Overhaul and Extension

Article and photos by Daniel P. Sheridan

Overhaul means opening walls, ceilings, voids, and partitions to check for fire extension in both the precontrol and postcontrol phases of firefighting operations. Precontrol overhaul takes place up until the point where the fire is under control. Postcontrol overhaul takes place after the fire has been declared under control.

Overhauling is not the glamorous side firefighting. Firefighters, while responding to a working fire, are filled with adrenaline running through their bodies. Once on the scene, pumped-up firefighters seem to run on autopilot until the fire is extinguished, rescues are made, and the fire is under control. Then the mundane work of postcontrol overhaul commences. When I was a young firefighter, an old-timer once commented to me that I didn’t seem too enthusiastic when it came to overhaul; he was right. I don’t have a great poker face, and I usually wear my feelings on my sleeve. After the thrill of the battle, it seemed like such a letdown to do the tedious, back-breaking work of postcontrol overhaul.
Precontrol Overhaul
First, let’s talk about precontrol overhaul. The units on the fire floor and in the fire area will be responsible for overhaul in that area. Once the fire has been knocked down, it is the responsibility of the units to determine if and where the fire is extending. The ceiling should be opened up at the area where the fire is most intense and working outward toward the clean area. Walls and partitions need to be examined to see if fire has extended there as well. Using touch is the best way to determine if an area has any fire behind it. I don’t consider a thermal imaging camera (TIC) a substitute for feeling a wall and opening up if it is hot. The TIC is a great tool, and it has its place in the fire service, but I feel that it is not a substitute for doing things the old-fashioned way. The camera is designed to pick up heat–if you use it in a room that was just involved with fire, of course, it will read hot. Firefighters need to check all the logical spots where fire may extend in a room, such as wall switches, pipe recesses, or receptacles.
One way to be proficient at overhaul is to know building construction. Knowing how buildings are built will aid us in knowing where to look for extension. For example, in a private dwelling, is the house constructed of balloon-type construction or platform? Is it lightweight, and are there trusses? Questions like this need to be considered when trying to figure out where the fire may extend. In buildings that are fire resistive, extension is usually not a problem. Also, today’s building construction materials–5/8-inch drywall, thermal pane windows, insulation, and so on.–aid us tremendously in keeping the fire from extending. These materials are designed to keep the rooms energy efficient and also keep the dwellings very tight.
The Usual Suspects
In a typical multiple dwelling, where apartments are stacked on top of each other with similar layouts, I always check certain spots first for possible extension. Kitchens and bathrooms are usually built back-to-back, making it easier for the plumbers to run the pipes. The first place I look for extension in the kitchen is the cabinet under the sink. I will feel the walls for heat or look for any smoke pushing up through the baseboards or floorboards. The same is true for the bathroom and anywhere a pipe recess needs to be checked. If fire is found, call for a hoseline immediately and make no further openings until the line is in place and charged. I once made the mistake of finding some slight extension in a closet on the floor above a good fire in an apartment in a multiple dwelling. I notified command that we had some slight extension and would need a hoseline. I then continued on my way with the search and intended to get a pot of water from the kitchen. By the time I returned to the front room, the whole room was fully involved–it had taken off that fast. Never treat active flaming as minor and leave it untended.
When the top floor is involved in fire, the paramount concern for the incident commander (IC) is if the fire has extended into the cockloft. In an apartment house that contains a few apartments on each floor, you must get into all the apartments, especially those on either side. and pull the ceilings. If there is any hint of fire, as noted above, call for a hoseline, and make no further openings until a hoseline is in place and charged. First, probe by making small inspection holes. If the fire has already entered the cockloft, you must define the extent of the spread. In this case, start at a clean area and work your way back to the burned area. The same principle applies to buildings joined by a common cockloft, such as a row frame. Get ahead of the fire moving in the cockloft, open up the ceilings, and get water on the fire.
Another note about top-floor fires, taxpayers, store fronts, and any other type of dwelling that has a roof over it with a cockloft: Before you commit yourself to the fire area, take your six-foot hook (pike pole) and make an inspection hole at the front entrance. Never commit to an area, especially without the protection of a hoseline, without first verifying that there is no fire burning overhead. Firefighters have been killed after committing to areas only to find out that a raging fire was overhead. It is of paramount importance that a charged hoseline be in place and ready to operate when you are pulling ceilings in the fire area. A very good friend of mine was killed at a top-floor fire where the ceiling blew down on top of him.
The Cardinal Sin
When I was a firefighter, we had a fire in a private dwelling in which the IC asked my unit to operate on the fire floor. The fire involved the bathroom. I remember being in the bathroom after the fire had been knocked down. I started opening up the ceilings and found no extension; then I took off my gloves to feel the walls. The walls were hot to the touch, almost too hot to keep a hand on. I remember thinking to myself, “It’s tile; it’s supposed to be hot.” I informed the lieutenant that everything was good, but in the back of my mind, I had a nagging feeling that maybe it wasn’t. He then radioed the IC that we were finished in the bathroom. The chief released us, and we headed back to quarters. When we backed into quarters, the alarm went off again, and we were headed back to the same house! I knew that there was fire in those walls in the bathroom and that because of my lack of thoroughness, we were headed back to the same house. One thing I can honestly say, like every mistake I have ever made in the fire service, I never made that mistake again. Always go with your instincts.
Rekindle is every IC’s fear. The way we prevent this is by doing proper overhaul and being extremely thorough. When I came in the fire department, it was impressed upon me that it was a cardinal sin to allow a rekindle. We responded to numerous vacant building fires back then; the buildings were full of open voids, holes in floors, and so on. We had a lieutenant who was quite a character, a very funny individual. We were at a fire on the previous night tour in a vacant six-story multiple dwelling. The next morning we were called back to the same building for an odor of smoke. I remember that chief in the street radioing the lieutenant inquiring what he had up in the building. There was a long pause. The chief then asked again, and again there was a pause. The chief was now very agitated, and he called him by his first name and insisted on knowing what was happening. Finally, we heard him radio back: “Don’t make me say it!” The chief was totally confused and now at the end of his rope. He demanded to know what the heck was happening. We then heard the lieutenant radio back, “ OK, chief, REKINDLE.” It got a big laugh, but it did bring home a point. Rekindle is something that was not acceptable in the department at that time.
At one of my recent operations, we had a small fire in the top floor of a brownstone. The fire started in a closet and was most likely caused by faulty electrical wiring. The apartment also happened to be a Collyers Mansion. The fire was confined to the closet and was extinguished pretty quickly. Then the arduous task of overhauling this gigantic mess began. Collyers Mansions are almost impossible to overhaul effectively, with junk piled high to the ceiling, doors jammed shut with garbage stacked up behind them, and piles of rubbish strewn on every square inch of flooring. At this incident, the units did a great job considering the circumstances. The roof had a nice ventilation hole over the fire area, all the ceilings had been opened up, and the electricity had been shut down. I ordered the engine company to do a final washdown. The area was thoroughly wetted down, and it appeared that all fire had been extinguished. There was one area of the apartment that was so packed with debris and was not at all involved with the fire, so we did not even try to overhaul that room. I think it may have served as a kitchen, but it was impossible to tell because it was so jam packed. We were done as far as I was concerned, so we all took up. I informed the owner that she needed to get an electrician to check out the system and to restore power. There was some suspicious activity at this fire that I won’t get into, and I relayed that information to the fire marshals.

