Residence Fires—How to Fight Them

Residence Fires—How to Fight Them

Problems in Connection with Dwelling House Fires—Cellar and Stairway Blazes—Those in Bedrooms and Closets—Chimney Fires

While the problems of fire fighting in general differ greatly according to the sice of the city, those in connection with the battling of fires in dwellings vary little, as the type of construction of such buildings is pretty much the same, whether situated in the metropolis or in a small town.. The following paper will, therefore, be of quite general interest:

Chief John J. Towey, Newark, N. J.

IN discussing dwelling houses and the method of combating fires in them, permit me to say at the outset that such houses differ in construction and there is also a difference in fires—the time and place of starting, etc., for a fire is a pesky quantity, with no respect or consideration for person or property. Therefore, conditions must of necessity play an important part in the task of the firemen. Consequently, much must be left to the judgment and discretion of those in command of fire-fighting forces, as to steps to take in combating a blaze with unusual circumstances and to apply expediencies. That new features may arise at any fire is to be expected, and for this reason, we firemen must be prepared to meet exigencies and be ever on the alert.

There are general rules and a general system for battling dwelling fires or fires of other kinds, however, and strict attention to such rules and such systems will have gratifying results in the long run. In our city of Newark there is a rule—I may say a law—of general application, that the saving and preservation of human life is the paramount consideration—saving and preservation of property next. But these points are understood and require nothing on my part to add to their impressiveness.

Locate the Seat of the Fire

We have dwelling houses in our large cities, and we have dwelling in the rural districts. Urban and suburban sections do not differ so materially when it comes to a question of fire, the chief difference being one of equipment, height of building, water supply and manual force. There is a cellar and a roof to every building. A paramount point is to locate the seat of fire, play on that irrespective of smoke and keep the flame confined to the starting point, which is its natural hot bed, and watch every channel for its possible spread.

Hazards of Dwellings Open from Cellar to Roof

There are many kinds of dwelling houses and their construction differs in a great many ways, but in most cases you will find in joist construction many openings from the cellar to the roof. Builders do not always in their speed give thought, should a fire start in the cellar, how far it will travel before it finds a fire stop—and that even if it does find one, it might reach the attic.

I have seen dwellings where yon could see from the cellar clean to the roof; these kinds of buildings are only flame feeders and when you stop to think, it is this kind of fire which is hard to subdue; the mode of attack on dwelling houses differs, according to where the fire started, also the magnitude of the fire.

Rule as to First Due Engine Company

There is a standing rule in the Newark Fire Department that, no matter how small or large a fire may be, the first Engine Company to arrive is first to stretch a big line as a precaution, using 2 1/2-inch hose and then employ extinguishers or a chemical tank to extinguish the blaze, if sufficient, so as to avoid unnecessary water damage. If necessary, they are instructed to use the big line or additional ones, in case the fire has assumed dangerous proportions.

Attack Fire from Inside if Possible

The attack should be made from the inside of the building, if possible and the hook and ladder companies are to raise ladders, ventilate the building, and remove all persons in danger to places of safety. The truck company members are also to be ready at all times to pull down ceilings, open side walls and open up floors, wherever necessary, to ascertain whether the fire has traveled to other parts of the building through openings in the walls, floors or other crevices. The first officer who arrives at a fire is to assume command until the arrival of a superior officer.

“There are many kinds of dwelling houses and their construction differs in a great many ways, but in most cases you will find in joist construction many openings from the cellar to the roof. Builders do not always in their speed give thought, should a fire start in the cellar, how far it will travel before it finds a fire stop. I have seen dwellings where you could see from the cellar clean to the roof.”

In this connection, the best thing to do when having a house built, is to have fire stops constructed between floors and walls, so as to prevent fire from finding its way through the building.

Coal or Wood Bin Fires: Starting in Cellar of Dwelling Houses

A fire of this kind must be quickly confined and great care should be taken that it be headed off properly, as it may have traveled through walls, flooring, along stairways, etc. The floor above and below the fire in question should be watched closely to ascertain whether the blaze has been properly checked, and if necessary, the ceiling, sidewalls, flooring, etc., must be opened up, so as to direct a stream behind them, thereby preventing the rekindling of fire. I have worked at fires where the flames burned their way in a mushroom fashion, and penetrated wherever there was an opening. Care should be taken that all sparks, etc., are extinguished before leaving the premises.

Method of Attack

Fires of this nature are most times safely extinguished with the aid of a chemical stream. The first order given is to stretch a chemical line by way of the front cellar window, to the seat of the fire, and at the same time to lay a large line by way of the rear cellar opening, to have handy in case of need. This is a standing rule in the Newark Department, as wherever a chemical stream is used by an engine company, a large line must be stretched to back up the chemical line.

