In my March 1997 column, I told the story of a three-firefighter fatality fire in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A key element in the disaster was the fact that the building, built on a hill, was two stories on the street but four stories in the rear.

Two firefighters died recently in a Washington, D.C., fire. The building was two stories in the front and three in the rear. Again, this led to dangerous confusion.

Garden apartments built on a lot that falls away in the rear are three stories at the front; however, they have a lower level, which makes the building four stories in the rear. In several fires, this situation has caused confusion.

In a WNYF article, Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief Frank Montagna tells of the problem involving row houses that are two stories in front and three in the rear.1 Such construction often means beating the code. Usually, the code height of a building is measured from the street in front. The common three-story limit for frame buildings was determined by considering the size of a fire the fire department could handle.

A spectacular example of this “code beating” occurred in the Bronx, New York, in 1930. Just west of Yankee Stadium, the terrain rises sharply. The limit for brick and wood joist buildings was set at six stories. Because of the terrain, the buildings were 10 stories high at the legal rear. An arson fire totally involved four units just after the tons of wood lath had been placed.

There is a solution. The Sanborn (insurance) maps have long used a convention to indicate one-story buildings of greater than normal height. A one-story church that is actually six stories in height would be designated as “1=6.” I think fire departments should adopt the following simple convention.

Buildings having a different number of stories at the front and rear should be designated as “2/3.” A preliminary report might be given as “We have a 2 slash 3 story building with smoke showing from the #1 floor in the front.” This would alert every

unit to the possibility of confusion. Some buildings built against a hill might be designated as “three slash two stories.”

Three firefighters died in the spectacular One Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia. There was confusion as to what floor they were on. I have previously recommended that an appropriate special service unit carry large sheets of white paper, broad black markers, and tape to be used on a floor below the fire to designate the number of that floor. Counting up or down from this landmark should make it easier to determine the correct floor from the street-for instance, in response to a message that “citizens are at the windows on the 35th floor,” firefighters could determine that floor by counting from a fire department “landmark” on the 30th floor.


Hal Bruno, retired political news director of ABC and a longtime firefighter with the Chevy Chase (MD) Fire Department, told me the following story.

The department, a key unit in Montgomery County’s haz-mat response team, responded to a chemical spill at a U.S. Navy Research facility. One of the scientists watching the firefighters don protective suits remarked that he thought the operation “a bit much.” The captain asked him, “Have you ever seen a dead firefighter?” “I can’t say I have,” responded the scientist. The captain gave an outstanding reply, “Well, you won’t see one here today.”

You will come in contact with many people who are extremely competent in

their own field, which might be quite narrow, who feel supremely confident that their expertise extends to all technical fields, particularly fire. Often they consider public employees to be the residue of the employment pool. In my work in the Navy and at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), I was in contact with many people who were of this mindset.

At Norfolk, the director of security (DS) responded to all serious fires to straighten out any military officer who thought his rank required him to take command. Diplomatically, the DS would cite the regulation that put the fire chief in command of the fire. If the commanding officer of a ship had wanted to assert his authority as CO so that he could be in command of the fire, he would have been notified that tugs were standing by to tow his ship away from our naval base, out into the middle of Hampton Roads, a huge harbor, where he could be in charge. This extreme action was never necessary.

At the AEC, although we had the ultimate big stick of cutting off the money, we found it better to be more subtle.

The AEC provided the Columbia University Physics Department with a vertical Van de Graff generator. This big “tank” spews out neutrons. Neutron shielding is any heavy dense material such as concrete. Technicians had erected a two-wythe (a wythe is one vertical thickness of masonry going upward) shielding wall of 75-pound solid concrete blocks. The wythes were held together with sheets of paper (paper will stop a neutron). A collapse would have been fatal to anybody trapped.

On my way up in the elevator, I had to decide how to approach the director, Dr. John Dunning, a VVIP (very, very important person) who tolerated my visits only because I could turn the valve on the golden stream from the taxpayers. Typically, his mind was on safety in outer space, not on simple stupid things like falling concrete.

As I entered his office, he looked up with unconcealed disdain, “What do you want?”

“There is a terrible neutron hazard in the basement,” I said.

“What? Where?” he asked.

