Conditions on arrival at East Syracuse’s multiple-alarm fire indicate a severe life safety and exposure control problem.


The close proximity of a fire building to its exposures is always a concern during an incident. With rapid sizeup, prompt requests for mutual aid, and strategic positioning of apparatus, firefighters were able to save the surrounding structures that were threatened by a rapid fire spread through a converted building in East Syracuse, NY.

Layout and construction

The fire building (40 X 70 feet and three-stories high) w^as located in the downtown business district, a fairly congested area through which Conrad’s freight and Amtrak’s passenger trains travel.

Built in 1907, the building was of ordinary (brick or block and joist) construction. It first served as a hotel for transient railroad employees, but over the years, as the population and the economy changed, so did the occupancy. Light commercial stores took over the hotel’s first floor, changing hands until at the time of the fire they were occupied as a bridal shop and a tuxedo rental store.

The tuxedo shop occupied V3 of the ground floor, and the bridal shop occupied the remaining ¾. Its interior was constructed of paneling set onto furring strips attached to the exterior wall. The original tin ceilings over the building’s first floor were still in place, but had been covered with a dropped ceiling to be more aesthetically pleasing. The voids between these ceilings, along with the paneling, was a contributing factor in the rapid spread of fire.

The second and third floors of the fire building were divided into eight apartments, of which seven were occupied at the time of the fire with a total of 16 people. These floors still had plaster and lath walls for the most part, as no major renovations had taken place.


Listing the exposures clockwise from exposure 1, which is the front of the fire building, exposure 2, a tile and linoleum store, was four feet left of the fire building. Measuring 40 X 80 feet, exposure 2’s first floor exterior walls are constructed of blocks with no opening in the exposed wall. The interior framework of the entire building is wood frame construction. The building’s second floor has six apartments and the attic contains the hot water heaters for the apartments.

Exposure 3, a three-story wood frame building, is a private club and meeting hall. This structure was not threatened by fire extension or radiant heat because of its 25-foot separation from the fire building.

Exposure 4, a three-story wood frame structure, was three feet from the fire building. It houses a pizza shop (20 X 20 feet) on the first floor and vacant offices on the second floor. This section of the building had no third floor, allowing firefighters to work with handlines on the flat roof. Immediately adjacent to the pizza shop, separated only by a division wall, was a clothing store. This structure (35 X 60 feet) extended a full three stories, with offices occupying the third floor.

Rapid size-up, prompt mutual aid calls, strategic positioning of apparatus, and rapid manpower and equipment deployment are several important tactics for protecting exposures that are in close proximity to the fire building.

The two-story flat roof structure adjacent to the fire building allowed for defensive handline operations to prevent fire extension to the three-story wood frame toggery shop (exposure 4).

Photo by John Randall

The fire

While on routine patrol, Officer Paul Waltz of the East Syracuse Police Department discovered a fire in the bridal boutique. He immediately radioed his dispatcher, who notified the Onondaga County Fire Control Center. The East Syracuse Fire Department was alerted at 7:55 a.m.

Officer Waltz entered the building and alerted the second and third floor occupants as heavy black smoke was reaching the upper apartments. Because of the time of the alarm, some of the occupants were up. Others awoke when they heard the boutique’s front window blow out. All escaped without injury. Smoke detectors were in some of the apartments but not in all of them. Had this fire occurred earlier in the morning, there would definitely have been a loss of life.

Firefighter William Perrigo passed the fire scene on his way to the station, and he observed flames shooting out five to ten feet in front of the building.

Mutual aid

At 8 a.m., East Syracuse’s first-due engine arrived on the scene and Captain Jim Brewster immediately confirmed a working fire. He also requested mutual aid assistance from the Minoa Fire Department for their telesquirt and the Dewitt Fire Department responded with their truck, engine, and heavy rescue.

At 8:01 a.m., First Assistant Chief Ron Russell arrived to take command of firefighting operations. Chief Russell realized that the severe life and exposure threat were more than his manpower and logistic constraints could handle. Not wanting to play catch up, he transmitted additional mutual aid requests in rapid succession. A 1,250-gpm pumper from the Kirkville Fire Department was requested to help supply water to the elevated streams; the Mattydale Fire Department was next called for its telesquirt; standby coverage was provided by the Jamesville Fire Department at the Dewitt fire station; and Fayetteville moved into East Syracuse’s Station No. 1 after the Lyncourt Fire Department responded to the fire scene with its engine and manpower.

Apparatus and hose positioning

Firefighters from Fast Syracuse’s first arriving engine had stretched a 2‘/2-mch handline to the front of the fire entrance. They started water on the sidewalk, pushed the fire back into the occupancy, and began an aggressive interior attack. Other firefighters simultaneously began a search of the second and third floors.

