By Michael N. Ciampo
With the evolution of the Internet and various Web sites, it’s very easy to watch a fire video and begin tearing it apart even though you have no idea of what the crew was faced with. Then there are those videos that you sit and watch in awe of the procedure, tactic, or tip being shown. All of this is part of the learning curve, but we need to be careful with just using this as a learning mechanism. We must take what we watched out to the apparatus floor or to the training tower and let our mind coordinate with our hands and perform the tactic. Doing it in a practice run is much better than trying to teach yourself in a pressure situation.
Arriving as the second-due truck at a predawn top-floor fire in a five-story multiple dwelling, we made our way to the top floor. Our primary concern was to search the adjoining apartments for life and for any fire extending into the cockloft (the area above the top-floor ceiling to the bottom of the roof sheathing) or adjoining walls. We also focused on searching the large public hallway for victims. Forcing the adjoining door with multiple locks engaged made us think that there still could be endangered occupants inside the heavily smoke-filled apartment.
As we proceeded into the apartment, the can man was ordered to immediately get a hole in the ceiling to see if the fire was concealed overhead. As he thrust his tool into the ceiling and began pulling in zero visibility, small pieces of plaster and lath came raining down on us. Pointing the thermal imaging camera toward the inspection hole revealed only a small swath of heat or white image on the screen. The camera didn’t pick up any fire or a high level of heat exiting the hole or across the ceiling in either direction, indicating that the fire hadn’t penetrated into the cockloft in our vicinity yet.
We proceeded farther into the apartment with our primary search and kept making inspection holes in the ceiling to check for extension. In addition, we were able to quickly remove the thermal pane windows using the clip releases on top of their sashes. This prevented glass from falling out onto the street, reducing the possibility of injuring other firefighters or civilians below but, more importantly, reducing the chances of piercing the hoseline.
As we were operating in this apartment, we heard on the radio that there was fire extension into the cockloft. We continued to make quick inspection holes with the butt end of the hook in numerous ceiling bays to check for extension while awaiting the second hoseline.
As the smoke began to lift in this apartment because of the complete removal of the top-floor windows, something became apparent on the ceiling: Those initial inspection holes we made in the complete darkness didn’t do what they were supposed to do at all. With our luck, the cockloft area had blown-in insulation, which was at least 12 inches deep. When the holes were made, some of the insulation funneled out, but it regained its position and sealed the hole over, getting caught up on some of the hanging lath for support. A bell went off that this insulation could have covered up the conditions in the cockloft and that the camera might not have picked up the actual fire extension.
After the fire, we critiqued our operations and stressed the importance of many of our actions, including the following:
1The complete removal of the top-floor windows ensures complete ventilation, allowing fresh air to draw back toward the roof ventilation opening. Then if a smoke explosion occurs, the fire will possibly blow out of the windows and not down on the members.
2Even though there is zero visibility, when you make an initial inspection hole, when a hook penetrates a ceiling, pull it open to expose a hole big enough to read the conditions above. When you make this hole, use the hook to remove any insulation or rotate it in a circular motion to assist in releasing the blown-in insulation.
Riding back to quarters, many of us still critiqued ourselves on the actions we performed at this fire. Most of us reviewed in our minds the “What- ifs” and the “Why didn’t I do this or that?” scenarios while growing a little frustrated at our actions. How could simple blown-in insulation cover up those first holes? After all, we were following an aggressive and smart tactical game plan, but somehow the circumstances went against us.
It all worked out in the end, but another on-the-job learning experience was etched into our minds. Sure, it’s easy to critique yourself for days after a fire; if you didn’t find at least one thing that you wished you could have done a little better, easier, or faster, you’re probably not going over the fire with a fine-tooth comb.
When you go to a fire or an emergency, you better realize that no two incidents are exactly alike and the actions you take at one you may not take at another. The situations you encounter will always dictate or prescribe a course of action for you to follow. There are a lot of choices to make, and you have to make them in a split second. Luckily for us, learning from past experiences and training will assist us in our choices. Sure, it’s easy to voice your opinions on others’ misfortunes and say, “Well, we would have never done that!” Unfortunately, you will have one of those moments in your career. Never pass up the opportunity to learn from it because you don’t want to be the one who is being Monday morning quarterbacked in every firehouse across the nation. Instead, strive to be your own personal MVP (most valuable player).
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 26-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 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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