Fire Service Ventilation in Principle and Practice
How Mechanical Ventilation Works Out in Actual Practice. An Outstanding Case History—the Philadelphia Reading Terminal, Sun Ray Drug Store Fire
Editor’s Note: Part IX of this series on fire service ventilation which appeared in the August issue actually concluded the technical review and study of this interesting and important detail of fire control and extinguishment.
Of necessity, the preceding installments included only a limited number of case histories of actual fires. This was particularly true with those chapters dealing with mechanical or powered ventilation, where only one or two examples were recounted, and these only briefly.
One reason for this is that very few American fire departments make regular, consistent use of powered ventilation equipment, smoke ejectors, eductors, and air movers such as fans, circulators, etc. Still fewer have had occasion to utilize all such facilities at a single fire.
One exception which came to the attention of the author, was the stubborn, smoky fire in the sub-basement of the Reading Railway Office Building, Philadelphia. From the viewpoint of the student of modern fire suppression, this fire “had everything.” Outstanding, however, in the operation, was the manner in which ventilation was accomplished, resulting in confining the fire to minimum area, and to minimum property destruction, while affording fire fighting personnel maximum protection against heat and noxious fumes and gases.
Through the courtesy of Deputy Fire Commissioner and Chief of Department, George E. Hinck, and officers and members of the Philadelphia Bureau of Fire, we are privileged to bring our readers this most interesting and instructive case history including the illustrations by Lieut. Kennedy of the Bureau. We suggest this report be studied in relation to the previous chapters of this series, and we hope from it readers will be encouraged to intensify their studies of theoretical and practical ventilation— and add to their fire forces the latest in mechanically powered air movers and extractors.
MEASURED by actual property loss, the sub-surface fire in the Reading Terminal Railroad, Office Building, 12th and Market streets, Philadelphia on the evening of January 3, 1954, was nothing exceptional. But measured by potential destruction, and as an example of unspectacular but scientific fire control in the face of multiple handicaps most feared by professional fire fighters, it was outstanding. Few fire histories that have come across the author’s desk have evidenced so convincingly the value of coordinated attack, utilizing the latest approved attack methods, and facilities, and of pre-planning and preparing for such fires.
That this fire extinguishment operation in question scored what the property owners and occupants called a sensational success is a tribute to the progressive policies and programs of the Philadelphia Bureau of Fire which, in a word, provide its fire force with most advanced scientific equipment and apparatus—and constantly train and instruct the personnel in their use. Only such scientific an operation could hope to confine and subdue such a stubborn, inaccessible fire without serious injury to fire fighters, or to the very considerable tenant occupancy.
Property and Exposures
The scene of the fire was the Reading Terminal Office Building, in the heart of Philadelphia’s retail high value district. The building, erected in 1922, measures 266 ft. by 80 ft. and is two to nine stories; construction is brick masonry, steel girdered, cased in mackite and plaster. The structure was unsprinklered, with the exception of the head-house on the ninth floor.
The Office Building interconnects in the basement with the eight-story, steel girdered Reading Terminal Annex, 52 ft. by 80 ft., of reinforced concrete throughout and fully sprinklered. This was built in 1925.
Occupancies of these two buildings included on the street floor the Sun Ray Drug Store, at the southwest corner of 12th and Market; the Horn & Hardart Cafeteria; Arrow Men’s Haberdashery and Clothing Store, and the Lobel’s Children’s Clothing Store. Above the first floor were offices and miscellaneous occupancies including the Reading telephone exchange with 10 operators on the eighth floor.
Between the Horn & Hardart Cafeteria and the Arrow store on the Market street side, are escalators and steps leading down to the lobby and train floor of the Reading Railroad. On the 12th street side are escalators and steps between the 12th street entrance of the Terminal Office Building entrance, and the rear delivery entrance of the Lshaped Horn & Hardart restaurant, which also lead to the train floor of the Reading Railroad.
The old Reading Terminal Office Building and basement was equipped with a standpipe system supplied by a Worthington steam pump. This was not used during the fire as fire fighters considered the municipal water system adequate.
Photo courtesy Philadelphia Bureau of Fire
The fire area was located below the old Terminal Office Building in a subcellar, adjoining the basement of the Sun Ray Drug Store, 50 ft. by 37 ft. and below Horn & Hardart’s restaurant. Here in partitioned cubicles were stored quantities of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, tobacco, drugs, appliances, food supplies, household goods, toys, and miscellaneous goods.
