No Room-and-Contents Fire in High-Rise Multiple Dwellings Is Routine

By Daniel Sheridan

Of course, we have routine room-and-contents fires on a daily basis in every corner of the world, but the potential always exists for one of these fires to turn very ugly quickly without warning. A wind-driven fire is our worst-case scenario at every high-rise multiple dwelling (HRMD). I recently spent a day teaching a class on HRMDs in a fairly large city on the West Coast.The day before the scheduled class day, I spent a few hours in the academy getting familiar with the city’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) for these types of buildings. I asked some of the staff members at the academy to show me what type of hose they usually bring with them into these types of buildings. 

We went over to the apparatus near the training tower; they showed me their “Hotel Pack.” It was two lengths of 1¾-inch hose with a fog nozzle attached. The instructor told me that this is what they use for routine room-and-contents fires in HRMDs. For the bigger jobs or fires in commercial buildings, the city fire department uses 2½-inch hose; however, firefighters have to pull the hose from the hosebed and make up the bundles in the street. I believe that the department does not get many fires in these types of buildings, but I did see enough of these buildings in the city to know that the potential for a major event exists.
 
I probably pay more attention to these types of fires because the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) gets these types of fires on a fairly regular basis. My first assignment after I completed the academy was to a truck company that was surrounded by New York City housing project buildings. When I was promoted to lieutenant, again, I was surrounded by such buildings. I have definitely have had my share of routine room-and-contents fires in these buildings.
 
Actually, all fires are room-and-contents because the structure doesn’t burn, but that doesn’t mean that the potential doesn’t exist for one of these fires to turn bad in an instant. One of my first fires in one of these buildings was a living room fire. I was assigned the can position. When we reached the fire floor, which was the 19th floor, we forced the door and found some furniture burning in the living room. The officer ordered me to use my 2½-gallon extinguisher to knock down the fire. I knocked most of it down, and we proceeded to search the rear bedrooms. We suddenly heard lots of glass breaking: the firefighter on the roof began taking the windows, and the hoseline was not in place yet. We were on the other side of the room when a gust of wind blew in and lit up the room. We were now trapped. We found refuge in a bedroom and watched the engine come in and extinguish the fire.
 
When call to these types of buildings, we should always prepare for the worst-case scenario. Getting a hoseline in place in a HRMD is not like stretching a hoseline in a two-story private dwelling. I believe that the National Fire Protection Association requires something like 90 seconds to get a hoseline in operation. We would be lucky if we could get the hose off the apparatus and into the lobby in 90 seconds. Getting a hoseline operating in a HRMD requires taking an elevator, hooking up three lengths to a standpipe outlet, flaking out the hose on the floor below in sometimes cramped stairwells, and making it to the fire apartment door—that is, if it is left open. This can be an arduous task. Given all the potential factors for disaster, do we really want to go into this fight without our best weapon? It is not like being in a private dwelling, where you could get a backup line going in two minutes.
 
I remember that back in the 1980s the New York Police Department (NYPD) still used 38-caliber handguns; they were six-shooters. The bad guys were carrying semiautomatic weapons and had the NYPD outgunned, yet the NYPD was reluctant to change, I do not know why; maybe it was because that is always the way they did things and didn’t want to change. It is the same with us in the fire service. We don’t want to change, because this is how we have always done things. Yet, we need to realize that the average fire load is not the same as it was.
 
When I came on the job, you would catch a job in a HRMD. The apartment had scarce furnishings, mostly cellulous-based products. Considering that a pound of wood contains about 8,000 British thermal units, the fire load was not too heavy. Today, those same apartments are loaded with all sorts of plastics, big-screen TVs, computers, microwaves, wall units, and so on. Since plastics carry a fuel load of about 18,000 Btus per pound and there has been an increase in the number of items in these apartments, the fuel load has probably tripled. A gallon of water will extinguish a pound of wood, which means that a gallon of water will extinguish only about a half pound of plastics.
 
I recently watched a video of a flashover test that Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. performed. It involved two identical rooms furnished with the same items, except that the legacy room was furnished with items from the 1980s and the other room with current items, which were made of oil-based materials. I refer to these items as “solid gasoline.” The “modern” room flashed in 3 minutes, 40 seconds; the legacy room flashed in about 30 minutes.
 
