BY MICHAEL N. CIAMPO
Responding to a reported fire in a dwelling, the first-due engine company arrived on the scene, reporting: “Smoke showing from all floors of a two-story frame dwelling.” The initial on-scene report can add valuable information to the incoming unit’s size-up process. Remember, it’s always a good idea for the first unit to arrive to announce the height and type of the structure as well as the fire’s location or conditions.
Pulling up to the structure, we noticed it wasn’t an ordinary frame dwelling but rather a duplex-type structure—two separate side-by-side living units under one roof, with a common attic space or cockloft and the same floor layouts but going in the opposite directions. Normally, the front doors to these units are next to each other and the stairwell is directly inside, running up along the common dividing wall. When you go up the stairs, the hallway turns to the front, and the rooms are on the opposite side of the hallway of the common wall, running toward the front rooms. Other cities may use different terminology—for example, an apartment that has two (duplex) or even three (triplex) floor levels, or a two-family dwelling with units built on top of one another. These apartments have interior access stairs, allowing travel between the levels. They may also have doors that lead into the public hallway on each floor, which may or may not be numbered or lettered. If these types of occupancies are in your response district, note this critical information in the dispatch system or on a prefire plan.
As we approached the structure, we were assigned to search the second floor for reported children trapped. A quick glance up at the structure revealed a wraparound porch and smoke pushing from all the intact windows. Entering the unit on the right, following the left wall to the stairs a few feet in, we made our way to the second floor. Going up the stairs, we maintained our crawling position to escape the heat level near the ceiling. As we began the search, we had to be cautious about indiscriminate window ventilation because we didn’t want to create an autoexposure problem and pull the fire back on top of us. We began with the rear room; it revealed nothing. We proceeded down the hallway toward the front of the unit. As the first firefighter entered the next room, dragging his halligan across the floor, our ears let us know the floor was ceramic tile. Most times, this sound indicates a bathroom, and trying to fit two firefighters in it to search isn’t practical.
A tip for bathroom searching: Always check the tub for victims, and listen for running water. Many civilians think that this area of refuge will save them from the flames, but they forget about the smoke and succumb to it. In vacant buildings, you may want to search the tub with a tool because you never know what may be inside.
As we got farther down the hallway toward the front, the heat level increased, and we had only two more front rooms to search for the reported missing children. As we entered the room to the right, something felt different: The door to the room was taken off and missing. Doors are normally a good defensive ally for firefighters during search. Controlling a door by partially or completely closing it (check it first to see if it will lock behind you or let you escape) may make conditions more bearable inside the room, allow the smoke and heat to escape out the windows, allow better visibility at or just above the floor level, and protect you from an advancing fire.
We continued the search, probing the wall with a tool while sweeping the floor with the other arm and leg for victims in the room full of clutter. We heard another distinctive noise: the rustling of aluminum window blinds as the halligan hit them on the wall. Initially, it was just another sound, but it would soon become important.
As we attempted to complete the primary search, the heat became intense; suddenly, without any warning, the fire rolled down the hallway and into the room. With no door to close for protection and the flames rapidly advancing toward us, our only exit was out the front. Immediately, one firefighter led us toward the area of the window blinds, where the window was quickly smashed open. We hopped out of the dwelling onto the safety of the wraparound porch’s roof.
A critique of the event gave some insight into this fire and operating in these structures.
- The occupants used the front room as a storage room, and bulky items would not fit through the doorframe with the door in place, so occupants removed it. Searching this room of bags and items felt like our next touch could be that of an unconscious victim.
- If more time allowed, we could have breached the common wall to escape into the adjoining home. This is also another avenue of rescue for a victim trapped in these structures.
- All of the rooms in this structure had at least one window; portable ladder placement to all sides of the building will allow an avenue of egress and escape for firefighters.
- The wraparound porch roof allows a work platform for vent-enter-search tactics. Since firefighters sized up the structure and knew where they were working back to, they easily escaped onto the roof.
Remember to use all of your senses while searching. Take a breath from your mask, and hold it periodically so your ears can listen to the sounds around them. It may save your life.
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.