Third-Alarm Ductwork Fire: Communications and Coordination Ensure Success

February 10, 2020, was a relatively mild day for the time of the year in New York City; it was 49°F and overcast with a threat of rain. At 1542 hours, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) received a telephone alarm directly, not through a 911 unified call taker. The call for Box 437 was received as a “residential multiple-dwelling fire, caller in apartment 2.” No additional information was given. The address was reported as 48 East 7th Street at the corner of Second Avenue. This was the 830th FDNY alarm in Manhattan for that day.

The initial response ticket included Engines (E) 33, 5, and 28 and Ladders (L) 9 and 3 (in assigned order), along with the Battalion 6 (B6). As I was responding as the B6 chief, the Manhattan dispatcher radioed that they had received a second call. When asked what the second caller reported, after a few seconds of hesitation, the dispatcher simply replied, “Fire.”


Ductwork Fire Dangers

Fighting Fires in Crawlspaces

From The Ground Up

The Initial Attack

E33, L9, and B6 arrived almost simultaneously at 1546 hours; the balance of the first-alarm units arrived seconds later. As the officer of E33 and the forcible entry team of L9 made their way into the fire building, E33’s officer radioed his nozzle firefighter to “get a line to the front door.”

Before leaving my vehicle, Isaw smoke coming from the fifth-floor window and reported a working fire on the fifth floor of a five-story, multiple dwelling of ordinary construction. Seconds later, E33’s officer radioed his chauffeur to report a working fire. I notified the officer that the signal had already been given and that there was heavy smoke coming from a front window on the top floor, off the fire escape, and that I was assuming incident command (photo 1).

Directing the initial attack on arrival. Note the ground ladders positioned, which provided firefighter egress and were used to stretch hose raised to a second-floor window.

(1) Directing the initial attack on arrival. Note the ground ladders positioned, which provided firefighter egress and were used to stretch hose raised to a second-floor window. (Photos used with permission of author and Kyra King, FDNY Commissioner’s Liaison/FDNY Photo Unit.)

Making my way toward the fire building, I radioed my aide to confirm the address as 48 East 7th Street. The aide confirmed that was the address on the response ticket, and he gave the exposures to the Manhattan dispatcher: exposure 1 (side A), East 7th Street; exposure 2 (side B), a similar detached multiple dwelling separated by a four-foot alleyway; exposure 3 (side C), a detached church; and exposure 4 (side D), Second Avenue. On the report of a working fire, Squad (S) 18, Rescue (R) 1, Rehab and Comfort (RAC) Unit 1, Division (D) 1, and L20 [as the firefighter assist search team (FAST)] were assigned. The building had two restaurants on the first floor and two apartments on each of the remaining four floors.

Expanding Incident

As the units were making their way to the top floor, the owner of the first-floor restaurant ran up me and said there was a fire in the ceiling of his first-floor restaurant. I inquired as to the exact location of the fire; the owner said it was in the rear kitchen ceiling, above the stove. I radioed L3 (who had just arrived at the fourth floor) to come back down and check the restaurant: “It looks like we may have a duct fire that started in there.” As the forcible entry team of L3 repositioned to the first floor, E33’s officer entered the restaurant and reported heavy fire above the stove and around the ductwork. He had his company abandon the 1¾-inch hoseline they had initially stretched to the multiple dwelling’s front door and redirected them to stretch a 2½-inch hoseline into the first-floor restaurant, assisted by E5.

As that task was underway, the third-arriving engine, E28, took the initiative to stretch E33’s original 1¾-inch hoseline to the top floor to address the probable extension at that location and to protect the members of the first-due ladder (L9). E5 was not needed to assist E33 on the first floor and immediately deployed to assist E28 in getting a line to the top floor. As L3 members were making their way down the stairs and E28 members were making their way up, both officers reported melting paint and heat in the walls surrounding the building’s single staircase.