After the fire has been extinguished, a thorough examination must be made along all beams, floor-boards, and side wall openings to outside studdings, to be sure that no hidden sparks lurk there that may rekindle later on. It will be well to have men proceed up to the first floor rooms and examine the floor-base, also plaster walls directly above where the fire started, and if found to be very much heated, have truckmen remove the base-board, together with lath and plaster, after which the interior can be wet down with chemical stream, should fire be seen there.

Cellar Fires

Note where the fire started on arrival. In a fire in question, we went to the cellar and in a short time we had the fire out with the use of a big line, but upon examination of the wall on the first floor, we found that the fire had gone up between the lath and weather boards, by means of a false pocket or opening. The truck company members began ripping off some of the plaster, and a stream of water was directed at the fire. The truckmen were also at work locating places where the fire may have reached, when they discovered that the flames had eaten their way to the second floor through the walls, ceilings and floors. The truckmen began tearing the lath, flooring and boards away in different places on the second floor and wet the interior of the walls down as the truckmen opened up. Upon investigation, we found that the fire had traveled to the attic. It was found that the fire had found its way up behind the closets on the first and second floors through wall openings.

London Firemen Fight Greatest Fire in Years A seven story warehouse in London, England, was destroyed by the greatest fire that has ever confronted the city in a number of years. The blaze broke out on the Surrey side of the Thames, opposite the historic Tower of London. More than two hundred fire engines and one thousand firemen were engaged day and night in subduing the outbreak. Water froze on the outside of the building while the inside was a blazing furnace. The warehouse contained thousands of tons of tea and rubber, held in bond. Boats that were tied up alongside of ships being unloaded, helped by pumping water on the fire. Cranes used for unloading boats in front of the wharf, collapsed and crashed, when their foundations became loosened by the intense heat.

It was then necessary to go over the entire building from cellar to roof and to thoroughly examine so as to be sure that the fire was out before leaving. All places, where there was the least sign of fire, were opened up.

Method of Attack

At a fire of this nature, quick action must be taken. Having originally started in the cellar, the fire assumedly had been extinguished, but later on is noticed to have jumped from cellar to attic by way of secret pockets in walls and partitions. A 2 1/2-inch line of hose is ordered to the cellar by way of the rear cellar stairs, and as flame is located, it is extinguished. My truckmen are ordered to examine all pipe and beam ends and openings along sill course of house and they report that the fire is making its headway upward to first floor. A second line is ordered stretched to the point where the fire has jumped on the first floor, by way of the front hall entrance, and as the truckmen open up the walls, the fire is fought at this point. It is seen, however, that the fire has traveled to the second floor. As the truckmen are ordered to remove floor-boards, base-boards and wall-plaster, a third line is ordered in by way of the front entrance up the stairway to the second floor, to this point, and walls and surroundings are thoroughly wet down. A fourth line of hose is ordered to the rear of the house and a ladder ordered raised, and the line of hose is taken to the porch roof and put through the attic window, at which point the fire is checked and finally put out. After the main fires are extinguished, the large lines should be shut down and a chemical stream used to wet all exposed openings; this is being done to keep down unnecessary water damage, if large lines are used for wetting purposes. Extreme care must be taken that all openings where fire could have traveled are thoroughly examined, laid bare and properly wet down.

Stairway Fires

In most dwelling houses, under the stairway, you will find a closet, where may be stored all kinds of clothing, hats, old paper and other miscellaneous articles, which may accumulate and which are, in many cases, of no account to the owner; this is a bad place for a fire to start, as a fire in a closet may be burning for a considerable length of time before being noticed, and if given enough time to burn its way through the walls, ceilings, floors, etc., will undoubtedly have gained serious proportions before the arrival of the Fire Department.

Method of Attack

this being a dwelling house, the fire has started in the closet underneath stairway and traveled upward through pocket in the outer wall to dropped closet ceiling and thence to the second floor. A chemical line is ordered to second floor landing where truckman at once opens up floor-boards, outside plaster walls, and a chemical stream is inserted into openings, the fire checked and cut off. A second line is ordered to the closet where fire started, the truckmen doing all necessary tearing away of baseboards, walls, and closet ceiling, so engine company can use chemical stream effectively. Several truckmen should, upon arrival, ventilate the building, at once; also raise a ladder in front or rear of the building, in case such a ladder should be required for the exit of tenants. This being a Department Rule, orders for the same need not be given.

