By Daniel P. Sheridan
As a probie on the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY’s) Ladder 17, one of the first things I learned was about the dangers of going above the fire. We previously had a fire in a five-story renovated tenement building, we were the second-due ladder, and our assignment was to go above the fire to search for victims and any extension of fire. As we made our way up the stairs, the officer checked with the first-due engine officer and advised him that we were going above.
When we got to the floor above, we found five apartments on the floor. The officer grabbed me and told me to force the door on the opposite side of the fire’s location. In this instance, the fire was in the rear, so we forced the “off apartment” in the front of the building. He told me that this is always the first thing that we should be doing at every fire where we will be operating above it.
Soon after that incident, we responded to a fire in a two-story flat-roof private dwelling. There was heavy fire on the first floor “front to rear.” We were assigned second due and needed to get above the fire to search for trapped victims. A hysterical woman met us in the street to inform us that two members of her family were still inside (what we refer to as a “known life hazard”). The fire had wrapped around the first-floor apartment and was out into the hallway, negating the use of the interior stairs. We used a portable ladder to enter the front windows.
Immediately, on entering the room, we were driven to the floor by the heat; the room was about to flash. We made a hasty retreat just as the whole room flashed. After the engine knocked down the fire, we were able to get up the stairs and found the two victims in the bathtub. I learned first-hand that going above the fire in a building of Type 3 and Type 5 construction was serious business. According to FDNY Captain (ret.) John Calamari (TL 120): “Other than being on the roof of a building where the top floor is on fire, the floor above is the most dangerous position to be in.”
When I transferred to the squad, most of our work was on the floor(s) above. As chief of training, Command Institute’s Chris Naum, an expert on building construction, says: “Knowing your buildings is critical to safe operations.” This is absolutely 100-percent true; there is a tremendous difference between going above the fire in a Type 3 or 5 building as opposed to a Type 1. One consideration is the case of the first fire mentioned above. The building was what we refer to as a “rehab,” which is very dangerous because of the voids created after the building was renovated.
One feature of a rehab building is renovated ceilings, which are dropped, creating a sort of mini cockloft (photo 1). Firefighters going above the fire may be unaware that they are, in essence, operating above a raging cockloft fire. The fire then finds its way into the void spaces on the floor above, creating potential flashover conditions. Firefighters have been killed in these types of buildings when they are in a seemingly stable environment that turns into an extremely hazardous situation rapidly. One note of caution: When I was a young firefighter, we checked for extension by feeling the walls. If it was hot to the touch, we opened it up. A thermal imaging camera is not a substitute for opening up.
(1) Photo by author.
I was then assigned as the operations chief to a fire in a five-story commercial building. The fire was on the first floor in a Chinese restaurant. We all know that with these types of fires the root cause is generally from the failure to clean out the duct work. The Incident Commander ordered me to check out the operation on the floor above. I arrived on the second floor and met up with the ladder company that was operating there. I asked the officer “How’s it lookin?” “All good chief, no problems” Something was off, we had a good fire on the first floor. My gut was telling me that this was not the right answer so I had to diplomatically figure out a way to get a better answer without “micromanaging” This is the dance that chiefs have to sometimes do, let the officers do their job but be diligent.
I made an excuse that I needed to check the rear, the IC wanted to know about a rear parapet, so I excused myself and headed to the rear. I got about to where I suspected the seat of the fire was and just as I suspected as I passed the room above the fire I felt heat on my ears. I called to the officer, “Hey Lou, do me a favor, can you have your irons firefighter open up this wall?” “Sure chief” The firefighter put his Halligan in the wall and opened it up, fire was everywhere, the duct went right through the wall and had caught the wood studs.
Besides knowing the construction, the most critical factor to being successful in going above the fire is the status of the hoseline. Ask yourself, is there one, and is it in place and operating? When I was new on the job, we responded to a third-floor fire in a corner tenement, and the hydrants near the building were sabotaged. We were second due, the first-due engine did not have a charged line, and our officer had me and another young firefighter wait on the fire floor while he went upstairs to check on things.
I was not happy with waiting there, but I had to follow orders; the officer had tons of experience and knew the danger of the situation. Ironically, we came back on our next shift for a fire in the same building and needed to go above. This time, they had water in the hoseline, and fire was coming out of every window in the apartment. We went above and removed a baby from the apartment.
Going above without the protection of a hoseline is risky, but sometimes it is necessary. You must do this on a case-by-case basis, and the officer needs to weigh all the factors such as construction, water supply, and life hazard, just to name a few. FDNY Battalion Chief (ret.) Jerry Tracy of Battalion 49 says: “A discipline for anyone going above the fire is to communicate with those units operating on the fire floor and ask them to identify the exact location of the fire. This accomplishes two things: 1) it informs them you’re going above, and 2) you can proceed to that location to see if it is extending. If it is call for a line and complete your search within the limits of safety.”
Before you commit to a search in the apartment on the floor above, do a quick size-up and ask yourself, “if I find myself in a bad spot, what are my options?” When I was about a year in on the job, we went above a fire in a railroad flat. The fire was on the third floor, and it had complete possession of the apartment on the exposure 4 side (D). We checked in with the engine and let them know we were going above.
When I got to the door, the fire had already extended to a few of the front rooms. I did a quick search in the rear, thinking that if things go south, I could pop out onto the rear fire escape. That was a great plan, but I was missing just one part of that equation: There was no rear fire escape. I found out the hard way and barely made it out and back to the front door.
At another response in the same apartment type, I assumed that I could pop out the other door in the railroad flat.1 However, it was nailed shut. Things were starting to turn bad, and I couldn’t make it back in the way I came. My “plan B” was to go out through the front window with the ladder. I got to the window, but the ladder was being used elsewhere. I had to fight my way past the fire to the front door.
Your last resort is to use your personal harness (provided your department has them). I highly recommend that if you spend a lot of time going above, make sure that you have your own personal bail out system, and that you become an expert on it. When I was a firefighter on the squad, we spent hours bailing out of windows, so much so that doing so became second nature. It was a last resort that we, hopefully, will never have to use.
Respect the floor above; don’t become complacent and think that everything is good just because there is no heat or smoke around you. Things can change in an instant—companies lose water, fire gets into void spaces, and a host of other potential killers. If you are the guy on the line and you lose water, it is imperative that you transmit an”urgent” message to let the firefighters operating on the floor(s) above of the situation.
To listen to Daniel P. Sheridan’s most recent podcast, Getting Ahead of the Top-Floor Fire, click HERE
1. Railroad flats are apartments with rooms that are lined up in a row with two exits, front, and rear.
Daniel P. Sheridan is a 33-year veteran of and a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York assigned to Battalion 3. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan is also a lead instructor with Mutual Aid Training Group.