I acknowledged the reports and, at 1550 hours, transmitted a second alarm for a “duct fire on the first floor with extension above to the top floor” and ordered all members not to make any holes in the staircase. As E28 reached the top floor with a charged hoseline, E5 was ordered to stretch a third line off E28’s apparatus to the staircase between the second and third floors and to stand fast there to protect the members operating on the floors above. E5 ultimately operated that hoseline on the second floor.

To the credit of the first four engine companies (E33, E5, E28, and E55, in assigned order), they had three lines stretched, charged, and operating on three different floors of a five-story building before the arrival of second-alarm units. The quick stretching and coordination among these engine companies ultimately set the stage to save the building (photo 2).

Firefighters used alternate hose stretches to expedite putting water on the fire.

(2) Firefighters used alternate hose stretches to expedite putting water on the fire.

Opening Up

Continuing the initial attack on this extending and still out-of-control fire, the outside vent (OV) firefighter of L3 radioed the L9 officer that he was on the front fire escape at the top floor and had heavy smoke pouring out of the broken top half of a window (indicating high heat and an advanced fire) and requested permission to initiate vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS). L9’s officer granted his request, stating that the occupant had left the apartment. L9’s roof firefighter, on reaching his position by usingthe tower ladder bucket, reported that the bulkhead was open, smoke was pushing from inside and around it, and heavy smoke was issuing from a duct vent on the roof. L9’s OV firefighter (also in L9’s tower ladder bucket with the roof saw) followed with an “Urgent” message to command a short time later stating that fire was now showing around the bulkhead and in the cockloft and that they were startingto cut the initial ventilation hole (photo 3).

Three aerials—one tiller and two tower ladders—operated at this scene and were used for ventilation, access, egress, and hose stretching.

(3) Three aerials—one tiller and two tower ladders—operated at this scene and were used for ventilation, access, egress, and hose stretching.

S18 arrived. I confirmed that they were assigned as a “squad” (not an additional engine company) on the working fire and ordered them to conduct primary searches for life and extension on the third and fourth floors. In the FDNY, a “squad company” is an engine company with additional specialized training in technical rescue, confined space, unconscious firefighter removal, and hazmat. If not assigned as one of the first four engines at a structural fire, the unit works as a squad or as an additional ladder company at the discretion of the incident commander (IC).


At this point,Iaccounted for all companies operating on the fireground, anticipating the arrival of Division 1 and the second-alarm units. E33 and L3 were operating on the first floor, E28 and E55 with L9 on the top floor, E5 protecting the stairwell, and S18 searching the intermediate floors. Initially, Rescue 1 was ordered to stand fast in the street with the FAST (L20), since this was a rapidly expanding incident with members operating above the fire and possibly surrounded by it.

Continuing the Search and Attack

With the primary search of the top floor complete and negative, L9’s forcible entry team started making theirway to the unsearched floors below where S18 was operating. L9’s officer noticed and reported to me that fire was now visible from behind the staircase molding between the second and third floors. E5 was addressing that extension. I again cautioned members not to open up any walls in the staircase.

Battalion 2 (B2)arrived as the working fire chief and assumed command of the fire sector on the fifth floor. As the command channel was being established between the B6 aide and me, Division 1 (D1) (Division Chief John Sarrocco) arrived. After quickly exchanging information: unit locations, reported fire, and the progress of searches, the D1 chief and I confirmed the exposures and the fact that despite its appearance, the fire structure was a single, isolated building. With the additional reports of fire extension, D1ordered a third alarm and expressed that a hoseline should be immediately stretched to the roof.

Sarrocco took control of the command channel as I maintained incident command with the operating units on the Tactical-1 channel. To establish better command and control, D1assigned the responding battalion chiefs (BCs) and their aides to sectors, one on each floor, as pockets of fire were now being found throughout the building.

As the sectors were established and the expanding fire continued to slightly outpace the on-scene units, L3‘s inside team checked and confirmed that the basement was clear. R1 was assigned to assist in opening up the walls and ceiling of the third and fourth floors. S18 and L9 called for lines as they were opening up and finding fire on the second and third floors, respectively. Additionally, the fire sector (B2) reported fire in the walls surrounding the staircase on each floor and confirmed the report ofextension into the cockloft.