Smoky Cellar Fires

At some cellar fires it is impossible to enter the cellar. In such cases, a line of hose is taken in on the first floor and a cellar pipe, or a Breslin Distributor, is put to work, in the meantime having truckmen ventilate and also open up wherever necessary, to ascertain whether the fire has reached the floor above, having necessary stream in readiness at all times, also open up about three boards above lower trim to expose the fire. Care should be taken to examine all pipe openings, walls, floors, etc., to ascertain the course of the fire and carefully extinguish all fire before leaving.

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Method of Attack

Fires of this kind are at times hard to reach owing to the fact that there is most generally only one outside point to effect an entrance, that being by a rear cellar door or by small cellar window, or an inner stairwav leading from front hall down into cellar. The smoke, heat and gases that accumulate cannot be carried off quickly enough to enable men to subdue flames in the cellar. A large line is at once ordered into cellar by rear outside cellar door and water poured on fire from that point. Second order is to have truckmen proceed into first floor hallway as far as possible, and open up floor, so that engine company can stretch in a second line hooked up with a Breslin Distributor, which is then lowered through the floor opening at this point. Next, order is given truckmen to ventilate entire building; also to remove the first and second courses of weatherboards above the water-table line. This will enable the smoke, heat and gases to be drawn off from the cellar, giving the men the chance to enter, with the line ordered through rear cellar door, and get to the seat of the fire.

We discover, upon removal of the outside weather-boards, that the fire has already traveled up through the sides of the building, making its way to the second floor. An order is given at once for engine company, which had been ordered to stretch in a large line and stand fast to turn on water, and proceed to the second floor, with truckmen. These then will at once open up in walls, so as large line can be directed into openings made. Orders are given to remove the Breslin Distributor from the line used on first floor, and to connect tip to play-pipe, and while proceeding up the stairway to extinguish all fire seen. The line having been ordered to the second floor at once, is ordered to the attic by way of the scuttle hole in attic ceiling.

Orders are given the truckmen to remove plaster and lath from ceiling on the first floor for a distance of one parallel to the side wall of the house, and the same on the second floor ceiling, in order to enable men to have clear view to examine all beam openings and stud-pockets. The last company left at the fire should wait at least fifteen or twenty minutes and watch and also look for any sparks that may not have been seen. Be sure to have every part of the building looked over, so that all fire is out, before leaving to return to company quarters.

The wooden plugs ordered to be put into gas-pipe openings are generally carried by all truck companies for such purposes, and are made by the company members during leisure hours at company quarters. They vary in size from 1/8 up to 3-inches in diameter, and are made out of soft wood.

Bedroom Fires

These fires are very trying on the firemen, as they must stand the gases and the heat. The method of attack is usually by means of chemical extinguishers or tanks, backed up by a big line, so that, should the same be needed, it will be at hand. These fires are fought from the inside, if possible, by way of stairway, ladders or other means, and upon extinguishing the fire great care should be taken that no fire or sparks are left to rekindle. If necessary, open up the walls, ceilings, floors, etc., to make sure that the fire has not traveled to any other part of the building.

The first order given here should be to have truckmen, as quickly as possible, ventilate the building, and at the same time ascertain whether all occupants or tenants are accounted for and safe. Chemical line and extinguishers should be brought to put out the fire. Care should be taken, after the fire has been extinguished, to look over all cracks in walls, loosely fitted window or door casing, loosely fitted base-boards and cracks in floors, as all these openings are conveyors of fire and flame. Another point at fires like this should not be overlooked, and that is, the pulley pockets in window frames. Tf curtains are burned away and sash-rope burned off. weights dropped down inside window casing must be removed, along with window apron underneath window sub-sill, and if on fire, properly wet down with chemicals.

Clothes Closets Fires

Chemicals streams are generally used on fires of this kind, which in most cases are smoky and hot, and when the fire has gotten through the walls or flooring or ceiling the danger is not great. On the other hand, if it has gotten back of the lath, and the closet is alongside of a mantle piece, quick action is necessary, as in some dwellings you will find that, where a mantle piece is put up, the chimney is only 1 1/2 feet by 2 feet, therefore leaving a space of 2 1/2 feet of a pocket between the mantle and the side of the house. This space is open clean to the attic, so precautions must be taken, by opening up walls wherever necessary, to ascertain whether the fire has not traveled to other parts of the building.

