BY ANTHONY AVILLO
Some strategists will say to always stretch the first line between the fire and the main path of egress, that being the interior stairs. This strategy will be right only 50 percent of the time in these buildings. Others will say to get the first line into the basement because unless you get some water on the fire, all other problems will multiply. These strategists will also be right only 50 percent of the time. In the sports world, such as baseball, if you get a hit 50 percent of the time, you will not only wind up in the Hall of Fame, you will arguably be the greatest player of all time. On the fireground, if you are right only 50 percent of the time, you will probably be run out of town.
How does the strategist improve his average to meet an acceptable standard? The answer is to know your buildings. The answer to the line placement question above is solely dependent on whether the building is an old-law building or a new-law building. The terms “old law” and “new law” in this article refer to more generalized definitions of specific types of buildings found in different editions of New York City’s building codes. However, these buildings are not limited to New York City and may be found in many urban areas nationwide.
Old-law buildings (photo 1) have been around since well before the turn of the 20th century. Typically, these buildings are called “tenements.” They are commonly constructed of braced wood frame and do not typically rise more than three stories. Slightly less common, but still very prevalent in urban areas, is the old-law multiple dwelling built of ordinary construction. These buildings may be four stories. It is uncommon in old-law tenements (that is, those that haven’t been illegally subdivided) to find more than four apartments per floor, and there may be only two as in the case of “railroad flats,” where the rooms run from the front to the back of the building like boxcars in a train.
(1) This old-law tenement is undergoing a brick veneer facelift. Note that side B (at top left) still has original siding over wood frame. (Photos by author.)
If straight-run stairs are in the building, the apartment doors will be on opposite ends of the hall at the ends of the stairwell hole in the case of a four-apartment-per-floor layout. In the railroad layout, the doors are usually next to each other at one end of the hall. There also may be a secondary door to the apartment somewhere on the other end of the hall. These secondary doors often lead into a parlor, and they are commonly blocked by heavy furniture or covered over with wallboard on the inside, making them inaccessible as a second way into or out of the apartment.
(2) The interior stairwell door is located beneath these combustible stairs. Note also the close proximity of the two apartment doors at the rear of the first-floor hall. These are railroad flats.
If return stairs are used, there may be as many as four apartment doors that can be extremely close to each other, accessed by a very small stair landing. Fire erupting from an apartment through a door left open by a fleeing occupant may trap the occupants of the other apartments, forcing them to seek alternate (desperate) egress points, such as fire escapes and windows.
The main issue in regard to the old-law building is the fact that the cellar is directly accessible from the interior of the building. The cellar stairs are commonly found just beneath the main stair riser (photos 2, 3). Separated from the building proper by a door (which may or may not be closed properly), these cellar stairs are a main artery for fire, smoke, and heat travel to the main interior stairwell. This will be the critical area of protection and control should a fire originate in the cellar. As a matter of fact, whoever wins the battle for this stairwell, the fire department or the fire, will win the battle for the building. There is an old saying, “Lose the stairs, lose the building.” This was probably written with old-law tenements in mind.
(3) This is the door beneath the stairs and the focal point for vertical fire prevention. Note how well the spring-loaded self-closing device works.
Speaking of the stairs, they will be made of wood. These wood stairs are not an area of refuge for firefighters and will collapse with the floor. Being combustible, they will also present the problems of having their integrity destroyed by fire and blocked egress.
(4) These tiny cellar windows will limit the amount of effective cellar ventilation that will occur. If the fire is heavy, find alternate points of ventilation.
In addition, the cellar is mostly below grade. We will call the below-grade area in old-law tenements a cellar as opposed to a basement that will be found in the new-law tenement (discussed later). Windows will be few and small (photo 4). This will create more difficult ventilation problems, causing the rising products of combustion to seek more easily available points such as the interior stairwell. Often, the cellar ceiling will be unprotected, with the wood joists of the first floor directly exposed to heat and fire below. There may also be a myriad of void openings created by pipe chases and other unprotected openings created by renovations and contractors’ pulling wires for cable TV and smoke alarm systems. Fire needs only an opening the circumference of a pencil to spread.