D1inquired as to the progress of the hoseline to the roof as he assigned B8 as the second-floor sector and B4 as the top-floor fire sector because the original fire sector chief (B2) had relocated and was now designated as the roof sector to assess the reported fire in the cockloft and around the bulkhead.

E24 was performing a utility rope stretch (a bottle stretch) to the roof when Iasked L9’s roof firefighter if there were any fire escapes that accessed his position. That inquiry proved negative. The roof sector (B2) notified command that the fire on the roof was “going pretty good” in a shaft and that he ordered E28 to extinguish the fire on the interior of the bulkhead and then to fight their way up to the roof to get water into the shaft and cockloft. With that information and no hoseline on the top floor, I ordered E24 to bring its line from the fire escape onto the top floor to operate there.

R1’s chauffeur notified his officer that a “wet wall” (a common wall with utilities and water pipes supplying each apartment’s kitchens and bathrooms) extending all the way up to the roof had fire in it that extended to the third floor and he needed a line. E5 moved in and operated its hoseline at that location. At approximately the same time, the S18 and R1 officers and B8 each called for a line to the second floor because of heavy fire in and extending from a dumbwaiter shaft. E14 was assigned. At this time, with the first two hoselines stretched up the single interior staircase, all additional hoselines would need to be stretched by way of the fire escape or with a utility rope from windows.

Third-Alarm Reinforcements

On arrival, B7 was assigned as the third-floor sector. D1 once again reminded all battalions to have their aides with them since the command channel was established and being used (in the FDNY, the BCs operate on the tactical channel with the units assigned to work under them while the BCs’ aides communicate to the IC on the command channel). As the third-alarm units were starting to arrive, BC1 checked into the command post and took over the daunting task of accountability as the resource unit leader. That BC fully used the FDNY iPad with the electronic fireground accountability system (EFAS).

While all these tactics were being employed, the S18 chauffeur reported heavy clutter conditions in apartment 8 on the top floor with fire in the bathroom behind the shower. Additional reports of heavy clutter in apartment 4 were subsequently received. Those conditions hindered the fire attack and overhaul.

Fire was “popping up all over the place”; the exterior smoke condition from the third-floor windows increased in volume, velocity, and density; and the report from the safety battalion of a burned-through hole just off the stairwell on the third floor prompted the Manhattan borough commander (Deputy Assistant Chief Michael Ajello), who had just arrived, to recommend placing portable ladders to the third-floor windows as a precaution. L20 (the FAST) initiated that task until it was relieved by L18 and L1, who ultimately completed the task, thus allowing L20 to remain focused on their main firefighter rescue function. These ladders not only provided a safe egress for members operating on the interior, but they eventually assisted the engine companies in stretching multiple hoselines to the third and fourth floors throughout the firefight (photo 4).

Ground ladders were positioned to provide firefighter egress as fire conditions intensified.

(4) Ground ladders were positioned to provide firefighter egress as fire conditions intensified.

Under Control

As the attack continued into the rain-soaked night, E1, E7, and E16 all made additional fire escape or utility rope stretches. E3, E6, E9, E15, E21, E23, and E263 all operated by relieving earlier responding engine companies. L6, L11, L12 (the relief FAST), L18, L24, L30, and L131 ultimately worked by relieving the first- and second-alarm ladder units.

All in all, every engine company that responded to this third alarm operated a hoseline and extinguished fire at some point. Likewise, every ladder company, including the watchline companies, searched, opened up, and overhauled cluttered apartments to locate and allow final extinguishment of hidden fire on every floor of this five-story multiple dwelling of ordinary construction.

