The Dangers of Illegally Converted Private Dwellings

BY JERRY KNAPP AND GEORGE ZAYAS

As a result of the slump in our national economy, families, extended families, migrant workers, college students, and others are forced to seek affordable housing. Unscrupulous building owners can make sizeable sums of money from converting what was a single-family home to multiple illegal apartments or single-room occupancies (SROs). These “sabotaged” buildings are death traps for firefighters and a major concern for firefighters across our country. Often, these buildings are right under our noses, disguised as single-family homes. These converted homes may exist in any style of house, new and old, and in rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. This article examines the hazards these buildings present and provides some tactical considerations to help us appropriately modify our strategy on the scene to increase fireground effectiveness and firefighter safety.

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(1) Exterior size-up provides few clues of the extreme dangers these converted dwellings contain. (Photo by Tom Bierds.)
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(2) Padlocks, dead bolts, and other high-security locks will hamper search and will require more aggressive forcible entry than a typical house that likely has privacy hardware as the locking mechanism. (Photos by authors unless otherwise noted.)

Clearly, a private dwelling converted into apartments or SROs is an extreme hazard to firefighters. We must recognize the seriousness of the hazard and apply the correct procedures to ensure the safety of our members. The critical factor of which we must be aware and train on is this: This is not a house fire; it is a converted private dwelling that now contains numerous opportunities to kill firefighters.

SINGLE-ROOM OCCUPANCY

These former single-family homes now contain illegal apartments, or SROs, that were constructed in violation of local and state fire and building codes. There may be a mix of apartments and SROs in the same house. Each occupant in the SRO variant has a room that generally is locked by a padlock and chains or a dead bolt, which is often positioned high on the door. The rooms are small, and occupants frequently cook on hot plates, increasing the fire hazard. Since this is the occupant’s one and only home/room, it often contains a mattress on the floor and the remainder of the occupant’s worldly possessions, which often are strewn about. Occupants of the SROs sometimes share a common kitchen and/or bathroom. It is not uncommon to find narrowed halls and a lack of proper egress from the upper floors. Apartments in converted homes are usually small and overcrowded with occupants, their furnishings, belongings, clothing, and items. Bicycles, strollers, and toys that are usually stored in outside storage sheds or garages are now by necessity stored in the living areas or hallways. To complete the small apartment, these converted private dwellings are often modified with newly added baths and kitchens, further increasing hazards such as narrow hallways, small rooms, blocked exits, and more fire load.

SIZE-UP

Often, there are few clues to what is behind the exterior of a house or a private dwelling. So often we are not aware of or do not understand the lethal dangers it contains. If we pulled up to an industrial building that contained hazardous chemicals, the dangers would seem obvious to us and cause us to use more caution on the scene. In the case of a converted dwelling, the dangers are concealed from us most times until it is too late. There is little indication of these modifications from the outside, since the conversions are obviously illegal. There may be indicators such as several vehicles in the driveway, several mailboxes or utility meters, numerous cable TV wires or satellite dishes, or an attic air-conditioner, but these indications are not reliable and may not be visible from the outside; therefore, they will not alert you to the dangers you may find inside. An often overlooked warning sign is an unusually high number of garbage containers or bags of trash at the curb or near the house.

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(3) Occupants may also be concerned with the security of their rooms. Here, a security camera watches over a hallway of a single-room occupancy. Often, drug dealers or wanted criminals want to know who is approaching their lair, for obvious reasons. Wires strung haphazardly through the building can become a fatal entanglement hazard for unsuspecting firefighters.

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(4) The living room should be just inside the front door to the left. To make this an apartment, a wall was constructed of very combustible paneling, shown on the left side of the photo. This room is now a bedroom that contains a full-size bed and a crib. This creates a narrow hallway to the rear of the house. Note the narrow stairway, which makes it difficult for firefighters to operate; it is almost impossible for one firefighter to pass another, creating dangerously blocked means of egress, especially if the upper floor lights up.