(5) Note the doors that lead to the fire escape. There were two fire escapes. This building should have had 16 apartments; it had 44.
These buildings are also often built in rows, possibly spanning a city block. Especially for a fire on the top floor, the incident commander (IC) should treat the row as one whole building and get resources ahead of the fire as quickly as possible. Expect common cocklofts (very likely) and common cellars (not as likely but possible). In addition, whenever old buildings are attached, expect shafts to be present. These may be large or small, completely enclosed or open to either the rear or the front or both. They may be identifiable only from the roof; promptly report to command their presence and location. Interior firefighters can recognize the presence of a shaft by taking notice of interior windows on the B or D side walls of attached buildings. Unless a shaft is present, these windows should not exist in an attached building. Although the openings created by shafts may offer the IC a defensive standpoint, if they are not recognized early, they will be the cause of fire spread from building to building, especially during a cellar or lower- floor fire.
Firefighting strategies in these structures can be summed up by the acronym CRAVE: Command, Rescue, Attack, Ventilation, and Extension Prevention.
Command cannot properly function without communication. Progress reports from key areas will allow the IC to evaluate, reinforce, and modify the action plan in regard to those areas. Reports must be made from all sides of the building, which include the fire area, adjacent areas and areas above, the roof, and the rear. In addition, it is imperative in attached buildings to get personnel and reports from both exposures as soon as resources allow. And if they don’t allow, you had better call for additional alarms early.
To best (and most safely) organize the fireground, command must be decentralized. Assign the position of interior division commander first. This position can initially be filled by a company officer until a chief officer is available. If the fire is in the cellar, it may be best to designate a cellar division supervisor and an upper-floor division supervisor for lack of a better term. If the fire demands that it be broken down further, then so be it. My feeling is that if it needs to be broken down further, you should be considering a change in strategy. If you have so many problems that direct supervision of a chief officer is needed in many areas of this type of building, maybe the risk is not worth the gain. It’s your call.
In addition to the interior command positions, there should also be a roof division supervisor. This can be the ladder company officer initially, but assign a chief officer in the case of a top-floor fire with cockloft (and potential or actual exposure involvement). Don’t forget that if an exposure is threatened, an exposure D or B division supervisor-or both-must be assigned.
Companies should be assigned to division supervisors using the task force method. Each division, except for the roof initially unless the incident demands, should have an initial assignment (or an eventual assignment) of at least an engine and a ladder company (two and one respectively would be better and is preferred but may not be practical initially). This task force mentality prevents the IC from “dribbling” companies in. We have all heard “Give me another engine” or “Give me another ladder” every five minutes or so. This is counterproductive. Call standard additional alarms of at least two engines and a support company (ladder or rescue), and you will be better equipped to handle the issues that must be addressed. Also, don’t forget a tactical reserve of at least another task force of two engine companies and one ladder company to put into the game when sudden problems arise, as they often do on the fireground or when companies need relief. As long as the fire is not yet under control, if a tactical reserve is not standing by at the command post (the rapid intervention team does not count here), strike another alarm.
This command post tactical reserve mentality will allow the IC to immediately reinforce problem areas. If reports are timely, accurate, disciplined, and proper, the IC will be able to stay one step ahead of the fire. Remember, effectiveness of the command operation is only as good as the information delivered by the players.
Personnel requirements should be based on the number of apartments exposed in the building. To quickly estimate the occupant (or at least the apartment) load, firefighters should use what is known as the “Fire Escape Rule of Thumb.” This rule works for all multiple dwellings that have been designed as multiple dwellings. In other words, it may not be reliable for private dwellings that have been converted to multiple dwellings, either legally or illegally. Firefighters should count the number of fire escapes on the building and then multiply that number by two. This will correspond with the number of apartments per floor. For instance, if there is a fire escape at the front and at the rear, there will generally be four apartments per floor, two in the front and two in the rear. If there is only one fire escape, it will almost always be found in the rear (as will the gooseneck ladder leading to the roof). This single fire escape will correspond with two apartments per floor, usually laid out in “railroad” fashion, as mentioned above. This will assist command in determining personnel required for primary search. Remember that if the building has been legally converted to a single-room occupancy (SRO), there may be only a fire escape at each end of the hallway. One tipoff to this is that the fire escape will be accessed by doors instead of windows (photo 5). This is not always reliable but can be a vital size-up point in possible SRO recognition. More times than not, the building will have been converted illegally and there is no way of knowing how many apartments or occupants live in the building.
