Street Scenes

By Michael N. Ciampo

We were having one of those crazy Saturday night tours, the ones so many of us are lucky enough to encounter from time to time. Early in the evening, we were taking in a run for a fire in a self-service laundry, and it sounded good, as the dispatcher informed us he was receiving more calls. It turned out to be only a small lint fire in the vent duct behind the machines. The hardest part was gaining access into the narrow closet-like space behind the machines to extinguish the fire with the “can.” Then we took in a few more runs, and at about 0415 hours we had a van on fire. The cab was well involved on arrival; it took a little while to knock it down and overhaul.

At about 0520 hours, most of us were trying to grab a nap. The bells went off a few more times in the next two hours for the engine company to take in some medical calls. So the nap and rest patterns for everyone in the firehouse were not going so well. At about 0730 hours, the bells went off again, and the housewatch firefighter used the intercom to inform us that we were all first due for a phone alarm for a fire on the sixth floor.

(1) Proper placement of aerial ladders and a tower ladder to the roof will ensure a safe escape route if conditions warrant a quick retreat at top-floor fires. Using the gooseneck ladder for an escape route at this fire is not a viable option. (Photos by Matt Daly.)

On the stairs going down to the apparatus floor, I figured that this could be a “food on the stove” or it could be a job caused by a party reveler from the night before. Then the intercom blared out the address and street name. Most of us knew by the location that the street was narrow and had a steep hill, which often had caused us apparatus positioning problems in the past. As the firefighters stopped traffic in the street, the chief let us know over the portable radio that the dispatcher advised he was receiving numerous phone calls and filling the assignment out.

As the response began, the size-up began in most of our minds: Which building was it going to be? Where on the hill would it be located? How would that hamper our positioning for our apparatus? While this mental size-up was going on, we monitored the department radio for any additional information from the dispatcher. Plus, we were watching the traffic and intersections to assist the chauffeur in the response as well as making sure our protective equipment was properly in place.

As we got closer to the address, I blurted out a quick verbal reminder to the chauffeur to watch out for the second-due truck; our response patterns would meet at an irregularly shaped intersection with two different traffic lights. A quick “OK” was all the reassurance needed. As we approached the intersection, the strong odor of “we’re going to work” drifted into the cab of the apparatus; sure enough, the response patterns met without any difficulties.

(2) Performing a perimeter search around the entire building can help detect important information such as the following: no fire escapes present, no ladder company apparatus access, and the volume of smoke present on the side of the building.

As we entered the block, there it was, about a third of the way up the hill. The battalion chief transmitted a “10-75” signal along with building height, location of fire, and building type (something that helps create a size-up for the incoming units and dispatcher): “10-75” the box, fire on the top floor of a six-story occupied multiple dwelling. Fire was out two front windows on the top floor of the B wing of a six-story H-type multiple dwelling. The first window was just off the fire escape; the other was on the fire escape. Seeing this reminded us that the fleeing tenants would have no secondary means of escape from this avenue. Plus, the outside vent firefighter would have no access into the fire apartment from that window for vent-enter-search (VES). The windows in the throat were also puffing heavy smoke, and another small hazard existed: a window air-conditioning (AC) unit. A quick radio transmission to the units on-scene warned of that possible danger. These AC units have fallen before without any warning, and that’s all we needed while stretching the initial hoseline into the building.

Entering the front door was difficult with the fleeing occupants, but we still needed to chock the door open for operations. Once in the lobby, we noticed everyone was coming down the A wing stairs. That was good, because we’d use the B wing stairs for our main access to the fire, and they would probably be less crowded.

Walking toward the B wing, we suddenly noticed why everyone was exiting the other way: There were no stairs in this wing! Hopefully, this wouldn’t be too big of an issue, but it was relayed over the portable radio to assist the engine with the longer hoseline stretch that it would need. The engine officer also let his company know there wasn’t any well hole (the space between the railing and stair risers that runs from the first floor to the top floor) to assist in the stretch. This information also let the firefighters assigned to the roof position know that they didn’t have a safe means of travel up a flight of stairs in the fire building.

On the way up the stairs at a steady pace, we glanced down the long hallway toward the B wing and wondered which apartment door would be 6D, the fire apartment, and if there already was extension into the cockloft. One of the trailing firefighters was “heads up” and quickly walked down the long hallway, looking for the D line of apartments. He relayed this information: “Down the hallway to the end, make a right, then to the end there are two doors. D is on the right.” This would prove to be of real assistance when we reached the fire floor.

When we arrived on the top floor, we saw a moderate smoke condition in the hallway about four feet down from the ceiling. We put our face pieces on, and we proceeded down the hallway. Halfway down the long hallway was a set of windows, and the smoke was banked down to the floor, so the top panes of the windows were taken and, hopefully, assisted in some ventilation efforts.

As we proceeded down the long hallway, duck walking under the thermal layers of smoke, we got our first break—the apartment door had been left wide open. That solved the forcible entry problem for the fire apartment and became one less obstacle. At the door, we directed the thermal imaging camera up into the ceiling and then pointed it back deeper into the apartment. The camera didn’t show anything directly above us in the cockloft, but it did show the high heat level and flame direction toward the back of the apartment. Next, we took a quick visual look under the thermal layers by lying flat on the floor, but the apartment layout didn’t reveal anything, even with the fire self-venting out the two front windows.

