Smoke Signals

ON FIREby MICHAEL N. CIAMPO

Often, officers may “fill out the box or assignment” for a good “worker” or “job” from blocks away when they see a large plume of smoke in the sky. The art of reading smoke from a distance can increase our adrenaline, and many of us don’t want to wait until we arrive on scene because that eerie plume of smoke is screaming, “Get more help!” We’ve all heard the radio report before, “We have a header in the distance,” and, on arrival, it’s a fully involved automobile on the side of the road. Performing size-ups during responses will all be different, and arriving on scene will be another time to start reading the smoke.

The Fire Apartment Door

When we arrive at a door, we should stand by our mantra “Try before you pry” and, while doing that, put an ungloved hand on the upper portion of the door to feel for heat. Many firefighters will often “flex” the top of a door with the halligan tool and see if any smoke pushes from the crack. Or, they’ll stick their nose in the crevice to try and find the source of the odor of smoke or gas inside. When the door flexes and black and gray smoke starts issuing, we’re very keen on having a hoseline stretched to the location and give the working fire signal.

When we’re at the door, we should also be sizing up the velocity of the smoke and if it’s twisting under pressure while it exits the upper space between the door and jamb. Often, this will tell us the fire is close to us and, once we pop the door open, we had better be able to control it because we don’t want to get overrun by fire. This is especially true in a high-rise multiple dwelling. If the top of a door has blistering paint or is warped, it should warn us of the dangers that lurk behind it. Could the fire be wind-driven? Is it right behind the door? Should we wait for water in the hoseline before we proceed? These questions should be on our minds.

The fire service as a whole seems to be forgetting about using our senses at the door. We’re so quick to teach that once you force the door, control it and get your hood on. Firefighters are in such a race to get fully geared up that we forget about getting below the thermal layers to look into the apartment for a layout or a victim under the smoke. Also, don’t forget to check behind the door for a hallway or stairs. If we’re lucky, we might even catch that glimmer of orange in the distance.

We teach to raise the thermal imaging camera directly inside the door to read the thermal waves and heat conditions and help us choose a direction to the seat of the fire. A while back, the working fire signal was almost given as we forced a door. Thick black smoke engulfed the stairway landing, and it had a different “taste” to it. Little particles of soot that looked like pieces of tinsel could be seen floating in the air. There was no heat at all when we entered, and we wondered if this was a fire that wasn’t able to grow because of the lack of oxygen. Every now and then, we’d come across a burnt-out room in a dwelling with thermal-pane windows where the fire went undetected while it was in its growth stages. Luckily, this fire was only a bunch of plastic containers in the oven’s broiler that the occupant forgot about, but the smoke condition almost fooled us all.

Brown Smoke

When brown smoke is issuing from a structure, we should be thinking that the fire involves structural members of the building. As a truck officer, you’re going to have to think about finding the source of the fire in the walls, ceiling, attic, or cockloft above you. Checking walls and ceilings near electric outlets, switches, and fixtures with the thermal imaging camera is a good place to start. Another favorite is to check the bathroom and kitchen in case a plumber was there doing some work or a water leak over the years has caused faulty wires that ignited a stud or joist.

When operating on the top floor and in taxpayers with fire in the cockloft space, ensure ventilation of the windows is complete so that the fresh air is drawn in and out the vent hole above. We don’t need to be blown to the floor from an explosion above us. An old-timer once told me while pulling ceilings: “If it’s brown, don’t let it knock you down.”

It’s also important for firefighters to know their building’s characteristics. Utility closets with low pilot lights on appliances have caused pyrolysis and ignition of floors and joists, allowing fire to enter void spaces and into the attic. Engine officers seeing these conditions may consider if one of their members should bring in a bent-tip or other appliance (cockloft nozzle, cellar distributor, piercing nozzle) to get water into a void space to extinguish hidden fire.

Forcing an apartment door and having brown smoke and no heat can create an issue for everyone operating on the fireground. It may be some time before we locate the origin of the fire in a multiple dwelling with numerous apartments. Our first concern when we encounter this situation is for a member to immediately proceed to the top floor and ensure the fire hasn’t entered the cockloft.

Because of the construction of these buildings, the fire can be a far distance from the smoke condition, and additional units to perform the search for the origin will be needed. While all this is going on, it’s incumbent on all of us to keep an eye on the time.

Years ago, we were all taught about the 20-minute rule of collapse, but in today’s lightweight construction, we could have failure much earlier if fire has consumed unprotected areas of the structure. Read the smoke; it could be telling you something.


MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 36-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 International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos.

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