Fires overhead: improving firefighting tactics for commercial roofs

Volume 17, Number 3, September 2012

Researchers at NRC Construction are collaborating with the Ottawa Fire Services and the Canadian Police Research Centre in conducting tests to evaluate various tactics for fighting fires in commercial roofs. The goals of the project are to improve the effectiveness and safety of firefighters battling these fires, to protect occupants, and to reduce the risk of major damage to buildings.

Guidelines for firefighting tactics of roof fires are being developed

Roofs on commercial and industrial buildings usually contain some combustible materials, such as polyurethane insulation and polymeric membranes. A fire in a building can lead to ignition of these combustible materials, causing flames and smoke to spread quickly through the roof. This can pose a significant risk to the occupants, as well as to the building and its contents. Firefighters working on top of a burning building are also at risk of falling through the damaged roof.

While the safety of firefighters is of paramount importance, it is also critical that they employ the most effective tactic for controlling and extinguishing the fire. Although they have a variety of tactics at their disposal, firefighters do not have objective data showing which tactic is most effective.

NRC is addressing this issue by conducting laboratory research in two phases. In the first phase the effectiveness of each firefighting tactic in controlling fire spread through a roof is being determined by exposing small-scale roof sections (1.5 by 4 m) to fire and measuring how heat and smoke move through them.

In the second phase of the project, researchers will test the most effective tactic in a full-scale commercial roof fire. This test will be conducted in a building section to be constructed at NRC’s large fire laboratory near Ottawa. Two industrial partners that manufacture innovative equipment for firefighters and other first responders (Task Force Tips Inc. and MREL Group of Companies Ltd.) will participate in this phase to determine how their equipment can best be used to fight commercial roof fires.

The commercial roof project continues NRC’s work with fire services across Canada to improve their ability to fight fires safely and effectively. NRC offers unique expertise and facilities for conducting tests, evaluations and training exercises for firefighters.

Evaluation tests for the commercial roof fire project will continue until February 2013. The improved commercial roof firefighting tactics developed in this project will be published in the form of guidelines for use by firefighters across North America.

For more information

For more information on this project, NRC's other work with fire services, or opportunities to participate in future projects, visit the website or contact Cameron McCartney at or 613-993-9775.