Recently, I commanded a very severe fire in a four-story new-law multiple dwelling. There were fire escapes on the D and B sides. There should have been four apartments per floor. On each floor, there were two doors on either side of the main stairwell. On arrival, fire had control of the second-floor D side and was already extending to the third floor. Multiple rescues had to be made. There were also numerous occupants attempting to escape by the fire escape, including a number of them who were chased to the roof by fire that blew out of the fire escape windows below them as they were ascending. The fire went to four alarms. As we were trying to ascertain if anyone was unaccounted for, the police informed us that there was no way of knowing who was in the building, as the apartments had been subdivided into dozens of cubicles, with a good majority being divided only by plywood. The plywood partitions did not reach the ceilings, and extension cords were snaked over the top of them to supply power to each illegal tenant. This was confirmed by search crews who had an extremely difficult time searching the maze-like upper floors in zero visibility. Fortunately, as the building was being torn down, a secondary search through general debris removal turned up negative.
Primary searches should focus on the areas most involved and threatened by the fire. Resist the temptation to immediately launch a rescue operation in an area where the fire is not actually threatening, for example where the fire is in the cellar and there is someone screaming at a third-floor window. Remember that the occupants in the worst danger are those in the fire area (in the cellar-illegal and maybe legal apartments may be down there) and the floor above, the first floor. Ensure that members work in teams of at least two and use both lifelines and thermal imaging cameras, especially in a cellar fire. Personnel should be prepared for maze-like conditions and debris-created obstacles in cellars. Debris collapse caused by firefighters searching with ropes or practicing poor hoseline management has trapped firefighters on the bad side of problem. Firefighters should always ensure egress is clear. Ensure the rapid intervention team is opening secondary means of egress and raising ladders to upper floors to provide egress to firefighters searching upper floors.
Attack should be fast and aggressive to protect the main artery, the interior stairs. For the cellar fire above, those of you who stretched the first line directly into the cellar may have pushed the fire right up the interior stairs and at fleeing occupants. Most old-law tenements have an exterior cellar entrance on side A, just adjacent to the front steps (“below the stoop,” as we city slickers say) (photo 6). Unless the building was renovated to seal this area off, this will be the most direct artery (safest, most effective path of least resistance) into the cellar and is the attack point. This is, however, not the place for the first line. Place the first line between the fire and the victims while at the same time protecting the interior stairs. This is a confinement line. (Remember: Confine before extinguishment.) In fact, this is one of the few cases in which the confinement line is not also the attack line (the other is when an attached garage fire threatens a dwelling through an interior door). Here, the first line should be stretched to the first-floor interior cellar door to protect the stairs and the building from vertical fire travel. The door must be kept closed until occupants have cleared the stairs. Then, after the natural openings on the roof have been vented, it may be intermittently used to vent the cellar. This first line, unless driven out by fire conditions, must remain at this position. Its sole purpose is to protect the stairs. The second (attack) and third (backup) lines are stretched through the exterior grade-level cellar entrance on side A to attack the fire. These are the extinguishment lines.
If the side A grade-level cellar entrance is not available, such as when the entrance has been bricked up and is used only as a garbage can area, for example, the first line’s position and objective do not change. It is still stretched as a confinement line to the first-floor interior cellar door. The second line now has no other choice but to enter the building through the first-floor entrance. When it reaches the position of the first line, it becomes the stairwell protection line, and the first line becomes the attack line and is advanced down the “chimney” to the cellar. This line must be charged prior to entering the cellar stairwell. Advancement must be quick as the conditions at the door level will be worse than at the floor level because of the rising heat. Ventilation opposite the line is critical here. The third line is also advanced to the first floor, if possible, by an alternate route. This line will protect against extension as the second line now becomes the backup line in the cellar.
