MULTIROOM FIRES IN RESIDENTIAL OCCUPANCIES
The average residential fire involves one room and contents or less and is fairly easy to extinguish from the relative safety of a hallway. These “bread and butter” fires occur every day across the nation. They seldom make the news, as there is no spectacular film footage. In some ways, they have made us overconfident in our abilities. Less common are those fires that involve three or four rooms. They are the real test of our ability to perform our primary duty–protecting human life from fire. It is possible to attack and control multiroom fires from interior positions, but it takes coordination, determination, and training.
A fire involving several rooms in an occupied residence necessitates an aggressive interior attack with the initial handline if civilian lives are to be saved. The attack, of course, must be coordinated with the primary ladder company functions of forcible entry, search, and ventilation.
GETTING THE FIRST HANDLINE IN SERVICE
Getting the first hoseline operating is the most critical function of first-arriving companies at any working fire. Every action necessary to place this line into service must be taken quickly, especially when the fire involves multiple rooms. After flashover, fire spread becomes a geometric equation. A one-room fire on arrival can quickly become a three- or four-room fire before the initial line is in position. The speed with which the initial handline is placed between the fire and the building occupants largely determines whether lives can be saved. After reaching this position, the line must be advanced and the fire contained and ultimately extinguished.
Construction and building styles vary greatly across the nation. Most fire department engine company hosebeds are set up to stretch into the types of buildings in their jurisdiction. The different types of stretches used to get a hoseline to the fire area vary greatly and are not discussed in this article. All fire departments should evaluate their response areas to determine the hose loads and stretches that will allow engine crews to advance hose up to and into the fire building efficiently, be it a single-family residence, a multiple dwelling, or a commercial structure.
The common thread in all interior handline operations is the need to position enough hose at the entrance to the fire area to allow the engine company to advance the line. In residential fires, this is generally at least one 50-foot length. The structure`s layout and size may necessitate more hose.
Once the line is in position, the mechanics of advancing the nozzle are the same, regardless of the part of the country in which the fire occurs. A veteran firefighter in Harlem put it succinctly when he explained to some younger company members that fires in a less busy part of New York City “get put out the same way they do here. The engine moves in, eventually the smoke turns white, and spray from the nozzle shoots out the windows.” His summation was insightful and correct. This comparison can be expanded. Successful interior fire operations from the fire area door to the fire room(s) are basically the same on the East and West coasts and most places in between.
Advancing a handline more than a few feet into the fire area requires a minimum of three firefighters. The nozzle team requires at least two firefighters, one of whom should be the radio-equipped company officer.1 A third firefighter is needed to feed hose in from the door.
THE DOORMAN`S FUNCTION
The doorman position is not necessarily static and fixed at the door. He may have to operate alternately between the door and the first turn to pull slack and lighten up on the line so the nozzle team can advance. This is not a glamorous position, but it is vital. The success of the advance depends on how well he does his job. Departments with more personnel can position a member at each turn to feed hose to the nozzle team.
The doorman should stay alert for a phenomenon called “vent point ignition.” Under the right conditions, flammable fire gases driven along the ceiling ahead of the fire can be too rich to ignite. When they eventually reach the outside air, the smoke “lights off,” presenting itself as moderate to heavy smoke venting from a window or door with flame visible in the smoke outside the building. This may occur directly over the doorman`s head and is an indication of a potentially serious situation. It will take only additional air to allow the fuel-rich rooms to light up. The doorman should warn the other members of his company when he sees vent point ignition.
It is well known that the doorman`s function is to feed hose to facilitate the advance of the nozzle. What may not be as well known is that there are times when the doorman must pull hose back to allow the nozzle team to back up. A nozzle team crawling through heavy smoke may unknowingly pass the fire area. Once this is discovered, perhaps by a truck company member searching behind the nozzle, it may not be possible to bend the line to get back to the fire. If it is possible to make the bend, there is a real chance that the “u” created may catch on furniture or cause a severe kink that will reduce the water available at the nozzle.
With practice, it is possible for the nozzle team to communicate to the doorman with short, sharp thrusts on the line when he needs to take up hose. The doorman should pull hose back slowly, being careful not to pull the nozzle out of the nozzleman`s hands. One officer in our department, Captain Bill Gustin, practices this routinely every time he is assigned new firefighters. After stretching a line into the fire station kitchen and “extinguishing the pantry,” they practice sending signals and backing the line out. This requires practice and will be difficult on stretches with several turns if there are not sufficient personnel to place a firefighter at every corner.