The SROs or multiple apartments will provide a forcible entry challenge. Typically, in a single-family home, bedrooms and baths may be locked only with flimsy privacy locks, if locked at all. In SROs, security may be an issue, so searching firefighters will be confronted with doors and locks that are often difficult to force, especially in a dense smoke condition. A tactical consideration here is to be sure you have enough personnel to counter this threat once it is reported and recognized.

If you detect an SRO, notify Command immediately. Safe operations dictate the need for more personnel. Searches will be delayed because of the need for extensive interior forcible entry. This is a condition not often found in a private-dwelling fire. Crews may have to force numerous doors in high heat and low visibility. With padlocks mounted high on the door, forcible entry can be very slow. During the primary search, all rooms subject to smoke must be forced and all doors, regardless of location, must be opened on the secondary search. Case histories from throughout the country have shown that kids have been found in locked rooms while irresponsible parents party, shop, or engage in illegal activities.

TACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR SEARCH

Search crews that entered the front door and ascended interior stairs to the second floor will not be able to quickly use what was typically an unlocked bedroom as an area of refuge if fire were to rapidly extend up the stairs. Highly secured doors may trap firefighters in the hallway during flashover conditions. In typical single-family homes, a noninvolved room could be a life-saving area of refuge immediately available for search teams.

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(5) What once was a spacious living room is now an overcrowded bedroom on the first floor with lots of combustible material and flammable paneling wall covering taking the place of a fire barrier of plaster or gypsum board.
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(6) If the family living in the first-floor apartment has additional children, another cramped bedroom must be created. Again, because of space restrictions, beds often block exits. In this photo, the beds blocked a first-floor door and a window (not shown). It would be impossible for firefighters to force this inward-swinging door from the outside because of the weight of the beds. This bedroom was squeezed between the kitchen and the apartment’s microscopic bathroom.
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(7) This small bath could be a death trap for firefighters. With tools, turnout gear, and self-contained breathing apparatus, it is difficult for even one firefighter to turn around in this room. Hooking your foot on the doorframe to perform this hostile search will solve this problem and ensure that you don’t overcommit.

Do not underestimate the risk to members searching the second and third floors. Narrow hallways, locked doors, flammable wall coverings, and articles (i.e., bicycles) stored in hallways can add up to a fatal scenario for these well-meaning firefighters.

Lieutenant Frank Ricci of the New Haven (CT) Fire Department states the following:

Consideration should be given to altering your search procedures. Instead of using the front door as the primary means of access for upper-floor search, use the vent-enter-search (VES) technique by way of the windows on the upper floors. Search teams enter upper floors using ladders placed at windows. The window is cleared; the floor is swept for victims, and then the floor is sounded. Controlling the door is top priority; thankfully, in an SRO the door is usually closed immediately, putting the firefighter in an area of refuge and without impact on the ventilation profile.

This technique is not applicable to all fire situations, but it is especially important for the safety of members if the fire below is not controlled or is extending upward. This tactic for search operations is most important to employ if the line is delayed or decisive amounts of water are not being applied to control the fire.

ROOM SIZE

Prior to converting the home to apartments or SROs, the rooms were generally large. Furniture was well placed and provided for relatively spacious accommodations. In the conversion, the house was modified to contain more people in the same square footage, abnormally compressing any open floor space. This results in cramped conditions throughout the structure. Narrow hallways become even smaller, to create additional rooms. Small rooms may seem advantageous for search; however, when overcrowded with furniture, small rooms can be death traps for firefighters There is little free wall or floor space, and windows and doors may be blocked.

As a result of the small size of the apartment on the first floor, occupants have to jam all their personal belongings in a small space. This includes furniture, holiday decorations, recreational equipment, and kids’ toys such as bicycles. The hazards of blocked exits, massive amounts of combustibles to burn, and other surprises make this a death trap for firefighters working in limited-visibility conditions. Rapid egress from the area is impossible, and entanglement hazards abound.