Fire conditions must dictate the size of the line. Although a 13⁄4– or two-inch line may allow a quick advance, conditions may dictate the use of a 21⁄2-inch line. When in doubt, at least get the bigger line in as a backup line when more personnel arrive.
For building proper fires, attack lines must be in place as quickly as possible to protect the stairs and the egress of occupants as well as extinguish the fire. Operational discipline is critical, especially for fires below the top floor. If occupants are fleeing from the upper floors, the attack may have to be delayed until the stairs are cleared to keep from roasting those life-enjoying occupants who are still not below the fire floor. It may also be necessary to first pull the fire apartment door closed to clear the stairs for fleeing occupants. Remember that once the door is opened, the stairwell will turn into a chimney, so keep those people above the fire in mind when attacking.
(7) This open wellhole allows a quick line stretch. Fire spread will also be quicker here. Tie the line off at the top.
Prior to the stretch or, better yet, during preplanning, the company officer should take a second to size up the wellhole before ordering the stretch. If the buildings have straight run stairs, and the stair wellhole is wide enough to stretch the line straight up, one length per four floors plus one working length will be required. Once on the landing, one length should be sufficient to reach all areas of the floor. Many U-return stairwells, especially in old-law buildings, are also wide enough to stretch the line straight up the wellhole (photo 7). However, some U-return stairs are laid out so that the banisters are lined up one above the other. In this case, the line will need to be laid on the stairs because couplings will usually get caught in the corner of the stairwell. Companies must stretch one length per floor plus a working length. Taking that little extra time to size up the stairwell will save a logistical headache later.
Improper ventilation or a lack thereof is responsible for more burned-down buildings and firefighter injuries than any other tactic-related operation. In these old-law buildings in which the individual living spaces are relatively small, proper venting will often be instrumental in confining the fire to the area of origin.
In regard to the cellar fire, only small casement-type windows may be available, and they will usually be limited in number. In addition, there may a door at the rear to assist in exhausting the products of combustion. Alternative vent tactics, such as the intermittent opening of the interior cellar door mentioned previously, and cutting the first floor near a window opposite the attack are also available if the line advancement is punishing and the seat of the fire is difficult to find. In fact, the extent of alternative tactics that must be employed to vent the cellar is directly in proportion to the success of the initial venting efforts. In other words, if you don’t totally ventilate the cellar, prepare for the fire’s extending out of the cellar to the upper floors.
Vertical ventilation is often initially overlooked in a cellar fire. In fact, if you think any other area is more important or deserving of your attention in the fire building, you are probably burning down more buildings than you like and burning more firefighters than is acceptable (none are acceptable!). Burping the building is critical to the strategic success.
A team must be assigned (preferably by SOP) to get to the roof and open the natural openings. There may be a bulkhead door, but it is more likely that a scuttle and a skylight will be found. The skylight is usually located over the stairwell, whereas the scuttle may be in a closet-type enclosure at the termination point of the stairwell on the top floor. Both must be opened. In addition, the returns must be pulled to vent the cockloft. The returns are the boxed-in enclosures that comprise the area just beneath the scuttle or skylight opening. Clearing the stairwell of the products of combustion will make everyone’s life easier, regardless of the fire’s location. No time should be wasted in opening the natural openings.
Cutting the roof will not be necessary if the fire is on the top floor or has traveled to or originated in the cockloft. If this is the case, make sure the roof division is properly reinforced with personnel and equipment. These roofs are generally built up with many years worth of tar.
Horizontal ventilation is also a priority but must be properly coordinated with attack. Someone must be assigned by SOP to be in the right place at the right time to give the attack team the best chance of a successful operation. Horizontal venting can be done by fire escapes or fire department ground ladders. In a top-floor fire, the roof division can vent the top-floor windows.
