The Odor of Smoke

By Daniel P. Sheridan

The Fire Department of New York gets “odor of smoke” calls at buildings frequently. As we head to the scene, we follow our 13-point size-up acronym: COAL WAS WEALTH. We start thinking about what may lay before us, looking specifically at the first two points. The construction will be a determining factor, but not so much as the type of occupancy. I try not to project, but invariably, my mind leans to certain probable causes based on the occupancy and the time of day. Usually, between 1600 and 2000 hours I am inclined to suspect that someone in the building is being careless with his cooking. Another possibility may be that, depending on the time of year (usually in the fall), a person is firing up a heating system for the first time that has not been serviced in a while, which will result in a dirty burn.

Our first point of contact should always with the caller; we need to know what he sees or smells and what prompted him to call the fire department? At this point, regardless of whether or not I have a good inclination of the nature of the situation, I hold all units until it’s verified. Making assumptions can come back to bite us; we need to be thorough every time.

On arrival, your companies will begin to conduct an investigation. There are certain odors that are very distinct. For example, an electrical odor has a very sharp, pungent odor. Burning food usually is associated with a burning aluminum or an acrid smell. Rubbish burning has that smell of burning paper, but when we have a working fire, there is no denying that smell. You just know the difference.

Out of all our senses, the sense of smell is most acute. I remember very vividly a fire that we had in our apartment in 1964. I clearly remember the smell as I went up to the door of our apartment, and it was on everything. In 1986, when I went to my first fire, that smell came right back to me. It was distinct that when we get that odor-of-smoke call and it is there, it must be investigated until we have found the source. We cannot discount it and leave, especially if the building is a type III, IV, or V. It can be very frustrating, but we need to be patient and uncover all the possibilities.

Recently, we’ve had had a few strange calls. The first was for an odor of smoke on the first floor of a five-story multiple dwelling. We were sure we had narrowed it down to the right apartment; we had an odor, and it seemed like we had some sort of fire that was not a food on stove, rubbish, and so on. We did a thorough investigation, and we were coming up with nothing. You could actually see the haze in the beam of the truck officer’s hand light. We checked everywhere: below, above, and sides to no avail. Finally, after some thorough questioning of the occupant, we determined that he was burning candles; we then found a cardboard box on top of a wood dresser. The people in the apartment had lit a candle and covered it. It burned down and ignited the top of the dresser. Had we given up, I am sure it would have accelerated to the point where it became a room-and-contents fire.

On another night tour, we got a call for an odor of smoke in a six-story building. The caller was on the fourth floor. I took command in front of the building and knew that something was happening inside the building.  This was not going to be one of those calls that would result in an unfounded source and then dissipate. The truck company made contact with the caller, and they investigated inside the apartment and were they came up empty. I decided to walk into the lobby and see what was happening. I spoke to people in the lobby who were very concerned about the situation. I asked them all the same question, and they all responded with the same answer: they smelled the odor for a while, and no one could come up with a source.

I noticed that a door on the first floor was open, and I stepped into the apartment with the occupants’ permission. I asked a few questions, and they confessed that they had been having electrical problems (the lights had been flickering). I asked the second-due truck to come to the apartment. They started feeling the walls, which were hot. They used the thermal imaging camera, and it showed hot spots on the wall between the living room and the bathroom. The members made some small openings and found the fire burning in one of the bays. When these situations occur, do a thorough investigation. Part of that investigation is having a thorough knowledge of the types of construction in your area.

Another odor-of-smoke call to which we responded came from a tenement building. We spent considerable time trying to track down the odor. The building had an old air and light shaft inside that had been covered over. We had a good idea that the bottom of the shaft was on the second floor. Apparently, the fire had started in a rubbish bin, which was below the shaft door that was being used as a cabinet. Inside the cabinet were some copper pipes that were soldered shut. The fire melted the solder and released the water, which put the fire out, causing our smoke condition. The firefighter on the roof was instrumental in relaying that information to the incident commander, who then informed the companies on the scene of the presence of the shaft.

A final incident to which we recently responded was for an odor of burning food at a six-story multiple dwelling in an unspecified apartment.  You could smell the odor of food burning from the street. This time, we had a very good idea of the source, but we were still not 100 percent sure from where it was coming. We sent the ladder company to investigate, and we waited. After about five minutes, the ladder company informed me that they were having trouble locating the apartment; no one owned up to it. The guys were pretty sure they pinpointed the source, but the occupant was extremely hostile and combative. I notified the police department who happened to be on scene. The ladder company’s lieutenant informed the occupant that the police were on their way, and it would behoove him to cooperate, but he dug in his heels even more and disappeared altogether.

At this point, it would have been very easy for me to discount the smell as an odor dissipated, chalk it up to burned food, and not go through the hassle, but I can’t do that; what if the fire had extended into the cabinets or a hole in the wall or ceiling? After another five minutes, the occupant finally opened the door and let us into the apartment. He did a good job getting rid of whatever it was he burned because we couldn’t find any evidence of fire. We never did figure that one out.

I wasn’t totally comfortable leaving that situation unresolved.  I like to leave every box with some sort of cause or reason. Where ever there is smoke, there is fire.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Daniel D. Teoli Jr.


DANIEL P. SHERIDAN is a 26-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he is a battalion chief. He has worked in the highly active units in Harlem and the Bronx for most of his career. He is a national instructor and the founder and chief operating officer of Mutual Aid Americas, an international nonprofit training group to assist firefighters. Previously, he instructed at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy. He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering magazine and has a monthly column on He authored Chapter 12 (Forcible Entry) for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II.

No posts to display