Expect the Unexpected

by MICHAEL N. CIAMPO
 

 

Sometimes, when we have a certain “go-to” plan of action, we get into the mindset that if it has worked most of the time, why shouldn’t it work now? Since many of us rely on the 1¾-inch or 2½-inch hoseline (depending on the type of occupancy) or have an assigned member carrying a 2½-gallon pressurized water extinguisher, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that they’re our first line of attack. Sure, we have other things to use, but because we don’t always use them, it may be difficult with all the commotion to choose another option. We’re always taught to put “the wet stuff on the red stuff,” but other options exist.

When dispatchers start receiving multiple phone calls with pertinent information, their job is to relay that information to the responding units. Being on the receiving end of their transmissions when responding with sirens blaring can be difficult, and it may take a new officer some time to comprehend. An easy thing to do is to make sure you have paper and pen in front of you; hopefully, the dashboard has a clipboard where you can jot down the information.

When you are responding to a report of an electrical fire on the eighth floor of a high-rise multiple dwelling and then the information is updated to include the seventh floor, that better start your wheels turning. Then, when you receive additional information that the elevators aren’t working and people are trapped in them, you might contemplate that it’s possibly just an overheated elevator motor and its smoke is blowing up the shaftway and resulting in the calls for fire on various floors.

Communicating with the crew, we planned to take the dry chemical extinguisher instead of the water can, the elevator keys, and our normal complement of tools. As we got off the rig, the chief informed us that there were now reports of an electrical fire on the fourth and fifth floors. We informed him we would walk up and check all the floors and that when the second-due truck arrived, we’d work with them to search alternating floors until we located the fire’s origin.

As luck would have it, the elevators were out of service, and the 30-story building had no electrical power at all. Plus, the elevator’s power room was up on the roof, and it would take some time for any of us to get there or find the locations of the three occupied stalled elevators in the shafts.

We worked our way up the stairs. Fumes started to take our breath away even though we were in a “clean” atmosphere. We all looked at each other and said that it tasted like a manhole fire, as we donned our face pieces and our carbon monoxide meter started to go into full alert. Reaching the seventh floor and operating in zero visibility, we found a utility closet with fire emanating from it. We knew it wasn’t the compactor closet because that was in a different direction and the blue and green flames were indications of an electrical fire.

Holding up the thermal imaging camera (TIC), we picked up a fire in a small electrical service box on the closet’s side wall. One member, using the door for protection, held the extinguisher’s hose at the door’s edge and gave the panel a few short bursts of dry chemical. The fire reignited, and two more short bursts extinguished it.

Checking the panel again with the TIC, we got heat indications, but the active flaming was out; the radio blurted out there was fire on the eighth floor. We radioed to the chief that we extinguished this floor with the dry chemical and were on the way up to the eighth floor when we heard the engine calling for water off the standpipe.

Still operating in zero visibility, we were making our way toward the fire when a family opened an apartment door and tried to exit. We sheltered them in place and had them go to a front room in their apartment and open a window. We didn’t have the staffing or capability of reporting the exact apartment they were in because of the heavy smoke conditions in the hallway.

Reaching the nozzle firefighter, we informed him we were going to use the dry chemical extinguisher as we held up the TIC to read the conditions in this closet. Suddenly, a thunderous boom with a lightning bolt erupted and lifted us up off the floor and tossed us like rag dolls. The white flash momentarily blinded us, and the sounds of arcing were prevalent as the entire hallway was engulfed in flames. We quickly retreated to safety under the flames and arcing. The heat was burning us through our gear. As we entered the enclosed stairwell, we broadcast the Mayday transmission, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday; there was an explosion on the eighth floor; members missing, members injured,” and then repeated it a second time.

The chief acknowledged the Mayday transmission, and efforts began to locate any missing members. Luckily, the other firefighters jumped into the other stairwell (being scissor stairs) and were accounted for. After sizing up the improved conditions in the hallway, they reentered and used the dry chemical extinguisher to subdue the flames in the closet.

Despite wearing full protective gear, because of the force of the blast and the ignition of the carbon monoxide and other gases, some firefighters were burned through their gear. Remember, carbon monoxide has a very wide range of being in its explosive limits, and the arcing of the 480-volt service is a great source of ignition. Things could have been a lot worse if we had used a water can or opened up our hoseline off the standpipe.

It’s easy to get complacent on this job. Water might not always be the answer. Be aware of that, and always expect the unexpected. As the warning label on the inside of our helmets states: “Firefighting is an ultrahazardous, unavoidable, and dangerous activity.”

 

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 33-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 on www.FireEngineering.com.

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