TOWNHOUSE FIRES

TOWNHOUSE FIRES

BY BOB PRESSLER

When you receive an alarm for a fire during the early morning hours, different building types should trigger different response priorities in your mental size-up.

If the alarm is for a fire in a commercial building, the fire may have been smoldering since the business closed the night before. This could lead to an advanced fire condition, a deep-seated fire, or a fire that has spread into voids and recesses to all points of the building. The incident commander should recognize these added potential dangers and ensure that all personnel on the fireground are aware of them and conduct operations accordingly.

If the alarm is for a fire in a one- or two-family dwelling, the early morning hour increases the possibility that occupants were caught sleeping. Thus, the IC must make sure that firefighters concentrate their search efforts on these sleeping areas.

Photo 1. Firefighters start operations at this fire in an occupied townhouse. The fire building is three stories, of ordinary construction, and attached on both sides to similar structures. Not evident from the front of the building is that in the rear the terrain drops off and the building is four stories. The fire started in this lower area. From the street side, the only entrance into the townhouse was through the garage door. Firefighters entered through this opening and stretched the first handline to a position at the interior stairs. Heavy heat and smoke vented up this staircase.

Photo 2. This is a view of conditions in the rear. The heavy fire on the lowest level had been knocked down, but the fire had extended to the floor above.

Photo 3. Because of the early hour and the reports that people were still inside the fire building, both the truck and rescue companies assigned on the initial alarm concentrated their searches on the suspected sleeping areas. As per department SOPs, the truck company firefighters advanced toward the sleeping areas from the interior and exterior. On the inside, the first engine company held its position at the top of the stairs leading to the lowest level. A heavy body of fire below the engine company prevented an advance down the stairs. Companies going above made sure that the engine knew they were proceeding up to the second and third floors via the unenclosed stairway.

On the exterior, firefighters were setting up portable ladders to perform vent-enter-search (VES–see Fire Focus, June 1996 and January 1997 issues). These portable ladders can be used for egress or as a means of escape if conditions on the interior deteriorate and escape via the stairway becomes impossible.

Photos 4,5, and 6. As the searches progressed on the second floor, the heat and smoke condition rapidly changed. The smoke turned black and heat levels rapidly became untenable, especially toward the rear of the building. Firefighters operating in these areas scrambled toward the front of the building. The narrow windows impeded escape. Only one firefighter at a time could exit through the narrow opening. With several firefighters trapped, there was no time to waste. The firefighters came out of the window headfirst and slid down the ladder as other firefighters hurried to assist.

The firefighter on the ladder is supporting the firefighter who is facing downward. A firefighter still in the window holds onto the firefighter`s boot until he is sure he has a firm grip on the ladder and is being supported by the firefighter coming up the ladder. As the first firefighter starts to turn on the ladder, the firefighter holding onto his boots begins his descent. All firefighters escaped the second floor without suffering any serious injuries. All civilian occupants of the fire building also were removed safely.

Unlike most fires in this type of building, fire extension to the upper floors was not via the interior staircase. The fire extended up a utility shaft from the fire area to the second floor, where it suddenly exploded out into the open.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Time of day and type of occupancy are important elements of size-up. They help you determine where to concentrate your resources. In occupied dwellings, give special attention to all sleeping areas as soon as feasible. Accomplish this with a dual operation: An interior team enters via the front door and, depending on fire conditions, makes a quick sweep of this first level before ascending the interior stairs to the upper levels; the outside team, using ladders or porch roofs, attempts to enter the upper levels if fire and heat/smoke conditions permit.

Position portable ladders whenever you have a fire in this type of building. Even if the ladders are not required for egress; having them in place when conditions deteriorate may prevent a trapped firefighter from having to jump. With ladders up and in place, you can easily roll them along the side of the building to the window at which they are needed.

When confronted with heavy fire conditions in the lower levels of a townhouse, the engine company assigned to the top of the stairs must remain in this position to prevent fire from extending up out of the basement. Companies going above this location should stop and notify the officer of the engine or a member of the nozzle team that they are going above. This member on the line must monitor conditions at his location and immediately warn members above if conditions worsen.

Stretch additional handlines as soon as possible to support the searches on the upper floors. If the interior stairs are crowded or untenable, stretch lines via aerial or portable ladder.

When forced into a room by rapidly advancing fire, close the door to the room, if possible. Even a hollow-core bedroom door will buy you a little time. If no ladder is available at your window, try to signal someone below. I strongly recommend that all search teams use portable radios, especially if they are going above the fire before members stretch a protective handline.

If your position is remote from ladders or a fire escape and you have to get out, consider the following:

If you do not have an escape rope or personal harness and you are trapped on a lower floor, roll your body out the window until you can hang by your fingertips with your arms stretched out straight. This puts your feet approximately six feet closer to the ground. Then drop to the ground.

If you have a personal rope, look around the room for something to tie off to. This may be a radiator, steampipe riser, or piece of furniture that will not go through the window. Once you find a suitable anchor spot, throw one end of the rope out the window while holding onto the other end. Once you have deployed the rope, make your way back to and tie off to your anchor point. Then follow the rope back to the window and your escape. Deploy the rope first so you have the line to follow back to the window in case visibility continues to deteriorate.

If you are trapped on an upper floor, out of reach of ladders and with no rope, breaching a wall may be your only choice. Doing so may bring you into an adjacent, unaffected room or, hopefully, into an adjacent apartment. n







BOB PRESSLER, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with Rescue Company No. 3 of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate`s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University, is a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and is a member of a volunteer department.

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