BY BOB PRESSLER
The alarm comes by a knock at the fire station door. Excited civilians tell the firefighter on house watch of a fire on the block behind the fire station. The house watch turns out the company, and you respond as you radio in the alarm. Receiving a verbal alarm at quarters, especially late at night, may cause some concerns for the company officer. Foremost among them, especially for single companies, is that they will be arriving alone and there will almost certainly be a wait for additional companies. The company officer must make a comprehensive size-up based on fire conditions, building type, life hazard, and the fact that help will be several minutes away.
An engine responding from a double station or on a normal first alarm usually will have a truck company arriving to help with immediate fireground duties. But arriving alone and with the first ladder still minutes away, the engine officer must also evaluate what truck company duties may need to be done, either before the engine can get a line in place or simultaneously, depending on the number of personnel.
Photo 1. On arrival, what are your first impressions? What type of building is involved as far as construction and occupancy are concerned? Is it currently occupied? Where is the fire located, and what tasks should be done before help arrives? Our initial size-up shows what appears to be a three-story, mixed-occupancy frame building. Smoke is showing from what appears to be a storefront on the first floor, the second and third floors, as well as the cockloft on the exposure 2 side. A small amount of fire is also visible near the entrance to the upper floors at the right hand, or exposure 4, side of the building as well as high up toward the rear on the exposure 2 side. Although the building does not look as though it is well kept, all the windows on the upper floors are in place.
Photo 2. A check of the exposure 2 side shows a heavy fire condition that is just breaking out of a side window and is rapidly spreading up the combustible siding. Fire is also visible on the second floor and is showing through the roof in this two-story setback.
What factors should influence your attack plans?
First, until proven otherwise, all buildings must be considered occupied. Even buildings that look vacant must be searched for vagrants or other people who may be in the building. Second, the visible fire must be evaluated.
At this fire, several danger flags should be evident. The fire is showing at two very distant points of the fire building-at the rear exposure 2-3 corner and at the front entrance to the upper floors at the exposure 1-4 corner. This indicates either two separate fires or a fire that has spread throughout the first floor. Either situation requires a better look or evaluation. After looking at the exposure 2 side, fire is now visible on both floors and through the roof. The smoke pushing through the siding and creating a wall of smoke on the exterior of the building indicates fire in running void spaces. The smoke is not coming out of the windows or doors; it’s pushing out through the siding on the building. All of this is happening in a wood-frame building. The fire has evidently bypassed the only fire protection in this type of building: plaster or drywall. The walls and ceilings of these buildings are the only protection the wood structural members have. Once fire gets behind these “shields,” the fire starts to attack the structure’s support system. The fire can enter these voids through several different means. To continue to safely operate in this type of building, these ceilings and walls must be opened up to expose the hidden fire.
Searches, starting with the most severely exposed areas of the fire building, should be made as soon as possible. The heavy fire toward the rear will limit the searches there. Closer to the front of the building, searches may be conducted in the store on the first floor and the front rooms on the upper floors. Start these searches as soon as staffing and fire conditions allow.
Photo 3. The first arriving company (companies) has several immediate concerns. Fire is showing at several places in the building. Smoke is pushing from the side walls and cornice area. Although the building is not in the best shape, the windows are all intact, indicating that this may be an occupied building. A line or lines must be stretched and operated on the main body of fire-in this case, the first floor rear. The line could go in the side door, where the companies were forcing the door, or in the main store entrance. If the truck company is on the scene, it can do a quick search of the first floor after forcing the main doors and also see if the fire can be reached by the front door. It is possible that the main store is not connected to the rear portion. In this event, either the line should be repositioned to the side door or a second line should be stretched to that position. Fire is also starting to show on the second floor of the three-story or front section of the building. Conditions in this building are rapidly deteriorating.
Photo 4. As the lines are being stretched and the trucks are performing forcible entry and laddering the building in preparation for conducting searches, a civilian appears out of the smoke onto the second-floor fire escape balcony, where he is quickly spotted. He is barely conscious, having been trapped above the fire for several minutes. Firefighters quickly adapt to the changing fireground. Several firefighters position a ground ladder to the balcony; one firefighter climbs up to assess the victim’s condition. Smoke continues to push from all the cracks in the building, as the fire spreads through the building.
Photo 5. The narrow fire escape platform makes it extremely difficult to move the victim, and fire starts to show from the siding below the fire escape.
At this point in the operation, it is extremely important for the officer in charge to ensure that two separate and distinct operations continue. One, sufficient personnel must be committed to removing the civilian from the fire escape. Both the civilian and the firefighters attempting to remove him are in a dangerous position. The fire is continuing to spread and is now in the room that fronts onto the fire escape (photo 6).
Taking the nearly unconscious victim down the drop or portable ladder will be difficult at best. The drop ladder is in a near vertical position, and its condition is questionable. The portable ladder, although at a better angle, still presents quite a challenge in removing a dead-weight victim. Placing an aerial ladder or, if possible, a tower ladder adjacent to the fire escape will give the rescuers a horizontal target to which to move the victim. Once the victim is moved onto the aerial, the ladder can be moved away from the fire building, out of the smoke and heat (photo 7).
Secondly, the officer in command must ensure that someone is still fighting the fire! It is very common for all personnel on the fireground to want to get involved when people are trapped. Lines get dropped, pump operators abandon their positions, and all hands may try to get involved with the rescue. This is especially true when the victim is a firefighter. Someone has to continue to fight the fire. At this fire, several lines were stretched to protect the victim as well as the rescuers. At the same time, other lines continued to attack the fire at their respective locations. These lines remained in place, keeping the spreading fire in check until the victim was removed onto the aerial and eventually to the ground. Once the victim was removed, the attack went from an interior attack to an outside attack with master streams. Remember, while lines are being stretched and victims are being removed, the fire is not waiting for us. It is spreading through the building, feeding on available fuels. In wood-frame buildings, once the fire gets into the void spaces, the structure’s support members are being attacked. It is not a question of “if” the building will fall down, it’s a matter of “when.” From the outside of the fire building, look for telltale signs that the fire has entered the void areas. Smoke pushing from between the shingles, showing around window frames on upper floors, or showing from the walls and eave lines for a lower-floor fire are all indications that the fire may have entered the void space.
In older construction, fire entering the ceiling void would spread from bay to bay along the floor beams. It would eventually reach an outside wall and then spread to the floor above, by that bay in the wall. Even though the fire will be on two floors, it will be running individual bays. It may be in several bays, but its spread, both horizontally and vertically, will be somewhat restricted. In newer construction, where gang-nailed trusses are used for floor assemblies, there is nothing to restrict horizontal fire spread. Fire that pierces the protective “skin,” usually drywall, will spread in all directions. Once it reaches the outside walls, it spreads rapidly to the floors above, and usually by several bays.
These changes in construction techniques, as well as numerous renovations to older buildings, coupled with the high heat-releasing fuels of today, make a comprehensive size-up of the fire conditions and the fire building imperative to help firefighters do their job and stay alive. n
BOB PRESSLER, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a retired lieutenant from Rescue Company No. 3 of the Fire Department of New York. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate’s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University. He is a technical editor for Fire Engineering, a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and a member of a volunteer department.