A bath had to be created, again in a very small space, to service this apartment. Just off this bedroom was a very tight bath. The small size of the bathroom and the small shower could easily cause a firefighter to become trapped in a variety of ways, especially if he had to make a hasty withdrawal because of fire or collapse conditions.

Since there was no living room in this apartment, two couches were placed in an area just off the kitchen. To make space, the refrigerator was placed against a window, completely blocking it.

ATTIC ROOMS

We are finding attics occupied as apartments or SROs more often. The attic provides a safe and secretive place, away from the noise and prying eyes of the daily activities on the first two floors. Like a first-floor apartment or an SRO, because of limited space, an attic apartment contains similar hazards. In this case, the “apartment” was not fully furnished. Because of space restrictions, an air-conditioner and a computer desk block the window. This, of course, makes the window less accessible for a bailout should the room light up during a search operation. It creates an additional hazard to firefighters below if a trapped firefighter has to quickly push out the air-conditioner before he bails for his life.

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(8) Note the air-conditioner under the computer desk, blocking the window. Except for the narrow twisting stairs to get to the attic, this was the only other means of escape.
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(9) Because of the limited ceiling height, smoke will bank down very quickly in the attic, dramatically reducing visibility for firefighters searching above the fire. Additionally, as heat banks down and builds, flashover will happen more rapidly in these smaller areas.
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(10) A view looking down the stairs from the attic rooms to the second floor.
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(11) Here, a good fire barrier (plaster or gypsum board) is compromised by penetrations to allow heat and ventilation to flow.

Often, access to the attic is very limited. We recently responded to a converted private dwelling that had illegal living space in the attic. The narrow stairs were off a second-floor bathroom closet and, because of the pitch of the roof when you made it to the top of the stairs (at the eave line of the house), you could not stand straight up. To access the attic, you had to bend at the waist to enter this newly created living space.

SABOTAGE OF THE PRIVATE DWELLING

It seems the creativity of both the owners and occupants of these illegal conversions is limitless. It is done completely without regard for occupant or firefighter safety. Essentially, this results in the building’s being completely sabotaged for rapid vertical fire spread from a firefighter’s perspective.

First, not only, as photo 10 shows, is the house open from the first floor to the second floor, but an open stairway, now a chimney through all the floors, goes also to the third floor (the attic). Obviously, this is an excellent vertical route for fire spread from the heat, flames, and flammable gases from the massive amount of combustibles in the first-floor apartment.

To allow ambient heat to pass from one floor to another, occupants or the building owner often cuts holes in the transom (photo 11) over the doorways to allow heat to flow even if the door is closed and locked. This creates another excellent path for fire to spread throughout the building. Other vertical paths of fire travel can be created, such as in photo 14.

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(12) Fire extended from the room (kitchen/living room) of origin toward the open stairwell. Note the holes in the transom to allow heat to pass and warm remote areas that allowed fire spread. Note also the combustible wood finish used to modify this home. This was in the newly created first-floor hallway.
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(13) The arrow indicates the site of the previous photo. This photo shows how smoke and heat can rapidly advance to the second and third floors from behind a closed door when the transom is penetrated, as evidenced by the charred molding, ceiling gypsum board, and soot-stained walls. You must recognize the potential for rapid vertical fire spread as a serious and deadly threat to firefighters on the upper floors. If firefighters advanced up this stairway for an interior search, rapid fire development could easily trap and kill them in the upstairs hallway. Sabotage of the fire barriers can create a dense and deadly smoke condition on the second and third floors, making forcible entry and search operations much more difficult.
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(14) Holes cut in the wall allow heat to travel from the first to the second and third floors. This modification will also allow, and even encourage, rapid fire spread to the upper floors. A chimney is created within the wall within the chimney of the open stairwell.
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(15) Another viable means of escape for firefighters is not available to unknowing firefighters when they need it most. Boarded-over or blocked windows may also prevent or delay an outside team from gaining access to victims on the second floor (VES) and delay ventilation. The new window was intact behind a layer of gypsum board.