Obviously, for complex stretches, having more than three firefighters will prove advantageous. This is a luxury most fire departments do not have. Many will have to pair up companies just to have the required three firefighters to staff the first line. The company officers on the scene will have to make a decision based on experience and fire conditions–do whatever it takes to get water on the fire. It is better to use two companies to get one line into operation efficiently than to have two understaffed companies struggling to advance their lines.
For fires involving multiple rooms, the handline must have sufficient gpm flow to allow the nozzle team to advance. The flow must be adequate to control the fire in individual rooms quickly. In “Nozzles and Handlines for Interior Operations” (Fire Engineering, April 1999), I wrote at length about the effectiveness of a stream flowing 180 gpm, which I believe is the best (minimum) for interior fire attack. Doug Leihbacher, an engine company captain in Yonkers, New York, has established 150 gpm as the minimum flow for his company.2 Andrew Fredericks, a firefighter with Squad 18 of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), advocates the 180-gpm handline (the FDNY minimum) but agrees with Leihbacher on 150 gpm as the minimum acceptable for interior fire operations.3 The flow your department adopts as the minimum for interior operations should be based on experience and testing and should not be below 150 gpm. If you are able to advance streams flowing 180 gpm or more, you will be more successful in fighting multiroom fires.
In “Nozzles and Handlines for Interior Operations,” I also address the advantages of the 250 @ 100 “low-pressure” nozzle just adopted by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. This nozzle flows 180 gpm at 50-psi nozzle pressure, which is more than adequate for the average residential fire. The nozzle has the added advantage of delivering 220 gpm at 70-psi nozzle pressure. Using the two-person method to control the nozzle reaction, the 250 @ 100 on 134-inch hose gives us an extremely potent stream from a line that is highly maneuverable. The 220-gpm flow is in the low range of a 212-inch hose, but the line is far lighter and more mobile. This combination is not meant to replace 212-inch hose but is intended as a hard-hitting, mobile attack line that will control most residential fires involving three or more rooms. It also will give departments that have discontinued using 212-inch hose, as many have, the ability to flow at least 220 gpm at fires in commercial occupancies.
COMPARTMENTALIZED MULTIROOM FIRES
Fires involving several rooms are extinguished by knocking down a room sufficiently so that you can enter or pass it to reach the remaining rooms involved. If the engine cannot “make” the last room(s), the fire will continue to burn. A fire that continues to burn can extend into the attic and run the cockloft above the crews working inside. This is an extremely dangerous situation. In addition, as long as one or more rooms are burning, flammable gases are still being produced, increasing the possibility of flashover in adjacent areas or extension to exposures.
It is important to open the ceiling before advancing to the fire compartment to determine if the fire is in the ceiling above you. Place this hole near the entrance to the fire area before the engine company gets in too deep. If fire is in the cockloft, pull the ceilings and knock down fire as you advance.
When working in a railroad flat layout, where rooms are entered through adjoining rooms (i.e., there is no interior hallway), the engine crew must enter a room immediately after knocking the fire down. The room must be cooled quickly enough to allow the crew to enter it, occupy it, and take control of it. That`s what multiroom fires are all about–controlling one space at a time and then pushing forward. It is not unlike a battle where a small piece of ground must be taken and then held. The nozzle must continue to advance, or the interior operation will most likely have to be abandoned for the safety of the personnel inside the structure.
In the railroad flat layout, the nozzle team takes a beating because of having to crawl through rooms that were burning just seconds before. Conditions may be so punishing that the nozzleman may not be able to extinguish more than a couple of rooms. The doorman must move up the line to provide relief, and another firefighter must assume the doorman`s position. You should be getting the idea that this requires training and a well-coordinated effort.
Knocking down the fire in a room does not mean completely extinguishing it. It means darkening the fire down until just spot fires, like the corners and windowsills, are all that remain burning. The nozzle must be advanced to attack the fire in the remaining rooms, but the spot fires should be monitored to ensure that they don`t intensify behind the nozzle team. Be careful when advancing past fires involving closets, which can be “small rooms” packed full of Class A combustibles. These are more than spot fires and may require a good shot of water to prevent them from extending out into the room after the nozzle team has passed.
Several Bedrooms Off a Hallway
Fire involving several bedrooms off a hallway presents a different problem. The fire in the hall must be driven away from the nozzle team to allow the advance. Sweeping the ceiling with the stream while avoiding the lower wall areas will drive the fire ahead of the nozzle and minimize excess steam production. Steam production is not desired here. It will delay or prevent the engine crew from occupying the hall.
