 


There are many rote social media comments when it comes to fireground operations. “Killing hundreds of firefighters” is one of them. It’s time to put that dead horse out to pasture.


  1. LAFD, YouTube January 27, 2023
  2. “Aggressive Fight Saves Businesses” Margaret Stewart, Spokesperson LAFD, January 27, 2023

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash.
Edited to remove a duplicate paragraph, 28 Jan.

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

3 thoughts on “Clutching at Pearls Over Roof Ventilation

  1. Great Article, data is science, we have to use that without undue emotion. We have to be smart when training, learning and firefighting.


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