THE CHALLENGE OF GARDEN APARTMENT FIRES: A REPORT

THE CHALLENGE OF GARDEN APARTMENT FIRES: A REPORT

BY HARRY J. OSTER

At 0732 hours on the wind- and rain-driven morning of Tuesday, September 17, 1996, a Rockland County (NY) 9-1-1 operator received a call from a person who garbled a message about a fire. It appears that before the operator could confirm any information, the caller dropped the receiver, most likely due to the increasing smoke and heat conditions then present in the caller`s unit, forcing the caller to exit the building. The

9-1-1 operator traced the caller`s address through the enhanced 9-1-1 system and dispatched the fire department to 35 Sneden Place West, located in a garden apartment complex in the Village of Spring Valley.

THE BUILDING

The complex is a cooperative community consisting of 296 total units of three basic designs: one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and two-bedroom duplex. First occupied in January 1973, Building “B” (which contained unit 35) was one of 14 L-shaped, two-story buildings constructed as “garden apartments”–low-rise multiple dwellings of wood-frame and brick veneer construction. The two sections that comprised the “L” measured 140 by 40 feet (the east-west wing) and 120 by 40 feet (the north-south wing). Building B contained 22 units. Each exterior entrance door served two apartments, above and below. Entrances were located on both sides of the wings.

The unit of fire origin (Unit 35) was a first-floor, five-room, luxury inner courtyard-side unit in the east-west wing, with a bedroom, living room, formal dining room, kitchen, and full bathroom. Typical of the first-floor units in the complex, it had direct private access to the basement area located directly beneath each unit, used for storage and as a recreation room. Storage areas for the second-floor units are limited to the closets within each unit. However, many second-floor units feature a closet with a two-foot by two-foot removable gypsum board or wood hatch cover that provides access to the attic area. Some tenants used this space for storage, increasing the fire load in the attic area and creating another hidden danger for firefighters.

All units and common areas of each building, including the attic, are equipped with a hard-wired, spot-type, fixed-temperature heat-detecting device, which is connected to and maintained by a private alarm monitoring station. There was no evidence of smoke detectors in the living areas of the fire apartment or the unit above. The heat-detecting device within each individual unit in most cases was on the ceiling of the first room on entering the individual unit. In this particular incident, the fire started in the bedroom, the last room in the unit and approximately 40 feet from the heat detector. This was a considerable distance for the heat to travel to activate the detector; it activated approximately three minutes after the time of 9-1-1 notification, transmitting an automatic alarm for the same address.

Three concrete block fire separation walls are present in each building. The fire wall at the interconnection of Building B`s north-south and east-west wings–the only one marked with a visible exterior placard–also served as a bearing wall. Within it, approximately 14 concrete blocks were notched out to allow for the insertion of wood floor joists of nominal-dimension lumber spaced 16 inches on center (the length of attachment between the two wings was approximately 20 feet). It is undetermined if the ends of these joists were provided with a fire cut. Regardless, this can create numerous voids for fire spread.

The other two concrete block fire walls each were located approximately two-thirds the length of the wings from the throat of the L. Neither of these two walls were marked with an exterior placard. (Placarding the fire walls currently is not part of the village code requirements, but it is recommended by the fire inspector in the course of his routine inspections.)

Each fire wall terminated just under the wood sheathing of the roof. In Building B the concrete block walls from the roof ridge to rafter tail were capped with pre-formed interlocking concrete sections to fill the void; however, the topmost (ridge) portions of the block walls were only filled with fiberglass insulation, possibly for expansion purposes. This feature presents a void for fire spread to jump the fire wall. In addition, voids in the lower portions of the block walls were created by oversized sleeved holes for various mechanical services. These voids were not filled with a suitable firestopping compound.

The building contained gypsum draftstopping at regular intervals as specified by the local building code. This draftstopping was compromised both by pokethroughs and large pass-through holes for workers–voids that destroyed whatever passive fire protection the gypsum would have offered against the spread of heat, flame, and smoke.