On reaching the first room, the nozzleman must “hit it good” from the hallway. Do not enter this room. Just knock the fire down. Then push the and down the hall to control the fire in the remaining rooms. The stream must have sufficient gpm to control the fire in each room quickly. The nozzle team must be confident that “side rooms” are not going to light back up, which would place them between two areas of fire. A side room that has been passed should be monitored. An engine company member moving up the line or a ladder company member can assume this responsibility and warn the nozzle team if the fire intensifies again.
Beware of passing a side room that has been knocked down with a wide fog. The quickly expanding steam fills the room and gives the illusion that the fire in the room has been controlled. As the steam vents from the room or condenses, fresh air will take its place, and the room will soon be going good again. Side rooms should be knocked down with a high-volume straight stream or smooth bore to be passed safely. (Note: Straight stream is the narrowest pattern on a fog nozzle. Smooth bore is a solid core of water.) Streams of 180 gpm or higher will snuff out a room of fire quickly. If they do not, a warning alarm should go off that perhaps the conditions do not permit safe interior operations.
The preceding scenario is an example in which the compartmentalized floor plans of single-family homes or apartments work to the engine company`s advantage. They allow personnel to get up close to or “sneak up” on the fire rooms by using the interior walls as shields. Controlling the hallway is the key.
FIRE IN OPEN AREAS
Fire involving a large, open area of a residence, such as a living, dining, and kitchen area, may dish out more punishment and prove tougher to advance into. The nozzle team will have to knock down and enter a noncompartmentalized area that has the same square footage as up to three or four bedrooms. The emphasis on large family areas with high ceilings in modern construction adds to the problem, creating areas of high volume.
The engine company must be able to hold its position while members of the ladder company move to search the bedrooms, where most victims in residential fires will be found. This is especially critical when the bedrooms are on the floor above the fire area. If the nozzle team is driven out, the members searching the bedrooms will be in danger. Add barred security windows to the equation, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Advancing the nozzle for interior attack requires a fog nozzle operated in the straight-stream position or a smooth-bore nozzle. These streams will knock down heavy volumes of fire without generating a lot of steam. When firefighters must immediately enter a space that was just burning, steam production is not desirable and must be kept to a minimum. I always think of an old lieutenant who used to say, “Steam will make you leave your Mama,” when I try to convey this idea to new firefighters. Steam will also adversely impact any occupants of the structure who might have otherwise survived. They are, after all, the reason we are risking so much to enter a structure with fire in more than one room.
Most of the time, the nozzleman should wait until he can see fire or the dull orange glow to open up the nozzle. After all visible fire is darkened down, the nozzle should be shut down and slowly advanced. The nozzleman must be alert and keep the nozzle in position to open up again because the fire will keep pushing at him until the last room is controlled. If fire at the ceiling level darkens down and then comes right back, another room may be burning just around the corner. Instead of hitting the main body of fire, the stream is hitting the burning gases rolling over ahead of the fire. The nozzleman will have to move in a little and make the turn to hit the last burning room.
“Make haste slowly” is an old engine company adage that applies to the multiple-room fire. It does not imply that time is not of the essence. It means, Make sure you have controlled the space you are in before pushing the attack forward. The stream should be directed up at the ceiling and out at an angle. This will prevent burning debris and scalding water from being driven down on the nozzle team. A side-to-side motion of the stream, across the ceiling, will cover the entire room. The bulk of the stream will control the fire and flammable gases at the ceiling level while the remainder of the stream will break up and rain down on the contents below.
An alternative to sweeping the stream across the ceiling is to rotate the nozzle in a clockwise motion, which is said to drive smoke, heat, and gases away from the nozzleman. The stream should be rotated to cover the entire ceiling area ahead of the nozzle team. Let the volume of the stream work for you. The ceiling will break up the stream and cause it to fall in larger droplets on the area below. Be careful not to direct the stream low at a body of fire unless the fire is small and localized, or the fire and gases will quickly be pushed up the wall and across the ceiling above you. Quickly sweep the floor with the stream every so often. This will drive burning debris from the path of the nozzle team and help prevent burns to the hose or firefighters` legs and lower bodies.
