By Michael N. Ciampo
Over the years, the fire serv- ice has provided much more in terms of service than extinguishing fires; and between terrorism and Mother Nature’s fury, we can all expect to do more. Whether your increase in runs is from taking over or assisting on medical calls or your increased training level is bringing you to more emergencies (building collapses, high-angle and trench rescues, and so on), you do much more than fight fires. There’s also another side to this job-prevention-and, in many cases, it’s more than just fire prevention.
After a short informal critique following a collapse incident, two of the members were still in awe of the situation they encountered. They were puzzled as to how a contractor could have operated in such an unsafe manner and caused such devastation, which also resulted in a loss of life. After we got back to quarters, a discussion followed on what if a fire broke out in the debris in the apartment and members went to the floor above to search and their weight caused a collapse. Everyone’s mind knew the distinct possibilities, since plumbers were there working with torches. As they all walked away, you could see the disgust on their faces because we lost at this incident.
As we took up from a run a few tours later and headed back to our building inspection duties, the apparatus came to a stop at a traffic light next to a large roll-off dumpster full of construction debris, not an uncommon sight in neighborhoods where the buildings are more than 100 years old. Looking into the building’s first-floor windows, you could see the wire trail of those temporary plastic-caged construction lights strung up along the ceiling. There were also two windows removed with large pieces of plywood secured to the inside of the frames; these were probably the debris removal routes. The “big picture” showed that there were eight windows in a row, there were no standing walls left inside that area, and the apartments on the floor above were still occupied. We did not like the size-up of the situation and took a spin around the block with the apparatus to the front of the building. Just as we feared, no Building Department permits were displayed at the entrance to or in the lobby of the structure.
Parking the apparatus and grabbing a flashlight and helmets, we ventured into the building. We spotted the distinct visual clue of construction dust on the floor from the entrance door to the apartments where the work was being performed. One firefighter was dispatched to find the “super” of the building; the super said nothing was going on inside the apartments. We explained to him that if he’d like, we could all walk outside and look into the windows and see that his “nothing” would turn into “something.” He quickly said he would go get the keys. Not trusting him, a firefighter went with him so we wouldn’t have to revert to using our own forcible entry “keys” if he disappeared.
When he returned, he opened one of the doors of the side-by-side apartments. To prevent any overloading or shifting of the structural members or a structural collapse from occurring, only two members, evenly spaced out, entered the apartment. They proceeded forward slowly, looking in all directions, and found our worst fears to be true: Both the load-bearing and nonload-bearing walls had been removed. In addition, underneath the bathroom of the floor above, split and cracked joists were holding up the tile and concrete floor. This area was being held up with improper shoring, and the weight of the materials and building was bowing the vertical supports. Realizing the severity of the situation, we called a chief to the scene to assess the situation and contact the Building Department for immediate response.
While waiting for the chief’s arrival, we had to perform a survey and primary search of the upper floors of the apartments directly over the work area as well as check the basement below. The floor directly above one apartment was found to be still occupied, with the door frames and floor tilting three inches out of plumb. Because of the severity of the floor tilting, only two members entered to assist the elderly tenants out of the apartment. The apartment next door was also being renovated; no tenants were occupying this space. On the remaining floors above in this five-story structure, other work and occupied apartments were found in these lines of apartments. In addition to the primary search, we used the apparatus computer to contact our building inspection unit, which told us that no permits were applied for or issued for the work being done on this structure.
When the Building Department’s structural engineer arrived, he surveyed the entire scene and began vacating the line of apartments over the work area. The survey revealed severe structural problems that could lead to an imminent collapse and an immediate peril to life. He also reiterated the severity of the scene to which we had responded a few tours earlier, saying this was the same situation just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, the tenants had to be relocated, but they were allowed to gather up some personal belongings first.
After a few hours of operating, it was time for us to return to quarters to tackle the paperwork that follows an incident like this. A memo was sent out to the surrounding companies and alarm assignment units, and the computer-aided dispatch information was updated as to the severity of the situation at this address.
Although you can’t place a number or value on who or what was saved at this potential incident, you can place a win in the column marked “Prevented.” Protecting and Preventing 24/7, 365-that’s what we do as a fire service.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 27-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.