Taxpayer Fires Present Problems to Nation’s Fire Service

Taxpayer Fires Present Problems to Nation’s Fire Service

Innocent Looking Structures May Prove Conflagration Breeders

TAXPAYER fires are common to most counties the nation over and, coincidently, they are a headache to the fire service, generally. That is because the ubiquitous “taxpayer” is so universally found in our American municipalities, big and little.

The “taxpayer” is distinctly an American “institution”. Designed primarily to overcome the burden of taxes on property, they are almost without exception cheaply designed and built, to fill what is believed by the owner and builder to be only a temporary need. They are “stopgap” structures to stand against the day when more permanent and suitable building will be in order. But, unfortunately, many of them take on the status of permanency for one reason or another and remain, year after year, a continued threat to the fire-fighter.

The greater number of these structures are of one story height. Of these, there are three general types: (1) those erected on interior lots and facing only on one street, running from 2,500 to 7,500 square feet in area; (2) those facing on two streets with areas running from 7,500 to 10,000 square feet, and (3), those facing on three streets, covering an area of 15,000 square feet and perhaps over.

To look at most of these buildings, the average person—including firemen —would hardly consider them much of a fire hazard, or the extinguishment of fire in the “taxpayers” much of a problem. But the facts prove otherwise. Probably no one type of hazard has given the fire officer and fire service so much trouble as this. And in order to properly understand why, and where, it is well to review, briefly, the design and construction of these “taxpayers.”

For the most part, construction is largely of wood, with some metal and perhaps marble or masonry facing, not intended as a fire-retardant measure, but purely to give the structure a “front.” Partitions are for the most part flammable, and built to house separate occupancies and the entire building area is usually divided into just as many spaces as the traffic will bear. Partitions are generally wood studs and wood or metal lath and plaster. Some cities, where maximum areas previously given are encountered, require by local ordinance that separating partitions be of fire-retarding, fire-resisting or fire-proof material, of a thickness to compensate for the excessive areas and the use to which the structure is put.

An important point is the fact that some of these partitions do not run through and above the roof as approved parapets should. Herein lies the danger, because fire, once it gets a hold in the area between the store ceilings and the roof structure, may spread undetected and the whole underside of the roof may be involved, threatening the entire building. Failure to carry fire-retardant partitions to and even above the roof area, providing fire-stops between each “taxpayer” store and effectively separating the store areas, has been the chief cause for the costly spread of fires in “taxpayers”—and the high losses.

Another important factor of design and construction is the tendency to have the entire basement area in such buildings open to a common occupancy or, if the cellar area is divided, the partitions or separations are of the most makeshift kind: slatted wood, wallboard, or other material offering little or no protection against the spread of fire.

Accentuating the hazard is the fact that the furnace room may be located and constructed with little or no thought to the fire hazards inherent to heating systems, and because also it is a common practice of “taxpayer” tenants to burn waste materials either in the furnace or a rubbish burner in the basement.

Inferior Exposures

Interior exposures are common. They run from inside stairways to dumbwaiters, chutes and other openings with little or no attempt to protect them from becoming channels for the spread of fire to another area. Older structures often contain light-shafts runnnig from cellar to roof, or glassed floor sections are present to permit natural light from a skylight in the roof to find its way to the basement.

In newer structures, it is not uncommon to find basements carried out under the sidewalk. These may be sealed vaults, with solid sidewalks above or they may have sidewalk glass deadlights. Further, there may be cellar openings in the walk, covered by metal doors. As we shall see, it is of the utmost importance that fire officers know the layout of these basements, and the location of partitions, vaults, and entrances and other openings.

Just a word about ceilings. Usually they are from 12 to 20 feet in height, with heights above 12 feet penetrating into the hanging ceiling or concealed space beyond. In some old types, ceilings are wood lath and plaster, but it is the more modern practice to use metal, thus adding to the headaches of the fire-fighter.