Adjoining this storage room, and also located under the restaurant and lobby of the office building is the electrical department motor room, a large area containing oil cooled transformers which convert the 13,200 volt current to 440 and 220 volt required in the building above. At the start of the fire, the power house foreman was notified to shut down all electric service.
It is reported about 400 customers and clerks were in the Horn & Hardart Cafeteria and another 100 in the Sun Ray store where the fire started. These were all evacuated without injury. Fire coptrol operations, including the prompt and thorough venting, made it unnecessary to remove occupants of the upper stores, who were not endangered.
Story of fhe Fire
At 7:04 P.M., Sunday, Jan. 3, 1954, an assistant manager of the Sun Ray Drug chain noticed smoke filtering under the sub-basement doorway leading to the storeroom area. He broadcast an alarm over the store’s public address system and notified all people to leave the premises. At the same time the 400 patrons of the cafeteria were told to leave the restaurant.
Simultaneously, Aero Alarm No. 512 of Consolidated Alarm System, was actuated from the sub-basement storeroom and the alarm put through to the Electrical Bureau at City Hall. A local alarm was transmitted, bringing out Engine 20 (Commerce and 10th) Ladder 23, and Battalion Chief 4.
Box 884 corner 12th and Market was struck at 7:10 M., bringing three engine, one ladder and one rescue companies, a battalion and a deputy chief.
The cause of the fire was not determined due to the almost complete destruction of the contents of the area where the fire started. That it had a good start was evidenced by the extreme superheated smoke and gases encountered by the firemen at the very outset.
In the opening stages of the struggle, as attempts were made to locate the seat of the fire and its extent, and before any masks were donned, fire fighters were driven back repeatedly by the heat and fumes. The lieutenant of Engine 4, taking part in the initial attack, operating from the drugstore basement doorway, was partially overcome by smoke and removed to the outer air. where he was revived and returned to the fire scene. This, and punishment encountered by other fire fighters, together with the survey by chief officers, impelled Deputy Chief Lord to sound a second affirm at 7:24 P.M., which brought Fire Commissioner Frank L. McNamee and Deputy Fire Commissioner. Chief of Department George E. Hinck to the scene.
By this time it was evident the battle would be long and gruelling. All-purpose masks, which were ordered on as soon as smoke conditions were apparent, proved inadequate for operation in the sub-surface, poorly ventilated areas. It was apparent that every facility of the department for ventilation would be required.
Chief Hinck. realizing the problem of ridding the structure of the superheated atmospheres to both protect the men and to reach the fire with fog and straight streams, and with the information provided by his aides and building occupants quickly mapped out the plan of action. All operations were carried out under his direction and supervised bv Assistant Chief Joseph M. Clarke, Deputy Chiefs William A. Haas and Augustus P. Lord, and Battalion Chiefs 1‘Tank Finestone, Henry Kincy and Frank Mellon.
Responding on the second affirm were the Special Service units known as S.S. 100. and S.S. 101, tender to S.S. 100, carrying additional supplies of wet water, foam, with smoke ejectors, circulators, etc.
Personnel Profecfion—Masked Men Covered by Fog
A noteworthy factor in this planned strategy was the combination of facilities and methods employed to protect the men operating below surface levels against both the smoke and heat and possible explosion due to ignition of charged areas. As said, lack of oxygen, and the superheated atmospheres, making service type masks ineffective, the crews were equipped with demandtype air masks. Only personnel so equipped were permitted in the effected areas. The men were divided into groups of four and roped for signalling and safe advance and retreat if necessary. They were further aided by fire department floodlights set up in the dark sub-basement and, of further interest, they were protected by strong water-fog patterns. In addition, each advancing eschelon was supported by stand-by lines.
Reserves of air cylinders were moved in by tbe Special Service together with special smoke-removing devices as an essential detail of the action. As each man’s cylinder was exhausted, he received a replacement from the rescue squads. As operating crews were withdrawn for rest (men were not permitted to remain in contaminated atmospheres, working on lines and with forcible entry tools, more than 10 minutes at a stretch) fresh personnel took their places.
Approximately 45 demand type air masks were in operation, being constantly refilled at manifolds by the Special Service Section, whose personnel set up an emergency refill station on the fire ground.
Early in the attack emergency escape routes were indicated for crews that might be caught in any sudden flarebacks or explosions. Possibility of the latter, although always present in such underground operations, was greatly reduced as venting operations got under way. Furthermore, as stated, attack crews had, as additional protection, ample water fog which also, in some measure, aided basement ventilation.
