Ask any firefighter about the tools he uses, and he likely will talk about a nozzle or an axe. However, the engine or ladder apparatus is in fact the largest tool in his firefighting arsenal. A properly positioned apparatus can be the most influential factor in a successful fire operation.

This proved to be the case at a fourth-alarm fire the Fire Department of New York battled last year. At that incident the apparatus placement decisions made by the first-due units helped confine a fire that had threatened to burn half of a city block of wood-frame homes.

At 2019 hours, units responded to an alarm for a reported structural fire on Van Buren Street in the Bronx. Minutes later, the dispatcher informed me that I had a “good job” going, and I was assigned as the deputy chief. His choice of wording and the time of day both indicated that I could expect a significant amount of fire and an immediate life hazard.

Photos 1-5 by Chris Creighton, Fire Scene Photo.

That was the exact scenario when I arrived at the scene a few minutes later. Van Buren is a dead-end block with numerous two-story, 25-foot by 45-foot wood-frame private dwellings. Some of the buildings are only two to four feet from each other, and a fire in one is an immediate threat to at least two adjoining exposures.

The original fire building (see Figure 1) was fully involved in fire on the first and second floors. Fire had already extended to exposure 4 and was threatening to affect exposure 2. Both the original fire building and exposure 2 were occupied. Exposure 4 was undergoing renovation and appeared to be vacant. The first-arriving battalion chief had transmitted a second alarm and had hoselines operating in the initial fire building and in exposure 4.


As I surveyed the scene, I quickly made a few additional observations. The first-arriving engine had entered the dead-end street, dropped hoselines in front of the fire, and proceeded to a working hydrant at the end of the block. Two tower ladders had followed and backed their way into the street. In addition, the tower ladders had to contend with trees and overhead electrical wires. The electrical service wire to exposure 4 had broken loose and was sparking as it hung precariously on the sidewalk.


Given the volume of fire, the proximity of the buildings, and the potential for further extension, I transmitted a third alarm just four minutes after my arrival at the operation. An additional hoseline was positioned to protect exposure 2, and a priority request was sent for the utility company to deactivate the charged electrical line that had fallen.


A third-alarm assignment brings a lot of personnel to the scene. These units were to report to a staging area we established; a chief was assigned as the staging officer to maintain control. An additional battalion chief, acting as the safety officer, was specifically assigned to address the danger of the downed electrical line.


An aggressive interior hoseline attack quickly managed to extinguish all of the visible fire on the first and second floors of the original fire building. At this point, all appearances indicated that the main fire problem had been handled. However, a great deal of dark smoke was still pushing out under pressure from the cockloft (photo 1).

It was obvious that there was still a lot of heat in this area, and firefighters on the roof continued their ventilation efforts. As seen in photo 2, they were able to cut an effective roof opening to relieve the pent-up heat and smoke. Within seconds of finishing the roof cut, fire burst through the opening with increasing intensity. Firefighters returned to the safety of the street while the cockloft fire continued to vent.

Photos 3 and 4 vividly depict the rapid progression of fire venting from the cockloft of a frame building in which all visible fire had apparently been extinguished just minutes earlier. The plume of fire easily reached 20 feet above the roof.

6 (Photos 6-8 by author. )

I ordered all personnel out of the building by this point, judging that the volume of fire in the cockloft was too intense for the 134-inch hoseline on the top floor to safely handle.

The sector chief assigned to supervise operations in exposure 4 reported that it was unoccupied and that visible fire had been extinguished in the interior of his building. With no civilian life hazard and with the potential for a severe radiant heat problem, I also ordered personnel out of that exposure. The plan now was to deploy hoselines from the exterior and hold the fire in place until additional handlines and tower ladders could complete extinguishment.


Firefighters quickly withdrew from the buildings to reposition their hoselines, and the fire continued to grow. Just about this time, the first tower ladder informed me that the maze of trees and overhead electrical wires were blocking their efforts to put their master stream in a position where it could hit the fire.

I was receiving a lot of information very quickly at this point-none of it was good. In addition to the tower ladder problem, I was informed that fire had extended into yet another building (exposure 4A). Clearly (photo 5), the large body of fire was moving to the right and threatening to extend to the numerous closely spaced buildings in its path.


