Fighting Subway Fires
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The following article was prepared by the authors as a result of recent serious fire emergencies in the New York City subway system. The problems faced and the method of solution are directly applicable to those few communities that have subterranean transit systems. However, the principles of operation are also applicable to building basement and subcellar fires where extensive areas are involved and large numbers of people are exposed. The actual fire fighting in the two emergencies concerned is considered only in an incidental manner. The main emphasis is placed on the command responsibility facing the officer in charge—The Editors.
SUBWAY FIRES are notorious for their potential life hazard even when only minor in extent. Recently, within a matter of weeks, there were two second-alarm fires in the New York City subway system. In one case, the fire was extensive, with a 60-foot wooden escalator fully involved. Fortunately, the life hazard did not fully materialize. In the other, the fire was minor in extent, involving debris (discarded insulated cable in a pile about 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 2 feet deep). In contrast, however, at the latter fire, the life hazard was severe, causing the hospitalization of about 200 people.
When compared to the average fire in buildings, a subway fire is a small one. The amount of burnable material is limited to wooden cross ties, platform planking, wood paneling, rubber and grease found about escalators, steel dust and rubbish such as newspapers and candy wrappers that accumulate between the tracks on the right of way, combustible electrical insulation and combustible seat covers in the cars. It is not the nature of the fire or its size and intensity that creates the potential life hazard, but rather its inaccessibility, the large numbers of people affected, limited access for fire fighting operations and limited egress for passengers and the lack of communication. Added to these hazards are the dangers associated with “live” third rails, between 550 and 600 volts, and that of moving trains.
Factors to be considered by fire officers during underground transit emergencies
New York Fire Department
Not to be overlooked are the total darkness when power is lost and the limited means of relieving the heat and smoke to the atmosphere. Most New York subways rely upon sidewalk gratings and the normal movement of trains for ventilation. The trains, acting somewhat like huge pistons, push the air through the tunnel and out through the sidewalk grating. At points in the system where this is ineffective, large ventilating fans are provided.
It is not difficult to visualize the serious condition that is quickly built up when a smouldering fire occurs on a warm, humid day and the trains are stalled due to power failure or other causes. The smoke will hang at low levels because of the lack of thermal updraft and conditions will soon become untenable for the passengers.
A 10-car Interborough Rapid Transit subway train will, under rush-hour conditions, carry about 3,000 people, many of whom will be women. Some of the passengers will be old and infirm and some children will be among them. When it is considered that the trains may run on a 30-second headway during the rush hours and that the right of way may consist of four tracks, it will be realized that quite a few trains and thousands of people will be in the immediate area. The tracks may be on a single level or on as many as three levels, depending upon the point at which the incident occurs. It can be seen from the foregoing that the problem of evacuation may become acute in a very short time.
People are evacuated from the subway system by several methods, depending upon two factors—power off or power on.
- By running the train into the next station or to the next emergency exit, or by reversing direction and backing into the last station or emergency exit.
- By running several trains together, thus forming a long line of cars through which passengers may walk to the nearest station or emergency exit. These two methods require the complete cooperation of the transit authorities.
- Evacuation of the cars via the side doors to the bench walk, thence to the nearest station or emergency exit.
- Evacuation directly to the roadbed. This is necessary when there is no bench-walk available. This condition is prevalent on express tracks at points in the system where the right of way is four tracks wide on one level. Tins is the least desirable method as the passengers must walk along the cross ties which are greasesoaked and slippery. The ballast between the ties is of uneven height, and switches or “frogs” may be encountered at various points adding to the danger of injury. This method requires descending from the car to the roadbed and then climbing an iron ladder to the station platform or the emergency exit. It will be an arduous experience for the normal, healthy person and an impossibility for anyone who is frail, old or incapacitated in any manner. Where this method has to be used, it is necessary to have a large number of trained personnel at hand to guide and assist the passengers over the difficult spots.
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The greatest danger in such cases is that of panic, fear of the unknown and darkness, of the irritating smoke and electrocution. Once started, panic will spread like wildfire, hence it must be controlled at the outset. Emergency lighting, the presence of uniformed firemen and the use of voice amplification devices will do much to reassure and control the passengers. The presence of sufficient manpower and equipment, emergency lighting, medical help such as the disaster unit and a sufficient number of ambulances rescue and squad companies with resuscitators and inhalators is vital.
Problems and the actions taken in connection with the subject fires will be considered here in as chronological an order of occurrence as possible. For purposes of brevity, one will be referred to as the “escalator” fire, the other as the “debris” fire.
Not the least of the problems is decision-making which can be extremely difficult at subway fires. It is a wellknown fact that the first step in this process which all commanding officers, consciously or unconsciously, go through is to define the problem. In a normal operation, this is comparatively simplified because the fire is above ground and much of the information required is more readily available by visual observation and by communications to and from officers assigned to various points or areas. At subway fires, however, decision-making is complicated by the potential life hazard, by the fact that less can be gleaned from visual information and required information is slower in forthcoming.
