Small Town, Big City Problems

Private-dwelling tactics and procedures that many small-town firefighters rely on may not work well in multiple dwellings, says Mike Ciampo.
ON FIRE by MICHAEL N. CIAMPO

Small town firefighters are geared to fighting many of their fires in one-, two-, or 2½-story residential-type dwellings. These dwellings can be anything from the Cape Cod to the bi-level, split-level, colonial, contemporary, or “McMansion.” Firefighters also encounter commercial structure fires, whether strip mall or warehouse fires, but less often. It’s also not uncommon for some small towns to “transfer,” “cover,” or “relocate” into a nearby city when a multiple-alarm fire occurs. Firefighters must be prepared for when they go into these areas and expect that something out of the ordinary could occur. The private-dwelling tactics and procedures they are so accustomed to may not work well in a multiple dwelling.

The Multiple-Dwelling Fire

Many smaller towns may have large multiple dwellings in their response area. We should already know that a 200-foot preconnected hoseline most likely won’t reach all the rooms in a top-floor apartment, especially if there isn’t a well hole (open vertical channel that allows the hose to be stretched) next to the stairwell. Engine companies must have hosebeds that will allow multiple lengths of hose to be stretched to an upper floor of these buildings.

It is extremely important that all the engines work together to get the first hoseline in service. In some of these buildings, the stretches will be long and difficult, requiring an all-hands approach. It’s not uncommon to stretch 15 lengths of hose to reach the top floor.

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Knowing the types of stairs in these structures is very important. They may be isolated to one wing and not allow access to the opposite wing on any floor. Stairs with no well hole will require more lengths of hose to be stretched around the newel post and up the stairs, floor by floor. If you find yourself short-staffed, stretching enough hose to cover the floor above may become part of your tactical mindset too in case fire extends to that floor. Always ensure you have identified the fire location so your hoseline goes to the right spot.

When more than two hoselines are stretched up an interior stairwell, the lines can get intertwined and often make hoseline management difficult. Stretching through an alternative route is highly recommended after two hoselines occupy one stairwell. Connecting the bail of the nozzle onto the hook’s head and passing it up floor to floor on a fire escape is one method. Another recommended tactic is to rope stretch using a utility rope bag or bottle. It is a quick method to get a hoseline up to the roof to protect a trench cut or to an upper floor.

If fire has autoexposed to the floor above and both apartments are well involved or you face heavy hoarding conditions, it’s okay to hit it with a portable monitor, an exterior handline, or the engine’s monitor pipe. Ensure the companies operating are out of the apartment or area, and then hit the fire to help extinguish, contain, and prevent extension.

In many of these buildings, structural steel columns and beams are boxed out in hidden horizontal and vertical voids where fire can travel. It’s not uncommon for the fire to travel in unforeseen areas or “jump” floors and expose itself elsewhere. Fires in these buildings can also be concealed in utility chases (electrical wire conduit raceways) and in the “wet wall” (void space behind the walls, where the water supply and drain lines run) from the fire floor to the cockloft. Some departments have specific bent tips or nozzles to combat these hidden fires.

When locating fire in these areas, don’t be surprised if you suddenly need a line to the basement, at the base of the shaft, where embers have fallen and ignited. Dumbwaiter shafts also allow extension to the cockloft and can drop down, too. Don’t be surprised if you find some apartments have converted these to kitchen cabinets.

When fire has reached the cockloft, try to get the stream into the ceiling and operate it in a horizontal fashion. The cockloft is a mini lumberyard of dried wood above the finished ceiling. Use the reach of the stream and knock down the advancing fire as quickly as possible. Standing on a kitchen table, countertop, or dresser can give the nozzle firefighter an area from which to operate.

A cockloft nozzle is another good device to have in your inventory. It can be operated from the fire floor or taken up to the roof and put into the inspection holes to extinguish the fire in the cockloft. When doing so, always ensure units are notified and positioned safely; fire, smoke, and hot gases have been pushed through holes into the apartments below.

Another issue for many suburban engines is the lack of experience operating off a standpipe. If you regularly relocate into an area that has many high-rise multiple dwellings, you better start drilling on them. Engines must have a high-rise hose pack already in place on their apparatus with a standpipe kit (hand tools, extra fittings, pressure gauge, pipe wrench, gate).

When you’re hooking up into the standpipe outlet, make sure there isn’t a pressure reducing valve attached to it. Often, buildings with the “house line” connected to them will have a reducing valve on it to prevent the water pressure from being too strong for the noncontrollable open tip nozzle on the end of the hose. The problem with these devices is, they restrict water flow in the hoselines and prevent the proper nozzle pressure and gallon flows.

Also, be sure you stretch from the floor below so you don’t get chased out of the public hallway on the fire floor by smoke, heat, or a wind-driven fire. If a wind-driven fire does occur, having a floor-below nozzle in your appliance inventory is also a plus.

Fires in these structures aren’t Main Street firefighting operations. Be prepared to face a few roadblocks.


MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos.

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