First-Due Battalion Chief: The Odor of Smoke Call

By Daniel Sheridan

The heating season will soon be upon us here in the Northeast. Usually this is the time of year when people are turning on their heating systems for the first time since the spring. Oil burners that are dirty will spew out dirty nasty black smoke. Some oil burners will be on their last legs and have more serious issues. We will be receiving lots of calls for an odor of smoke in the next few months.

Now is the time to review your foam operation bulletins and make sure that all the equipment is in working order. It might be a good time to go out on a multi-unit drill and put the equipment into operation, making sure that the foam educator and foam nozzle are in good working order. What I used to do when I was a company officer to save our foam supply (which I am sure is expensive) is take a bottle of liquid soap and mix it in a bucket of water. The end product looks the same. Foam has three components: foam concentrate, foam solution, and then the finished product, firefighting foam. The soap mixes with water and comes out looking the same as the firefighting foam.

With the heating systems being turned on, this will also mean that the hot water will be running through the steam pipes again for the first time in a while. What happens over the years is that the hot pipes break down the adjacent wood beams and joists little by little over the course of many years. In New York City, some of our buildings are more than 100 years old. The constant exposure to the hot pipes breaks down the wood chemically very slowly by pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is the means by which wood burns, the off-gassing that occurs that produces the flame. At some point, the wood will have its ignition temperature lowered enough for the hot pipes to cause a small ignition.

What generally happens is that people will call and complain that they can smell a faint odor of smoke. The firefighters will come and spend a good amount of time trying to track down the odor and will get frustrated when they can’t find it. Don’t be so quick to give that odor of smoke signal (in the FDNY we call it a 10-33 code 1). Whatever is burning, the joist or stud, has the fuel and the heat (hot water pipe) but is probably starved for oxygen to complete the fire triangle. I am guessing that what happens most of the time is that the fire will eventually burn out because of the lack of oxygen, or the pipe will grow cold and the call will remain a mystery, only to happen again.

THAT BURNING SMELL

If the fire does not self-extinguish and continues to burn, it will travel until it finds an opening and then break out. A number of years ago in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn there was a rash of fires like this over a span of a couple of years. If you find yourself in this situation and you think you have it figured out, be sure and call for a hoseline before you open any walls, because if there is fire in the wall, it will take off once you open them up. Don’t rely on your thermal imaging camera (TIC) to make the final decision; you need to put a hand on the wall and if it is hot open it up.

I had a fire once in a five-story multiple dwelling. The call came in as an odor of smoke on the third floor. It was the early fall and I had a feeling that the heating system had just recently been turned on. There was a definite odor of wood burning in the apartment. We started checking around. I immediately went to the steam riser in the living room and started feeling around. The smoke odor was definitely the strongest in this spot. I put the back of my hand on the wall and could feel the heat. I told the firefighters to stretch a hoseline to the front door. The ladder firefighters opened the wall and the fire had taken off inside the walls. We now had fire on the third, fourth, and fifth floors. Once these fires get oxygen they need, they will take off on you. Be prepared to check the termination point of whatever void the fire is in, both top and bottom.

Last week we received a call for an odor of smoke in a five-story multiple dwelling on the fourth floor. There was lots of confusion and activity going on at this location. En route, the dispatcher notified me that there was some sort of police action going on at the box location. On arrival, police cars and ambulances were parked all over the street. I was thinking that maybe in the confusion someone had called the fire department like they always do. The companies set up the apparatus, preparing to spring into action if there was a fire. Both engine companies were both on hydrants and the two ladder companies were on opposite sides of the corner building, covering the whole front. To add to my confusion, I overheard the outside vent firefighter notify his officer that someone was having a barbeque in the rear of the building.

I held tight. The officer proceeded to the fourth floor and he then told me that he had smoke pushing around the door jamb next to the bathroom in the apartment facing the street. Now the whole situation in my mind changed; no longer was this going to be a frivolous false alarm or an odor of smoke call, but something much more serious. I told the dispatcher that we were using one engine and one ladder and I was holding the rest of the units fast while we investigated a smoke condition on the fourth floor. I hadn’t received any communication in a few minutes so I decided to take a walk into the building to get a better look at what was happening. My lieutenant was a top-rate guy and I trust him fully, but I needed to get a firsthand look at what was happening. Generally I don’t do that, but I had a feeling about this box.

When I arrived on the fourth floor, I saw that the firefighters were checking the wall and opened up a little bit. I happened to overhear one of the occupants talking about a problem with an air conditioner on the third floor. I told my lieutenant to hold off on opening up any more and dropped down to the third floor. When I got to the apartment, I put a hand on the wall where I thought the problem was. It was very hot. I ordered the second ladder up to the third floor and told the engine companies to start a hoseline to the third floor. I spoke to the occupant in the third floor apartment and she informed me that the air conditioner kept shutting off and that she repeatedly reset the breaker on the unit itself.

The ladder opened the walls and there was a strong electrical/wood odor but no real active flames. The BX cable was red hot and when we used the TIC, it was cherry red. We shut the power to the apartment, opened all the walls and ceiling, and found some small charring. The breaker in the apartment failed to function properly and kept the room energized. Had the occupant on the floor above not called we probably at some point would have had a big problem on our hands. Never dismiss any odor of smoke–if there is an odor in the building, it means that something is burning. I know that sometimes it is three in the morning and firefighters get frustrated, but you must be thorough with every call, especially if the odor has that distinctive wood burning smell.

OTHER ODORS

The only odor that I will dismiss is an odor of food burning. What generally happens is that in a large multiple dwelling, someone will call in an odor of smoke or report a fire in a building. Usually we can smell it in the street. It has that very distinctive odor, usually a tinny smell or burning metal. Often the person who burned the pot is so embarrassed that he will not own up to it. If we check a building out and the odor is dissipating and we can’t pinpoint exactly where it is, I will give a 10-33 code 1. If we can pinpoint the apartment for sure and the odor is very strong and the occupants don’t answer the door, I will force entry. There have been times when we found people overcome from smoke. There also have been times where we have found an elderly person severely burned and laying unconscious on the floor.

If you have any nagging doubts and it is going to bother you, find the source. At one box we had a strong odor of something burning, but I wasn’t sure what it was. We were there for a half hour and checked everything. I was at my wits end. I knew there was something burning in that apartment. I went into the bedroom again and noticed that the people had young children. I started thinking to myself, they have young boys, and young boys do stupid things. I started looking around again and noticed a light fixture in the middle of the room. The fixture had a piece of detached glass that didn’t completely cover the light bulb. I looked in the fixture and there it was, a stuffed animal. I guess the boys were playing basketball using the fixture as a hoop. We retrieved the toy and handed it back to the very grateful parents. I could see the two boys with a very guilty look on their faces, smiling.

On a completely different note, in the past few weeks in the Metropolitan New York area we have had a few house explosions. It seems that they were caused by natural gas. Two utility workers were seriously injured at one incident and at the other a civilian was badly burned. If you get a call for an odor of gas, and you have a meter that can tell you the percentage of gas in the structure, use it.

Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief assigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for firetecinc.com.

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