Establishment of a field headquarters is a particularly urgent matter at a critical subway fire. Purposeful order assumes a greater than usual importance and can be symbolized by the manner in which a command post is set up and maintained. Here the commanding officer is located and he assigns personnel and units, receives information, decides upon objectives, specifies procedures to be used, and provides for the coordination of all activities and personnel.
From the experience gained at both recent fires, it can be said that the information required by the commanding officer for making decisions inevitably comes from officers specifically assigned to check and report on particular items or areas. Chief officers are preferable for these assignments because of the deference accorded them. Information from other sources (subway employees and civilians) was actually misleading in some ways. At the escalator fire, some of the subway workers gave wrong information about what was burning and were uncertain about the location of three trapped co-workers.
This was unintentional on their part, of course, since it is probable that these men were suffering from shock after having had a close call themselves. At the debris fire, subway employees who did know where the fire was could not be contacted. Getting the desired information then is a “do it yourself” proposition. Some civilians are capable of giving intelligent and accurate information, but it is difficult for the field officer to properly evaluate the information given by someone who is a total stranger; also, information given about a situation as it existed 10 minutes prior may not apply at the time of telling, regardless of its accuracy.
In selecting the procedure to be used, the commanding officer does have something to go on. There may be some helpful information given on the phone as the alarm is received, on the radio while responding to the scene, or on arrival at the scene while contacting the officer in command prior to that time. In all probability, however, the commander may have to be guided, to a large degree, particularly in the initial steps of the operation, by his own sense perceptions: Sight, touch, hearing and, possibly, smell. There are reasonable deductions that can be gleaned from visual observation of smoke emanating from exits or gratings. At the escalator fire, the smoke issuing from the exits at 41st Street and Broadway practically pinpointed the location of the fire beneath. The sense of touch clearly indicated a very hot fire. At the debris fire, the sense of smell revealed that insulation might be involved.
It might truly be said that a sixth sense would be most helpful in dealing with information received at such situations inasmuch as quickly made and correct decisions are highly desirable, but hasty and incorrect decisions can be disastrous. There is no alternative but to check and this point cannot be stressed too strongly.
At subway fires of some types, it may only be necessary to assign a battalion chief accompanied by a ladder company to enter the subway and approach the fire area from each side to ascertain the level of the blaze and the best way to advance lines and extinguish it. In selecting this best way, consideration should be given to the direction of any prevailing draft due to a mechanical vent, train movement, etc. (if only one track is affected, trains may be running on others).
This, in essence, was the procedure followed at the escalator fire with the exception that four sides had to be checked in the area because of the complex subway arrangement in that particular location.
Battalion Chief Francis W. Voosen of the Eighth Battalion was assigned to advance into the subway entrance at 40th Street and 7th Avenue, and Battalion Chief Hubert J. Gormley of the Ninth Battalion into the entrance at 41st Street and 7th Avenue—one block west of the two entrances at 41st Street and Broadway from which the very hot smoke was pushing with considerable force. Shortly thereafter word was received from subway employees that three of their co-workers were trapped. Within a matter of minutes, information that Fireman Robert E. Farrell of Ladder 4 had led the three men to safety by an outstanding feat of initiative and courage was corroborated. Also within a matter of minutes. Battalion Chief Gormley reported the location of the fire and the best way to attack it. Then, and only then, could the problem be defined. In chronological order of discovery the problem consisted of: (1) An exposure hazard to each of the tall business buildings adjacent to the stairway at 41st Street and Broadway from which intense heat, smoke and gases were issuing; (2) an acute life hazard for three subway workers; (3) the always prevalent life hazard for passengers, and (4) a fully involved 60-foot-long wooden escalator.
Exposure promptly covered
The exposure hazard was covered promptly by the use of a fog stream at each of the entrances at 41st Street and Broadway. It was impossible to advance down these stairs due to the heat. On arrival, damage to the exposures was confined to one cracked plate glass window.
Covering the usually prevalent life hazard entailed the following:
- Assigning ladder companies and rescue companies to nearby Times Square station to check on conditions and assist in removal of passengers where necessary. The transit police assigned to this station were helpful in this work.
- Requesting the transit authorities to shut down power so that trains would not enter the area and continue to discharge passengers at smoke-affected stations.
- Requesting the police department to establish fire lines and prevent people from entering the subway at this point.
- Stretching lines to extinguish the fire.
- Notifying the transit authorities of the danger caused by the spalling of the walls and ceilings.
The fire in the escalator was put out by two 2%-inch lines. Both lines were directed at the base of the involved escalator first. Then one line was advanced upward on the framework of the escalator. The second line moved up and operated from a ramp that paralleled the escalator at a distance of about 25 feet. Combination fog and solid streams were used. High temperatures were developed at this fire and fortunately a ready outlet for the large volume of hot smoke was provided at 41st Street and Broadway.
As frequently happens at subway fires, the lines required were long and more than the usual manpower was needed. This, combined with other problems mentioned, made mandatory the transmission of a second alarm.
(The trash fire and important principles for operating at such emergencies will be described in a subsequent issue.)