Space constraints (and possibly to hide the true occupancy from nearby neighbors) lead occupants to board windows with plywood or gypsum board.

It is also important to recall that older wood-frame homes may be of balloon construction. Therefore, in addition to the newly created methods of fire travel already discussed, the well-known built-in problems of balloon framing still remain as a constant additional hazard. For example, fire may easily extend vertically into the attic living area.

TACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

As previously mentioned, the most critical and dangerous tactic/task to consider changing at these buildings is search operations (especially above the fire); use VES. This provides a safe method for conducting the search and possible rescue operation. If a firefighter is anticipating that the floor will light up any second, how thorough and effective do you think the search will be? Additionally, consider how many times we get “reliable” reports of people trapped that are completely unfounded. Our plan must be based on firefighter safety and fireground effectiveness.

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(16) Heavy fire in the first floor threatened the second floor by way of the vertical stud channels of balloon construction.

Discussions with other fire service leaders from around the country show just how prevalent the converted house is and how dangerous these structures are to firefighters. Captain Bill Gustin, of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, stated on the dangers of converted private dwellings:

Illegal conversions of single-family homes in my district are a big problem. It is important to get the hoseline in place by the most direct means possible. In my district, fire showing at the rear of a house can often not be reached by a hoseline advanced through the front door because the house has been divided, creating a separate occupancy in the rear. In the neighborhood where conversions are prevalent, we take the line to the doorway or stairway that is closest to the fire because there is a good chance that it is the only path to reach the fire.
Similarly, firefighters stretching a hoseline through the front door and up an interior stairway to reach a fire on the second floor are likely to find their ascent blocked by plywood—the stairway was closed off to create a separate occupancy on the second floor that can be reached only from an outside rear stairway.
In terms of forcible entry, consider taking bolt cutters, as SROs are commonly locked with a padlock and a chain that passes through an opening in the door, usually where the doorknob was removed, and a hole in the adjacent wall. It is critical to get a hoseline in position and operate on the fire as quickly as possible; this is the most life-saving function at any fire where there will be a delay in searching all areas.
Your search of upper floors will fail if the fire is not rapidly confined, and firefighters conducting the search will be placed in grave danger. Firefighters ascending above the fire floor are depending on the engine company operating the hoseline to protect the stairway.

Tom Labelle, executive director of the New York State Fire Chiefs Association, tells this story of a converted home in the Albany (NY) area:

We had a second-floor fire in a legacy two-story wood-frame “farmhouse” with a scissor stair to the right of the front door. When I took the line to the top of the stairs, I was looking at gypsum board! They had made it into two apartments. I could not get to the fire.

Jeff Shupe, an experienced member of the Cleveland (OH) Fire Department, summarizes the danger of converted homes and succinctly describes it as “a changing urban environment.” If our firefighting environment has changed, should we consider changing our tactics? He further describes the need for different tactics at converted homes:

It is almost impossible for firefighters to “adapt and overcome” problems presented in converted homes on the fireground because they are in the middle of a rapidly deteriorating condition bordering on or going to untenable, and they likely do not know what is happening to them and why.

Shupe agrees with Gustin:

Another thing we have to get away from is always trying to hit the fire from the unburned side. It does not hold true anymore. Back in the old days, that was fine, but now fires burn with more speed and intensity. We must get water on the fire in the quickest way possible.

TACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS AND FIRE TACTICS

Consider the following recommendations as the basis for discussion on your current strategic and tactical plans to determine if changes are necessary to your procedures for converted houses.

