Firefighters often perform searches without the protection of a hoseline on the upper floors of a private dwelling or in an apartment above the fire in a multiple dwelling. We all know that explosive and superheated gases/smoke rise, putting firefighters in vulnerable positions on the floors above. However, we rarely find ourselves discussing the operations on the floor below, maybe because we feel it’s less important and not that dangerous. There are multiple tactics to make our overall operations run more effectively and safely on the floor below.
These types of buildings have many hazards, from holes in the floors and walls caused by vandals removing copper piping to structural damage caused by previous fires. Whenever we operate in these buildings, a survey from the floor below can inform a company whether to use caution in specific areas of the structure. Performing this tactic can limit the chances of a firefighter falling through a floor or reduce the chances of causing an interior collapse of a portion of the structure. Another value in making this survey is to see if the fire’s embers are “dropping” down through these holes and igniting. We don’t need to be operating on a floor and suddenly find ourselves in a bad predicament with fire below us.
Apartment Houses/Multiple Dwellings
When operating in these structures, a quick survey of the apartment directly below the fire apartment can give us a room layout. Whoever performs this survey can quickly relay the information to the members at the fire apartment door. Now our search pattern may be adjusted to focus on the bedrooms or toward the fire area. Although this will work in many situations, with today’s renovations and open concept designs, we’re seeing apartments with different layouts from floor to floor. Firefighters should relay to those operating on the fire floor that the layouts could be different.
Other common features in these types of structures are utility chaseways or “wet walls,” where we find electric wires, water, and soil and drain lines running. There may also be an old dumbwaiter shaft that is sealed or has been made into a closet or pantry in an apartment. It’s important that we check the floors below for fire travel. Also, check the bottom levels of any shaftways for embers that may have dropped down and ignited materials at their base (also prevalent in row frames). Do this for an upper-floor fire in a balloon-frame home as well; embers can fall in the wall studs and ignite in the basement.
Thermal imaging cameras help us scan an area for heat, but insulation may obscure the view. Make a reliable inspection hole to see smoke dissipating from the area. Sometimes, a little damage is much better than coming back for a rekindle that turns into a multiple alarm because of hidden fire travel in the walls.
Large multiple dwellings often have a variety of open shaftway shapes and sizes. They were designed to allow fresh air and light into the apartments.
Many fire departments with these building characteristics have set procedures to perform a lifesaving rope evolution. When a rescue is in progress, it’s very important that members enter an apartment in line with the lowering process on the floor below to retrieve the victim and firefighter. Attempt to remove the window by using its releases and bringing it back into the apartment. Breaking glass outward is very dangerous when the rope is under tension. The sharp glass could cut or shear the rope, resulting in a disastrous outcome. The sooner we bring the victim and rescuer into a floor below, the safer it is for both.
The safest and most effective place to hook up to the standpipe is the floor below the fire. The primary reason is it allows us to be in a safe and clean air environment. If we hooked up on the fire floor and lost control of the apartment door, the fire could travel down the hallway and overrun our position. It could even burn the hose hooked up to the riser in a wind-driven fire. Plus, if the smoke creates a zero-visibility situation, how is the firefighter going to monitor the inline pressure gauge and ensure the engine has adequate pressure at the nozzle? If you’re still hooking up in the hallway on the fire floor, maybe it’s time to reconsider your tactics. Also, remember, wind-driven fires can happen just as easily on a lower floor as an upper floor.
When we are working in the stairwell on the floor below, we can still run into problems. The foot traffic from firefighters going up the stairs and civilians coming down can be chaotic. It can be very difficult to connect sections of hose or flake out a high-rise pack when traffic is moving on the stairs. If the standpipe riser is in the hallway on the floor below, we’ll be in a better position because it puts us out of the way of the traffic. When the outlet is in the stairwell, we can still position our hose in the hallway on the floor below and begin coupling the lengths together or releasing the straps on the preconnected high-rise pack. Only one firefighter has to grab a few feet of hose, enter the stairwell, and begin attaching it to the standpipe’s outlet. That limits congestion in the hallway and gives the firefighter room to work on the outlet hookup.
Other arriving engine companies should stage two floors below the fire floor so they can get their hoseline connected to the standpipe in case the need arises for another line. In addition, in a wind-driven fire, this line can be used to supply a floor below attack nozzle.
It’s important to realize that the floor below is just as important as the one above.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 35-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 International 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.
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