The cockloft fire was undoubtedly doing some serious damage to the original fire building, and there was a legitimate concern that it might collapse onto the adjoining exposures. We still did not have an effective exterior master stream to hold it in place, and a steep hill on the exposure 3 side negated any effort to attack the fire from the rear. At this point, I transmitted a fourth alarm in anticipation of the need for numerous handlines to keep the fire from affecting the entire block.

I ordered that a hose manifold be set up. This device is fed by a large-diameter hose and is capable of supplying water to numerous handlines. My strategy was to position as many lines as needed to make a stand at exposure 4B, which was an occupied building.

Around this time, as the challenges (and stress levels) continued to grow, I received an emergency transmission. FDNY fireground radios are equipped with a button that creates a unique emergency tone on all of the radios at the scene. The immediate concern now was to determine if a firefighter was in distress. Fortunately, it was quickly ascertained that one individual had inadvertently hit the button on his radio while working.

A short time later, I received some much-needed good news from the first tower ladder. They had managed to reposition their apparatus to a point that allowed the tower ladder bucket a small but safe area to rise and operate through the maze of overhead wires. Soon, their master stream would be in operation.

Two basic decisions made by the first units at the scene had allowed the tower ladder to reposition. First, the initial engine had hooked up to a hydrant at the end of the block, freeing the street for the tower ladder to maneuver. Then the tower ladder had backed into the block, allowing the boom a wider range of movement.

Getting the tower ladder master stream in operation proved to be the turning point of the fire. The large volume of fire in the original fire building was quickly knocked down, the radiant heat subsided, and the network of handlines extinguished fire in the exposures. The fire was placed “under control” approximately 112 hours after the arrival of the first units.

I have managed difficult fires in large high-rise and commercial buildings, but the problems encountered in these relatively small frame homes proved to be just as complex.


Some valuable lessons were reinforced as firefighters overcame a myriad of tactical challenges.

Cockloft fires in frame buildings. A frame building may have a substantially sized cockloft. This large area of aged, dry wood has the potential to contain a dangerous amount of intense heat and explosive fire. Dark smoke pushing out under pressure from the cockloft indicates that it must be vented from above. A firefighter can be seriously injured if the top-floor ceiling is opened prior to making an adequate roof cut.

A large body of fire in a cockloft can overwhelm the extinguishing capacity of a 134-inch hoseline, cause considerable structural damage to the building, and lead to a collapse. This was exactly what occurred at this incident, as illustrated in photos 6 and 7. The side wall of the original fire building collapsed onto exposure 2 after firefighters were withdrawn to the street.

Photo 8 shows some of the fire damage done to exposure 4. The “brick nogging,” seen between the studs, did nothing to protect the cockloft area of that building. In fact, the age and condition of the brick added to the collapse danger.

Transition to an outside operation. This is one of the most crucial decisions an incident commander may have to make. At this fire the strategy was changed to an outside, defensive attack, since it became obvious that the volume of fire had the potential to overwhelm the initial hoseline. The continual structural damage being done by the fire was not as obvious but was also a major consideration.

A number of subtle factors can influence a chief’s decision to change his attack mode. Have you been fighting the fire too long, and has there been too little progress made? Don’t wait until the need to go defensive becomes obvious; by then, it may be too late.

If continuing an interior attack compromises firefighter safety, a chief must act decisively. When ordered out, firefighters must evacuate quickly, and roll calls must be conducted outside the danger area.

Apparatus positioning. It took the outstanding efforts of many firefighters and company officers to extinguish this fire. In addition, a number of sector chiefs provided invaluable support in managing exposures, controlling staging areas, and assisting with communications. However, the initial decisions the first-arriving units made on apparatus placement proved to be the key to the successful outcome of the operation. They allowed room for the additional resources and for the apparatus repositioning that later proved to be so vital.

Never view your apparatus merely as a means of transporting personnel to a fire. It is your greatest firefighting tool, and where it is placed when you arrive at an incident may well determine the outcome.

THOMAS DUNNE is a deputy chief and 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He has extensive experience in mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. He has presented at FDIC East and is an instructor at the Westchester County (NY) Fire Academy. He writes and lectures on a variety of fire service topics.

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