Did You See That?

By Michael N. Ciampo

Working in the cold winter months can be very difficult for most fire departments because the weather can wreak havoc with our operations. After slipping on some ice while looking up, trying to get a size-up of the structure, we found nothing showing at a reported fire on the third floor. As we made our way up the stairs, we gave a report over the radio to the engine: “No well,” meaning that there was no well hole (a vertical open space between each section of stairs and railings that can be as narrow as a few inches wide to a couple of feet wide) for them to consider using for their hoseline stretch. Things appeared quiet on the walk up until we got to the third floor and found tenants screaming, “In there!” We asked if anyone else was still in the apartment, and they said, “No.”

As we got to the apartment doorway and looked in, the smoke was about four feet off the floor, and we could see an orange glow in the first room on the right. Quickly, we radioed to the engine to “start a line” (it’s always easier initially to start one than wait for one in deteriorating conditions) and began masking up, moving forward to attempt to extinguish or control the small fire in the bedroom. Since the fire was small and the smoke condition wasn’t terrible, a firefighter was directed to pass the room on fire and begin a primary search. Searching past the fire is a tactic you must weigh before using. In this case, we could control the door of the fire room to ensure egress in case conditions worsened.

Even though the initial report was that no one was present, someone could have gone back in for something or come home without the eyewitness knowing. In addition, if you have in your jurisdiction apartments illegally converted into single-room occupancies (SROs), a primary search is recommended if conditions allow.

Approaching the fire in a crouched position (under the thermal layers of smoke and gases in case they ignited) with the pressurized water can, the firefighter placed his gloved fingertip over the nozzle to break up the pattern of the stream so it covered a larger surface area and hit more of the extending fire that was beginning to roll up the wall and onto the ceiling toward us. If he had used a straight stream, he would have hit the ceiling to break up the pattern, and it would have acted like a sprinkler. Remember, instances have occurred in which directing a solid stream pattern into an object or material caused the fire to flash or roll back toward personnel. In addition, if you’re extinguishing a pile of light objects (paper, leaves), they can scatter, sending burning embers flying.

As the water knocked down most of the fire rolling across the ceiling, the can man directed the stream toward the corner of the wall to extinguish the curtains and the furniture. Realizing that the fire was running up the wall behind the furniture, he switched to a straight stream pattern, banking it off the wall and deflecting it, to extinguish the fire. Toward the bottom of the furniture near the floor, a clump of material was burning, which looked to be the main source of fire that was still rolling up the wall. Repositioning to get a better deflection and to knock down the remaining fire, he directed the stream toward the clump. As soon as the water hit it, a fire ball erupted throughout the room, producing blue and green flames and a deep hissing noise. Through his mask, he said, “Did you see that?” As he hit the ceiling with the stream, we began backing out toward the door to regroup and size up the fire.

Unfortunately, as we hit the ceiling of the room now consumed in a violent fire, the pressurized water can was getting low, and we radioed the engine to see how its stretch was going through the snow and ice. Plus, we called for a second can and would save our remaining water for wetting down the top of the bedroom door in case the fire began extending through the crack at the top of the door and frame. Even though this door was not solid but made of lauan, it still kept the fire contained for a period.

Not knowing how delayed the engine would be in getting water, we popped off another room’s door to place it over this door to contain the fire. One of the simplest ways to do this is to place the fork of the halligan tool, ax, or hook head into the frame just below the top hinge and close the door onto the tool. The screws should pull out with minor force. Then, keeping the tool in position, slide in down to the lower hinge and repeat the process. Just as we were using the last bit of the can to hit the fire lapping through the crack, the engine arrived. The officer told the chauffeur, “Start water.” As it arrived, the nozzleman bled the line of air and the outside vent firefighter vented the fire room. The engine quickly extinguished the room and contents.

During overhaul, we discovered that the material burning was actually a large plastic garbage can under an inexpensive pressboard desk. That explained the blue and green flames and an explosive fire once the water hit the plastic. We’ve all been taught that when cooking oil is on fire, the last thing we want to do is use water, or an explosive fire will erupt. We had better understand also that some of the newer plastics can react into an explosive fire when doused with water and the air from the can. From this point on, we started to put some foam into all of our cans in hopes that it will smother and adhere to the next “clump” of material on fire we encounter.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 26-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 www.FireEngineering.com.

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