Method of Attack

Use chemical extinguisher, if fire is of small proportions, and chemical tank if of larger proportions. After removing all burned clothing, rubbish or such objects that have collected in these closets, an examination should be made of all corners, cracks, and crevices, in these pockets, in order to ascertain whether fire has entered in behind the casings to the space between lath and plaster. Where fires originate in kitchen closets, the walls nearest the chimney-place must be exposed, since in most cases there is an open space from two to twelve inches left, which reaches from cellar beams to attic roof, and acts as a blind flue along side of chimney. Should fire have entered here, then entire closet wall should be opened up to allow a man’s head and shoulders to pass through, in order to examine the open space and use chemical line to put out all fire.

Chimney Fires

Chimneys are, as a rule, all constructed on similar lines, in old-fashioned frame dwellings, there is generally an open arch or fire-place covered over with a metal drop pan. In case of fire in such a constructed chimney, this pan should be removed, after an extinguisher has been used on burning soot from upper part of the chimney by way of the roof. Where wood mantles are employed on the outside of such a chimney, it is well to examine all wood skirtings to see whether or not fire has lodged behind same. In some chimneys the clean-out pocket is located in the cellar near the basement floor, where a heavy coating of burning soot is encountered in such a chimney, sand, ashes, or gravel may be poured down chimney from roof above, to break loose all burning soot hanging on sides of the masonry. Chimneys of old-fashioned construction where no flue linings exists, should be carefully examined for leaks in brick work, such as bad joints, loose bricks, or possibly where mortar has been shaken out of joints.

Lace Curtain and Window Shade Fires

The attack is most generally with a chemical line or an extinguisher from the inside; then an examination is made to see whether the sash cord has been burned off and dropped into the pocket of the window frame and also ascertain if there is any fire there. In such cases, have the truckmen take off the casing, which will afford a clear view.

If there is any sign that the fire has gotten back of any inside casing, then the truckmen should pull the casing off, in order to expose inner jackets, so that a stream can be directed where it is needed.

Rescue Work

When about to effect a rescue, the men who enter a building for that purpose, should be protected by one or more large streams of water, so as to guard and refresh them, thereby enabling them to successfully accomplish the rescue.


When a fire has been caused through the use of benzine, gasoline, kerosene or other oil, and it should have happened on the floor of a frame building, the proper procedure would be to follow path of fire taken, should oils have run underneath base-boards or through crevices in floor-boards; if any, then base-boards and floor-boards undoubtedly should be removed, as flame will travel along all places wherever such oil has trickled.

Electric Wiring of Dwelling Houses

Where the old style electric wiring is employed in any of these dwelling houses, care should be taken when a fire takes place, that all pockets that such wiring (which is of the knob and tube style) passes through, be watched and examined. The first thing is to shut off the current at the main switch-board. When the truckmen opens up woodwork, wherever such wiring should pass behind or underneath, care must be taken not to cut through wiring, nor come into contact with axes, in case current should not be thrown off.

Fires directly due to faulty conduit, switch-boxes or soldered joints, should be laid bare of all surrounding woodwork, and, of course, main electric current shut-off before any opening up work is begun. Wherever such wiring is noticed to have been cut off or burned through (while doing overhauling work), it should be brought to the attention of the officer in charge of the fire, who should make sure to see that the electricity is not thrown on again, until damage to wiring is repaired. He should notify the owner or occupant of building.

Our reason in taking these precautions in regards to electric wiring is, that due to wiring being cut or severed, after main fire had been extinguished and all companies had been ordered back to their respective quarters, the department has been called to the same address a second time, to an entirely new fire, which had been caused through a cut wire, after current had been unknowingly thrown on again by the owner or occupant of the building.

Thawing Out Frozen Water Pipes

In the thawing out of frozen water pipes, care should be taken not to use lighted paper, open flames, torches or lighted candles, as openings where pipes lead from floor to floor are strictly speaking small flues through which the flame will be drawn or sparks be sent up. This will ignite woodwork surrounding such pipes, especially where there are cobwebs, or where shavings, saw-dust or paper had been left by mechanics when the house was erected, or where pipes had been protected by paper or rag wrapping in order to shield them against frost. Special care should be taken where such fires occur underneath water and waste pipes in toilets. Most generally these pipes are set close to the wall in a corner of the toilet or bath-room, then covered over with boards or with lath and plaster partitions, which run front cellar ceiling to attic floor, forming one direct pocket. Should fires occur in such pockets, or pipe boxes, a chemical line should be at once sent up to attic floor space, and entire inner side of such pocket wet down, as that would be the point to check and cut off the fire, in order to keep the flames from traveling to the open attic. Truckmen should be ordered to tear off wood covering over such boxes, also open up floors, or walls wherever pipes should lead through. The most safe method in thawing frozen pipes is with hot water or better still, with cloths soaked in hot water.

(From a paper read before the quarterly meeting of the New Jersey Fire Chiefs’ Association.)

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