Scaffolding on Buildings and its Effects on Firefighting Operations

Article and photos by Daniel P. Sheridan

Good reliable information is vital if the incident commander is to be successful in any operation. At every operation, I rely heavily on getting accurate information so I can make the proper decisions. Besides getting good information, I also rely on what I am able to see with my own two eyes. There is a change in New York City that is causing a problem for battalion chiefs. 

Recently, the Department of Buildings got very strict with the requirements for scaffolding in our city. New York was experiencing a rash of problems with debris falling from buildings that were undergoing minor repairs. Many civilians were getting injured by pieces of stone and mortar raining down off these buildings while being repaired. The Buildings Department issued an order that scaffolding would be required for all repairs in the future… 

When we are unable to get the whole picture at an operation, we are working at a disadvantage. It becomes even more important for the chief to get the following information from the first-due ladder company on the fire floor:

(1) An example of an urban building with scaffolding.

  • Location of the fire apartment
  • Occupants accounted for
  • Delays or Difficulties in gaining access to the fire apartment or getting the first line in operation
  • Access to the fire apartment (i.e., what is the closest stair)
  • Number of apartments on the floor
  • Fire Conditions
  • Fire Extension
I would also like to hear from a firefighter on the roof as well. This firefighter’s position is invaluable to the battalion chief. When I was a young firefighter, it was impressed on me that this position was vital to the chief. He is in essence the eyes and ears of the chief on the roof. Some of the information that I am looking for from the roof firefighter would include the following:
  • Is fire showing out the windows that are not visible from the street?
  • What are the color and volume of the smoke coming from the windows?
  • Are any persons trapped?
  • Is there fire extension, autoexposure?
  • Are there any shafts not visible from street; if so, what are their widths?
My first encounter with a building that had a scaffold was when I was a lieutenant. Early one morning we received a phone alarm for a fire in a six-story apartment building. My company was assigned first-due ladder. On arrival I attempted to do a size-up but was unable to get a good look because the building had scaffolding that obstructed most of my view. Numerous people were evacuating the building, and all were reporting that the fire was in the A-wing on an upper floor. Unable to do the size-up, I headed in the building, figuring that I would sort it all out once I got inside the building. On our way up the stairs, I did my usual canvassing of the fleeing occupants and kept getting the same information. I was able to find the occupant of the fire apartment on the way up. I met her in the stairway, and she informed me that she and her children were all out. Somehow along the way, I lost track of the floors. I made it to the fire floor; the door was open to the fire apartment, and there was zero visibility. I grabbed my forcible entry team, and we made our way in the apartment.

(2-3) More examples of buildings with scaffolding and netting on the exterior. 

The chief in the street radioed to ask me for a size-up. I informed him that we had water on the fire and that searches were underway and they were negative. He then asked me if there was fire in the cockloft. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what floor I was on. If I was on the top floor, this would be a critical piece of information for the chief to know. I replied, not trying to be a wise guy, “If we are on the top floor, yes, we do have fire in the cockloft.” Luckily the firefighters on the roof did an outstanding job cutting a hole directly above the fire, directing the heat and flame upward, preventing horizontal spread. After the fire, I apologized to the chief and assured him that my comment was not meant to be a smart reply but rather the result of my not having done a proper size-up–and I should have known better.
I have had two serious fires in these types of buildings in the past few months. At the first fire, I could see the black plume of smoke in the distance as we were leaving quarters. On arrival we were confronted with a fire which appeared to be on the second and third floors. I could see flames through the windows on what seemed to be two floors. The building was shrouded in a black netting and scaffolding. I could not get a handle on the actual size of the building. I assumed that it was five stories based on its height. The scaffolding presented a whole host of other potential problems such as ventilation and laddering. Another potentially serious problem was the question of whether or not the black plastic netting was flammable and, if so, would it cause an exposure problem.
The first and second engines stretched a hoseline to the fire floor. I had the second line ready to go to the floor above to attack the fire on that floor. When I got my first report from the fire floor, I was relieved to find out that we had a heavy fire condition but that it was confined to one large room. We actually did not have any fire on the third floor. The planking on the scaffolding gave the appearance that there were two floors, but in reality it was just one large floor with very high ceilings. The fire was quickly extinguished with only minor extension to the floor above. Before I received that report, there were some tense moments. I was thinking the worst and prepared for that by putting forces in place to deal with fire on two floors. Thankfully, the fire was confined only to one large room in the building.
At my most recent operation, again, I was confronted with the same situation. We had a fire in a six-story commercial building. The fire was on the selling floor of a large bookstore, which was located on the second floor. The ceilings were almost 20 feet high. We had a good fire condition that was being held in check by the sprinklers. The problem with this fire was that I could not see anything that was going on. The netting on the front of the building had totally obscured my view. I was totally relying on the information that I was receiving from the officers inside the building. One of the officers had asked for permission to take the windows on the fire floor, and I had to take this officer’s word that this is what was needed. They proceeded to break all the windows on the floor. Not being able to see what was happening, all I could do was hear the glass breaking. Afterwards, when I took a walk up to see where the fire had been, I noticed that we may have been a little bit overzealous in our ventilation. I am a big proponent of opening windows where we can instead of breaking them. Had I been able to see what was happening, I probably would have been able to hold them up. 

The netting and scaffolding are just additional obstacles we have to overcome in an increasingly complicated fireground. Additional alarms will be needed to deal with the many tasks that will be presented to us. At one of the fires, I assigned the rescue company to work on the scaffold to provide ventilation and search. Additional engines may be needed to stretch lines to cover the netting.

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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