Ventilation the Key
Perhaps the greatest contrast between the handling of this sub-basement fire, and others in somewhat similar occupancies in years gone by, was the method of venting the charged and contaminated areas. Not only did this aid in protecting fire fighters, and in prosecuting the attack on the fire, but it effectively reduced smoke damage in the stores above and removed smoke hazards from the upper floors. It also served to permit some operation of railroad trains and the station which otherwise might have been shut down for an indefinite period.
As noticed on the diagrams of the ground floor and basement, the channels of possible ventilation of the subbasement area were limited. There were no straight channels or shafts, or other arteries, through which the smoke, heat and gases could be drawn off by natural cross or other ventilation. Even mechanical venting, which was resorted to extensively, had to operate somewhat remotely from the actual fire area.
No effort was spared to employ every form of ventilation, both above the fire, and wherever possible, through the channels leading to it. In this procedure only one large display store window on the Market street side was removed. Walls were breached where the openings would permit escape of heat and gases, and where streams could be brought to bear on the fire. Transom windows were removed in the Sun Ray Drug Store and Horn & Hardart Cafeteria for cross and upward ventilation. A power chainsaw, incidentally, helped make a clean and quick clearance of part of the show window display partition. This opening was over the basement entrance of the building.
Large smoke ejectors, with 18-in. suctions, and ventilator ejector suction fans were placed at strategic locations on both sides of the building, to remove the dense superheated smoke and choking gases. Suctions of the trailerejectors (the extra large smoke ejectors) were located at pavement ventilating gratings on Market street and over a large drop in the rear of “Unclaimed Baggage Room” (see diagram). All possible overhead gratings and coverings were removed.
The Arrow and Lobel Stores were opened by protective agencies, whose men set about ventilating them. Some smoke entered the railroad lobby by means of the escalator passageway and for a time rail-trainmen guided trains in and out of the station by lantern; train service was never fully interrupted, however. Some smoke drifted into the Market street subway concourse but not sufficiently to interfere with the movement of subway trains.
An indication of the effectiveness of the ventilation methods employed is found in the fact that smoke, most of it removed by natural or mechanical venting, could be detected miles away from the fire. The weather at the time of the fire was cool; temperature 36 deg. F.; wind 9 M.P.H., west; humidity 75%.
As is indicated on the diagrams, there were four major points of attack on the fire by way of the basement. In addition, there were lines brought to bear on the fire through overhead openings in the first floor.
Photo courtesy Philadelphia Bureau of Fire
Pholo courtesy Philadelphia Bureau of Fire
Photo courtesy Philadelphia Bureau of Fire
From Point #1 a 21/2-in. line was laid to the basement doorway through the Market street side of the Sun Ray store to attack the fire from the front with B-190 G.P.M. fog nozzle. Additional lines were laid through the corner entrance (Point #2), 12th and Market streets, attacking from the front with B-190 G.P.M. fog and B-500 G.P.M. fog nozzles. Chiefs Haas, Lord and Finestone supervised operations at the front where an additional line was stretched through the 12th street entrance (Point #3) of the Sun Ray Drug Store.
At Point #4 21/2-in. lines were laid through the entrance to the Reading Terminal Building and down the basement steps to the fire area. Lines were stretched through the tunnel which interconnects with buildings running perpendicularly to Market street (Point #5). These two points of attack were under supervision of Assistant Chief Clark, aided by Battalion Chief Henry Kincy.
The remaining lines were laid from Point #6 through the entrance of the Reading Terminal Annex past the Carpenters’ and Plumbers’ Shops, down the basement stairs and through the Electrical Department Motor Room, under command of Battalion Chief Mellon. The hose lines in the tunnel (Point #5). which was used as a basement chute and runway for receiving stock at the sub-basement storeroom, were placed through steel pavement doors on Commerce street, to attack from the north.
Firemen under direction of Assistant Chief Clarke operating on the north side, devoted particular attention to the high voltage room of the Reading Railroad and although the system was de-energized, hose streams and fog were so used that none of the electrical equipment in the immediate storeroom area suffered water damage.
To those who like to apply the sliderule to operations these further details may be interesting. Each length of hose leading from doorways or entrances measured approximately as follows: From Market street side (Point #1) through Sun Ray: 73 ft.; from corner entrances 12th and Market streets (Point #2) through Sun Ray Drug: 120 ft.—all attacking from the south with B-190 fog. From Commerce street down through pavement doors (Point #5), through the tunnel, attacking with B190 and B-500 fog, and penetrating streams: 150 ft. from the east and south; and from Market street down the basement stairs of the Reading Annex (Point #6): 200 ft., attacking from the east with B-500 fog through the Electrical Motor Room and (Point #7): 50 ft. with a standby line at the Unclaimed Baggage Room.