Progress in advancing the line is made slowly, a few feet at a time. Members of the nozzle team are guaranteed to receive small burns while advancing the line through most fires involving several rooms. It always seems as though the second glove you don is never quite pulled up all the way and there is always a little gap somewhere around your hood. Heavy fire conditions will instantly let you know where any small patches of skin are exposed. It takes determination to push forward under such circumstances. I have found that exclaiming loudly one of several three- or four-syllable expletives takes the edge off and helps me focus on the job at hand.
Occasionally, under severe fire conditions, the nozzle must remain open while being advanced. This is where nozzles with high flows and low nozzle reaction (smooth bores and 50-psi, low-pressure fog nozzles) combined with the two-firefighter backup method provide a distinct advantage. The reduced nozzle reaction makes the nozzle easier to control while the stream`s volume cools the path of the advance. The nozzleman and backup man must work as a team. This two-firefighter method takes some practice to learn but is not difficult to master and will allow the nozzle team to be more effective.
There are also times when the nozzle must be advanced more quickly than is comfortable for the crew. Three or four rooms of fire in an occupied multiple dwelling with occupants visible in the windows above is a good example. This is one of those fires where “you`re gonna get burned,” as the old-timers used to say. Under these conditions, the nozzle team may have to “belly in” because there is no time to waste. The nozzleman lies down on top of the hose with the nozzle just far enough out in front so that he can operate the shutoff and direct the stream. The backup man drops back a few feet, to avoid having his face piece kicked off by the nozzleman, and also lies down on the hose. The weight of the two firefighters pins the hose to the floor and allows them to control the nozzle reaction.
The nozzleman directs the stream overhead the best he can and then shuts down. Both members crawl forward. This is accomplished by lying half on your side and half on your stomach and moving almost like an inchworm. Nozzle team members must cock their heads sideways to look up and forward, or their helmets will hit on their SCBA cylinders. “Bellying in” lowers the body positions of the nozzle team by almost two feet and may allow them to push in under the heat. Once the stream has operated long enough to cool the general area, the nozzle team can resume its normal stance.
I remember using this technique to advance down a hallway and extinguish four rooms of fire in an occupied duplex. The house was very old and built of “Dade County pine.” This wood is deeply impregnated with pine sap and burns as if it were soaked in gasoline. The heat was so intense that we were driven to the floor at the front door and opted to “belly in.” I remember looking sideways as we crawled and noting that not a stick of furniture was in the fire side of the duplex. The extreme heat was being generated solely by the resin-saturated structure.
After knocking down the fire in the small living area, we crawled into the hall to get the last three rooms. Smack in the middle of the hall was a small bathroom sink, lying loose on the floor. It couldn`t have been more than eight inches tall, but raising up to our knees to go over it was impossible because of the heat. Crawling over it like snakes, we continued to advance the nozzle and push the attack forward. As we made the end of the hall, we darkened down the last two rooms, having knocked down one side room along the way.
This technique, though not commonly used, will allow the engine company to make an interior attack when it has to push forward to save lives. Needless to say, it is a drastic measure. If conditions were not bad, you would not have to resort to it. “Bellying in” under extreme heat should be led by an experienced nozzle team member. This is not the time to put the probie on the nozzle.
All multiple-room fires warrant stretching a backup line as quickly as possible. Firefighters staffing the backup line must know that their job is to protect the crew on the first handline. They must resist the temptation to relocate their line, even if it appears that the crew is making headway and will not need to be backed up. Under conditions this severe, things can go bad quickly. A burst length in the first line will put the members operating it in grave peril. The nozzle team on the backup line needs the discipline to stay put and operate its stream only when needed.
The old saying “You don`t open the nozzle up on smoke” is not necessarily true anymore. The increasing number of firefighters burned in flashovers is due, in large part, to the prevalence of plastics that burn hot and release dense, flammable smoke. This has changed the equation, and the old rules don`t always apply. One member must monitor the heat conditions overhead while the nozzle team advances. Ideally, this member is an experienced company officer.
Heat is generally regarded as the most reliable sign of impending flashover. A sudden increase in heat levels, especially without visible fire, is an indication that the nozzle may have to be opened up even though there is no visible fire. This will quickly cool the overhead, preventing the room from flashing over and allowing the crew to continue to advance.
MONITORING OVERHEAD HEAT CONDITIONS
There are different ways to monitor overhead heat conditions. In a room with eight-foot ceilings, the officer should be able to raise a hand and effectively evaluate heat conditions. This involves pulling back the wristlet of one glove and raising an arm, which is easier said than done. Removing one glove completely, raising a hand to check for heat, and then quickly replacing the glove is a more reliable method. Be forewarned that the risk management office of your department may not approve of this test. What is more dangerous, though, briefly removing one glove to monitor conditions or an entire company`s entering dangerous heat conditions that they can`t really check? The better our protective gear becomes, the more difficult it is for us to monitor heat levels.
