FIRES IN OLD COMMERCIAL OCCUPANCIES

FIRES IN OLD COMMERCIAL OCCUPANCIES

BY BOB PRESSLER

It`s every small-town chief`s nightmare: a major fire, in the middle of the day, in the downtown area, with limited daytime manpower available, involving buildings dating from the mid-19th century that have been upgraded and renovated countless times–a fire burning in a basement filled with stock and display items that is rapidly spreading through hidden voids and extending upward and outward. Timely and proper size-up of conditions by the first-arriving unit indicate to the chief the seriousness of the incident. The size-up includes a brief run-down of the fire building, fire location, any known life hazard, and a description of the visible fire and smoke condition.

For a serious fire in the commercial occupancy of these typical two- and three-story buildings, the officer of the first-arriving engine company should order the stretching of a 212-inch handline to the store entrance. Although the 212-inch handline is harder to maneuver, the added flow and reach provide quicker knockdown and afford better protection for operating members. For a fire located in the basement, members should stretch the line to the top of the interior stairs to protect this vertical channel. They should stretch a second line to the outside basement entrance, if available, and begin a direct attack from this position. This entrance may be in the rear yard, in front of the building, or in the sidewalk. Companies operating on the first floor must be kept apprised of conditions in the cellar. If companies operating in the basement cannot make any headway, units on the first floor will have to retreat to the safety of an exterior position.

Fires located on the first floor in a commercial occupancy also require stretching a 212-inch handline. If the fire is threatening people on fire escapes or trapped in windows on floors above the store, a master stream may be used to rapidly knock down any venting fire.

Ladder companies should assist the engines with any required forcible entry and provide immediate vertical ventilation. Once the engine has an established water supply, horizontal ventilation should be performed in the front and rear. Search and rescue should be performed as the engine moves in and on the floors above as conditions and manpower dictate.

As he assumes command, the chief officer should be aware that he has a serious fire in a building more than 100 years old. Extension to the upper floors and to adjacent buildings is not only possible but probable. Construction features associated with these old downtown buildings that increase the likelihood of fire extension include balloon-frame construction, light and air shafts between buildings, renovations that increase the hidden voids, and the possibility of early collapse as fire attacks structural members that are more than 100 years old. Although not a factor in this fire, common cocklofts and basements may be found, which allow fire to rapidly spread into adjoining buildings.

When the fire starts to take complete control of the fire building, abandon the handlines in favor of master streams. Only large quantities of water can slow down the fire. Operate streams into the fire building to darken down the heavy fire on all floors. Stretch protective handlines into adjoining structures as soon as manpower permits. These lines should be in place before the fire crosses over and gains a foothold in the exposure. Truck personnel are required to open up any voids or walls common to both buildings. You must continually stretch handlines into exposed buildings before they are required. If the fire gets too far ahead, it will threaten the entire block.

The IC must evaluate these rapidly changing conditions and summon enough help to the fire scene. The practice of staging companies at incidents of this magnitude ensures that sufficient manpower and equipment are on hand before they are needed.


Overall street scene: The original fire building is at the right in the photo (the white building with the columns). The fire has spread to exposures 2, 2a, and 2b. The incident commander must be able to define the outer limits of his fire problem. Setting up a perimeter within which the fire hopefully will be contained helps the IC determine what resources are needed to accomplish the task. When manpower is limited, employ tactics used for taxpayer or row-frame fires–skip a building to get in front of the fire. Take advantage of construction features, but do not rely completely on the integrity of fire walls or air space between buildings. Protect these features with handlines and/or master streams. (Photos by Marty Gallagher.)


A two-story frame building that abuts a three-story brick building is involved with fire. This is a good position from which to take a stand to stop the fire`s horizontal spread. All floors in the brick building have to be checked for fire extension where floor beams may abut, at the cockloft level of the smaller building, and at any other unprotected openings. Notice the unprotected window in the brick building above the roof line of the fire building. Fire venting through the roof of the smaller building will threaten the adjoining building and may extend through this window. A protective handline should be in place in the brick building, and an exterior stream also may be used against the outside of the building in the window area. Avoid putting the stream down through the roof into the fire building, especially if companies are operating inside.


When companies are driven out or removed from the fire building, switch to a defensive strategy. Employ large-caliber streams to knock down the heavy fire. Handlines from the street do not have the reach or the proper angle for penetration to the rear of the involved structures. Put into service engine-mounted deck guns or aerial devices, preferably a tower ladder for its increased maneuverability. Operate from the outer limits of the fire area, and work back toward the original fire building if the number of master streams is limited. Try to have all fire extension in the exposed buildings in check. The original fire building has been heavily fire damaged already, so the main focus is on exposures and limiting additional fire spread.

BOB PRESSLER, a 21-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.

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