By Michael N. Ciampo
As we entered the narrow block, the fire was already blowing out two front windows on the fourth floor of the multiple dwelling. Attempting to get the truck into position would be tricky; someone had to stay with the chauffeur to help him position the apparatus tormentors in between the parked cars. Most of us were thinking that since the fire was already self-venting it would be easy to locate and extinguish, and we would have some type of visibility up off the floor, assisting us as we moved in—all we had to do was gain entry into the apartment and work toward the front of the building. In addition, we wouldn’t have to worry about any flashover conditions because it was free burning out the windows.
After forcing the apartment door, the firefighter closest to the door maintained control of it and lay flat on the floor, shining his flashlight under the smoke, trying to get a floor layout of the apartment. Unfortunately, his vision into the foyer of the apartment was blocked by two large sewing machine tables that were across from each other. This created a very narrow passage, much too small for firefighters to pass through. The decision was made to remove these items from the foyer to make room for the fire attack. Because of the small and narrow landing the companies were working on, the tables had to be placed in an adjoining apartment to facilitate operations in the stairwell.
After removing the tables, the forcible entry team began to enter the apartment again but was blocked by more materials—crates of sewing supplies blocked further access into the apartment. Growing a little frustrated with the situation, members passed back the crates rapidly and stacked them in another adjoining apartment. (Remember, it’s always a good policy to force more than one apartment door on the fire floor or floor above—these apartments can be used as an area of refuge; a place to flake out some of the hoseline; or, in this case, a place to get rid of unwanted clutter. Try not to force the door directly opposite the fire apartment, so that if you are overrun by the fire it doesn’t blow directly across the hallway.)
The team made a third attempt to enter the apartment. At the same time, the engine had called for water in the handline and was ready to enter the apartment. Moving forward, members encountered another obstacle: They reached a dead-end hallway. While probing around, one of the members felt a narrow passageway and attempted to squeeze through the opening. As he did, he pushed a large piece of furniture a few inches, opening up an alleyway for the rest of us to crawl through. After the rest of us had entered the next opening in the apartment, we felt like mice in a maze full of furniture, looking for our path to the fire.
The thermal imaging camera was picking up the fire farther toward the front of the apartment, but we were having a difficult time gaining access to it through this maze, and following a wall as a guide was nearly impossible because of all the furniture. Struggling to crawl, slide by, and climb over some of the furniture, we got agitated and tossed some of the smaller pieces of furniture out of the way, toward the opposite side of the room. We did this to make a pathway for the handline that was ready to advance. Unfortunately, moving furniture around in complete blindness can be difficult and also cause more problems for interior operations, not to mention hit unsuspecting firefighters and injure them or knock off the seal on their face pieces.
With a little tension ensuing, the engine company was entering and advancing the line into the apartment. This put too many of us in a tight spot, and trying to squeeze by one another wasn’t working, which added more commotion to an escalating problem. Luckily, lifting the last couch up against the far wall, we made an alleyway for the engine to follow the path to the front of the apartment and extinguish the fire.
Right after the smoke cleared, overhaul operations and checking for extension began in the original fire room. Other members noticed that the furniture that was moved blocked access to a small kitchen area, which never had been searched. A quick search proved negative. However, seeing the furniture in a heap and the amount of it in the apartment had many of us asking why. We found out that one relative was having financial problems and moved back in with his parents, furniture and all!
We conducted our informal fire critique right in the fire apartment so we could review the layout, the pile of furniture, and the blocked entranceway.
• Removing the two sewing tables to another apartment and not onto the narrow stairway landing assisted our entry into the apartment.
• Maintaining some distance between each other as we entered would have given the firefighter leading the way some space to feel this maze of furniture and move it without fear of hitting someone.
• Moving furniture or tossing it around blocks other areas and the normal travel routes people use in the apartment. Remember, the engine and truck have to work together, and bunching up in tight places only adds tension and confusion to an already difficult situation.
Firefighters must learn from each fire. We must keep our composure, work together, and focus on the job at hand. Always have an alternate plan of attack in reserve. Most importantly, resolve not to let things that go wrong happen again in the future.
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 Portable Ladder 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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