Converted Cubicles


Pulling up to the 2½-story wood-frame home, we figured it was probably balloon frame (outside wall studs running from the basement to the attic with no fire stopping) from its age, size, and shape. Many of the windows lined up over one another on the exterior walls, also a feature of this type of construction. The front porch’s roof gave access to three windows on the second floor, but it didn’t wrap around the entire dwelling. The structure was sided with asbestos tiles, also indicating an older-built structure. Fire was showing out a few windows on the side and lapping onto windows and frames on the floor above, indicating the possibility of autoexposure.

The engine was beginning its fire attack through the front door to protect the interior stairway, and the second line was already being stretched as backup or to go to the second floor for protection and possible extension. The fire greeted members a few feet inside the door, rolling across the ceiling as they advanced with their line.

As the first-due truck was positioning its aerial ladder for roof operations, the second-due truck was getting into position, partially pulling into the driveway to avoid the power lines and to avoid being blocked by a large tree in the front yard. Plus, being a tower ladder, it could cover two sides of the dwelling and have good roof access to the dormers, peaks, and valleys.

With reports of people trapped and members going to the floor above, portable ladders were being thrown to the building. As we transported the first ladder around the tall front hedge row, we noticed our first clue as to occupancy. Four mailboxes were mounted on a post at the base of the exterior stairs. This usually means four separate units are in the dwelling and the original residence has been renovated and subdivided. This can be a nightmare situation for any firefighter to encounter: more locked doors and heavy security, additional void spaces, unusual room layouts or living spaces in attics or basements, and an increase in the fire load and potential for trapped victims. Many of these buildings may have offices on the first floor and residential apartments on the floors above.

Throwing a 24-foot extension ladder to the front porch, we immediately made our way back to the apparatus for another ladder. (Many departments grab a roof ladder to perform this tactic quickly, but with reports of people trapped, we positioned the 24-foot ladder first in case we had to move it to a second-floor window, where the roof ladder would not have reached.) We transported and placed the roof ladder to the porch roof, where two firefighters were in position to vent-enter-search (VES). As they began to vent and clear the entire window of its sash, curtains, and blinds, they hit an obstruction: A large refrigerator blocked access into one of the windows, so they had to choose another window off the front porch for VES operations.

We positioned the 24-foot extension ladder to another second-floor window. Since fire was blowing from the side windows, we chose another location from which heavy smoke was issuing. Trying to size up the structure and ladder, we saw that a few of the individual living units would allow for a secondary escape route for firefighters operating on the floor above. We placed this ladder to the second-floor window with the tip below the sill so it didn’t impede access or emergency egress from this narrow window.

Once we laddered the front, we made our way around the rear and, just our luck, two of the windows had a small single balcony fire escape with a drop ladder, and another window had a small porch roof if any of our searching members needed to exit the structure rapidly. We saw four electrical meters mounted on the outside of the building, confirming our occupancy size-up.

As the fire was knocked down, another company positioned another ladder to the second-floor window above where the fire was originally blowing out. This afforded the members operating in that vulnerable area another avenue of escape in case the fire extended in the walls or ceiling and blew down on them.

Once the fire was knocked down, units began the arduous task of opening up and checking for fire extension in the original fire room. The crews on the floor above pulled the baseboard and used the thermal imaging camera, and the crew in the attic made sure they checked behind the knee walls (short walls constructed to support the rafters and enclose the useful area of the attic; the areas behind these walls are often used for storage).

It’s always a good tactic to employ a coordinated inside and outside team working relationship to perform a successful firefight. In buildings converted into living cubicles, make sure the outside teams make it safer for the inside teams with proper ladder placement. Ladders stored inside the storage rack aren’t in a good place during fire attack!

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 28-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 Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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