“75 pounds of neutrons and protons in a concrete block will fall on somebody’s head and kill him,” I responded.

As he digested my meaning, I fired the second barrel: “Don’t forget one thing, Dr. Dunning: Gravity-accelerated nuclear particles are the very worst kind.”

The wall came down that day and was rebuilt by a mason.

I have often explained to firefighters that if someone accuses you of cowardice in backing away from a dangerous wall, explain that you are avoiding the potential for accelerated nuclear particles-NUCLEAR RADIATION-and stand out of the way.

Some years ago, Fairfax County (VA) firefighters responded to a fire involving two electrical capacitors filled with fluid containing PCBs. The building was evacuated and ordered closed until the hazard could be checked. Fifty-one firefighters and civilians were decontaminated. The General Services Administration (GSA), which leases the building occupied by units of the Department of Commerce, announced that it found no evidence of PCB leakage or smoke-spread contamination. A Commerce Department spokesperson, asked whether the county fire department had overreacted to the PCB scare, replied, “Perhaps there was an overhealthy sense of cautioness.” (Gee, he created two previously unknown words in one sentence.)

At the time the Fairfax County Fire Department was headed by Warren Isman, a nationally recognized authority on hazardous materials. It’s about time that fire departments challenge those who make asinine statements with the simple question, “Could you qualify to give an opinion on this subject as an expert in any court?”

It has been said that an ambassador is a person sent abroad to lie for the good of his country. My lifetime of experience in the U.S. government taught me that a government “spokesperson” is often that sort of ambassador for his agency to the U.S. taxpayer. “Divert attention from the hazard; make the locals look like yokels,” is one technique that falls short of lying but is sometimes more effective. In logic, this is known as an argumentum ad hominem (avoid the substantive issue; attack the person).

PCB contamination can be a catastrophe. It happened a number of years ago in a New York State Office Building, which was closed for years at a loss of $20 million. The very people who complained would have been the first to sue if they were “contaminated” because of fire department “negligence.”


Wood burned in another building fire was salvaged and used in this historic Leesburg, Virginia, building. (Photo by Joe Mar.)

Joe Mar of Leesburg, Virginia, provides an interesting and important bit of information on old buildings. He has learned that in years gone by, it was the practice to reuse fire-damaged lumber in a new building. Such lumber would, of course, be weaker than its unburned counterpart. While we are thinking about old restored buildings, be especially cautious about adaptive use, such as when an old residence is converted to an office to save it from the wrecker. Offices have high concentrated loads such as files and safes.

I was at an early-morning fire in a house that had been converted to a YMCA. A woman employee of the YMCA jumped out of her car and came running up to tell me that there was a big safe on the third floor. I assured her that the safe was now in the basement. She recognized the hazard. Firefighters on the scene had not and were surprised. Fortunately, no one was hurt.


Babbitt is an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony, which can be poured when melted and solidifies when it cools. It is used to secure cables inside socket baskets on elevators. In WNYF (Third Issue, 1997), Battalion Chief Dennis J. Moynihan reports on two elevator collapses. Fire was found on an elevator. As the shaft door was forced, the elevator fell to the basement. The Babbitt metal had melted. Another elevator had collapsed in a similar manner. The recommended precaution is not to enter or straddle the car; remain on the safe landing.


In a recent program, I noted a very dangerous hazard to firefighters engaged in even an initial attack or a search. There is no interior wall finish. Instead of rough studs, good quality white pine 2 x 2 4s are used on two-foot spacing with two cross- braces, accurately finished and carefully nailed, between each stud. (This increases the studs’ load-carrying capacity. [See Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (BCFS3), 65.] The wood may be finished with a combustible finish. The second floor is of two-inch-thick tongue-and-groove spruce, exposed to give a wooden ceiling, supported on 2-inch 2 10-inch solid sawn beams, a heavy load even before furniture is added. What’s the problem?

There is no semblance of fire protection for the structural studs supporting this very heavy load; the studs can handle the load because of the cross-bracing. A fire of any size will immediately start to eat away at the studs’ structural strength. A contents fire will be a structure fire from the beginning. Because of the all-wood interior, the room will be totally involved in moments. Just picture the room fire in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) videotape Countdown to Disaster, which develops from a smoldering chair to a flashover in two minutes, occurring in this “delightful” house. Such shows are popular, so keep an eye out for these “advanced ideas.” Two Stockton, California, firefighters died when a wood stud wall failed under the load of heavy beams that were supporting a dance studio above.2 Four Seattle firefighters died in the collapse of a wood stud wall.


