BY BOB PRESSLER
The primary function of truck company personnel is to protect lives–of the victims as well as the firefighters. The search for trapped occupants in a fire building, no matter what the occupancy type, must follow a basic, systematic plan.
As operations progress in the main fire building, the everchanging fire conditions usually are well observed. Most forces are concentrated at this building, and the incident commander, even as he establishes his sectors, tends to focus on the original structure involved.
When there are attached exposures on both sides of the fire building, the IC must deploy forces to check these adjoining structures. This is especially true when the fire is on the top floor of the original fire building. Fire spread may be by common cockloft or through improperly constructed or maintained common walls. Fire that enters the cockloft or void space above the top floor can spread laterally until it reaches an obstruction.
The fire pictured occurred in a three-story 20-foot by 40-foot multifamily building of ordinary construction in a row of similar buildings. Fire in the building of origin was located on the top floor with extension to the cockloft. The IC, recognizing the potential for a serious fire, special-called an additional ladder company. He ordered this third truck company to split up into two three-member crews and check the top floors and cocklofts of the two exposure buildings, exposures 2 and 4.
The three-member crew that entered exposure 2, the building to the left of the original fire building, proceeded to the top floor. In an apartment on the top floor, members found a slight smoke condition with very little heat in the rear rooms. A search of one of the two front rooms revealed a burning mattress near the already-vented front window. As firefighters threw the burning mattress out the front window, another member started an examination hole in the ceiling. As they enlarged the hole, fire roared out of the opening, cutting one firefighter off from the interior stairs. As conditions deteriorated, the firefighter was forced farther away from the stairs and into the other, smaller front room.
The members who reached the public hallway called for a handline to be stretched. The trapped firefighter called for help and a rapid intervention company, or RIC (see “Rapid Intervention Companies: The Firefighter`s Life Insurance,” by Jim Cline, Fire Engineering, June 1995, p. 67), began to raise a portable ladder to his position.
Conditions in the room where the firefighter was awaiting the portable ladder were still tenable as the rescue attempt progressed. Suddenly, the heat level rose rapidly. The firefighter leaned out the window and saw fire venting from the adjoining room (photo 1).
The adjoining room had flashed over, and conditions in the smaller room started to rapidly deteriorate. The firefighter watched fellow members raise the portable ladder rapidly to his position, but the fire won the race. The fire took control of the smaller room, and the firefighter started to feel the heat through his protective clothing as the fire began to vent out the window around him (photo 2).
As the room became fully involved, the firefighter had no choice but to jump from the window toward the ladder. Rolling his body out the window so that he was feet first, he tried to push off toward the ladder (photo 3).
The firefighter bounced off the ladder and landed on the burning mattress that had been thrown out the top-floor window. He sustained first- and second-degree burns as well as other injuries from the fall (photo 4).
Construction. Never rely on building features to limit fire spread. Even though these buildings shared a party wall that extended into the cockloft, some bricks had fallen out over the years, creating an opening for fire to rapidly spread from the original building into exposure 2. Once the fire is running the cockloft, the ceiling material, whether plaster and lath or gypsum board, may make it difficult to determine just how severe conditions in this void space are. Fire in void spaces requires extra manpower for pulling ceilings and opening walls to expose hidden fire. Try to avoid playing “catch up” for fires in hidden spaces.
When opening the original hole in a ceiling, do so from the relative safety of the public hallway or the doorway of an adjacent room. This affords some degree of protection if the fire flashes down out of the cockloft.
Fires on the top floor of buildings with flat roofs require some degree of vertical ventilation. This may be as simple as removing scuttle covers and opening skylights over the public hallway. Then you can remove the returns–the sides of the opening between the roof cover and top-floor ceiling–as this is the quickest way to check for fire extension into the cockloft. If you find fire in the cockloft, you will have to cut or open up the roof surface itself to stop lateral fire spread.
Protective clothing. The firefighter was wearing the proper bunker gear required by his department. Damage to the pants of his gear indicated temperatures of 2,000°F. The turnout clothing allowed the firefighter to remain in the window as long as he did, without suffering serious injury, as fellow members tried to raise a portable ladder to his position.
Training. The firefighter didn`t panic, even when the fire took complete control of the adjacent room. As his position became untenable, he had presence of mind not to go out the window head first to certain serious injury but to roll out the window so he would fall feet first. He also waited as long as possible for the ladder to reach his position and directed his descent in the ladder`s direction.
Calling for help. The importance of fireground communications and RICs is evident. The members who were separated from the trapped firefighter immediately called for a handline to be stretched to the top floor. The IC also had the RIC begin to raise a ladder to the trapped firefighter, even though his position at the time did not seem too dangerous.
Ropes. If the firefighter had been trapped in the rear of the building, out of reach of ladders, a lifesaving rope rescue would have had to be initiated by the roof team.
In some situations, if a trapped firefighter is equipped with a personal rope and harness, he may be able to single-slide out of danger, depending on conditions in the room in which he is trapped and his ability to tie off.
Manpower. Manpower restrictions sometimes require ladder companies to operate without the protection of a handline. The IC must be aware of this and request extra companies in a timely manner. When possible, stretch additional handlines to the front of the fire building in anticipation of their use in the original building or an exposure.
Fires in row frames or attached brick houses are manpower-intensive operations. The IC should anticipate the need for additional resources and call for additional companies, taking into consideration the distance that mutual-aid companies might have to travel. The time to call for help is when you need it, not when a firefighter is hanging out a window.
BOB PRESSLER, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with Rescue Company No. 3 of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He has an associate`s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University, is a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and is a member of a volunteer department.