INITIAL OPERATIONS

The Spring Valley Fire Department responded to the complex with four engines companies, two ladder companies, a rescue company, an EMS/rescue unit, a mask service unit, and a chief officer. Spring Valley Deputy Chief Ray Guarnuccio arrived on the scene at 0736 hours and observed a heavy volume of fire issuing from a first-floor window near the northeast corner of Building B, where the two sections of the buildings intersected. This fire was extending to the window above and to the soffit area of the roof. Guarnuccio established command, ordering the first-in engine company to connect to the public hydrant, pull a 134-inch preconnected handline, and initiate an interior attack of the fire. The first-in truck company (a quint apparatus) was instructed to perform vent-enter-search operations and raise its aerial to the roof.

The interior attack team forced the front door of what appeared to be the fire unit. Once inside, however, the team encountered low heat, light smoke, and no fire. They radioed this information to the chief. Guarnuccio re-sized the building and realized that the units were configured not front-to-back but side-to-side–they were in the unit behind the fire apartment. He also noticed a heavy concentration of smoke billowing out from the natural draft roof vents. He quickly surveyed the rear/courtyard side of the building. He transmitted over the radio that there was heavy fire visible from all courtyard-side, first-floor windows of a corner unit, with autoextension to the unit above and possibly to the soffit area of the roof. Hearing this, two firefighters stretched a 312-inch supply hoseline with a gated two-way manifold from the first-due truck (a quint located street-side and supplied with municipal water from the first engine), to the courtyard entrance, approximately a 200-foot stretch. Other firefighters directed the first handline from the exterior on the east-side fire that was autoexposing the second floor and the roof.

Meanwhile, members from two truck companies were conducting primary searches in the most severely exposed units, without the protection of a charged handline. Conditions in Apartment 35 and Apartment 36 above were untenable.

At 0741 hours, Guarnuccio requested mutual aid for personnel and one engine from the Hillcrest Fire Department. With that call, Rockland County Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren, Jr. also responded. Guarnuccio instructed the second-in engine, a 1,000-gallon pumper-tanker, to forward-lay from a private hydrant (six-inch main) in the complex about 200 feet from the courtyard entrance. (There were no accessible municipal hydrants in the vicinity of the rear/courtyard side.) Firefighters connected a 150-foot length of 134-inch hose to the two-way manifold. It was not long enough to be used as an interior handline; firefighters operated it on the autoexposed second-floor units and roof. The second engine also laid a five-inch supply line with a four-way gated manifold into the courtyard.

Roof operations began at 0745 hours. Natural roof vents were removed quickly. Firefighters cut a four- by four-foot hole on the opposite side of the ridge pole from the fire-engulfed apartments 35 and 36. A blowtorch of fire spewed out–fire had taken off in the roof. The roof area around the hole became soft, and the two members of the initial roof team descended via an aerial ladder. Minutes later, that roof section of the fire building collapsed locally.

The primary search continued. A conscious but disoriented 67-year-old female was found in the smoke-filled bedroom of Apartment 28, located on the second floor catercorner to Apartment 36. With fire rumbling in the attic above and heat conditions intensifying, the firefighter moved the woman to the interior stairs, where there was a light smoke condition, and then safely out of the building.

NO HEADWAY

Now about 20 minutes into the operation and with no headway made on extinguishing the growing fire, Guarnuccio called for additional resources from mutual-aid departments. Starting at 0754 hours over the next six minutes, he requested another four engines, an aerial ladder, a tower ladder, and a rescue company.

Meanwhile, the third-in engine company had been directed into the courtyard side to connect the five-inch supply line that the engine/tanker company had dropped at the private hydrant. This hydrant was found to be out of service. The company accessed a second private hydrant, which was operational, and by 0755 hours had secured a continuous water supply for courtyard operations. Off the four-way manifold, members stretched a 212-inch handline to the original fire apartment. They darkened the fire temporarily from the exterior then pushed in for interior extinguishment. Behind them followed a second team that advanced a 134-inch handline to attack the fire in the apartment above.