Think of fire building ventilation as interior “weather control.” Fire buildings create their own weather. The high pressure created by the products of combustion on the inside of the building is actively seeking to equalize itself with the outer atmosphere. If it can’t get out in the immediate areas of the fire, it will seek to rise inside the structure and influence the weather in other parts of the building. This is most apparent when we discuss phenomena such as stack effect, reverse stack effect, and stratification in high-rises. However, make no mistake that these same elements of weather control and fire spread are active inside even smaller buildings such as low- and mid-rise multiple dwellings. Our job is to create openings based on building construction and the most effective paths of least resistance in regard to fire travel so that interior conditions will be more tenable in as quick a fashion as possible, thus controlling the weather.
Your success or failure in extension prevention operations is directly related to your knowledge of building construction. Interior extension will generally receive the highest priority. The lower the fire is in the building, the more severe the extension issues. These buildings contain a lot of old, ripe-for-ignition wood. It doesn’t take much for a fire to spread. Wood stairs, dumbwaiter shafts (generally closed up but still present), and utility chases are all worthy of reconnaissance. In addition, stacked bathrooms and kitchens will provide large pipe chases for fire travel from floor to floor and represent the path of least resistance for fire spread on the apartment interior.
Remember renovations often add drop ceilings and lightweight building materials. Renovations almost never strengthen a building. Be aware that above the drop ceilings will usually be tin ceilings that can conceal fire and create potential backdraft conditions in the cockloft. Be sure that before any top-floor ceiling is pulled that confirmation is received regarding the successful opening of the roof. Conditions above a ceiling can change conditions in the room below instantaneously if the ceiling is opened before the roof is vented. More than a few firefighters have been killed in this manner. Uncoordinated operations are always unsafe and potentially deadly.
An additional problem presented by the wood-frame old-law tenement is the presence of the combustible exterior wall. Fire can extend up the wall like a fuse from one floor to another across this combustible surface. Don’t forget that it usually happens in areas not visible to the command post, so make sure reports are received early and often. If this spread potential can be recognized early enough, an exterior hoseline directed on the exposed wall will usually do the trick. Ensure that the stream never enters the windows and is shut down when the objective of knocking down the wall fire is accomplished.
Don’t forget that extension prevention also applies to exposures. Forecast how the fire can get into the exposure. At a top-floor fire in an attached building, protect, open, and examine the cockloft. At lower-floor fires, be cognizant of shafts, and pay attention to smoke at the roof level. Wood-frame buildings obviously will be susceptible to fire spread by way of shafts, especially narrow shafts, because they may heat up and ignite with frightening rapidity.
From a life safety and fire spread point of view, old-law buildings are very unsafe structures prone to rapid vertical fire spread, resulting in a relatively poor fatality record. The building industry was to do better the next time (unfortunately, the same cannot be said for today’s buildings).
(8) The new-law apartment building.
New-law buildings (photo 8) came about as a result of code changes directed at keeping a basement fire in the basement, confining a fire to the area of origin, and maintaining the integrity of the safest and most effective path of least resistance out of the building, namely the interior stairs. Although “project” type multiple dwellings are built using fire-resistive construction, we will concentrate on the nonfireproof type that were the offspring of the old-law structures. With the nonfireproof type built exclusively of ordinary construction, these are larger buildings, more than 25 feet wide on the A side, which necessitated the use of steel to support the compressive load of the floors (photo 9). In fact, one of the rules of thumb regarding the old-law/new-law difference is that the new-law building will be more than 25 feet wide (reliable) and have more than four windows on the A (street) side of the building (not always reliable). With these changes came the larger life load as new-law buildings may house between 40 and 50 families compared to the old-law structure, which is usually home to no more than between 12 and 16 families. Included in new-law buildings are the H, E, and U-type buildings, which segment living areas into wings.
(9) Steel is used to support the compressive load of the floors. These I-beams will be hidden on upper floors, enclosed in walls, or covered by finishing materials.
The biggest difference, however, between the new- and old-law structures, sometimes referred to as “apartment buildings,” was the compartmentation of the below-grade area. Unlike the old-law tenements where the first floor and cellar ceiling joists are exposed, the ceilings in the new-law building are required to be protected by a noncombustible material such as wallboard. This is nice if the building is properly maintained. However, this is not always the case (photo 10).