Taxpayers Help Breed Conflagrations in Many Towns Here, fire, originating in taxpayer-type mercantile structures in this Tennessee town went to town” and burned most of its business section.

*Portions of this paper were presented as addresses at meetings of the Fire Chiefs Emergency Plan, Westchester County and the Fire Chiefs’ Council of Nassau County, N. Y.

Smoky Texpayer Fires May Draw Large Crowds Taxpayers are generally located where pedestrian and vehicular traffic are heaviest. Here fire fighting operations are being hampered by the curious.


Occupants of “taxpayers”, with rare exceptions, are all mercantile. During the war, in New York and some other cities some “taxpayers” were given over to industrial and factory operations. The most universally prevalent occupancy are the “Five and Dimes” and chain stores.

Even under most favorable conditions these types of hazards are a headache to the fire service. We get such fires almost every week in New York City; in fact, in the past few years we’ve lost two firemen by suffocation and drowning, and many more injured, in battling fires in these occupancies.

Here’s what makes fires in such occupancies so serious:—

Large, open areas.

Large storages of stock; much of it cheap, flimsy, and highly flammable.

Both basement and store occupied— often loaded to the limit with merchandise.

Store fixtures and furnishings usually combustible, counters loaded on top and below, and interior counter shelves hard to reach.

Aisles, passageways and areaways too narrow, passageways often ending in “blind spaces”, difficult for firemen to operate in.

Personnel, during store hours, constitutes a life hazard. During peak shopping hours, stores may be jammed. Average store personnel may not have the highest I.Q. and may be easily panicked. Employes untrained in firstaid fire-fighting.

Housekeeping conditions good, bad or indifferent—generally the latter. Carelessness is common.

Smoking permitted, except possibly in larger stores, during holiday periods (and these NO SMOKING rules not too well enforced).

Lack of cooperation between owner and occupant.

Tendency to overload lighting circuits (home-made wiring alterations).

Limited first-aid fire fighting equipment.

No supervisory watchman’s service except in largest stores.

Lack of sprinkler protection, particularly in basements.

Lack of adequate means of communicating with fire departments (store personnel uneducated in procedure for calling firemen).

Store demonstrations often entail use of electrical or other powered equipment or merchandise which can start fires.

Some stores have air conditioning and refrigerating systems.


“Taxpayers” know no particular location in a community. They sprout up in the busy, high-hazard districts as well as in the suburban areas. They are usually located in the busiest sections of a city, here they are a potential threat to adjoining property. The factor of traffic is another handicap to fire-fighting operations.

Fire Fighting Operations

There is no simple rule or system of operation for combatting fires in “taxpayers”. Even among Chiefs who are so situated that they get plenty of work in this field, you will find differences in technique and strategy. Not everyone will agree upon either the steps to be taken, or the relative importance of the actions. After all, there may not be a great difference in “taxpayers”, and in “taxpayer” fires, but many factors, such as the kind, type and amount of the fire fighting equipment available to the chief fire officer influence fire fighting operations and it would be foolish for me to tell the chief of one city or town that he should fight taxpayer fires in his community in a certain way just because I fight ’em.

On the other hand, no one should get the idea that large city firemen have any monopoly on fighting “taxpayer”, or any other kind of, fires. Many a large metropolitan fire department has been known to bungle what looked like the simplest of taxpayer fires until a general alarm assignment was needed. YVe can all make mistakes and my sole purpose here is to set down some of the more important operational details for fighting this type of fire so that somewhere, sometime, somehow a conscientious fire officer may escape errors that have cost others so much.

Basically, the problems in fighting the “taxpayer” fire are little different from handling any other mercantile fire. In fighting the fire in such premises (the “taxpayer” structure) as in attacking any other blaze, the first consideration is “size-up”. And the first question the office in command must consider is the life hazard. This is particularly true where the “taxpayer” houses a large chain store or “Five and Dime”.