A recent public television show on big structures carried an astounding story. The Citibank building in New York City has a unique offset at the ground-floor level to accommodate a church that had occupied the site for many years. It was discovered that the connections of the steel structure were not welded as specified; they were riveted to save money. The result was that a wind of hurricane force could topple the building. A crash program of installing steel plates was started and was not finished when a severe hurricane was approaching New York. Fortunately, the hurricane turned away.

The dreadful 1982 collapse of the walkway at the Kansas City Hyatt (more than 100 people died) was the result of a field change in the suspension system. We can speculate about how many other potential design or execution failures are out there ready to deliver an urban disaster. (See BCFS3, 25.)


In a recent fire, it appears that a fire officer seeking to get out followed a hoseline but in the wrong direction. Many years ago, I was taught in a blindfold drill to distinguish between male and female couplings in the dark so that I would know the way out. This simple exercise would make a good inside drill and might well save somebody’s life.


The November 2000 issue of Fire Engineering contains an article that describes a nuclear criticality accident in Japan.3 It is important to note that only so-called fissile materials can cause a criticality accident and that although fissile materials by nature are radioactive, the vast majority of radioactive materials are not fissile materials.

For many years, I was the AEC public safety liaison officer and the guru on radiation hazards to firefighters. (In 1951, I presented papers on radiation hazards and fire at International Association of Fire Chiefs, Fire Department Instructors Conference, and NFPA national meetings.) Wild rumors abounded and often distracted attention from the real problems. In the 1960s, I was in New York on AEC business and had arranged to have dinner at Ladder 3. I learned that the fire department was setting up a crash program to deal with the radiation hazard based on a “hypothetical case” told by a buff who had attended a conference as an Air Force reserve officer. The story was that three Chicago firefighters were going to die from radiation exposure received from applicators used by doctors to treat tonsillitis. I assured them that the story was absolutely false (in my position, I would have known of any such occurrence almost immediately). I called the chief of training. He assembled the senior officers who had heard the story. They weren’t concerned that the story wasn’t in the newspapers. They didn’t even call the Chicago Fire Department because they thought “the government had it all hushed up.” Arrangements were made for me to conduct one of my “Chain Reaction” training programs for fire instructors.

In teaching, I developed a formula that helps to illustrate the degree of thehazard: TOXICITY 2 AVAILABILITY = HAZARD

Before “childsafe” caps were invented, it was recommended that, in households with small children, aspirin be purchased in tins of 12 so there would never be a lethal dose available for a child to ingest. Millions of gallons of toxic fluid are on our roads daily. We are exposed to all the hazards of highway accidents in the form of radiator fluids, but we would not drink the spilled fluid; therefore, NO AVAILABILITY = NO HAZARD.

Thoroughly preplan fixed locations at which radioactive materials are used, and develop scenarios that demonstrate circumstances in which firefighters might be exposed. The local people probably know as little about firefighting problems as the firefighters know about radiation. Mutual education is required.4

Some problems are easy. Fruit flies breed generations rapidly and thus are ideal for studying genetic effects. A laboratory was set up so that the penetrating radiation source could be pulled up and lowered back in its concrete shield. The structure was combustible and lined with low-density fiberboard. The fire plan involved an employee’s dropping the source down into its shielding container if a fire occurred. I wasn’t satisfied. I had them insert a heavy-duty fusible link in the line so that the heat of a fire would eliminate the radiation hazard by making it not available to the firefighters. Other problems are not so simple; their solutions will have to be devised by knowledgeable parties.5


At the moment, there is some concern about the movement of reactor by-products to storage sites. The term “radioactive waste” conjures up images of trucks with flapping canvas tops tooling down the road dropping watermelon rinds and coffee grounds. In fact, the containers for nuclear reactor waste are designed and tested to withstand very rigorous accidents, and the likelihood of a release is minute. Radioactive materials in transit present no hazard unless the containers are breached. This is not clearly understood generally. I don’t know whether the situation has changed, but in my time shipments of radioactive materials in New York City were permitted to cross the East River only by way of the Manhattan Bridge and only in the middle of the night. All dangerous cargoes moved at that time. This meant that shipments that would present no problem unless a container was damaged were sandwiched between gasoline and propane trucks.