(10) Although the ceiling is required to be protected, poor maintenance and shoddy workmanship have rendered the �protected� ceiling concept moot.
In addition, there is no direct access to these areas from the interior of the building. The area below grade in a new-law building will be referred to as a basement, as compared to a cellar, because most of its area is above grade. Access to the basement is usually through a tunnel-like enclosure that takes the entrant under the building and into a courtyard or shaft area where the basement door is located. It is also possible to access the basement from the interior by a door adjacent to the main stairs that leads to the shaft or courtyard where the basement door is located. In this case, you have to go outside to get back inside at the lowest level of the building. This will necessitate a completely different line placement strategy when compared with the old-law counterpart.
The interior stairs must now be noncombustible, usually of steel or masonry. The stairs are also independent of the floors, making them a refuge point and logical attack initiation point for firefighters.
Let’s look at the CRAVE acronym regarding operations in new-law structures. Many of the above-mentioned issues in the old-law structures will still be present and applicable, so we will concentrate on those differences presented by a larger, more complex structure.
In the new-law building, everything is bigger. Logically, the command organization must ex-pand as needed to meet the requirements of fighting a fire in this type of structure. Timely progress reports and reinforcement of vulnerable areas must be done without haste. Once the fire develops a stronghold on the voids of the building, any chance of a successful operation may be lost.
(11) These fire escapes are located in enclosed shafts between two otherwise attached new-law structures. Don�t overlook the life hazard that may be present here.
The Fire Escape Rule of Thumb works just as well here as it does for the old-law tenement. New-law buildings, however, usually have more fire escapes, indicating more apartments. Other than the obvious front and rear, there may be fire escapes on all four sides, in addition to fire escapes located in shafts (photo 11). A building in North Hudson has eight fire escapes, 16 apartments per floor. Command must ensure there are enough personnel on hand to search such a large area.
(12) The safest, most effective path of least resis-tance to the basement in the new-law structure. The alleyway to the left leads to a courtyard containing the basement door shown in photo 14. Although sealed, note the size of the window openings.
There may also be additional apartments in the basement. As most of the area of the basement is aboveground, normal windows are in place and the layout may be similar to every other floor in the building. Laundry facilities may also be found in this area. This area must be searched. Be cognizant of illegal apartments as well. They are not easy to spot. I once responded to the basement of a large apartment building for a report of an odor of smoke in the basement of a large apartment building. After investigation, it was found to be emanating from a door with a padlock on it. It looked like a broom closet. The door was forced, and a “food on the stove” condition was found in the “closet-sized” living space. Someone not only lived there but was cooking there, too.
Attack operations must focus on getting the line into service as soon as possible. The line of choice in this type of structure for the most part is the 13⁄4-inch line. It is mobile and easy to maneuver around banisters. Stairs will be U-return, so the hose must be laid on the stairs; since there is no stair wellhole, one length per floor plus a working length or two, depending on how far the fire is from the stairwell, will be required.
(13) This door, located a half-landing beneath the building�s main stairs, will also lead to the courtyard. Note the construction of the stairs: stone and steel.
Deploy as many personnel as possible to get the first line in operation. Don’t be afraid to use two engine companies as one. If you have a fifth-floor fire and two engine companies with a staffing of three or even four (remember at least one and maybe two firefighters will be engaged in pump operations), it is better to use the personnel from both engine companies to get the line to the top floor. If not needed for the actual attack, the second company can then begin the backup line stretch. This is better than having each company stretch its own line, as it is likely that neither will get there in time, if at all.
(14) The courtyard entrance in photo 12 leads directly to the basement door on the right. The upper door is the outside view of the door shown in photo 13.
In regard to the basement line positioning strategy, stretch the first line through the safest, most effective path of least resistance into the basement to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire (photos 12, 13, 14). This will likely be through an exterior door at sidewalk level that leads to a courtyard or half-shaft where the basement door is located. If the first line were stretched through the front entrance door, the company would find there are no interior stairs to protect. Although it is possible to stretch out the first-floor door, down the steps to the basement level, and into the fire area, the time and hose it would take-in addition to the number of bends that the hoseline would be required to make along the way-would negate any effectiveness the line might have had if it had been stretched directly into the basement. The second line would be stretched by the same route as the first and provide backup and adjacent area coverage of the basement. The third line would be an extension prevention line and would be stretched to the first floor through the front exterior entrance. Communication with the basement division supervisor as to exactly where the fire is located will assist in placing this line in the correct “over-the-fire” area.
