Old Hotels—And Heavy Casualties
Loss of Life Usually Large at Night Fires in These Buildings—Rescue Work Exceedingly Difficult
TWO types of hotels in particular represent severe life hazards: the old brick building with wood construction throughout, and the frame hotel, such as is found at seaside and summer resorts. The old brick type of hotel is encountered in almost every city. Its interior construction is such as to provide for extreme rapidity of spread of fire. The great number of vertical, concealed spaces through which fire may travel, the great bulk of combustible materials and the inflammable type of contents all contribute their share to making a hot and fast traveling blaze. Because such buildings are not erected to sustain heavy loads, early collapse of floors may be expected in the event of fire involving building.
In many cases the floors are supported by wood beams only, which are set in the brick work without proper capping. It requires but a few minutes of exposure to a hot fire to so weaken the beams that they will slip out of their sockets, and permit the floor to fall through.
To add to the speed of travel of fire, many of these hotels are provided with stairwells which start at the main floor and pierce the building its entire height. These wells are not enclosed, and are surrounded bv combustible materials such as wooden hand-rails, lath and plaster walls, wooden stairs, as well as combustible carpets and decorations. These stairwells communicate directly on each floor to halls extending through the various floors. Once fire rises in the stairwell, heat and smoke may be expected to travel in all directions on the various floors, and unless ventilation is provided early there is a chance of the building being fully charged with smoke, and fire mushrooming quickly over the various floors, starting at the top of the building and traveling downward.
In addition, other vents and shafts are to be found leading from the basement of the building to the roof. These other channels provide a means for fire reaching from the basement to the upper floors in such a way as to permit fire to gain considerable headway before discovery.
The frame type of hotel represents the worst of fire traps. Rooms are usually small, with the result that the occupancy is heavy, particularly during the summer season. Frame construction of this type creates a fire of tremendous heat, and astonishing rapidity of spread. Because of its combustible nature, precautions are rarelv taken to provide anv fire stops in the building, or to protect stairways or elevator shafts. The comparatively short season during which these structures are occupied does not warrant expensive workmanship. The flimsiest construction is therefore characteristic. During the busv season fire hazards are at their worst, due to congestion and rush of business. It is not surprising, therefore, that loss of life should be heavy in such structures once fire gains a hold.
There is one redeeming feature in connection with the frame hotel and that is its usual limited height, making it possible for a person to jump to the ground with less danger of serious injury than in the brick type of hotel.
Fire starting late at night in either the old type brick hotel or the frame hotel, particularly in the summer months, may quickly involve the basement and then break away, traveling upward with great speed. The limited force on hand in the hotel office at night time makes it almost impossible for the force to warn all guests. Dependence is therefore placed on fire alarm gongs which may, or may not, operate.
Assuming such a fire starts in a basement, and suddenly breaks through on the ground floor, it will rise quickly in all vertical shafts communicating with the ground floor as well as with basement. It is apt to travel up the main stairway, quickly filling the various floors with smoke, and ignite combustible materials around the stairwells. It takes but a few minutes to involve the stairs and wood trimmings. Guests on the various floors are thus cut off from escape by means of stairways, and as the elevator facilities are usually entirely inadequate—even if they are available—-to get the guests to safety.
Thus the fire department on responding to a fire of this type is faced with the huge task of’ removing all occupants from the building without using either stairwavs or elevators. Fire escapes, if present, will be of some assistance, but the difficulty the guests will experience in passing through hallways leading to fire escapes minimizes the effectiveness of this means of escape.
On the top floor, in particular, is the life hazard extremely severe. Not only have the persons on this floor less chance of getting to the street safely by outside means, but fire rising in any vertical shafts mounts to the top floor and quickly involves this floor. Pressure created by the hot gases causes these gases and smoke to penetrate crevices leading into various rooms. Communication of fire to rooms joining the hall on the top floor is thus rapid. If transoms over doors are open, the situation is indeed extreme.
Ventilation and Saving of Stairways Vital
Of supreme importance in operating at a fire in this type of building is the immediate provision of thorough ventilation. This can only be accomplished by opening up over stair and elevator shafts, making openings of sufficient size to properly drain the upper floors of smoke, heat and gases. This ventilation must be tierformed without a moment’s delay if the department is to prevent the loss of life. Ventilation not only draws smoke, heat and gases away from the hall but also delays the spread of the fire, and thus enables the department to carry on its rescue work with greater effectiveness. If persons on the top floor are being forced by the advancing fire to mount window sills, the department has to do mighty fast work to avoid loss of life by persons jumping to the ground.
