by Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE

Even experienced firefighters sometimes do not realize how fast a fire can spread even without the presence of a special accelerant, but an ordinary wood environment can provide fuel for extraordinarily rapid spread.

The following is abstracted from a letter from Captain John Norman, Rescue Co. 1, City of New York (NY) Fire Department, author of Fire Officer`s Handbook of Tactics (Fire Engineering, 1991). At the time this book was written, Captain Norman was also an assistant chief of the Inwood (NY) Fire Department.

Chief officers could hear at home the conversation between the dispatcher and an emergency caller, who, in this case, reported a fire in the bedroom. Norman responded immediately. Response time was two minutes; but, on arrival, fire was out 16 windows on two floors and 20 to 30 feet in the air. Fire already had extended to some exposures and was threatening others. The chief immediately suspected flammable liquids, but this was not the case.

The rapid fire growth, from a mattress fire to a fully involved fire in two minutes, occurred because the house was completely lined in wood–walls and ceilings had been finished with layers of varnish and shellac. The mattress probably was foamed plastic.

The NFPA video Countdown to Disaster also shows how a fire can spread from a smoldering chair to flashover and backdraft in two minutes.


Gypsum board, which has a very low flame spread, is the most common interior finish. However, wood interior finish seems to be gaining in popularity. At the very least, homes with such interiors should be equipped with more than the basic single smoke detector on each floor.

Wood finishes can be found in offices, restaurants, and private eating clubs in fire resistive high-rise buildings. Such finishes are installed on furring strips, so there is a fire surface protected from hose streams. A wooden interior finish in a restaurant in a New Orleans high-rise defied an extended attack by two small lines. Three occupants of a beauty parlor, trapped beyond the fire, and two firefighters perished.

I understand the reasons for small hose in high-rise packs, but every apparatus should carry one length of big hose flaked down so that several lengths would be readily available when needed.


Rapid fire spread over wooden surfaces was a chief factor in the destruction of 66 apartment units in 1991 in Seattle, Washington, the subject of a U.S. Fire Administration report.1 This report contains valuable information and insights on a number of facets of this fire. We can cover only some key points here. This incident may be used to get sprinklers initially or as a retrofit in some of the “monstrous lumberyards” built as multiple dwellings. It should also encourage fire departments whose chief experience has been single-house fires to plan for “the Big One” in combustible apartment complexes.

The Seattle fire started when a tenant, whose electricity had been shut off, used a candle on a plate for light. As the candle burned away, she added bits of paper to continue the light. A piece of flaming paper ignited clothing. An attempt to extinguish the fire with water failed. She panicked, put her children in the car, drove off wildly, and hid at her sister`s house for two days.

Residents watched as the fire grew and carried water to the apartment. The fire department estimated that there was a 15- to 20-minute delay in sounding an alarm.

The fire spread so rapidly that arson was suspected. The wood was very dry, and flames “exploded along the wall.” Fortunately, this was a daytime fire; there were no interior halls, and tenants had a choice of exit paths. There was one serious injury but no loss of life.2

The report noted there were significant delays in getting heavy streams in operation, citing the problem of short-handed crews wrestling to get heavy stream appliances down from the top of the apparatus.

When I had command responsibilities, I stressed the fact that we were not there for the mattress or wastebasket fires. If we didn`t exist, these fires would get put out somehow. We must plan and train for the “Big One.” Big fires take big water. Our deck guns were clamped in place, up where the booster reel had been. Two short lengths sufficient to reach pump outlets were connected to inlets. The third inlet had a double male in it. Our hose bed was half straight and half reverse lay. If we dropped the gun in the street and laid to the hydrant, the necessary fitting was at the gun, not back at the apparatus. Equally important, one pump outlet had a double female mounted to accommodate the male butt of one of the lines. We drilled in getting heavy streams in operation rapidly. We practiced using two ladders side by side to get an Eastman (deluge) gun, with legs extended, up on a roof.

The Wilmington (DE) Fire Department uses a lightweight gun fed by two 134-inch lines to develop 300 gpm for high-rise attack.3 This equipment could also be used to change rapidly from ineffective single, small streams to more effective streams at ground level.

I have a tape that shows a firefighter on a balcony directing a futile small stream into an inferno. The overhang above collapsed and killed the firefighter. It is one thing for a firefighter to die attempting to save a life but another to die in a useless operation.


The fire points up the need for public information personnel and the fire service to constantly campaign to convince citizens to call the fire department immediately and first if smoke or leaking gas is present. The immediate reporting of a “smoke odor” in trussed buildings is especially essential because a serious fire can be concealed in the truss void. This is difficult to accomplish in some occupancies, where for any number of reasons the occupants do not wish to be involved with the authorities. Special efforts should be directed at managers, who fear “false alarms” and run to investigate before dialing 911. They are afraid of “bad publicity.” Make the point that an inconsequential alarm will never make the evening news, but a delayed alarm while the fire rages most certainly will. Working through the manager, speak to maintenance personnel and tenants who evince a good sense of responsibility.