Fortunately, most serious fires in such occupancies occur after business hours, but even here there may be exposures, such as theatres or large retail establishments and multiple dwellings, where smoke, if not fire itselt, may cause panic. Thus it behooves the commanding officer to consider all those elements of life hazards, as well as property hazards, in his initial “size up”.

If the fire occurs during the period the premises are occupied, the removal of personnel, and possibly the evacuation of exposed property, may handicap initial efforts to get to the seat of the fire, and to head it off. Even in the large municipal department, it is sometimes a problem for the chief officers to allocate and divide their forces so that some will properly attend to firefighting and others will look after the personnel—prevent panic, make rescues and so on. The problem of advancing hose lines and ventilating the structure, while quickly and safely removing customers and store personnel from the building and perhaps protecting persons from exposures, is a complicated and serious one. In this connection, in the initial attack upon any such fire during business hours, it must be remembered that streams from water-lines often have aided in saving lives by holding a fire in check through forming a water curtain, or pinning a fire to a certain area, until all endangered persons have been removed to safety. Concurrently, many structures have been ruined completely through the fire getting out of hand because firemen devoted all their initial energies and resources to saving life.

Now. in connection with “size up”: if the chief officer of a department, who may be called upon to fight a fire in a taxpayer,” whatever the time of day, has a full knowledge of the risk, the building and contents involved, the exposures, the fire-fighting resources at his command in initial, and later alarms, he has one strike on the fire. As a matter of fact, it should be the responsibility of every company officer as well as chief, to be familiar with such hazards in his area.

My own studies suggest that one of the common errors in fighting the “taxpayer fire” is failure to summon additional fire forces. This may he either intentional, or unintentional.

Two-Story Taxpayer Fire in Washington Heights Section of New York This flatiron taxpayer was considered quite modern in its day, but twenty fire companies were unable to Confine the fire which gutted almost every occupancy.

The fire may appear almost insignificant when you pull up, but don’t be misled. Make that “size up” as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and pay particular attention to the attic or hanging ceiling and the basement. And get somebody around to the rear, quickly, too! Remember there are six sides to every fire: the front and rear, the sides and the top and bottom.

Here, at the risk of repeating an old axiom and one which modern mutual aid organizations have made mean something, let we point out that

“Any officer can find plenty of reasons for calling for help that was not needed —but nolwdy can give a good excuse for not calling for help when it was needed.”

Quick Ventilation Imperative

If the building is charged with smoke, as may be the case where the fire occurs after store hours, early and proper ventilation is imperative. Normally, the point to ventilate is over the tire, removing ventilators or skylights or bulkhead doors, or even opening the roof, if no such other openings can be made, to permit the gases and smoke to escape, and to reduce the tendency of the fire to mushroom in the concealed spaces in cock-loft above hanging ceiling. This will also lessen the possibility of “backdraft’ and safeguard hosemen and others ready to advance lines. It further tends to reveal the location and extent of the fire itself.

If the fire is centered in the basement. openings should be made in sidewalk entranceways and shafts, and wherever smoke and gases may be vented. Sidewalk deadlights, if present, may have to be broken or an entire section of walk removed. Store fronts may be broken or pierced under the show windows, if display windows are elevated above ground level, to draw off the smoke and, if construction permits, bent cellar pipes can be operated through these openings. Rear entranceways, and even windows may and should be opened up as occasion requires. It is better to try all these avenues of ventilation before breaking the more costly front show windows but even these must go—and without delay—if it is necessary to rid the structure of gases and smoke to enable extinguishing operations to be carried on within the store.

Even with the basement fire, men should be sent quickly to the roof because it is quite probable that the fire will have extended up through the studding of partitions into the space between roof and ceiling. If such is the case, quick action in opening up not only over the fire store, but on either side of it, and getting hose lines into play is imperative.

