By Michael N. Ciampo
Responding as an extra unit to a fire on the third floor of a peaked-roof garden apartment, we received radio instructions to report to the top floor with hooks. Fire was blowing out two windows of a top-floor apartment, and heavy smoke was rolling from the eaves of the structure. The fire was melting the aluminum soffit and extending into the large, undivided cockloft/attic space. In many of these buildings, this space will be wide open with no fire stopping or draftstopping; the roof joists will be nominal lumber, although you may also find trusses. In newer construction, fire stopping or draftstopping may exist, but it could be compromised by the utilities.
The building’s entrance had open interior stairs encased in a glass enclosure, which is very common. Use caution if you are going to ventilate this glass; it could cause a serious injury to an unsuspecting firefighter below and could puncture a hoseline stretched into the building, causing a loss of water. Also, there are a multitude of stair configurations: Expect to see exterior exposed stairs made up of steel, wood, and concrete or an enclosed entrance with the stairs running inside the structure.
As we approached the structure, we noticed that all the apartments had outside concrete balconies with some portable ladders placed to them, which could provide us with a secondary means of egress. These balconies can also provide access into the structure for vent-enter-search operations and assist in stretching additional hoselines up the exterior of the structure and in victim removal. We also noticed the building had six separate entrances, subdividing it, which provides access into only a limited number of apartments—not the entire building.
While we were reporting to the command post, the radio blurted out that “the fire had extended over the next set of top-floor apartments.” Immediately, the chief ordered us to go down a few units and make inspection holes into the top-floor ceiling, checking to see if the fire had already extended past that location. If it had, we were told to pull back and go down farther to do the same thing—to try to get in front of the extending fire. While still in earshot of the chief, we heard him directing an engine company to stretch a hoseline to work in unison with us.
As we got to the top floor, two units down from the extension area, we split the company in two to operate in the adjoining apartments. The members used the butt end of the hook to make numerous inspection holes in both apartments’ ceilings of each room, exposing numerous joist bays at the common wall. Many times it is easier and quicker to throw the smaller butt end through the ceiling rather than the tool’s larger head, when numerous holes have to be made. Remember that you must push aside or remove the insulation so you can get a true indication of the conditions above you. Plus, having one member bring an extra hook for the member carrying the irons (and hydraulic forcible entry tool) at top-floor fires will decrease the workload and increase productivity.
Luckily for us, the fire hadn’t gotten past our location; smoke and heat were pushing out of the holes but no fire. As the engine stretched the hoseline to our location, we prepunched two large U-shaped openings (made perforations using the hook’s head) into the ceiling, since it was gypsum board. We had to punch only three sides of the gypsum because when pulled, it would hinge on the uncut side and normally detach in a swinging motion or just have to be knocked or pulled loose. The actual hole was about three joist bays wide, to allow the hoseline a large area and angle to attack the extending fire. It was not opened until the hoseline was in place and ready to operate because we didn’t want the fire overrunning or chasing us out of our position.
As this cut was being made, one of the firefighters was opening the dresser’s drawers and sliding all the items on top into the drawers to safeguard them (a great tip for protecting the valuables often left there). After the dresser top was cleaned off, he yelled, “Grab the dresser,” and two firefighters quickly lifted it and laid it down on the bed, creating a homemade step stool. Another firefighter made sure the windows were removed (they were replacement windows and easy to remove by using the slide releases on the sashes). Window removal can introduce air back into the attic space through the punched holes and back to the vent hole. Hopefully this would prevent the fire from being blown back down on us in case of a smoke explosion in the attic space.
When the line was charged and the nozzle was bled of air, the chief was notified that we were ready to proceed with our counterattack on the fire.
Prior to just pulling the ceiling open and operating the line into the attic space and possibly pushing the fire back toward or overtaking the other companies’ positions, we waited for verbal communications that the other units attacking the fire from the other direction were in safe positions and prepared for us to begin our attack. Quickly, the U-shaped precuts in the ceiling were opened and the blown-in insulation pulled down as the hoseline operated in a sweeping fashion across the opening. Unfortunately, even with the larger width hole, the angle of the stream couldn’t penetrate to the seat of the fire in the attic space when the nozzle was operated from floor height. However, once the firefighter repositioned onto the bed/dresser and operated the hoseline into the attic space, the fire was quickly knocked down. When you are faced with a difficult fire attack, it may take some improvising to accomplish tasks on the fireground.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 25-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 “Truck Company: Essentials” H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.fireengineering.com.
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