By Daniel P. Sheridan
In a recent article, I spoke about the system that wildland firefighters use at the start of every operation called LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones). This article will discuss the latter two items—escape routes and safety zones.
Every October, I am reminded of a very dear friend and fellow firefighter who lost his life in a fire. My friend was operating on the top floor of a multiple dwelling. There was fire on the top floor and in the cockloft, and it appeared that the companies on the roof had a nice hole over the fire, as evidenced by the heavy fire venting through the ventilation hole. There may have been tar that actually sealed off the vent hole around the cockloft, thereby only venting the top floor.
My friend had entered one of the apartments to search based on a report of kids trapped. He went to a rear bedroom, and found nothing. At some point, he was checking for extension and used his six-foot hook to make an inspection hole in the ceiling. Suddenly, with this newfound source of oxygen, the cockloft, which was starving for air, violently exploded down on him. His only option was to head for the window, which was connected to a fire escape. Unfortunately, a window gate covered the window with a locked padlock (which is illegal in New York City). He tried valiantly to rip the gate off the window but was overcome by the intense flames.
There is simply no way of knowing when residents will do everything possible to make our jobs even more perilous. Simply, people are more concerned about crime than fire. We need to remain ever vigilant about maintaining our second means of egress at all times. When I was a new firefighter at my department, one of the early lessons taught to me was that I should go above the fire floor and determine and obtain a second means of egress before forcing the apartment directly above the fire. If the floor above is comprised of four apartments, and the fire was in the rear apartment, it was preferable to force the front apartment.
Because of my inexperience, there were times when I was not paying attention to my surroundings. The first incident was a fire in a five-story tenement. We were second-due; our assignment was to go to the floor above and search for fire and extension. The fire was on the third floor. The building only had two apartments per floor, which normally means that the rooms are laid out one after another (also known as “railroad flats”). This particular building had a front fire escape. Usually, when there is a front fire escape, we assume that there would be four apartments per floor. There is a dangerous exception, however, which happened to be the case this time, there being two apartments per floor and only one fire escape. The apartments also have two entrance doors; one in the front which opens into the front bedroom and the rear entrance, and one that enters into the living room (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Typical “Railroad Flat” in New York City with Rear Fire Escape
At this particular fire, we encountered fire coming out both doors. The fire had full possession of the apartment. We went above and forced the door to the off apartment. We then entered the floor above. At this point, I remember heading to the rear of the apartment; that’s when I discovered, to my disbelief, that there was no rear fire escape. The fire had burned through the floor, and the room was becoming untenable. I was fortunate to make it back to the rear door.
That was a rude awakening; I couldn’t believe how stupid I was to do such a reckless thing. I had a similar experience a few years later, but that time, we went above the fire and entered the same type of apartment, but there was a rear fire escape and no front fire escape. We headed to the front bedrooms and fire broke out in the kitchen, cutting off our rear egress. We went to the window and found that the ladder was involved in another task. The front door was nailed shut. We had to make our way to the rear, and barely got out under the flames.
We can never become complacent when it comes to our safety. We need to keep our egress clear of personnel while operating in a hazardous environment. This means that, when advancing a hoseline into the fire area, firefighters must make sure that the way they came in has adequate room for them to get out if an emergency develops where there may be a loss of water or fire coming behind them. If we are not involved in the actual operation—either advancing the hoseline or performing a search—we need to ask ourselves if we need to actually be on the stairs or at the door to the fire area. It does no one any good if we have seven firefighters on the stairwell while the other firefighters are still trying to get a handle on the situation.
Just in the past few weeks, we have been called out by our companies doing building inspection with issues concerning egress. We came on a three-story brick private dwelling that was recently illegally converted to a multiple dwelling. The building was originally built with railroad-type apartments. The two doors were adequate to qualify as means of egress. When they did the conversion, they removed the rear door (photo 1).
(1) Missing door at the top of stairs (Note: Keep these stairs clear during fire operations).
This now presented a problem not only for the occupants but for the firefighters as well. The building did not have a fire escape; now, with only one door, members would be totally cut off in the event of a fire (photo 2). Any problem that exists for the tenants is also a problem for the fire department.
(2) No rear fire escape.
Recently, my department was called by one of our engine companies to deal with a possible illegal apartment in a two-story private dwelling. There was a concern that the apartment didn’t have adequate egress. It turned out that egress was fine; firefighters had an interior stairwell and a second exit in the rear.
While there, I asked if I can see the daycare center that was listed on the building card. I went in to look around and found about a dozen little children in a living room/class room. I asked the owner to show me the emergency/second exit and she informed me that the window in the rear bedroom was the second exit. I wasn’t very happy about it, but it did qualify as a viable means of egress. The apartment was on the first floor, so there were windows that exit to the exposure B and C sides. I asked her to show me the window, and when I checked it, I couldn’t believe what I saw (photos 3, 4)! We removed it immediately, and I chastised the owner. Not only is that an extreme life hazard, but it also can kill firefighters as well.
(3, 4) Padlocked window gate.
This is our reality. People pay a lot of attention to their security and don’t really give their own safety a second thought. In many parts of the country, people lock themselves in their house with a key, have window gates and bars that resemble a prison, and any other types of security measures that they feel that will protect them from intruders. This is a valid concern, but where do firefighters fit in this equation? The answer is to take that extra time in your size-up and ensure that you have a way out, a way off the roof, or a general means of egress depending on the situation.
The incident commander should always do the following:
- Make sure that the building is adequately laddered. You can never have too many portable ladders up at a good working structural fire.
- Make sure that there is a backup hoseline stretched if a hoseline is operating.
- Make sure that your rapid intervention team is in place and ready to go to work.
We can’t fall into that complacency mode and assume that we will be okay and figure a way out; many times, we do seem to luck out and say afterward that “we had a close call.” However, we can’t count on that. Get to know your buildings, whether it be during a building inspection, medical calls, or any other types of emergencies. Always think of that worst-case scenario and prepare for that.
DANIEL P. SHERIDAN is a 26-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he is a battalion chief. He has worked in the highly active units in Harlem and the Bronx for most of his career. He is a national instructor and the founder and chief operating officer of Mutual Aid Americas, an international nonprofit training group to assist firefighters. Previously, he instructed at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy. He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering magazine and has a monthly column on www.fireengineering.com. He authored Chapter 12 (Forcible Entry) for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II.