Fighting Fires in Concealed Spaces


Every fire has six sides—the obvious four sides and what is above us and below us, which at times may even be more critical information. When we pull up to a structure on fire, no one is going to be there to let us know what renovations may have been made to the structure. As buildings age and old tenants move out, new ones move in. Usually, they like to change things around. Sometimes buildings are renovated just because they are worn out. According to Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn, buildings have a life cycle of 75 years.

I stayed in a hotel in Venice, Italy, that was more than 500 years old. At the time, half the hotel was under renovation—I am sure for the umpteenth time. Whenever a building is renovated, it inherently retains its features. For example, if an Old Law Tenement (built prior to April 12, 1901) in New York City is renovated, unless it is stripped down to the studs and floor joists, it will retain all the voids that were there when it was brand new. The same holds true for commercial buildings, stores, and strip malls.

In such buildings, it may not be uncommon to find a few levels of ceilings. Perhaps the original ceiling was made of tin; the next one may have been dropped down and made of gypsum board; and the next one may be suspended, because it is cheaper to heat and cool (photo 1).

(1) The underside of a suspended ceiling, where fire can travel unchecked. (Photos by author.)



False Firewall

When I was a lieutenant in one of the FDNY squads, we responded to a fire in a group of stores (known as taxpayers in New York City), usually a building that takes up one side of a city block and is about 75 feet deep. The building is then subdivided into stores that may be 25 feet wide. You may have up to eight stores under one common cockloft (the space between the roof and the top-floor ceiling). We were ordered to check the last store on the exposure 4 (D) side. After we forced entry into the store, we found a heavy smoke condition. I ordered my crew to pull the ceilings. I had one of the firefighters put his hook up into the cockloft, and I took off my glove and felt it. It was red hot (this was before we had thermal imaging cameras). I transmitted this information to the incident commander (IC). I told him we had a lot of heat and smoke in the cockloft. He informed me that there was a firewall between the store on fire and the remainder of the row stores and that there should be no extension. I asked the firefighters on the roof to cut a hole anyway, because since it was the end store, the heat was building up and it probably would light up soon.

The next day, we went back to critique the fire. We went over to the fire store and saw that there appeared to be a parapet, which may indicate a firewall. I asked one of the firefighters to cut a small inspection hole next to the parapet. What we found was something I had never seen: a false firewall; it was just a parapet. Appearances may be deceiving. Take nothing for granted. If you have heavy heat above you and you are on the top floor, you need to get the roof open and vent that cockloft (photo 2).

(2) A fire wall between two buildings. Firefighters should cut a small inspection hole near the wall or use the halligan tool to make sure that it is a wall and not just an I-beam.


Double Ceiling

At a recent fire in a row of wood frames, fire was already in three of the six buildings and was spreading fast. We were ordered to the end building of the row, Exposure 2 B, top floor (B side). There was a medium smoke condition on the top floor; conditions were worsening rapidly. I had the crew pull the ceiling on the fire side of the room. After they pulled the ceiling, they reported that it was clean. It didn’t feel right. I took my light and shone it up through the hole. The smoke was now getting much heavier. I saw what looked like a tin ceiling about six inches up. I told the crew what I found and that we now had two ceilings to pull. The building had been renovated; the owners had replaced the old tin ceiling with a gypsum board ceiling. We opened the ceiling and called for a handline. We were able to extinguish whatever fire had gotten over. Had we not found that second ceiling, fire would have burned through eventually, and we probably would have lost that building as well (photo 3).

(3) The view from the row-frame building where the fire was stopped.


Huge Void Shared By Apartments

At another recent “All Hands” fire where we were assigned as an additional truck, the chief asked me to check out a report of a person trapped in an apartment on the fire floor. The Critical Information Dispatch System (CIDS) information stated that it was a renovated building. On arrival at the fire floor, we saw a heavy smoke condition. The hall was very long, and it validated that the building was indeed a renovated building. After checking on the occupant, we continued working on the fire floor. We forced the door to the apartment adjoining the fire apartment to check for extension. The apartment had a medium smoke condition; the search was negative. We then proceeded to the apartment directly across from the fire apartment to do the same. We pulled the ceilings in both apartments and found no extension. We then relieved the first-due truck in the fire apartment; it was then that I was able to point out the huge void that ran directly into the two apartments into which we had just forced our way (photo 4).

