By Danny Sheridan
The culture of the first line going to the fire by the interior stairs was most likely borne from the early days of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), when most older multiple dwellings still contained the open, unenclosed interior stair. In 1934, most of these buildings were required to fire retard the stairway enclosure.
Originally the stairs and stairway enclosures were wood with wood lath and plaster partitions.
Around the turn of the century, the most feared fires were those that involved the interior stairs. If a fire started in an apartment and the door was left open, it would extend right up to the top floor. If fire was coming out of the windows and the fire escape was cut off, people would be trapped. Last year, such a fire happened; it was a perfect storm of subzero-degree temperatures on a winter day with frozen hydrants all around the fire building. A child was playing with the stove on the first floor. The fire started in the kitchen; the mom tried putting out the fire, but was unsuccessful. She panicked and left the door open while running out of the apartment. The apartment was between the front entrance and the only stairway. Fire shot out of the front door and up the stairs (photo 1).
(1) Photo by author.
The fire escape was directly outside the kitchen window. The fire blew out the windows and made the fire escape untenable. Numerous people were calling for help. Unfortunately, several people got caught outside their apartments in the public hallway and succumbed to the intense heat and smoke. It is human nature—people will try to leave the building the “normal” way they always do: the interior stairs. When a fire happens, occupants’ first thoughts are to get down the interior stairs; I have seen it numerous times in my career, even in fireproof buildings. I still cannot understand why people would leave a perfectly safe apartment 10 floors above the fire and descend a stair that is full of smoke and heat.
When I was a lieutenant in Harlem, we had one of the worst fires in my career. It was 0300 hours, and we were responding to an emergency reporting system (ERS) box alarm. (An ERS box is a typical false alarm. Between 2300 and 0800 hours, the FDNY will send one engine to a street box if there is no contact.) While in route, I heard another ERS box come in for a fire in a H-type (“H”-shaped building) multiple dwelling. I knew the block, and there were some rather large buildings in that area. I told dispatch that we were available for the other assignment. He assigned us and let the battalion chief know that they were “loading up the box” (sending four engines and two trucks).
When we turned the corner onto the block, it was quite a sight; it seemed like every occupant in the building was pouring onto the fire escape.
We took the hydrant near the front of the building. The street was two-way and wide open, so we left plenty of room for the truck. I jumped off the engine, headed toward the lobby of the building, went inside, and couldn’t believe the scene; there was so much fire I thought that the outside shaft was going and had gotten into the lobby. The lobby was huge, featuring 20-foot ceilings. Fire was everywhere. I knew I had one mission: Get the fire back to where it came from so the ladder companies could get above.
Firefighters sometimes go on “autopilot.” In a building like this, we assume (and rightfully so) that a 1¾-inch hoseline is the best option. The speed and mobility inside a multiple dwelling with 180 gallons per minute would normally suffice. I saw the area and the volume of fire and radioed back to the firefighters to bring the 2½-inch hose. It was too late; I turned around, and there was my nozzle firefighter with the 1¾-inch line. This engine was one of the toughest I’ve ever seen. We had to use what we had, we worked hard, and made good progress, knocking down a tremendous amount of fire. It turned out that the fire didn’t come from a shaft but rather an apartment on the first floor. The occupant left the door open, and the fire ran right up to the bulkhead. Unfortunately, some people took the wrong stairs, the fire was in the A wing (the wing on the Bravo side of a H-type building), and anyone that came down those stairs was caught by the fireball that raced up the stairs to the upper floor.
(2) Photo by author.
These are just two extreme examples of the importance of protecting the interior stairs. Like we spoke about last month, it is important to protect the members going above the fire. Being on the other side of the equation, if I’m an engine officer, I will do everything I can to make sure the firefighters on the floor above are safe. One way to ensure this is to stretch a backup line. All engines should work together to stretch the first line into operation. After that, stretch a backup line; doing so should protect the first hoseline, especially when firefighters are going above the fire.
There will be times when the second line is urgently needed in an exposure or the floor above. If that’s the case, use another company to stretch another line to protect the backup line. The premise is that you should always have one line in “standby mode” and ready to go no matter how many lines are in use. When I was a lieutenant, we responded to a fire in a five-story old law tenement. We were ordered to stretch a second line because it appeared that there was extension to the floor above. I brought the line to the fire floor and waited. The chief then ordered us to stretch a third line. We continued waiting until we knew the first line was operating and moving in. Suddenly, we heard an urgent transmission: “Engine 1 to command, we lost water.” At this time, we had a fully involved apartment fire with extension to the floors above, and ladder companies were operating.
It was a no-brainer—and we made a seamless transition. I knew the first engine officer and told him that we had another charged line ready to go. They backed out very calmly, and we moved in to take over the fire floor. They fixed the problem (burst length) and then backed us up, eventually taking the line to the floor above. We kept those stairs protected the entire time; at no time during that operation were the firefighters on the floor above in any danger.
I am now on board with this new way of thinking, and I believe it will have its place.
When I was a firefighter in the South Bronx, there were times that an engine would pull up and put the stang in the window for a quick knockdown. Granted, most of the time the buildings were vacant, but nonetheless, this was done.
For large tenant buildings, there were times when the chief would order a quick shot with the tower ladder to soften up the fire. We were taught about pushing fire and not hitting smoke, but all of these “old ways” are now changing. The results from all the testing is indisputable; we just need to know when we can apply these tactics.
If people are above the fire, and firefighters are going to enter the building to make rescues, then we are going to have to protect the stairs. It is the point of attack.
We need to keep this tactic solid and not move away from it. We also need to keep putting the hose stream between the people that are in trouble and the fire. The only way we can do this is to keep protecting the interior stairs.
Daniel P. Sheridan is a 33-year veteran of and a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York assigned to Battalion 3. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan is also a lead instructor with Mutual Aid Training Group.