All-told, 600 ft. of 3(4-in. hose, 4350 ft. of 21/2-in. hose and 350 ft. of l1/2-in. hose was stretched during operations. The smaller hose was employed largely in mopping-up operations. Water was used only as required, that is, when actual fire could be reached, or men were to be protected.
It was almost two hours before Chief Hinck or his aides were able to determine just what was burning. That it was highly combustible material was indicated by the heat given off. That some of the contents were toxic was suggested by the choking smoke. The heat was so intense that it buckled a 20 by 15 ft. section of the marble floor of the Horn & Hardart Restaurant. The flooring did not break but raised about 4 in. Firemen later drove a hole in this floor to examine the damage. Another floor opening was made as nearly over the fire as possible and a distributor used at this point.
The fire was confined to a space approximately 175 sq. ft. in the storeroom. The steel girders, encased in mackite and plaster, withstood the extreme conditions and suffered no serious damage, it is reported. The large unprotected cast-iron columns supporting the floor likewise were uninjured. The fire was declared under control at 10:45 P.M., but the problem of overhaul and salvage occupied firemen for many hours.
Total attendance at the fire was as follows: Chief officers 10; company officers 33; firemen 173. Many off-duty officers and men voluntarily responded and rendered valuable assistance. Also present were Robert K. Sawyer, managing director of the City of Philadelphia; Thomas J. Gibbons police commissioner and his staff; Dr. Saverio F. Brunetti and his assistants, operating the Fire Department Mobile Hospital phia: Leo Brennan. Law Department; Chief Edgar P. Grim. Electrical Bureau and members of the Fire Reserve Force and Second Alarmers’ Association.
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(Continued from page 745)
Analysis of Residue from Smoke Ejecfor
In an effort to gain scientific information about the toxic properties of the smoke and gases of combustion at this fire, condensate from smoke ejectors was submitted for analysis to the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering and Surveys Testing Laboratory. Report of the test was as follows:
Water and volatile matter at
105 deg. C……………… 27.6%
Tarry matter (distinct pine tar odor) …………………. 24.1%
Free carbon ……………… 38.3%
Ash …………………….. 10.0%
The heavy, irritating smoke affected the’eyes, and nasal passages of most of the fire fighters who initially attacked the blaze. Prompt and effective use of demand-type respiratory equipment is credited with preventing serious injuries to the men, only two of whom required treatment at the Mobile Hospital. Two others suffered minor burns.
This complete operation demonstrated number of precepts advanced by the author in the series of chapters on ventilation and in earlier studies on coordinated attack, among them the following:
- The wisdom of pre-planning for combating fire anywhere in such occupancies especially in high value districts, housing manv persons night and dav with emphasis on ventilating remote basement and sub-basement areas. Also, the importance of periodic inspections of such occupancies.
- The advantage of (a) equipping the fire force with all requisite facilities for effecting natural and mechanical, or power ventilation and (b) of maintaining sufficient reserves of essentials, such as lighting equipment, etc.
- The importance of training and drilling fire department personnel in the use of such facilities, not alone under ideal conditions but as near as possible in situations which may be encountered on the fire ground.
- Capable generalship and direction of operations.
- Rapid and thorough size-up and evaluation of the situation, as it is, and as it may possibly develop.
- Planning the action (of which ventilation is a major factor) and adhering to that plan unless and until developments necessitate deviation from it.
- The necessity of ample reserves of men as well as equipment for relief and stand-bv. The wisdom of “spelling men off” at frequent intervals.
- Attention to minor details in’safeguarding men during operations, i.e.: operating men (wearing masks) in tandem: roping men engaged in hazardous undertakings while so operating: guarding street and floor level openings used in ventilating and attack; providing covering fog, and stand-by lines, etc.
- Considering what possible damage and interruptions to travel and business, smoke and fumes may do to related exposures; facilitating restoration of services, such as transportation, even before fire may be fully extinguished.
- Conducting thorough overhaul and salvage (at this fire most of the contents of the burned storeroom were removed to street level in containers as they were overhauled. Occupants of the premises expressed surprise and admiration for the efficient way these details were handled to expedite return of business to normal).
- Profiting by the lessons in ventilation and attack taught by the incident.