Hazardous Duty

ON FIRE By MICHAEL N. CIAMPO

With all of today’s modern technology, you can imagine the fire service is going to run into new types of incidents or have to rewrite or update existing standard operating procedures. Often in this fast-changing world, there is so much information written that it’s difficult to keep up with it. Firefighters are going to have to do better at keeping abreast of the information and do a little more drilling, studying, or investigative work to handle a crisis that can occur in their district. It’s better to be prepared than to show up with no idea of what’s going on or what to do. 

Responding in a large city for a single call of smoke from the roof isn’t an uncommon run. Most of the time, it’s just smoke from an oil burner that’s faulty or that could use cleaning or maintenance. With nothing showing at the address, we began our descent into the basement as the roof firefighter sized up the building for access to the roof.

As we approached the building, a citizen with a laptop in his hands came running toward us, saying, “There’s a fire in a closet on the roof.” We asked him if he meant the dumbwaiter; he said no. We tried to calm him down; he finally blurted out, “Cell phone site.”

We reported to the chief that we were on our way up to check on a fire in the cell site and informed our chauffeur to get our dry chemical and purple K extinguishers up to the roof. Since there were so many transmitting antennas and receivers at the roof’s edge, the chauffeur couldn’t boom the extinguishers up in our bucket for fear of operating in front of the antennas and receivers, which emit rays harmful to humans.

As we made our way to the roof, the panicking citizen was still difficult to understand, and trying to calm him down wasn’t working. We opened the bulkhead door and walked onto the roof; we spotted a large cell site room (two side-by-side metal shipping containers), which were supported above the roof by steel I-beams running to both parapets. Smoke that had a nasty taste was puffing out of one end of it. 

We tried with difficulty to get out of the panicked worker the cell site number, the cell phone provider, and an emergency phone number. (This is vital information for first-arriving units to obtain and can dictate fire department operations.) There was another cell site like this one on the other wing that was clearly marked with the information, but it was for a different provider. Finally, our informant gave us the key to the door, and we told him to remain on the roof so we could get more information once we sized up the situation inside.

Prior to opening the door all the way, all members donned their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face pieces and left their metal tools outside the room while the engine stretched a hoseline to the roof. One firefighter would stay at the door as a safety while the other two would do a quick recon of the room and try to shut the power down. Prior to this, we informed the chief of our plan. The outside vent firefighter was told to find the auxiliary backup power and shut it down and that there wasn’t a gas line running to the roof for an auxiliary generator at the roof level. 

A quick recon of the room in moderate smoke conditions with machinery humming and clanking indicated we had a battery malfunction. Heavy smoke was pushing from sealed batteries that were stacked in series with large copper bus bars and bolts. Some acid from these batteries was spewing onto the floor. We then pulled out of the room, and the firefighter monitoring the door had found the panels in his vicinity now that the smoke had lifted. 

Although the power to the machinery was shut down with the main circuit breakers, loud noises could still be heard, most likely because the machinery was still being charged from the backup battery power source. We radioed the chief and let him know what we had; we now were interviewing the cell phone representative about which type of batteries we were dealing with. He told us he was almost positive they were lithium-ion batteries. We said we needed to know for sure, and he yelled at us that we shut the power down and his laptop couldn’t get a proper signal. We told him to report to the chief in the street and call his emergency number on the way down so we could get the proper information. As this occurred, the officers and chief recommended that the Haz-Mat Unit be special called to the scene for the leaking batteries.

Luckily, we found the auxiliary power in an area where you would least expect it, with minimal signage in a small electrical shutoff box on a wall in the courtyard. Of course, it wasn’t in the room with the other cell site provider’s well-marked information. 

When this power was shut down, the loud rumbling and buzzing from the machinery inside the room ceased. Limiting our exposure to the smoke and batteries, we donned our SCBAs and reentered to identify the type of batteries so that we could relay that information to the responding specialized units, monitor heat level readings on the thermal imaging camera, and check conditions in 10-minute intervals until the hazmat specialists arrived. 

Since there was no fire and we wouldn’t be disconnecting any of the high-voltage batteries’ bus bars because they were all back-feeding each other, we were in a standby position. It’s often hard to do that; but at times on this job, it’s best to wait for the properly trained and outfitted fire companies and outside contractors to arrive. 


MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 34-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 International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos.

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