BUILDINGS MAY NOT BE WHAT THEY SEEM
BY FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN
Fires in one-family frame dwellings are sometimes described as “routine” or “bread and butter” fires. A fire that cost three Pittsburgh firefighters their lives seemed initially to be routine but escalated to tragedy in a short time. The entire story is told in an NFPA Fire Investigation Report by Michael Isner and L. Charles Smeby.1
Chief Charlie Dickenson and the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau are to be commended for their willingness to make the facts of their tragedy available to the fire service in the hope that their sad experience will not be repeated.
I urge you to get the full report and ask yourself this basic question, “Could this same tragedy happen to us?” Frankly, I think the answer is, “Yes.”
The fire building appeared to be a two-story house from the street. It was located on a steep hill. In addition to the cellar, which such a house would typically have, a second cellar level had been constructed. The building, therefore, had two levels abovegrade and two levels belowgrade.
The adjacent dwelling on one side and a picket fence on the other concealed the fact that there were two levels below the street. Both the lower levels had doors providing exterior access.
The first engine company stretched a line to Sub-level 1. When an additional firefighter from a truck company got on the stairway, the stairway collapsed, dropping him all the way into Sub-level 2. He climbed up to Level 1. An engine company operating outside the building heard his low-air alarm and got him out through a window. The rescued firefighter reported that other firefighters were trapped inside.
In the meantime, two members of another engine company had taken a backup line into the building. They also fell into Sub-level 2 and climbed up to Sub-level 1. They noticed the window through which the truck company firefighter had been rescued, and exited.
The truck company firefighter`s report of other trapped firefighters had triggered an aggressive search. When the two firefighters who were the last to fall into the hole came out the window, it was assumed that they were the missing firefighters, and rescue efforts ceased.
In the course of the routine suppression activities, the three deceased firefighters were found.
The report provides all the detail necessary to understand what happened and excellent sketches, one of which is reproduced here. One building feature of interest is that the windows were sheathed flush on the inside with a clear plastic glazing material to restrict heat loss. This may have concealed the windows from firefighters searching for a way out.
It is a common practice in some fire departments to maintain required unit strengths by having firefighters work overtime as “callbacks.” One Pittsburgh feature was that all called-back personnel functioned as firefighters regardless of their regular rank. I would appreciate hearing from readers if this is a common practice and, if so, how it works when an experienced captain is assigned as a firefighter subordinate to a junior or even an acting officer of limited experience.
SOME TOPICS TO BE DISCUSSED
Many buildings are not as simple as they seem.
The building on fire is a very hazardous environment, and accountability for personnel entering this hazardous environment must be a high priority. In this case, the argument “We have to get in there pronto (sometimes meaning helter-skelter) because there may be people in there!” doesn`t apply. Arriving firefighters were notified that there was no one in the building.
A “callback” firefighter on Truck 17 (the captain of Engine 8) surmised early in the fire that “the fire was in the walls.” Again, I repeat myself: When a fire advances from a contents fire to one that involves the structure, all should be notified, “THIS IS A STRUCTURAL FIRE.” This should reinforce what should have been taught, but generally isn`t, in fire school. Training fires are contents fires. The emphasis is “take the punishment–put the wet stuff on the red stuff.” For safety reasons, they cannot include the factors of structural failure or fire hidden in void spaces–two hazards that kill firefighters.
Even seemingly minor fires require a command structure to maintain control of the entire situation and, most importantly, to get your people into the correct habits so that, when a serious situation does arise, all will function correctly. Unfortunately, independent operation–aka “freelancing”–has a deep and pernicious hold on fireground tactics.
One way to get a handle on the problem is to assume that fire is a brand-new experience, such as nuclear radiation, and assign the group to study this new hazard and develop operations to cope with it.
See if anybody wants to defend the following proposition: “We encourage personal initiative. The commander of the operation shall be kept unaware of entry into the hazardous area by any personnel who think of a reason to enter the hazardous areas.”
The very suspicion that a firefighter may be missing should be cause for an immediate muster of every unit on the fireground. This is not a new idea. A book I read as a boy called it “the dreaded command `call the roll.`” The assignment of a fire company as a rapid intervention unit should be in an SOP in every fire department. This unit should be held in reserve for the sole purpose of searching for and recovering a downed firefighter. NFPA 1500 contains requirements for a rapid intervention unit.
CELLARS, BASEMENTS, AND SUBCELLARS
In a discussion of the previous fire, some have used the terms “cellar” and “basement” interchangeably. Generally in codes, a basement is considered to have half its height above the street level. A subgrade structure that doesn`t meet this criterion is a “cellar.” Generally, basements can be used for living space, while cellars cannot.