The special units that responded to this fire included the FDNY Emergency Medical Service Command (which treated and transported five injured members); the FDNY Mobile Emergency Response Vehicle; Satellite E9 and E263; the RAC rehab Units 1 and 2; the RAC Battalion; the Safety Battalion; Field Communications; the Mask Service Unit; Special Operations Tactical Support Unit 1; the Fire Marshals Bureau; B9, B10, B43, and B57; and Rescue. All played crucial roles in keeping this fire from escalating into further multiple alarms while keeping member injuries to a minimum.

Nonfire department responding agencies included New York City Emergency Management, the New York Police Department, and the Consolidated Edison electric and gas utilities. Special-called agencies included the New York City Department of Health, the American Red Cross, the owner/managing agents board up company (told to specifically address the hole at the third-floor stairway landing before occupants would be allowed to be escorted to their apartments), and the newly established FDNY All Unit Circular 361 Animal Care Center for the handling of animal remains.

Extinguishment Difficulties

Some of the contributing factors that made extinguishment of this fire difficult included the following:

  • The delayed fire discovery and fire department notification.
  • The fire started as a grease fire in the restaurant ceiling, above the hood and around the ductwork. A cooking hood suppression system, although present, did not activate and therefore had no effect on the fire.
  • The lack of a ductwork schematic in the restaurant kitchen (required by the New York Fire Code).
  • The ductwork was located in an enclosed shaft next to the only staircase.
  • There was only one unenclosed staircase.
  • There were no fire escape goosenecks to the roof.
  • The building was isolated.
  • The presence of heavily cluttered apartments.
  • The appearance that the fire building was two separate buildings.
Lessons Learned

Among the lessons learned are the following:

  • Engines must know that only two lines can be stretched by the interior staircase.
  • Engines, particularly as additional alarm companies, must be proficient in alternate hose stretches—e.g., fire escape stretch, utility rope stretch, aerial stretch—and must size up from the engine apparatus they will stretch from when called to do so.
  • Engine companies can use aerial ladders to access roofs for utility rope hose stretches, avoiding tying up the aerial to stretch hose.
  • Officers must check in to the command post at multiple alarms and stand behind the IC with their members close by. In this way, when the IC needs additional companies, he can quickly look over hisshoulder and readily identify and assign the next company up. If the companies are in front of the command post watching the fire, the IC may overlook them for a company that can be more easily identified.
  • Establish the command channel early to make the inevitable sectoring more efficient. At any second-alarm fire, high-rise commercial fire, or high-rise residential fire, the command channel must be established, and all responding chiefs are expectedto use it. There should not be a need to ask if the command channel has been established at these alarms.
  • ICs must be cautious not to duplicate efforts when assigning tasks or companies, especially as the command layers increase with each additional alarm.
  • The resource unit leader is an invaluable position for monitoring and tracking companies. The use of the iPad (EFAS) is instrumental in supporting this function. Chief’s aides and the field communication unit dispatchers were also vital in tracking units and members.
  • Any time fire in ductwork extends beyond the duct in buildings of ordinary construction, anticipate fire in void spacesand the need to immediately call additional alarms.
  • Anticipate needing a hoseline on each floor in structures of ordinary construction where fire is found in ductwork and enclosed shafts.
  • Find the ductwork run and termination points early if it is involved in fire.
  • At duct fires, stretch a line to the roof early.
  • In buildings of ordinary construction, check first-floor restaurants quickly (perhaps the second-due ladder) to ensure the fire didn’t start at that location.
  • Units assigned to staging must respond to that location and not go directly to the scene. The first-arriving officer is the staging unit officer until the BC assigned to that function arrives.
  • In this type of fire, the IC should sector off each floor with a BC, an engine company, and a ladder company. In this incident, it proved to be an excellent use of command and control.
  • The IC should special-call additional BCs since only one firefighting BC is assigned on each additional alarm in the FDNY.
  • Remember that BCs operating in the fire building will also need to be relieved. Special-call additional BCs for that purpose.

STEPHEN MARSAR, MA, EFO, CIC, is a 29-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and a battalion chief in Battalion 6. He served as chief and commissioner of the Bellmore (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. Marsar is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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