On the way in, we met some obstacles you often find in the narrow entry hallway of these small apartments. The first thing was a baby stroller. We passed it out, hoping that the baby was outside. The next two objects—a cabinet and an overstuffed chair—were cumbersome and difficult to move in the tight hallway, so we left them in place and managed to squeeze by them to get deeper into the apartment to attempt a primary search.

We noticed that there were no rooms on the left- or right-hand wall, which was weird for this type of building. Sometimes the first few feet in, you’ll run into a door to a bedroom, a bathroom, or even a closet—but in this case, nothing. The only thing about 15 feet in was the archway to the fire area and an archway to the right for the kitchen. At this point, the heat and flames were stopping our forward progress. The can man was trying to knock down some of the flames while we notified the chief that the primary search in the fire apartment would be delayed because the fire cut us off from the rest of the apartment. Hopefully, our outside team might be able to get into one or two of these rooms if the tower ladder was able to get into position and operate.

Realizing that the can was not doing much and getting light and that we couldn’t find a door to prop up and use as a shield to block the fire from coming over our heads, our next concern was the engine and the hoseline. The top floor is always a difficult stretch, and with no well hole and a long stretch, we needed to control this fire somehow or take measures to assist the engine when members arrived to extinguish the fire. We had to move the obstructions to assist the line’s advance into the apartment. First, we had to come up out of the crouch position and lift and slide the cabinet. We were able to slide it out of the apartment. The second-due truck saw us coming with it as they were forcing one of the adjoining apartment’s doors. They quickly took it out of the dead-end hallway we were operating in and moved it farther back. We didn’t want to push the overstuffed chair toward the kitchen and fire, and laying it down blocked the entire narrow hallway, so the only way to move it was back to the public hallway. We slid and twisted it, and it got stuck once or twice; once again, the second-due truck stopped forcing another apartment door and assisted us. On the third trip back into the apartment, the can man let us know he was out of water, and a look into the thermal imaging camera let us know the fire was now overtaking our position; plus, it was getting hot where we were. It was time to pull back out of the apartment and make sure we could control the apartment door until the engine arrived.

As we pulled back out into the public hallway, we heard the sweet sound of air bleeding out of a hoseline. While crawling back another few feet, we met the engine and let the members know all they had to do was go in about 15 feet—they couldn’t miss it. Plus, we gave them a little reminder to give the ceiling a good shot because of the possible extension into the cockloft.

The nozzle team proceeded, and the truck followed them back in, hoping to search off the line once they knocked down some of the fire. As the line was operating at the end of the hallway and making forward progress, we heard the distinct sound of a power saw cutting the roof. Then it suddenly stopped. A quick verbal conference between the officers took place, and the members were told to hold up on their advance and pull back a few feet under the archway of the room for protection. Suddenly, the ceiling came crashing down, the room vented a little, and the engine continued with the advance through the large living room and into the next small hallway down to the bedrooms. While this was going on, the remainder of the outside team performed horizontal ventilation. Since I was on the inside, I wasn’t sure if they were doing this from the roof or from the bucket of the tower ladder, but all that mattered was hearing the sounds of breaking glass as the line advanced.

The engine gave the hallway a good washdown and shut down, allowing the truck to search the remaining areas. Now that the roof was vented, the smoke cleared some and helped in the remaining search. Luckily, only the doors of the other two rooms were burning, and they were popped off the hinges and put on the floor so the engine could wet them down.

As the engine fog vented out the window, there were still two main concerns: the primary search and whether the fire got into the cockloft. One of the truck’s firefighters finished searching the two small bedrooms and bathroom while the other quickly opened up other areas of the ceiling, checking the cockloft. The officer continued to use the thermal imagining camera for hot spots and to check for extension. He then relayed to the chief that the fire was knocked down, the primary search was negative, and there seemed to be no extension into the cockloft.

As we began overhauling and opening up the ceiling and walls, we began a secondary search of the apartment, and the utilities were shut down. Lucky for us, this one had the gas meter in the apartment and electrical circuit breakers. The beams in the cockloft were charred only in the fire room and right where the ventilation hole was. The truck continued opening up, and the engine was washing down areas that needed it. The secondary search was negative, and the whole crew was starting to look somewhat beat up.

The chief made his way up to the apartment and relieved both units. Prior to leaving, we communicated what still needed to be done. As we were walking out, we heard these simple words: “Nice job, gang.” That’s all we needed to hear, especially since the chief had lived through the wild night tour with us.

On the way out of the apartment, we met up with the second-due truck and thanked the members for all their help in removing the furniture from the fire apartment. When we made the turn to the main hallway, we actually got to see the large cabinet and chair and how far back out of the way they managed to put it. Once out in the street, another vision any officer likes to see: a rig’s outriggers positioned precariously between parked cars and the tower ladder extended up into the throat to the fire apartment.

We all assembled at the rig, and we offered the “Nice job” to everyone and checked on their condition. Then the talk began about all of the obstacles that the outside team and inside team encountered and how they overcame them. This informal critique is always best done at the scene. We all realized that this operation went like clockwork but that all aren’t like that. We also agreed that, like so many other incidents, there are always lessons learned and reinforced.


Michael N. Ciampo is a 22-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, New York. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Portable Ladder H.O.T. program and a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board. He is featured in “Training Minutes” on truck company operations on He is the author of the ladder chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II.

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