(4) A void in a renovated building fire.

Had the fire, which had full possession of the room, gotten into the ceiling, it could have gone unchecked until it hit a stop. Think of fire in the same terms as water, but in reverse. If you were to spill a tub of water, it would seek its lowest level. Fire will run the length of the void until it finds a way to go up.

Fully Involved Ceiling

When I was still a firefighter, I responded to a fire in a renovated building. I had gone into the adjoining apartment to the fire apartment. I was a few rooms deep when I decided to throw my hook up into the ceiling. It was then that I realized that the whole ceiling above me was fully involved, a very precarious position to be in. I was relieved to see that I was in the living room, which had a fire escape. I was able to make a quick exit. It is generally not a good practice to open up anything without the protection of a hoseline. I should have opened the ceiling prior to entering the adjoining apartment from the protection of the front doorway. The fire eventually went to a fifth alarm, burning its way up to the cockloft.


Shafts and Dumbwaiters

I remember having a conversation with my father-in-law, FDNY Battalion Chief Robert Hesse, when I was a new firefighter assigned to a ladder company in the South Bronx. He had been a lieutenant and a captain in the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s. We were discussing a particular group of buildings in the South Bronx. These buildings had had numerous fires in those years and had been renovated in the 1970s. Back then, he informed me, the major problem was the shaft that ran between the kitchen and the bathroom. A boxed-out shaft through which piping for the bathrooms and kitchens ran was above the bathroom sink behind the medicine chest. This was such a concern that he believed sprinklers should have been put in that shaft.

Another type of renovation of major concern is the old dumbwaiter shafts. Sometimes they are converted into closets or are used to run pipes and electric. In every case, there should be some sort of fire-stop. If the bottom of the shaft is not sealed, a basement fire could extend right up to the cockloft.


I am seeing now in New York City a new type of renovation that deserves attention. Contractors are using metal studs and are bringing them only as high as the stud allows, eight feet. Above that, another foot or so, are the bottoms of the joists from the floor above, leaving an opening like a “mini-cockloft” that spans the whole area of the apartment (photo 5).

(5) A mini-cockloft in a renovated building.

In one apartment, a three-bedroom unit had a square footage of 1,200 feet (photo 6). That amount of space could support a decent fire condition burning undetected, resulting in a change from a contents fire to a building fire. The only fire-stops may be between the apartments. Keep in mind that in that space above our heads, we also have the regular voids for heating, water, and waste pipes along with the Internet and cable company wires. If you are working in the apartment above the fire, you must be aware of these voids. Even though the apartments are now sprinklered, the sprinkler head protrudes only into the apartment and doesn’t protect the mini-cockloft above, even though NFPA 13, The Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, would likely require it to be protected.

(6) A renovated apartment.



In every situation, you must now consider all sides of the fire. You cannot take anything for granted in these types of buildings. If the building is older, consider that alterations or renovations may have been made to the structure. A simple room fire may really be a room plus the whole ceiling overhead involved. A good friend of mine was killed in an apartment fire where he was searching on the top floor. The ceiling blew down on him, trapping him. His only way out was a fire escape window that had a padlock on it.

We normally don’t stretch a line to a location unless we know and are sure of the fire’s location. I would like to suggest that we take that concept a little bit further: If you have a renovated building, store fire, or top-floor fire where you may have a concealed space, stop and take a moment to pull that ceiling from the safety of the doorway, and see what is going on above. If you have a thermal imaging camera, take a look. If not, stick the hook up and feel if the hook is hot. Do not go into a structure to start making holes in the ceiling without the protection of a hoseline if the fire’s location is not obvious. You may be adding oxygen to an oxygen-starved fire and cause an explosive situation. If the fire’s location is not obvious, slow down your operations and think about the whole picture. If need be, and if you are having difficulty finding the fire, the ladder company personnel may have to search for the fire and victims under the protection of a hoseline at all times.

DANIEL SHERIDAN is a 21-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, assigned as the captain of Engine Company 46; he is also the assistant to the chief of training. He is a national instructor II and an instructor at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy and a member of the FDNY incident management team. He founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America. He has received three Class B medals and several unit citations.

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