Throughout the incident, a steady 17-mph wind was blowing. This encouraged rapid fire extension through the attic. In the east-west wing, the attic fire was well-advanced, the vent hole cut there having no effect. The fire also had communicated across the overlapping interior wood sections of the hip roof, where the two wings intersected. Roof teams had not yet been directed there, and the fire advanced freely, breaking out of the roof in an eruption of flames.

Mutual-aid firefighters now were on the scene and set to work making vent holes and trench cuts on both wings in an attempt to halt horizontal spread. Meanwhile, the interior handline crews knocked down the fire in apartments 35 and 36. Other handlines were stretched into exposed units, to protect those units and to control the attic fire from second-floor interior positions. Ceilings were pulled, but stream operation was hampered by continuous plywood walkways fastened to the top of the attic side of the ceiling joists.

Spring Valley Chief of Department Robert J. Schultz arrived on the scene at 0803 hours and assumed command. He requested additional mutual aid for standby coverage and relief.

Roof operations were impeded because members misjudged the rate of extension due to unknown voids in the attic draftstopping; they were forced to withdraw before cuts were completed, even when dropping back at least 30 feet from their previous location. Local roof collapse continued to follow the fast fire spread through the attic.

With the fire still not under control, Schultz ordered new roof cuts started above the last set of units at the far end of each of the two sections of the building. The repositioned roof teams cut and pulled a ventilation hole on the north-south wing and a three-foot-wide trench on the east-west wing. Each roof team confirmed the presence of a concealed concrete block fire wall terminating just under the roof sheathing.

LIGHTWEIGHT TRUSS ROOF

Several minutes later, another large portion of the roof collapsed, in a slow domino effect. This lifted the roof`s edge slightly up in the air, revealing mangled truss gusset plates. The wind subsided for a few moments, and firefighters could see, in the shadows of the smoke and flame, the roof`s lightweight truss framework. Now, aware of this additional dangerous condition, coupled with the operation being well into its second hour and an uncontrolled fire condition still present, Schultz ordered all members out of the entire building. He then started an exterior attack with the three aerial master stream appliances now on the scene, as well as numerous handlines operated from outside the collapse zone.

Within one hour after crews started the exterior attack, at 1113 hours, the fire was placed under control. The master stream attack was shut down; a thorough secondary search was immediately conducted under the protection of handlines and proved negative.

FIREFIGHTER DOWN

Within the next half hour while firefighters were overhauling the structure, a radio message for “firefighter down” was transmitted. A firefighter was operating in the unit directly above the original fire unit with several other firefighters when the wood floor weakened and gave way under him. The firefighter fell into and became wedged for a moment in the void, then slipped through the hole and was gone from the sight of the other firefighters.

A FAST (rapid intervention) team still on standby was directed to the firefighter`s location. As the team reached the building, the downed firefighter suddenly emerged through a window in the original first-floor fire unit. Apparently, when he became wedged, his legs were supported by a high pile of debris in the unit below, and he was able to use this for leverage in quickly extricating himself. The FAST team assisted the firefighter to waiting EMS personnel for treatment. Fortunately, the firefighter sustained only minor injuries.

The incident was declared over at 1442 hours. All 22 units in Building B were damaged. Nine were totally consumed by the fire; the remaining units sustained smoke and/or water damage. The fire brought more than 125 firefighters and 26 fire apparatus from 13 departments. The three injuries reported were minor, including those of the victim removed from the second-floor apartment.

