BY MICHAEL N. CIAMPO
On our way into the three-story garden apartment, assigned as the second-due truck and responsible for the floor above the fire, we saw heavy black smoke issuing out of two front windows on the second floor. As we entered the building, the first-due engine was stretching a line up the stairs. Unfortunately, one of the hose’s couplings got hung up on the lip of the stair’s half-landing during the stretch. Realizing the importance of getting the first line into service, one of the firefighters bent over and released it. As we got to the second floor, we informed the first-due truck that we were going to the floor above and donned our face pieces.
As we began forcing the door on the apartment above the fire, the smoke condition in the hallway increased and the visibility diminished. After gaining entry to the apartment, we began our search. As we searched the two rooms toward the front, we noticed that the curtains and blinds were pulled down, so we checked to make sure the windows behind them were closed to prevent autoexposure to the floor above. (The heat or flames escaping from the fire floor can melt the curtains or blinds and increase the possibility of autoexposure, so removing them can assist in the team’s safety plan on the floor above.)
One of the front rooms we searched was a bedroom with bunk beds pushed up toward the front wall, covering a window. A firefighter swept the mattress with his hand and used his leg to sweep under the bed. While sweeping the mattress, he noticed that the bed’s end rails extended upward, indicating a bunk bed. Quickly, he got out of his duck walk position and searched the upper bed for victims. Another member performed a quick sweep of the closet to ensure no one was inside.
After performing the primary search of the apartment’s remaining rooms, we notified the chief that the search proved negative. As we moved toward the front of the apartment, it was reported that the fire was self-venting out the two front windows. Realizing that the fire was now free burning and the seat had been located, it was important for us on the floor above to open up the baseboards and walls to look for any extension before starting our secondary search.
In the corner of the room, around a boxed-out utility chase (for heat pipes and electrical conduit), we noticed small flames coming out of the floor. We called for a hoseline as a precaution as we reported that we had minor extension, and we were told it was already being stretched, part of our standard operating procedures. In the meantime, we used a portable water extinguisher (often referred to as the “can”) to knock down the small visible flames and hand tools to open up the flooring.
Suddenly, the radio blurted out, “What kind of minor extension do you have up there?” Again, we reported minor extension in the utility chase. Then a firefighter quickly called me to the next room over, shouting, “Bring the can.” He was kneeling at the closed door of the bedroom with the bunk beds and said, “Wait until you see this.” We opened the bedroom door and saw blue and green flames mixed with orange shooting out like a blowtorch into the room in between the upper and lower bed. The upper bed then started to burn, and flames came rolling across the ceiling.
Realizing that something went wrong, we reported that we now had a room on fire in the apartment on the floor above and needed the hoseline. Luckily, the line was just outside in the public hallway and the engine company was making its way into the apartment. We met up with the engine officer and informed him of the room’s location and the irregular-colored flames rolling across the ceiling. The crew reached the bedroom door and made quick work of knocking down the extending fire. As we entered the bedroom to overhaul and wash down the mattresses and bed frame, we noticed the culprit: a window air-conditioner (AC) unit.
The flames escaping from the fire apartment were directly impacting the window-mounted unit on the floor above. The cheap plastic pullout sides had melted and allowed flame impingement directly into the floor above. In addition, the flames and heat quickly melted the unit’s coils and refrigerant chemical storage tank. These chemicals and the melted aluminum and other metals must have been the source of the green and blue flames. The extinguisher was no match for the intense flames in the room; luckily, the second handline was in position to cut off any further extension.
After the fire was over, we held a small critique on our company’s overall operations and about window-mounted air-conditioner units. We stressed the following points:
- When the AC unit’s pullout plastic sides melt, this can result in the rapid extension of fire to the floor above. Also, it is not uncommon to see the plastic sides broken and replaced with cardboard, wafer board (a type of particleboard), or a substitute combustible material that will also fail under heat and flame impingement.
- Many times, these units are not substantially secured to the window and can fall without warning. They may also be held in place by bricks or other materials on the ledge, so use caution when operating under them.
- When units are involved in fire, they can experience a failure of their mechanical parts, and this can contribute to a sudden increase in flame intensity and volume.
Later in the tour, we faced a similar situation. This time, we were able to pull the AC unit into the room and close the window, cutting off any extension. Who said it doesn’t happen twice in a tour?
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 24-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Portable Ladder H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.fireengineering.com.