Articles on fire behavior may be life-saving

Articles on fire behavior may be life-saving

Sandy DeBacco

Firefighter/EMT

Ravena (NY) Hose Company #1

I would like to express my appreciation for the excellent articles that appear in Fire Engineering each month. The articles about fire behavior, especially the flashover phenomenon, I have read in your magazine have educated me in the warning signs of flashover and perhaps saved my life and the lives of the crew I was working with at a recent structure fire in my community.

I am a volunteer firefighter in a small suburban community in upstate New York, and although I have almost 20 years of experience as a firefighter, the fire of the magnitude of which I am about to describe occurs rarely in our community.

My department, along with neighboring mutual-aid departments, was called to the scene of a fire in an occupied three-story multiple dwelling of wood-frame construction. The building was constructed in 1926, and we rightly assumed the construction type was balloon frame. The fire originated in a rear bedroom of the first-floor apartment. On arrival of the first units, the fire was extending out of the area of origin and through the hallway into other rooms on the first floor. Smoke, heat, and other products of combustion were rapidly spreading vertically throughout the building via the open interior stairwell and the balloon framing. As I arrived on the scene with the first-due engine company, I was assigned to take a 134-inch preconnect to the second floor to begin primary search and fire attack as necessary.

We advanced the line up the stairwell to find an intense buildup of heat and very dense smoke but no visible fire. Our primary search on the second floor was negative. It was later learned that all occupants of the building had evacuated prior to our arrival. The heat on the second floor was unbearable. Our entire crew was donned properly in the full protective envelope consisting of modern turnout gear, NomexT hoods, and SCBA. It felt as if the heat was penetrating right through the gear. I looked upward for any flame at the ceiling level. No flame was visible, but the heat was getting more intense. We opened the nozzle on straight stream to try to cool the ceiling, but this had no effect on the heat. We then decided to back down the stairs and advance into the first floor. Because of the conditions, it was unlikely that there was anyone to rescue on the second floor anyway.

By the time we arrived back on the first floor, a second 134-inch line was working the fire, and we assisted in the attack. Ventilation was also in progress, and the fire was brought under control in approximately one hour. Our strategy remained on the offensive throughout the entire incident. Al-though there was extensive fire damage to the building, it had been determined that the building could be rebuilt (hopefully, with firestops between the floors and an enclosed stairwell).

With the exception of some minor cases of heat exhaustion (it was a hot and humid afternoon), there were no fire service or civilian casualties.

Investigators believe that the second floor, where we were operating initially (above the main body of fire), did not actually flash over. They believe the commencement of a direct attack with straight streams on the main body of fire on the first floor may have prevented the fire from going to the flashover stage. However, I feel that we made the right decision to retreat from the second floor. I was able to recognize the warning signs of flashover (dense smoke, intense heat buildup, no visible fire) from reading the excellent articles in Fire Engineering. The entire second floor could have lit up on us, and it would have been too late to escape.

I would like to express my gratitude to all of Fire Engineering`s contributing editors who take the time to share their knowledge and experiences so we can recognize a potentially dangerous situation and take the necessary precautions to survive and continue to save lives and property.

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