Many old New York City mercantile buildings have several subcellars. I even recall seeing a 35-foot (single-section) ladder disappear down a sidewalk elevator shaft!
The subcellar has returned in force in the form of belowgrade parking garages. Take a ride down to the lowest level of a deep parking garage. You may be surprised to find an unexpected fire load such as a huge amount of used furniture, mattresses, or even flammable gases. Just recently, the District of Columbia had a lengthy, difficult tussle with an incendiary fire in mattresses stored in the unsprinklered sub-basement of the Shoreham Hotel.
In 1932, Midtown New York City firefighters opened up a paint storage room in the basement of the opulent Ritz Tower Hotel. The blast killed eight firefighters.
When the terrain is rolling or hilly, developers take advantage of code provisions that limit the height of buildings to so many feet above the curb line to slip in another story at the rear of the building. Consider victims on the rear fourth floor of a combustible apartment. Can your aerial get to the rear? Probably not. If you have a ground ladder long enough, can you raise it in time to be useful? In the Bronx, New York, just west of Yankee Stadium, there is a sharp dropoff from a rocky height to the flat plain of the stadium. Despite the six-story legal height for ordinary construction multiple-dwelling buildings, the developer was able to build 10-story combustible apartment houses because the official address was on the avenue at the top of the hill. All four units burned in the most spectacular of a number of arson fires in apartment houses under construction in the early 1930s.
WHEN THE BTUS OUTNUMBER THE H2O
I am aware of all the reasons for high-rise packs of small-diameter hose. However, there are many cases where the smaller streams will be inadequate to suppress the fire. Heavy fire loads of plastics, fully involved large office areas, and wood paneling installed on stringers so fire burning on the reverse side is not hit by the stream are but a few of the unmanageable situations. Re-moving larger hose from apparatus, rolling it up, and getting it up to the fire floor prop-erly connected to a standpipe outlet on a lower floor–as had to be done at the Las Vegas Hilton fire in Clark County, Nevada–is very slow.
I strongly suggest that each piece of apparatus carry one length of 212-inch hose flaked down into a bundle six feet long. It would be much faster to assemble the bundles and connect male and female butts and the nozzle while going up in the elevator to the floor below the fire, take the surplus hose up the stairway so you are dragging heavy hose down instead of up, open the fire floor door, and get a far more adequate weapon into action.
The Wilmington (DE) Fire Department carries a lightweight deluge gun that can be fed by two 134-inch lines and deliver 300 gpm (see Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, p. 471).
POLICE VS. FIRE DEATHS
Recently, a New York City police lieutenant was shot to death as he started to intervene when a woman who was being harassed by a man called out for help. The New York Times noted that this was the first line-of-duty death of a ranking police officer in 22 years. This brings to mind a quote from Studs Terkel`s 1972 book Working, in which he interviewed a number of firefighters, among other working citizens. This portion of the firefighter chapter quotes an ex-New York City police officer, who had become a firefighter. His grammar is faulty, but he speaks from the heart.
“The officer is the first one into the fire. When you get to Captain or Lieutenant, you get more work not less. That`s why I look up to these guys. We go to a fire, the Lieutenant is the first one in. If he leaves, he takes you out. One Lieutenant I know got heart trouble. When he takes a beating at a fire, he should go down to the hospital and get oxygen or go on sick. He don`t want to go on sick. I used to go to a fire. It was dark and I`d feel a leg and I`d look up and see the lieutenant standing there in the fire and smoke takin` beatings.
“When I was in the army, I didn`t respect the officers because the men did all the work. That goes for the Police Department, too. Cops get killed. You never see a Lieutenant get shot. Ten Battalion Chiefs got killed in the last 10 years in the city. The last three guys in the fire department were Lieutenants that got killed because they`re the first ones in there. I want to respect an officer. I want to see somebody higher up that I can follow.”
No further comment.
TRUSS HAZARD INDICATORS
After the Hackensack, New Jersey, truss roof collapse in which five firefighters died, the New Jersey legislature passed a law requiring that all buildings with truss roofs and/or floors be designated by signs, as shown on page 32. n
1. The report is available without charge from the NFPA Fire Investigation Division; One Batterymarch Park; Quincy, MA 02269-9101; fax: (617) 984-7085.
Signifies floor truss construction.
Signifies roof truss construction.
Signifies floor truss and roof construction.
n FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE, a 55-year veteran of the fire service, began his fire service career as a naval firefighting officer in World War II. He`s best known for his seminars and writing on firefighter safety and for his book Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protec-tion Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.