Expect the Best, Plan for the Worst, and Prepare To Be Surprised

By Daniel P. Sheridan
I came into work the other night and, as usual, exchanged information about the day-to-day occurrences of the past 24 hours. When I asked how the tour went, the other chief told me about a hairy fire they had on the night tour, a fire on the first floor in a four-story multiple dwelling. The first-due ladder company initiated an aggressive interior search because of reports of a person trapped in the fire apartment. The engine company had stretched and 1¾-inch line to the front door very quickly. The fire had started in the kitchen, which was in the middle of the apartment.
It seemed as if this was going to be a routine job. The inside team was in the process of making its way to get past the fire to the rear bedrooms when the room erupted into flames. The occupant of the apartment did something that almost killed three firefighters: She opened the rear door to the apartment. By doing this, she changed the dynamic of the fire apartment, introducing oxygen into the fire apartment. With the back door now open in addition to the front door and the lobby door, the fire raced through the apartment and out into the public hall.
The three firefighters who were caught in this flashover scrambled out the rear door. The engine company was right there with the hoseline and was able to knock down the fire. The firefighters suffered some minor burns, thanks to having their bunker gear properly donned.
Even though I wasn’t there and only got part of the story, I know exactly what happened, since it has happened to me in the past. At a fire early in my career, the outside vent firefighter was performing routine vent-enter-search (VES) at a basement fire. When he opened the door to search, this same kind of flashover occurred. We are much more diligent about coordinating ventilation nowadays than we were 25 years ago. When I was a lieutenant, we had a fire in an apartment on the first floor of a six-story tenement.  While searching for the seat of the fire, I somehow managed to pass the fire room. I was not too happy when I came to the realization that I had passed the fire; now the fire room was between me and my means of egress. I just prayed that no one would take any windows. Luckily, all the glass in the apartment stayed intact, and I was able to get back to the front door without incident.
In the earliest mentioned incident the other night, the firefighters escaped relatively unscathed, thanks mostly to the protection of their personal protective equipment and the heads-up engine company. Whenever firefighters are going to commit to searching, it is incumbent on the engine company to be aggressive in getting that first hoseline in place to protect the firefighters searching. This recent fire validated the sentiments I have about firefighters and their safety. 

A Question of Access

At my two most recent operations, while the units were getting the first line in operation and ladder companies were going to their respective positions, I asked myself this question: What is the worst-case scenario here? What could happen that could get firefighters in trouble? 

The first fire was on the top floor of a three-story ordinary brick construction multiple dwelling. The apartment was a Colliers Mansion. From the street I could see the clutter through the windows. The building was isolated, which meant that there was no access to the roof from any other buildings. In front of the building, overhead power lines restricted aerial ladder access. One of the main priorities in such a situation is to cut the roof to provide vertical ventilation on the fire floor. My immediate concern was how the firefighters would get off the roof if things went bad up there. A firefighter who is cutting a roof should always be aware of his means of escape. Never cut yourself off from your escape route.
In this particular instance, the fire was in the front of the building. Normally, we would place the aerial ladder to the roof, and that would be sufficient. With the high-voltage wires covering the front of the building, however, this would have been a problem. The second issue was the Collyer’s Mansion condition. This presented a whole other set of concerns since it was a top-floor fire. What would happen if fire blew down behind the firefighters operating and they had trouble getting back to the front door? Sometimes with fires on the top floor, conditions can change rapidly. There was a fire escape on the front of the building, but it was not accessible because of the piles of clutter. Also, we were again faced with the issue of wires preventing aerial access.
Fortunately, the roof firefighter cut a nice vent hole over the fire. There was no major extension to the rest of the cockloft. Also, the engine did a great job knocking down the fire quickly, which alleviated my concern that firefighters could be cut off. At this particular fire, I had the all-hands battalion chief go directly to the fire floor to supervise operations and control the number of personnel on the fire floor. I also kept my firefighter assist and search team (FAST, the equivalent of a rapid intervention team) very close to me.
Residential High-Rise

The second fire was in a 21-story, fireproof, multiple dwelling. Our standard operating procedures are totally different when operating in these types of buildings. Our outside teams normally work inside the building because the fire floor is usually out of our ladders’ reach. We got a report of a fire on the six floor of the building. On arrival we had smoke showing on the Exposure 4 (D) side on the sixth floor. I held off giving the signal for a working fire because I wanted to verify that we did indeed have a fire. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have done that because, for some reason, the dispatchers didn’t give me a full assignment on this box. This went against my intuition; on the way to the box, I had a sense that we had a working fire on our hands. I assure you that I will not do that again. It is easier to turn companies around than to get them there if you need them. Once the first-due ladder verified that we had a fire on the sixth floor, I gave the signal for a fire in a residential high-rise. Fortunately, Manhattan companies are close, and they arrived quickly. 

Sometimes firefighters do things for reasons that are unclear to me. This fire was easily accessible by ladder, yet everyone operated as if it was out of reach. I did a quick walk around to the Exposure 4 (D) side to get a look and saw the tower ladder company chauffeur by himself. My first thought was that I wanted the tower ladder bucket up at the windows of the fire apartment to provide VES and to be there in case firefighters get trapped behind the fire. When the squad arrived, I ordered two of his firefighters to operate in the bucket to perform the aforementioned duties. My worst-case scenario at this fire was that firefighters would get caught behind the fire and need a second means of egress. I quickly got a report that the engine had water on the fire and it was knocked down. Everything appeared to have gone smoothly at this incident. It wasn’t until afterwards when we critiqued the fire that we realized this wasn’t necessarily the case.
The first-due ladder company officer informed me that they encountered a very heavy smoke condition, with medium heat, when they forced the door on the fire apartment. They started a right-hand wall search. The engine quickly had the line in place, awaiting orders from the ladder company as to where the fire was. The ladder company members proceeded deep into the apartment when the front room lit up and started rolling toward them overhead. Luckily, the engine was right there and knocked down the fire. If there were water problems or some other problem, the ladder company would have been in a tight spot. I had the tower ladder staffed with two squad firefighters at the bedroom window, so they would have been okay. 
Worst-Case Scenarios

It is incumbent on the incident commander at every fire to think of the worst-case scenario and how he would handle it. An old captain told me once that a measure of a good chief is not how well he knows what is in the manuals but rather what is going to happen next at a fire. I don’t think it is out of line to imagine the worst at every fire. If we start thinking, “Oh, that could never happen, that’s absurd,” we will eventually get into trouble. Once things start going wrong, they continue to go bad exponentially, as my experiences have shown me. As the old adage goes, “Expect the best, prepare for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”

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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