Unbeknownst to me, once again our company would be conducting a research project that was in an uncontrollable environment, unlike much of what we’ve been seeing coming out of the recent studies, which were experiments (procedures carried out under controlled conditions to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to illustrate a known law). Sure, experiments can help us understand and shed light on what is happening scientifically, but we have to remember our buildings may react differently when on fire. I’m not saying that research isn’t helping; the wind-driven studies and stream studies have given us copious amounts of material to be concerned with and helped shape new or improve our overall tactics and procedures. But we need to do more before we just change what has worked for numerous years.
Some examples are forcing the front door and having firefighters immediately pull it back closed so we don’t create the flow path or pull the fire toward our opening. Well, in my career, I’ve seen a door accidentally pulled back too quickly and it relocked. Plus, did we force it, control it, and kneel under the thermal layers to get a layout; see a victim on the ground coming toward the primary exit route; and see any obstructions on the way in or sweep behind the door for a victim? The same holds true with opening a bulkhead. We’ve instilled fear that we are going to pull the fire right up the stairs and create a flow path that we don’t care about the homeless person living there or tenant who went to exit the stairwell to the roof and is overcome on the top landing. Or how about the mushrooming effect of the smoke throughout the building or the carbon monoxide levels, which are explosive and a silent killer to the sleeping tenants? Sure, control your ventilation openings, but perform some basic firefighting tasks first.
Modern Fire Event
Arriving before the first-due engine, we positioned in front of the five-story multiple dwelling with a confirmed basement fire. Prior to jumping off the rig, we informed the engine to back into the block, as there was a hydrant in front of the adjoining building. Making our way down the exterior stairs into the moat and then into the basement, we had a 40-foot crawl and had to pass two apartment doors in the long hallway. Luckily, the two apartments were unlocked; when we opened them (try before you pry), we had clear vision and yelled in but got no response. There wasn’t time to search the clear apartments, so we proceeded deeper into the basement to locate the fire. The outside vent firefighter then informed us that fire was out four windows, two in the rear, one on the side, and one in the courtyard of the building. He also informed the chief that the flames were directly exposing the windows on the first floor and the rear fire escape—great information for the second-due truck company, who would be operating on the floor above the fire.
The apartment layout was unusual: There were two diagonal doorways to the left, the kitchen straight ahead, and a room to the right partially blocked by a refrigerator. Plus, there was clutter throughout the rooms we tried to navigate. All the rooms’ doors were opened, and now the fire was coming at us from the back of the kitchen as we tried to knock it back with the pressurized water can. We had little luck knocking the fire down; we began pulling back to the safety of the hallway and closed the apartment door with a tool so it was almost fully closed. One member went back to bring the engine and its hoseline to our location.
Once the engine arrived, we informed engine personnel of the fire location. Opening the apartment door, we placed the thermal imaging camera in front of the nozzle firefighter’s face piece so he could get a better feel of where the fire was. While the engine was pushing in, we witnessed the “uncontrolled laboratory” begin to give us some information we had seen before at other fires. The line, although hitting visible fire, began to push the fire back to our location through another pathway. One of the diagonal doors on the left now had fire rolling out of it and across the ceiling at us.
The engine quickly stopped and went to hit that fire and move in that direction, and the fire began to come back at us from the opposite direction. We realized that we had a wrap-around fire situation (very common when you have rooms with two entry points). Engine personnel pulled back to the corner and then alternated their hose stream into both areas, then advanced through the kitchen, then made a left turn down a short hallway to knock down the last large area of fire in the rear room.
The basement was like a bunker with a concrete ceiling and smaller-than-normal windows. This irregular-shaped apartment was cut up into single-room occupancies and had drywall and aluminum studded partition walls that eventually all failed, allowing the fire to wrap around us. Each fire room had a refrigerator, and one had six large tires holding up the makeshift hot plate countertop, which added more fuel than used in laboratories. What two companies witnessed was a wrap-around fire phenomenon where an advancing hose stream “pushed” or “channeled” the by-products of combustion into other areas. Because of the irregular layout, failure of the walls, and heavy fire load, the fire traveled in different directions because we couldn’t extinguish the seat of the fire from our main vantage point. Unfortunately for us, many fires will be different, and some of our data will come from street-proven research.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 32-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 Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.