A serious hazard, the potential for flashover, is not readily recognized in preplanning surveys by the run-of-the-mill firefighter or officer. Following are some examples of practices that can cause fires that can be deadly to firefighters and civilians and that often are not recognized or cited by members of the fire service.

• The quarters of the Fire Bell Club of New York were located in the unsprinklered Pennsylvania Hotel at one time. The narrow corridor leading to the club’s quarters was “improved” by affixing shaggy carpeting similar to that on the floor on the walls. Many firefighters of all ranks from many departments visited the club quarters. None ever commented on the hazards of high-flame spread and radiation and reradiation the carpeting presented in the narrow corridor.

The Club was on the commercial floor. The doors to every room in the hotel were self-closing metal doors, to confine a fire to the room of origin. There were several businesses that had substantial merchandise stocks on hand. The steel self-closing doors had been removed; glass doors were substituted. Nobody recognized the death hazard for hotel occupants that would be presented if a fire developed in the merchandise and huge quantities of deadly smoke were released if the glass doors failed.

• We wintered regularly in an apartment section of a motel just north of Orlando. I lectured for fire departments in the area and regularly responded to fires. None of the firefighters who came by for a visit recognized the hazard of sheet acrylic plastic attached to both walls of a narrow corridor they passed through until I made them aware of it.

• Not all firefighters are aware of the hazard of combustible acoustical tile concealed above a new flame spread-rated tile-and-grid ceiling. This deadly practice is not forbidden by any code despite the fact that 16 residents of the John Sevier Nursing Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, died in such a fire.

• In the account of a recent church fire in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where a falling wall killed two firefighters, there is mention of a flashover early in the fire. The church basement was used as a dining hall. It is not uncommon to find a new flame spread-compliant ceiling hiding an old combustible tile ceiling in such an occupancy [see photo, Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (BCFS3), 423].

I saw a similar combustible tile ceiling hung from a wooden grid. The fire had been extinguished on the exposed side; however, the tiles continued to smolder on the hidden side. Pop a tile, and see if you see combustible tiles above. Tactical suggestions for dealing with this code that permits this deadly hazard were presented in The Ol’ Professor, January 1999.

The Atomic Energy Commission was building a research facility at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. A wooden snow shed was erected over the excavation to permit work during the winter. The shed was covered in a waterproofed paper used for packing. I took a sheet of the paper off and touched a match to it. It flamed. A fire would have sent a sheet of flame up the face of the hospital. In the corner of the shed was a change room heated by a pot-bellied stove fed by wood scraps. I ordered the stove fuel be coal only and that a layer of water be kept on the roof.

• Construction work at hospitals is sometimes conducted without regard for the occupants. I was visiting a newborn grandson at a university hospital. I opened a door in a plywood wall and found a construction job going on as if it were in a new building.

• Plastic decorations present another flame spread hazard. Some years ago, I took pictures of a restaurant on Seventh Avenue in New York City, which had a large amount of plastic fruit on the overhead. When a fire occurred, arriving units found a blowtorch of fire blowing across the avenue. Imagine what the situation would have been had the restaurant not been open to the street.

• Cork floats have been used to characterize a seafood restaurant, burlap to condition sound, and plastic imitation wood to create an imitation beamed ceiling. We have seen the terrible consequences of using cheaper packing-grade material instead of fire-retarded material for sound conditioning in the Rhode Island night club tragedy. I wonder how many firefighters attended social functions in that club; none thought to inquire what the stuff on the wall was.

Do not even think of making a test of suspected material. Some years ago, the Fire Department of New York put on a drive to control hazardous decorations. An inspector flicked his lighter at a Four Roses (whiskey) display of celluloid flowers. The result was a second-alarm fire. Record the situation for tactical purposes, have the information incorporated in the initial dispatch, and pass the information on to the proper authority for corrective action if such is possible. Chapter 9 of is probably the best available source for information on this subject.

From time to time, we hear of “flashover” occurring at a fire. Often, we are left with the unanswered question, “What flashed over?” When reporting a flashover, try to identify the material involved.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, devoted more than half of his 63-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He was well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan was an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering. He submitted this column before his death in January 2006.

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