ORIGIN AND CAUSE

Official preliminary reports indicate the fire was accidental. It appears that a lit, oil-filled hurricane lamp was located on a piece of bedroom furniture and was tipped over by a gust of wind from an open window. On surface impact, it appears the flame ignited the contents within the immediate area of the lamp, which had become oil-enriched. It also appears that the occupant may have been in another room when the lamp tipped over and, on discovering the fire, tried to extinguish it, delaying the alarm. Furthermore, it appears that the occupant may have left the front door open on exiting the building. With a prevailing wind condition, it appears that the tunnel effect created by an open window and door accelerated fire development.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Garden apartment fires are challenging operations. The size, layout, and construction of typical garden apartment-style multiple dwellings (and other similar dwellings, such as townhouse developments) demand thorough and inclusive preplanning. Preplanning is, in fact, the first step in fire size-up. It should begin with site-plan submittal and continue with periodic site review, especially through on-site fire department drill sessions.

Identify and become familiar with all features that will have an impact on suppression operations, such as active and passive fire protection features (or lack thereof)–fire walls, automatic detection, draftstopping, etc.; water supply, including municipal and private hydrants; courtyards and unusual or difficult setbacks; roof, floor-ceiling assembly, and exterior wall construction; etc.

For particularly large complexes, supply all apparatus in the first-response district with updated preplans. These plans should contain a map that includes the complex and surrounding property, access roads and complex roads, apartment numbers, unusual apartment layouts or features, and unit diagrams plainly marked.

Fixed-temperature heat detectors alone are inadequate fire detection for residential occupancies, even when hard-wired and monitored by a central station. The setup of one fixed-temperature heat detector per floor per apartment, unless practically right over the fire, has a longer alarm reaction time than hard-wired, monitored smoke detectors. For most fire departments, grandfathered fire protection features are significant hurdles. Nevertheless, life safety demands that steps be taken to upgrade at least such minimal detection features, especially for large target hazards.

Lightweight truss roof construction must be identified in the fire preplanning stage. A low-rise multiple dwelling built after the 1970s with a width span of more than 25 feet should be considered to have a lightweight truss-constructed roof. This type of roof construction usually can be identified by opening the interior top-floor ceiling or, conditions permitting, by roof ventilation operations. The roof team should actively seek to identify the type of roof construction they are working on through inspection cuts. If the distinctive 24-inch-on-center (or more) spacing of the wood members is present, you can reasonably be sure it is a lightweight wood truss.

A 360-degree size-up may be difficult to perform in large structures such as garden apartments. The initial incident commander must gather as much intelligence from all four sides as quickly as possible. If the building is too big for him to accomplish this by himself, he must designate officers to assist in the size-up.

Getting the first line in operation is one of the keys to any structure fire situation and has a critical impact on life safety of the firefighters and occupants. Fire operations in garden apartments often are characterized by long, complicated stretches; all manpower necessary to supply the first line and complete the stretch should be employed. As critical as this line is, the fire location must be known before the line is committed. For first-floor fires in garden apartments, the first handline should be stretched through the main entrance to protect the interior stairs and any life hazard above, hitting the main body of fire and advancing to its seat.

Intercompany communication–the exchanging of size-up information and fire/fireground conditions–is critical to coordinated fire attack. For example, members should know how many lengths of handline are needed before the stretch.

The trench cut can be a valuable ventilation tactic. It is a defensive roof-cutting operation that “writes off” a certain part of the structure and should not be confused with an offensive operation; it is not simply an enlargement of and substitute for the traditional offensive roof cut. Trench cuts are time-consuming and manpower-intensive. To use this tactic successfully, an accurate judgment of rate of fire travel must be made and firefighters must fall back to a position that allows them time to complete the long cuts–cuts that should extend on both sides of the ridge pole (if a peaked roof) from ridge pole to the end of the rafters. For trench cuts to be successful, ceilings below must be dropped and the opening protected by at least one handline.

Pay close attention to attached or interconnected areas of the building. Be proactive in the strategic placement of interior handlines and roof crews.

Overhaul is a dangerous stage of the fire, particularly a fire that has weakened the structure. Avoid complacency during overhaul.

Though not standard operating procedure in many places, fire departments should consider maintaining a rapid intervention team on standby even during the overhaul stage.