Although the 272-inch line was making progress and back-up lines had been stretched, advancing firefighters began to encounter heavy fire and heat conditions in the center of the store. The fire had not as yet been vented at the rear, and it was being pushed laterally and around toward the advancing firefighters in the shape of a horseshoe. It spread to the left rear of the boutique and into the right third of the tuxedo shop. It also spread back over the handline in the concealed spaces above the suspended ceilings. The maze-like conditions of the ground floor with its walls and partitions made any further maneuvering of the 2inch handline virtually impossible once the firefighters had fought their way to the store’s center.

After initial interior offensive attack, firefighters backed out and shifted to a pre-planned defensive mode. The unpierced masonry wall of exposure 2 proved a great aid in exposure control.

East Syracuse’s Truck No. 1, positioned in front of the pizza shop, raised its ladder to the roof of the fire building. East Syracuse’s Engine No. 1 took a position on the opposite side of the street from the tile store, hooked up to a hydrant, and laid a supply line. Handlines were then stretched to protect exposure 2.

The Dewitt Fire Department arrived and placed Truck No. 3 in front of exposure 2. Their rescue unit assisted East Syracuse in the primary search of the second floor, but the fast moving fire made a complete search of the third floor impossible. Dewitt’s engine company stretched a 272-inch line up the stairs to protect search teams and to “hold” the stairs.

Two l3/4-inch lines from the engine were advanced into the tuxedo shop and a third line was used to help protect exposure 4. Water was supplied from a nearby hydrant through a four-inch supply line.

Minoa Fire Chief Dave Van Marter lined up his telesquirt directly behind the fire building and immediately set up two 27-inch lines to protect the rear of exposure 2 and 4. One 4-inch line was moved into a rear door, but after a short time it had to be backed out because of the intense heat and flame.

The Mattydale Fire Department was positioned behind exposure 4 to help protect it and exposure 3.

Change of strategy

After 25 minutes of interior operations, all attack crews were ordered out and the strategy was changed from offensive to defensive. The fire had spread through the many interior voids throughout the structure, and protection of the exposures on all sides became the major objective.

Fire vented out of the windows of the second and third floors as handlines were repositioned for exposure protection. Elevated streams previously set up as a precaution began to pour water into the structure from the exterior.

The hydrant supply system, owned and operated by the Village of East Syracuse, includes a three-million gallon, spring-fed reservoir. The water supply and pressure can be increased on demand by requesting the Onondaga County Water Authority to boost pressure through a pumping station. The downtown area is located on a grid system consisting of eight-inch mains reduced to six-inch branch lines at all intersecting streets. It was estimated that over 5,000 gpm of water were being supplied to protect exposures and contain the fire.

Fire cuts on the ends of wall beams or joists reduces the damage of structural collapse.

The building was a total loss because of the heavy fire involvement and the weight of the exterior stream applications. The fire building’s upper stories and roof collapsed into the first floor. The fire was declared under control at 10 a.m.

The cause of the fire was associated with a small space heater in the bridal boutique.


A number of factors contributed to the success of this firefighting operation:

  • Proper incident command training and rapid size-up resulted in an early call for the equipment and manpower that would eventually be needed. This prevented the costly catch up that occurs when manpower is completely depleted.
  • The early summoning of elevated stream devices and their placement around the fire building prior to their need allowed for the smooth transfer from the offensive firefighting to the defensive exposure protection strategy. It also prevented firefighters from having to chase the fire, which undoubtedly would have caused additional fire extension.
  • Smoke detectors, though present, were not sufficient to warn the entire life occupancy. Had the fire occurred earlier, when the occupants had not been so easily aroused, there surely would have been fatalities and injuries.
  • The presence of unpierced bearing walls of substantial construction should^ be noted and recorded in a pre-plan or relayed to the command post when noted by fire forces. In this incident, the block walls of the fire building were a contributing factor in keeping the fire from extending to exposures 2 and 4 at ground level. These walls certainly helped to contain the fire in its early stages and allowed the fireground commander to make more aggressive strategic decisions.
  • The fire had spread through the structure’s interior voids, and… because of heavy fire involvement and weight of exterior streams, the building was lost.

  • The construction feature of fire cuts on the ends of the wall beams or joists before these beams are imbedded in the masonry wall reduces the damage of structural collapse. More often than not, these buildings collapse pancake fashion and allow the exterior walls to remain intact.
  • The temperature was in the forties and the winds were less than 5 mph, making it easier for firefighters to work this fire and protect the exposures.

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