Stress that there is no penalty if it turns out that the smoke is from a friendly source. It is the fire department`s job to diagnose smoke as friendly or unfriendly. Get rid of stupid terms like “unnecessary alarm” and “smoke scare.”4



There are many reports of fires in low-income occupancies in which the electricity had been turned off and the occupants used candles or other improvised lighting. The Seattle fire report refers to a program implemented in the state of Delaware in cases involving the cutting off of electricity. The program provides for the placing of a “load limiter” on the service meter. The device permits a 10-amp flow, enough for a few lights and refrigerator. The program`s objective is to give the occupant time to make arrangements to pay the bill. The fire department might bring information about this program to the attention of the local welfare authorities and the power company so that a similar program might be considered.

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During World War II, many metal surfaces on ships burned uncontrollably due to the buildup of layers of paint on them–in some cases, the paint layer was three-eighths of an inch thick. Naval firefighting officers were assigned to key ports to be sure that paint and other flammables were put ashore.5

A significant paint-related fire problem recently surfaced in New York City. Serious fires, attributed to painted concrete blocks, have been erupting in the stairways of high-rise projects. I was told that in one case a burst of flame erupted many feet into the air when the roof man opened the bulkhead door. Two people died in one of the fires.

Recent news reports indicated that two fires in structures where the surfaces were coated with a fire retardant coating did not spread. In a third fire, however, the fire spread up the stairway despite the presence of the fire retardant coating. Two fatalities occurred in that fire.

Research is underway to find a solution to this problem, which appears to be unique to New York City.

When I was active with such products, I found it necessary to convince the painter that the fire retardant was not paint that was to be spread as far as possible but a coating to be applied in totality to a specified area. We did not let the contractor buy the fire retardant. We bought it, and our inspector laid out the area to be covered by each gallon.


In Palm Beach County, Florida, an employee attempting to demonstrate that mineral spirits were not flammable started a fire in a warehouse-type builders supply store. The fire was extinguished by 56 sprinklers and handlines.6

I offer the following considerations, which should be addressed in prefire planning.

The fire companies used private hydrants supplied by mains that also supplied the sprinkler system. Generally, this should be avoided unless there is no other source of water. If the sprinklers fail to suppress the fire, the insurance company might sue on the argument that the sprinklers failed to control the fire because the handlines stole the water from the sprinklers. This argument was successful in a lawsuit in Massachusetts. Backing up sprinklers to the maximum is a great defensive (lawsuit) tactic.7

The building had a conventional metal deck roof, which the fire department successfully ventilated. Such roofs can burn independently of the basic fire, and the lightweight trusses can collapse quickly. If sprinklers are below a ceiling only and there are no sprinklers in the void above the ceiling, the sprinklers will not control the metal deck roof fire. Read up on this important subject, which is not well-known in the fire service.8

Realistic drills will enable you to determine how much hose will be needed to reach various areas. Almost invariably, the length is longer than might be guessed. One technique is to plan to stretch parallel lines–one line can keep operating while the other is shut down for extension.

If hose outlets deep inside the store are used, run a safety line from the outlet to the outside and secure it there (but not to an apparatus!). When something goes wrong, everything turns black; the line will guide firefighters to safety.

Try to involve the building`s management and possibly the insurer in preplanning. Their involvement might be especially important for staying out of court, where “unorthodox” tactics are deemed best in a preplan. n


1. This fire was reported in U.S. Fire Administration report 059, Apartment Complex Fire, Seattle, Washington, by Phil Schaneman. The full report is available without cost from U.S. Fire Administration Data Center, 16825 South Seton Avenue, Emmitsburg, MD 21727.

2. See “Row Frame Buildings” and “Garden Apartments,” Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992) pp. 129, 215.

3. Ibid. p. 471.

4. Brannigan, Francis L., “Fire Loss Management: Part 23: The “How” of Management,” Fire Engineering, Feb. 1991, p. 85.

5. Jim Allen, Lt. 9 Truck (later a deputy chief ), City of New York (NY) Fire Department was assigned to Balboa Canal Zone.

6. Review “Firefighting in Retail Warehouses: The Builders Square Fire,” Gary Weiss, Fire Engineering, Nov. 1994, p. 34. Also see Chapter 4: “Rack Storage” in Building Construction for the Fire Service.

7. For additional information, see Building Construction for the Fire Service, p. 606.

8. See Building Construction for the Fire Service, pp. 302-309.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE, a 52-year veteran of the fire service, began his fire service career as a naval firefighting officer in World War II. He`s best known for his seminars and writing on firefighter safety and for his book Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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