I would not be as aggressive today in these buildings as I was 20 years ago. At a night fire to which we responded in a HRMD on one July 4, I was assigned forcible entry, and my good friend, Billy, who was an excellent firefighter, had the can. When we arrived on the sixth floor, the fire floor, the door to the fire apartment was open, and the hallway was pitch black with zero visibility. I went right; Billy went left. I came upon the fire apartment by sheer luck: The door was open, and the living room was almost fully involved. The engine company was a little delayed in getting water; this was the first time the apparatus driver was driving to a fire.
 
I called to Billy and the lieutenant that I had found the fire. When we got to the door, we were stuck: We had a lot of fire and no hoseline. We had a report that the occupant may still be in the apartment. Billy said to me, “I got it.” He meant that he could knock down the fire with the can. He told me, “Go get the back bedroom.” I had full confidence in him, so I didn’t even hesitate and went past the fire and got to the rear bedroom. When I got to the rear bedroom, the “crying” that I heard turned out to be a cat meowing. I don’t think that we would be able to do something like that these days considering everything.        
 
I have read an excellent two-part article in Fire Engineering (“A Quantitative Approach to Selecting Nozzle Flow Rate and Stream, Part 1,” October 2010, and Part 2, January 2011) concerning choosing the right hose and nozzle for your fire attack. The authors (Jason N. Vestal and Eric A. Bridge) present a lot of scientific data to support their nozzle choice. If after reading these articles you still are not convinced that it would be a bad idea to bring a fog nozzle into a HRMD fire, I offer a few more reasons below:
 
1. Higher pressures are needed in HRMDs. For a fire on the 21st floor of a HRMD, you will need 200 psi to charge the system if using a 2½-inch hose with a smooth bore nozzle. Ideally, with three lengths of hose, you would require 70 psi at the standpipe outlet. Each length has a friction loss of 5 psi. You would need an additional 5 psi because you are hooking up the hoseline on the floor below. That gives 50 psi at the nozzle. If you are using a fog nozzle, you will need to add another 50 psi. The maximum pressure with which we can operate without going into high-pressure operations in FDNY is 250 psi.
 
2. There is a chance that debris may clog the nozzle. If you don’t first flush the outlet before hooking up your hoseline, any debris in the system will clog the nozzle. With a smooth bore 1⅛-inch nozzle, there is a better chance that the debris will pass through. With a fog nozzle, there is no chance. Even if you flush the outlet, there is still a chance that any debris in the pipe itself can eventually make its way to the nozzle and clog it.
 
3. Higher fuel loads exist today. People have more things these days, and most of them are made of some sort of plastic. As stated in the articles I mentioned above, you would need to flow roughly 675 gpm to get the same fire power. With the increase in fire loads, our gpm demands are way up.
 
4. There is a chance of mechanical failure. I once watched an engine company attempt to extinguish a fire in Lima, Peru, with a fog nozzle. It basically blew apart. Smooth bore nozzles are pretty basic: a simple shutoff moves a ball inside the nozzle to open and close the nozzle. A fog nozzle is way too complicated and has too many moving parts. I don’t want to be in a hallway of a HRMD with heavy fire ahead of me relying on a nozzle that has that many moving parts.
 
5. There is always a chance of human error, I watched another engine company in Santiago, Chile, enter a fully involved construction storage room fire in a HRMD with the fog nozzle on full fog. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I am surprised that the whole company didn’t get seriously burned. I was running some drills recently in Guadalajara, Mexico. We were stretching 2½-inch hoselines with a smooth bore nozzle into a vacant HRMD, where we were doing live burns. The only other nozzle they had was a fog nozzle, so I had to use that on my safety line. The nozzle didn’t have a traditional shutoff; it had some type of twist shutoff. I had no choice but to use it because it was all they had. One of the exercises got a little out of hand: The bomberos were having some issues getting the 2½-inch line operating; I had to use the safety line to knock down some of the fire. When I got to the seat of the fire, I opened the nozzle. The intention was just to knock it down a little. When I opened it, I couldn’t shut it down. The nozzle had locked open, and I couldn’t unlock it. I think nozzles should not be that complicated; they should have a bail you simply open and shut.
 
I strongly recommend that you get a copy of the above articles and read them.  I will address the wind-driven fire issue at another time. If you think that because you have only have a few HRMD buildings in your area that you probably will never encounter such a fire, you may find yourself in big trouble some night. We should always be prepared and expect the unexpected. Stay safe!
 
Daniel P. Sheridan is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief in the First Division. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America. 

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