Rooms with ceilings higher than eight feet will prove more difficult to monitor for heat. The popularity of vaulted or cathedral ceilings in modern residential construction can create a dangerous situation for forces operating below. Firefighters may be able to stand comfortably, unaware that heat is building to dangerous levels over their heads. A short burst from the stream, directed overhead, may give an indication of heat conditions. The water should rain back down in fairly cool, large droplets. If the water is scalding or, worse yet, turns to steam, the nozzle will have to be opened to cool the space overhead.
Another method is to have a ladder company member with a hook (pike pole) raise the hook end straight up, as high as he can, for a few seconds and then lower the hook and feel the metal head (using the back of the hand) to check for heat. An extremely hot hook indicates dangerous heat levels above.
We have discussed the mechanics of advancing a handline and extinguishing several rooms of fire from the engine company`s perspective. Advancing the handline must be coordinated with good ladder company work, especially at advanced fires (more than two rooms). For companies in busy urban fire departments, these fires are not all that unusual. For most departments, though, multiroom fires occur less frequently. They are always challenging. With understanding, training, and the right equipment, a good engine company should have a reasonable shot at controlling three or more rooms of fire. Experience and coordination, as well as understanding the limits of your abilities, are the keys to success. Keep in mind that these incidents are extremely hazardous to our operating forces. Fires in small houses that have claimed the lives of firefighters have shown just how quickly “routine” can turn to tragedy. The reason we take this risk is to save lives. Fire in an occupied residential structure warrants taking more risk than fire in a locked commercial occupancy. With knowledge and training, we can perform our duties effectively and safely while operating at multiroom residential fires.
For rapid entrance into a space that was just burning, firefighters must have a stream with sufficient volume to knock down the fire and cool the room quickly enough to permit them to occupy it. If the fire involves several rooms, this ability is even more critical. These Miami-Dade firefighters are preparing to enter this room. The 250 @ 100 “low-pressure” (underpressurized) nozzle the department just adopted flows 180 gpm at 50-psi nozzle pressure and will snuff this fire right out. It will also deliver 220 gpm at 70-psi nozzle pressure. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)
When heavy, pressurized smoke is issuing from every part of a structure, be prepared to find more than one room involved. A handline that always has sufficient volume available at the nozzle is crucial for the safety of firefighters operating in a multiroom fire. (Photo by Bob Palestrant.)
The nozzle team is moving in while the doorman is flaking out the attack line. The doorman will take a position at the door to feed hose to the advancing nozzle team. He may have to alternately move between the door and the first turn to facilitate the attack. Having more personnel should make the task easier. Three experienced firefighters, spaced properly on the handline, can advance it more efficiently than five or six bunched up at the nozzle.
The 250 @ 100 “low-pressure” nozzle in combination with the two-firefighter nozzle team method is a powerful offensive weapon. This backup technique allows the nozzleman to operate the stream while the backup firefighter absorbs nearly all the nozzle reaction.
If the officers in your department are required to “work,” as most are, the backup position is a good place for the engine officer. This position places him at the point of attack, where he can look over the nozzleman`s shoulder. From this position, he can talk on his speaker mic or directly to the nozzleman to control the advance.
“Bellying in” allows the nozzle team to push in when lives are in the balance and the heat conditions do not permit them to operate on their knees. The nozzleman and backup man lie on top of the hose, lowering their positions by almost two feet. This takes practice to accomplish and requires an experienced nozzleman to lead the attack.
1. See “Stretching and Operating the First Line,” by Tim Klett, Fire Engineering, May 1999, 93-104, for an excellent description of the roles of the nozzle team and the doorman.
2. See ” `Stealing` Water with the Water Thief,” by Doug Leihbacher, Fire Engineering, January 1999, 69-78.
3. “The 212-Inch Handline,” Andrew A. Fredericks, Fire Engineering, December 1996, 36-49. See also “Stretching and Advancing Handlines, Part 2,” Fredericks, April 1997, 90-106.
DAVID WOOD is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue (formerly Metro-Dade), where he has served 17 of his 23 years in the fire service. He spent four years in the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Engine 53 in Spanish Harlem. He has an associate`s degree in fire science technology from Miami-Dade Community College and is a Florida State-certified fire instructor.