There is another hazard, which is more credible. High-energy gamma radiation sources are shipped as ordinary cargo in containers that have a certain degree of fire resistance. The shielding container could fail in a highway accident, but the more likely cause of failure would be a sustained fire in a shipping terminal. I once traced the path of a leaking shipping container a few hundred miles. I was amazed to learn how many stops it made as it was transferred from carrier to carrier. A fire in a terminal could well generate enough sustained heat to cause the container to fail, at least partially, thus possibly exposing firefighters to serious, maybe fatal, radiation overdoses.

Unlike other hazards, the gamma radiation hazard cannot exist without making its presence known. It sends out “radio” signals that can be detected by the correct “radio,” a gamma radiation measuring device.

The number of gamma emitter shipments is minute compared with the total of shipments in transport, but the consequences of fire damage to a container could be very serious. It is always difficult to deal with a hazard that is improbable but catastrophic. But this one is relatively easy.

In 1967, in AEC Public Safety Newsletter #3, I recommended the following and repeat it now:

“Fire departments should make a gamma radiation survey of any general transportation incident in which the contents are unknown. If any radiation level above normal background is detected, remove all personnel as far as necessary to be where the radiation level is just normal background, and call in competent help.”

The word competent raises complications. Persons expert in the physics and biology of radioactive material may not be at all familiar with transport regulations. Many years ago, a shipment of “spent fuel elements”-radioactive waste-was en route by rail from the Chalk River Reactor in Canada to the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. At Baltimore, cooling water was noticed leaking from the huge container, which looks like an electrical transformer. (It has fins to disperse generated heat.) The AEC sent a person with a Ph.D. in radiation but who had no knowledge of shipping regulations. He approached the leaked water with an instrument and detected levels above background. The flatcar was removed from the train and sidetracked. Concerned about track maintenance personnel, they then went to the site of the leak, where nothing above background was found. The big “expert” had been reading the permissible radiation levels from the shipping container.

Personnel of a government radiation laboratory wanted to have a radiation contamination exercise but not at their lab for fear of contamination. Typically, I would order 2 millicurie of Bromine 82, a gamma emitter from Oakridge; mix it with sugar syrup; and paint it on surfaces. Bromine 82 has a 36-hour half-life, so it would disappear in a short time if it wasn’t successfully decontaminated. I set up at a municipal fire school. At that time, Cobalt 60 gamma sources were available for civil defense training. The tiny sources would be placed in capped pipe sections so they could not get lost. One crew detected radiation on the ceiling of a concrete training building and set up to scrub the ceiling. I let them scrub for a bit and then told them they were reading radiation from a Cobalt 60 source on the floor above and they would have to scrub away six inches of concrete to get to the source.


  1. WNYF is the official training publication of the Fire Department of New York.
  2. In Ol’ Professor, June 1996, I summarized a letter from then Captain John Norman describing a mattress fire that became a fully involved fire in a few minutes.
  3. “Nuclear Accidents: Learning From Japan,” Anthony Gaglierd, Fire Engineering, November 2000.
  4. You may not get a meeting of the minds on the first try. Submarines made “pit stops” at NOB Balboa, Canal Zone. It would be impossible to attack a fire by going down the conning tower hatch. It would be like going down the chimney. I had a number of trailers with CO2 manifolds. I went through five submarines, in each case with the “chief of the boat,” the senior CPO, until one said, “What you want is the salvage air lines.” Along the deck of a submarine and along the keel are pairs of valves to admit salvage air and expel water. They were perfect for inserting CO2. We devised the proper equipment. By calculation, we could inert three of five compartments. We never had to try the system.
  5. In Ol’ Professor, July 1999, page 88, there is a photo of a “birdcage”-a shipping container for fissile material. The device is designed to prevent a criticality (fissile materials coming so close together that they interact) incident.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 59-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known for his lectures and videotapes and as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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