This fire was at 1300 hours, and we finished at 1400 hours. Later, at 0400 hours the next morning, I was working in another battalion in the same borough. I heard the dispatcher announce over our voice alarm that there was a second alarm in the borough. I turned on the radio to listen. When I heard the address of the fire, I felt the blood in my body drain. It was the building we had been at the previous day. I felt as if I had committed a cardinal sin, rekindle. I spoke to the duty chief; he told me that they had a very heavy fire condition on arrival. Did they turn the electric back on because they didn’t want to hire an electrician? Was there some foul play? I don’t know the answer. I do know that we were very thorough. There was not a wisp of smoke when we left.

(1) Opened ceiling on the top floor at a four-alarm Harlem (NY) incident.

(2) Windows at the same incident.

The point is, who knows, maybe we did miss something. All we can do at every operation is be as thorough and as diligent as we can. If there is any doubt, open it up, and check. When you are done with overhaul, wash down the area with a good amount of water, but don’t overdo it. When I was new, the officers and senior firefighters were very old school. We opened the ceilings, front to back (photo 1), windows were trimmed, walls were opened. When we left a fire scene, it was thoroughly overhauled; nothing was left to chance. Firefighters must be thorough but professional: Find that perfect balance between thoroughness and wanton damage. If glass is still in the windows, remove it (photo 2). If you need to overhaul a room and there is a dresser with personal belongings exposed, remove the stuff off the top of the dresser first. If you need to overhaul a closet, take the clothes out first. Finally, when washing down, be judicious with water use. I was at a fire in a private dwelling one time where one of the units washing down the bedroom caused more damage to the house than the fire did. I used to carry a ¼-tip in my pocket to put on the 15/16-tip to wash down.

Remember that the people who called you are expecting you to be professional. That means all of us, volunteer or paid; we are all professionals. We need to act as if the resident of the fire scene was someone very close to us. Treat the fire scene as you would expect your own house to be treated. Be thorough, and if you have any nagging doubts, investigate them because your gut is probably correct.

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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