First-Due Battalion Chief: Collyer’s Mansions

Article and photos by Dan Sheridan

Homer Collyer and Langley Collyer were two brothers who lived in an extremely filthy brownstone in Harlem, New York, and compulsively hoarded newspapers, books, furniture, musical instruments, and many other items. They also set up booby traps in corridors and doorways of the home to protect against intruders. The brothers were eventually found dead in the home, surrounded by the tons of waste they had amassed.

The above is the definition of what we in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) call a Collyers’ Mansion, and one of those terms that needs no further explanation. Once a report is given that we have a Collyers’ Mansion, everyone on the fire scene forms the same mental picture. In June 1999, Captain Vincent Fowler and his probie firefighter encountered Collyers’ Mansion conditions in the basement of a private dwelling fire in Queens, New York.

Captain Fowler and his probie firefighter entered the house and made their way down to the basement to investigate a small electrical fire there. The fire was small at the time; it involved the panel and was working its way into the walls. The fire was soon up into the ceiling. Because of the difficulty in finding the fire among the debris in the basement, it wasn’t very long before their low-air alarms went off. In the ensuing moments, the conditions began to worsen rapidly, reducing visibility to zero. Now, what started out as a minor electrical fire developed into a working structure fire. Captain Fowler, whose major concern was the safety of his probie, wound up running out of air in the cluttered basement and succumbed to his injury.

EXAMPLE #1: BASEMENT FIRE

On a recent day tour, the temperature was close to 100 degrees; New York City was in the grips of a tremendous heat wave. There were numerous fires that day throughout the city, making it one of the busiest days in the city in recent history. We received a phone alarm around noon for a reported fire in the basement of a four-story brownstone. (In a brownstone, the first floor is actually the basement, and there is a level below that one that we refer to as the cellar. Sometimes this is a cause of confusion on the fireground.) The fire was actually in the cellar. The first-due engine arrived on the scene. I was expecting to hear it transmit a 10-75, the FDNY radio code for a working fire. Instead, I heard the captain advise his chauffeur that he had a fire that was small and confined to a dryer and some surrounding materials, and that a can (2 ½-gallon extinguisher) should be sufficient. This is a routine operation for a fire this small in nature.

As I approached the scene, I was okay with that size-up as it was. I could hear that the captain’s transmissions were muffled by the face piece of his mask. Since it was such a hot day, I just assumed that there was a decent smoke condition and that the smoke was not lifting because of the oppressive heat. The captain’s next transmission changed the situation from routine to one of extreme worry for me. He advised me that the basement and the cellar were a Collyers’ Mansion. Memories of the Captain Fowler tragedy came immediately to mind, and the operation now changed from a simple 10-18 (FDNY code for one engine and one truck) to an “All Hands.” I ordered the engine companies to stretch a line to the basement entrance. I ordered the first-due truck to the basement and cellar, and I had the second-due truck on the floors above. My third-due engine was a squad company that I was going to use to stretch a second line if needed, but mostly it was good to have additional firefighters on standby in case things went bad (squad members have the best training in firefighter-removal techniques.)  I knew that we didn’t have a serious fire condition, so I didn’t see the need to request any special units. I didn’t see the point of tying up a rescue company when there was so much fire activity going on in the city. (I think that it is important for the incident commander to look at the bigger picture sometimes and understand what is going on in the rest of the area. I already had the squad on scene, and the rescue was probably needed at another fire).

The fire was pretty much contained, but we still had a very heavy smoke condition. I was slightly worried that we might have extension, but I knew that it was unlikely. My first-due engine also doubles as the ventilation unit in the department. I had it put its fans in operation while we were clearing out a path for the line. Because the city was extremely busy with numerous fires, I was trying to use my resources in the most efficient manner.

Clearing a path for ingress and egress is one of the most important tasks at a Collyers’ Mansion. I once responded to a Collyers’ Mansion condition on the 12th floor of a fire resistive multiple dwelling. My company was the first-due ladder, and I ordered my firefighters and the firefighters from the second truck, as their only task, to work on making a path to the bedroom that was on fire. The danger with these types of fires is that once your engine company starts advancing on the fire, a lot of the “debris” will fall and cover the line, blocking your egress. It would be advisable to bring a search rope with you for when conditions worsen and visibility is zero.

Once we cleared a path in the basement and vented most of the smoke, we were able to advance the hoseline to the point of origin. Fortunately at this incident, all that was needed was to do a good wash down. To decrease the water damage, I ordered the engine company to use the ¼-inch outer stream tip instead of the 15/16-inch tip. When all was said and done, this incident came off without any problems. At these types of fires, it is extremely important to identify the structure as a Collyers’ Mansion and advise all members as such. Had this fire been of any consequence, we would have had a big problem getting to the fire, causing a delay in extinguishment. This, in turn, would have probably resulted in a multiple alarm with the cellar and the basement involved.

EXAMPLE #2: MULTIPLE-DWELLING FIRE

At another fire where I responded as an additional chief on a second alarm, the outcome was not so good. We responded to a fire on the top floor of a five-story multiple dwelling. The front apartment was loaded from the front door to the rear of the apartment (photo 1). Access to the seat of the fire was impossible–firefighters could not even get into the apartment. Use of an outside stream was also impossible because of the debris piled up to the ceilings in the front (photo 2). The fire was burning freely, and engine companies were applying water where they could. The problem with this approach is that the water does not get to the seat of the fire and turn to a steam; instead, it gets absorbed by the piles of clothing, furniture, and other debris. Water, which weighs eight pounds per gallon, adds up very quickly. If a 1¾-inch handline puts out 150 gallons per minute, that can soon add tremendous weight to the floor load. New York City code calls for floor loads in these types of building of 40 pounds per square foot. That much water flowing even from one small handline may cause a minor collapse. One of the tasks that an officer of a tower ladder is responsible for at an operation at which outside streams are employed is to monitor water runoff. At this particular fire, I did not see that much runoff compared to the amount of water that was being applied, and it wasn’t accumulating because the water was being converted to steam.

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Because of the inaccessibility of the fire, flames eventually entered the cockloft and subsequently burned through the roof. Once the fire was through the roof, engine companies were able to apply water through the openings in the roof, a maneuver that is generally frowned on in normal circumstances. These types of fires usually turn into defensive operations very quickly, unless the fire is minor, as was the case with the previously discussed brownstone fire. One of my major concerns at any Collyers’ Mansion operation is committing resources too deeply within the structure unless I am assured that they have a safe way out. The conditions in these operations will greatly delay our primary searches. At the brownstone fire, I happened to have the owner with me in front of the building, and she assured me that she was the only one home when the fire broke out.

At the fire in the brownstone, we critiqued the operation afterward and talked about worst-case scenarios. One suggestion I had about getting water on the fire if our access had been denied from the stairs would have been to cut a hole in the first floor and lower a distributor or cellar nozzle [These nozzles had their place in the days before air packs, when access to cellars and subcellars was impossible (photo 3)]. I see a use for this tool when faced with a Collyers’ Mansion condition in a basement or, for that matter, any floor where you can get above and lower the nozzle down. The only drawback I see, similar to a sprinkler head, is that if stock or debris is piled too high, it will render the nozzle useless.


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At these operations, chiefs, officers, and firefighters need to turn it down a notch and take a slow approach, think outside the box, and take a good look at what needs to be accomplished. For the safety of our forces, we may have to give up the actual fire area and focus our attention on confining the fire to the area of origin and protect the exposures.

DANIEL SHERIDAN is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief in the First Division. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America.

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