Second in importance to prompt and thorough venting is the saving of the main stair for use by the department as well as guests in effecting the escape of the latter. For this reason if the officer in charge feels there is a chance of saving the stairway, the first line should be immediately stretched in on the ground floor, and the stream directed up the stairwell to wet down fire partially. Following this the line should proceed up the stairway killing the fire, but only after a second line is in position to cover it and make sure that the retreat of the first line is at all times assured.
If the main stairway can be saved, it will mean that the department can use this channel for getting persons out of the building to safety. Incidentally, after the fire has been checked in the stairwell, the line should either be removed, by backing down, or else carefullv placed to one side so as not to obstruct the safe and quick passage of occupants to street. Second engine company can usually be employed to good effect in stretching a line up to the top floor to kill any fire on this floor, and prevent its rising in the stair or elevator shafts. This, however, can only be done after ventilation has been properly provided.
The actual operations of extinguishing the fire in the basement will depend upon the size of the building, the layout of the basement, the extent of the fire, and other conditions which vary with each particular structure.
Where fire has originated in the basement and hareached such projxirtions as to spread upward by means of stair and elevator shafts, it is safe to assume that the basement is fully involved. In this case the use of cellar pipes and distributors is usually in order.
Saving of Life
As noted above, prompt ventilation and saving of main stairways are essential if quick rescue work is to be performed. In some cases, however, it is not possible, due to the extent of the fire, to save the stairwell. la this case the department will have to depend almost entirely upon the use of ladders and life nets.
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Old Hotels—And Heavy Casualties
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Additional personnel and ladder equipment is most essential at fires of this type, particularly where the tires occur at night. For that reason the officer in command, upon arriving at the tire, should immediately summon additional apparatus so that the fire-fighting force will not be handicapped in performing rescue work. Those on the uppers should be given first consideration, which means that the longer ladders will he raised first. Members of engine companies, or bystanders, may be impressed into service to hold life nets in order to rescue anv who may l>e at the point of jumping or who may be forced to jump by the approaching fire.
In connection with rescue work, the department must under no conditions assume that everybody is out of the different rooms until inspection by members of the department shows such to be the case. For this reason before ladder is moved from a location at a window, member of the department should immediately proceed through the room to make sure that no one remains.
In performing rescue work at hotel buildings the back of the building as well as the front and sides must be considered. There are nearly always inside rooms which do not open out to street front. Entrance to such rooms can usually be secured from alley or court at rear of building. Occasionally the roofs of adjoining buildings can be utilized, as well as upper floors of such buildings, in effecting rescue of’ persons across light courts or alleys. It is usually quite difficult to get long ladders in position at rear of buildings due to obstructions such as high board fences, poles, etc. For this reason it is necessary to give as prompt attention to the rear of the building as to the front and sides.
After it is reasonably certain that all persons were out of the structure, then the operations of fighting the fire may be pursued with full force. In this connection it should again be pointed out that the insecure construction employed in the old type brick hotel as well as in the frame hotel make it exceedingly dangerous for men to operate in on lower floors where fire has been burning on upper floors for some time. The liklihood of’collapse of floors is always imminent and this point should be remembered by the officer in command, who is responsible for the lives of his men. Furthermore, the great quantities of combustible material which enter into the construction and equipment of such a building mean that there will be a very hot fire and streams of large caliber will be required to bring the burning materials down to a temperature below their re-ignition point. But to use large streams effectively it will IK* necessary to enter the building at such a point the stream can be directed through hallways, rather than into individual rooms. Little good can be done by directing heavy streams into small rooms where the greater part of the water will remain in the room and not penetrate through the hall at which point the fire is burning with greatest intensity.
the location of red exit lights can be noted from the outside and they will be found in line with fire escapes. Thus the ojieration of the department will be largely confined to fire escapes if the fire has involved the buildings.
After the fire burning in the halls has been brought under control, it is then possible for men to enter through rooms joining halls and operate at close range. In all cases thorough ventilation is most essential, and, in addition to opening the roof as described previously, windows must be opened top and bottom to maintain an atmosphere in which members of the department can remain without danger of being overcome.