Manifolds can be extremely valuable for fires in garden apartment buildings. After the initial handline is placed in operation, setting up a manifold should be one of the engine company`s next priorities.

Private hydrants, even when supplied from a public water main, are maintained “privately” by complex personnel. They cannot be assumed to be functional due to lack of routine maintenance common in such complexes. Therefore, members must be prepared to augment the water supply from a publicly maintained hydrant.

Radio communications on three channels at this incident–the main county fire frequency, a fireground tactical channel, and a staging channel for reserve apparatus and personnel–proved valuable.

Once two or more hydrants are used, consider a water resource officer, responsible for obtaining hydrant locations and main sizes and contacting the water department for other valuable related information. This should be an automatic incident command system function once numerous master streams are used.

A public information officer (PIO) would have been very valuable at this incident (I was not in service at this incident due to other obligations). Both major and local news media were present. Without a designated PIO on scene, field reporters and government officials roamed the fireground asking questions about the fire, leading to conflicting reports and distracting fire officers and firefighters. A PIO should be an automatic ICS function for large incidents. n




(Top) A building similar in layout to the fire building. On arrival, fire was blowing out of the first-floor window in the corner where the two wings intersect. Firefighters believed the entrance to the fire apartment to be from that side; it was not. Note the absence of a fire wall placard and how the two hip-style roofs tie together with a continuous soffit. (Photo by author.) (Bottom) A view of the east-west wing from the street side, more than two hours into the operation, as the roof collapses into the building. A defensive strategy already was in place by that time. Fire eventually consumed most of the east-west roof. (Photo by Laila M. Braaten.)




(Left) Fire spread across the interconnection between the two wings via numerous avenues, then moved quickly through the truss void. (Photo by Mark Schulman.) In the top right photo, the truss configuration is identified amid the fire in the north-south building. Firefighters attempted trench cuts (bottom right) in the north-south wing, but all but one were unsuccessful. (Photos top right, bottom right by Laila M. Braaten.)




(Top) The trench cut over Unit 30 helped save the end units of the east-west wing. This was made just beyond the poorly constructed fire wall, past which the fire was spreading. (Middle) Extinguishment required a defensive attack with aerial master streams and handlines. (Photos by Laila M. Braaten.) (Bottom) The original fire unit, Apartment 35. On arrival, firefighters on the other side of the building did not see that fire was blowing out of the first-floor windows and autoextending above. Once handlines were in position, the fire in the first- and second-floor units was knocked down in short order, but the attic fire proved difficult to handle. (Photo by author.)




To connect the wings, the builders of this complex simply laid one roof atop the other, at angles; when truss was finished on the first roof, they laid down the sheathing, then the second roof assembly was built over it. The photo top left gives a broad view of the overlapping sections. (Bottom left) A two- by two-foot hole cut in the plywood sheathing where the roof overlaps–an excellent fire channel. (Right) Walk-through voids render the draftstopping useless. (Photos by author.)






(Top left) The bulge in the roof is a fire wall. Look for this during preplanning. It also is possible to detect the distinctive 24-inch-on-center truss spacing. (Top right) Precast concrete filling was used in construction to fill the gap between the top chord of the truss and the concrete block fire wall. Note the two- by six-inch spliced top chord secured by a gusset plate. (Middle left) Fiberglass insulation was stuffed into the peak area above the fire wall. (Middle right) The concrete block fire wall at the interconnection of the two wings. Note the holes in the block to support the floor joist for the second floor; this was another avenue for fire spread. (Bottom right) The fire wall did not function as intended–note the failure of the precast concrete fill at the top of the wall–but the ventilation cut right behind it slowed the fire until extinguishment was complete. (Photo bottom right courtesy of the Rockland County Fire Training Center; others by author.)

HARRY J. OSTER is a nine-year firefighter with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 49 in the South Bronx. He currently serves as public information officer for the Spring Valley Volunteer Fire Department in Rockland County, New York. Oster has an associate`s degree in fire protection technology.

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