Proper initial ventilation will again focus on opening the natural openings on the roof to clear the stairwell of the products of combustion, making occupant egress and firefighter access more palatable. These buildings generally have a bulkhead door instead of a scuttle. They may also be skylights on top of the bulkhead or on the backside of the bulkhead. In addition to removing the bulkhead door, take out the skylights.
Because the layout of these buildings generally segments them into wings, the roof is a candidate for the trench cut. Laid out in an H, E, or U fashion (as seen from the roof), the narrow areas between wings, commonly called the throat, can be opened to act as a defensive firestop. In other words, everything on the fire side of the throat will be surrendered. If you attempt to accomplish this, think staffing and supervision. You will need a division supervisor on the roof and on the top floor of the exposed wing. In addition, you will need at least two task forces on the roof and at least one on the top floor. Communication between these two divisions and command is essential.
In regard to horizontal ventilation, there are often half-landing windows on each floor. This is an additional ventilation point to help clear the stairwell as well as a hose-hoisting point for additional lines that may be needed on upper floors. Although more prevalent in new-law buildings, the half-landing windows can also be found on some old-law buildings.
Fire escapes will provide another vantage point for horizontal ventilation. Coordination between the attack team and outside vent team is essential.
In regard to the basement fire, the bigger, “normal-sized” windows in the basement will provide not only a better horizontal ventilation opportunity but also a better egress point should conditions deteriorate. Be aware that in both new- and old-law structures, it is common to find bars on these windows. It may be prudent to have a company take the bars out. This can even be the rapid intervention team. The more egress points created, the more firefighters will be able to self-rescue.
The new-law buildings exhibit many of the same fire spread characteristics as the old-law buildings, especially those of ordinary construction, but there is one major difference. The need to use steel in which to support the floors creates another, even more devious avenue of fire spread: the channel rail. The channel rail is created when the steel I-beams used in the framework of the structure are boxed in by plaster and lath or wallboard. They may extend vertically for several floors. The area around the flange of the “I” in the beam creates a ready highway for fire travel. The bigger problem with channel rails is that they are extremely difficult to find. Hidden in places like closets, they may spread fire to upper floors of the building faster than a pipe chase. As they also run horizontally, they may also spread fire laterally, albeit somewhat more slowly (photo 15).
(15) The vertical channel rails in this building under demolition run for three floors. Note also the horizontal channel rails running between floors.
Stacked kitchens and bathrooms will also be a problem here as in the old-law building, but instead of two bathrooms sharing a common utility chase, new-law buildings may have four apartments sharing a chase. This doubles the fire extension concern.
The common cockloft will be bigger than in old-law tenements and may also have an access panel on the bulkhead stairwell area. Although this is good for reconnaissance, it may also invite arson.
Many of these buildings have firewalls between them-their builders having learned the lessons of the past-but such walls are often negated by renovations and years of neglect or by the presence of a shaft. It must be assumed that the cockloft is open until proven otherwise. Proof should be sought early.
• • •
In the end, knowledge of building construction coupled with a knowledge of the response area is the formula for safety and success when operating in any building. Get out in the street, and check it out. ■
ANTHONY AVILLO, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a deputy chief in North Hudson Regional (NJ) Fire & Rescue, assigned as platoon commander of the First Division. He also is an instructor at the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy and is a partner in Study Group, Inc., a firm that trains promotional and entry-level candidates in the fire service. Avillo has been both a Hands-on Training (H.O.T.) instructor and speaker at the FDIC and was a keynote speaker at FDIC in 2004. He is also an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering. He is the author of Fireground Strategies (Fire Engineering, 2002) and Fireground Strategies Workbook (Fire Engineering, 2003).