1 Size-up. Commanders must pay particular attention to attic windows for signs of occupancy such as air-conditioners. Multiple satellite dishes and cars in the driveway, excessive trash, and multiple mailboxes and utility meters are other good clues of an SRO. An excellent suggestion is to observe the attic during nighttime hours to look for the flicker of televisions or other signs of the attic’s being occupied. Although this may not indicate an illegal SRO, it sure indicates an illegal and unsafe apartment. This may be grounds for notifying the building or fire inspector to take action.

2 Reports from search teams.Members must be trained to immediately identify an SRO and the aforementioned dangerous conditions to Command to consider changes to strategy and tactics as required by the specific situation.

3 Search and rescue.Converted homes will require more personnel to search and conduct rescue operations because of the increased forcible entry efforts and rescue of a higher number of occupants. If fire conditions dictate, to protect firefighters, consider using VES to gain access and search upper floors.

4 Hoseline. It may be vastly more beneficial to get the hoseline in place and operating before conducting a search and rescue attempt, even in low-staffing situations. Although this seems contrary to our traditional “life first priority,” it may be the best tactic for firefighters and victims. We must recall that this building is not a standard house fire and likely has multiple and severe hazards created by the sabotage of normal vertical fire spread barriers. You also must recall the extreme hazards for the specific building in which you are operating—you will not fully understand them until the smoke has cleared and you can see them.

5 Firefighter safety. Another option for protecting the search crews is to make sure they have a charged hoseline with them for protecting their means of egress (likely the interior stairs). This, of course, slows the search, which may make this option unacceptable to some. An alternative to this is to position a hoseline to keep the fire away from and to protect the stairs, thus protecting the means of egress. This may be an alternate plan for the second hoseline that would normally go to back up the first or the floor above. However, we must remember that we are not dealing with a house but a converted house that has extreme hazards for firefighters.

Another alternative to improve firefighter safety is to limit search crew members to those who have thermal imaging cameras (TICs). Truck companies (if available) could also be assigned to ladder as many windows as possible to provide emergency egress for members.

6 Ventilation. This is a two-edged sword, especially in converted homes. First, it may be difficult to accomplish because the windows may be blocked by gypsum board, which may be over interior windows, furniture, appliances, or stored materials. Although ventilation is always viewed as a positive factor, the additional oxygen allowed in will increase the fire. This is not new, but consider how much material is burning and how rapidly it will extend upward toward the unprotected members. In converted houses, coordination of truck and engine companies is even more critical.

THE FIRE

On January 14, 2011, at 2231 hours, the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department responded to a fire in a converted dwelling. Many of the factors listed in this article were present and resulted in a Mayday call by a fire officer while conducting a primary search. The building was a 2½-story wood balloon-frame building that was converted to a first-floor apartment and SROs on the second floor and in the attic.

The first-floor kitchen was fully involved and was at the rear or C side of the building in a one-story extension off the rear. The first hoseline was stretched to the rear of the building along the D side up a driveway. This line entered the rear door directly into the kitchen and contained the fire.

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(17) Despite heavy fire extending toward the second floor through the void space, the plaster on lath with an additional layer of gypsum board held. It is critical to realize how quickly and deadly the fire could extend to and light up the upper floors from a first-floor or basement fire in these balloon frames. When firefighters opened this space for overhaul, fire aggressively shot out approximately four feet into the room. The charged line made quick work of it and prevented further extension. If you are searching for hidden fire, you must have a line in place to control it.
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(18) Because it was easier and cheaper to simply put a layer of gypsum board on the existing plaster, this created another layer of fire resistance to keep the fire from spreading to upper floors through the walls as a result of the balloon construction.

Before the line was stretched and operating, reliable neighbors reported people in the house. The second floor was fully charged with smoke down to the floor. The captain and one firefighter, assigned as the primary search and rescue team, entered the front door and went up the interior stairs to the second floor. After forcing the doors, the team separated to speed the search of multiple rooms. While searching a second room, the captain became low on air and became disoriented and attempted to find a window. The window in that room was covered by gypsum board, to hide the SRO. Another smaller window was located high on the wall. Distressed, he called a Mayday and was found by a third firefighter with a TIC.

The now unconscious firefighter was removed from the building by the firefighter with the TIC and two others. The captain was treated and transported to the nearest hospital and then to a hyperbaric chamber, where it was determined that his blood gases had reached safe levels; he was released the following day. The captain has since recovered and returned to full duty.

The first hoseline extinguished the fire. A second line was taken to the floor above and used during overhaul to extinguish significant fire in the framing and void spaces. Ground ladders were placed at numerous windows as alternate egress routes for the search and rescue teams. Overhead electric, cable, and phone wires made the use of the aerial device impossible.

What makes this incident significant in terms of tactical decisions is the following:

1 Illegal modifications to the building to allow ambient heat to rise to the upper occupancies created a dense, zero-visibility smoke condition on the upper floors. Given a few more minutes, the combustible transom would have burned through, allowing fire from the first floor to rapidly move up the stairs.

2 Illegal modifications (locks on SROs on the second floor) delayed the search teams; had the second floor lit up, these locked doors could have easily prevented the search and rescue team from gaining access to life-saving areas of refuge.

3 This was a balloon-frame building. Although fire extended into the shed roof void of the extended one-floor kitchen, it did not get into the wall studs beyond the second floor, B/C corner. If this fire had extended beyond the second floor and caused plaster to fail, the attic and second-floor rooms could have quickly ignited, injuring firefighters.

4 The disoriented firefighter followed all the right emergency procedures: He acknowledged that he was disoriented, searched for a window, and called a Mayday. The window that was covered with gypsum board could have provided him an easy egress. Despite the proper actions, it was close to a fatal scenario.

5 It was by sheer coincidence that the additional firefighter had the TIC and was able to find the Mayday firefighter and direct the rescue. If the camera had been in use downstairs, there may have been a significant delay in finding and removing him, and there could have been a horribly different outcome.

6 In the experience of veteran members on the scene, this was the seventh search operation in recent memory based on “reliable” reports of people trapped. Including this fire, five of the seven reliable reports were completely false. A number of extreme dangers faced firefighters at this fire with no possibility of commensurate reward, and each could have led to fatal consequences. As part of our overall strategy, we must remember that actual fireground experience has shown us that reliable reports are not always reliable.

7 Directly beneath the stairs from the first to the second floor was the door to the fire room. As we have learned from other famous fires where firefighters were killed (such as Watts Street, FDNY), control of this door is often the difference between life and death for firefighters operating above the fire. During this fire attack, an assistant chief directed the line to be stretched to the rear of the house and directly attack the fire. Had the line come through the front door and had this door been forced, it could have led to instant vertical fire spread to the upper floors, probably causing a flashover in the charged upper floors, trapping and killing the three firefighters searching. Instant and decisive amounts of water applied after this door was opened would likely have caused the fire to be controlled/extinguished. A kinked line, burst line, injured nozzleman, or other factor that would have delayed getting water on the fire could have resulted in a very poor outcome. The important factor to remember here is to always control the door to the fire area.

Clearly, a house converted into apartments and SROs is an extreme hazard to firefighters. We must recognize the seriousness of the hazards and apply the correct procedures to ensure the safety of our members. The critical factor of which we must be aware and train on is this: It is not a house fire but a fire in a converted house that contains numerous opportunities to kill firefighters.

JERRY KNAPP is a 37-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is an assistant chief with the Rockland County Hazmat Task Force and a former nationally certified paramedic. He has a degree in fire protection. Knapp is the author of the Fire Attack chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and of numerous feature articles in state, national, and international fire service trade journals.

GEORGE ZAYAS is the chief of the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department and a 30-year veteran of the department. He is a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. Zayas is an adjunct instructor for the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs hands-on training program and a career police officer for the Town of Stony Point, New York.

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