Where a roof is cut for ventilation care must be taken to push a hook down through the opening to open up the store ceiling. If the skylight is removed, push a hook down through the opening to make certain there is not an additional flat skylight present beneath the roof skylight. These are often installed in cold weather to save heat and prevent drafts. Break out such skylights.

In removing skylights, caution should be used by firemen performing this operation, not to bend over the skylight but rather to turn off to one side with their backs to the wind, so as not to be caught by the sudden burst of heat or flame which may be pent up right below the skylight. At one operation of this kind some years ago, a man was so badly burned that he was maimed for life. Plaster hooks, or a short roof ladder with hooks open, can be used to remove a scuttle cover, or skylight with safety to the operators.

Stretching In

At a fire, the first officer in command to arrive should have a working knowledge of the structure. This will help him if the place is charged with smoke and there is no outward indication of what is burning or where the heart of the fire is located. It is our practice—-or mine at least—where a heavy smoke condition exists, to stretch a 2 1/2-inch line with a 1 1/8 or 1 1/2-inch controlling nozzle attached to the point where forcible entry into the premises is to be made, assuming, of course, that the fire has taken place after business hours. No entry should be made into smoke-charred premises from the street level until roof (or adequate rear) ventilation has taken place to permit the release of pent-up smoke and heated gases, thereby guarding against their ignition by the sudden inflow of oxygen from below mixing with the gases and causing an explosion, or “blow,” commonly known as back draft.

The line or lines—because more than one should be advanced ready for operation if there is heavy storage of combustible stock and large, unbroken areas —should be charged, ready for instant operation. It is also a wise precaution to have a charged line near roof openings, should the fire be serious enough to endanger the roof and get into window openings or threaten exposure.

Again, let me add that store windows may be broken out where it is necessary to rid the premises of charged gases, but let me caution you to do this so as not to risk injury to men who might be caught by a backdraft. Windows can be broken by means of a hook-, or short ladder operated by men standing to one side. Further, if there are fanlights over door or windows, they might be first broken out before taking out windows, to see if they will suffice to ventilate without removing the latter.

Attacking Basement Fires

Once the fire is located in the basement area, the problem is to reach it and extinguish it, at the same time confining it to prevent its extension via walls and partitions to roof areas.

Due to construction, it is usually a problem to attack the smoky cellar fire by way of interior stairways, even where masks are used. It is tough to reach effective interior positions, and tougher to hold them, when you have to face heated gases, heavy smoke and, possibly, fire itself. If this frontal attack is impossible, it is necessary to attempt to reach the fire through openings in the walk or street level, display windows or in the store floor. Once the heart of the cellar fire is located, effective work may be done by breaching party walls, it they exist, and operating streams through the openings.

Floor lights, if they are present, may be broken out and cellar pipes and distributors operated through the openings. Sometimes, when the fire is directly beneath the floor light, it may be necessary to cover this operation with a stream from a hand line until the water in the cellar or other appliance has started.

In general, fire fighting operations on a “taxpayer” basement fire are the same as those employed in fighting other type mercantile cellar fires. There is one important difference however. That is the possibility that the basement area may be open, or so partitioned or divided that the fire may quickly extend beyond the store area in which it originated. Just as the fire in concealed roof space may extend laterally almost faster than you can get to work to head it off, so the basement fire may extend laterally (as well as vertically) into other store cellar areas until the entire basement may become involved. This calls for quick survey and size-up, and the taking of prompt protective measures.

Every once in a while, a very stubborn cellar fire is encountered and, although every effort is made to ventilate the premises, lines are unable to advance to gain their objective. This is due to the great amount of heat, gases and smoke generated by an unusual amount of combustible stock, stored in large quantities, perhaps stacked in piles to the ceiling in equally combustible containers. This stock may be stored in such a way that little or no room is left for passageways that would enable firemen to get at the seat of the fire, or it may be piled up behind partitions which prevent penetration of a water stream, or distribution of spray or water fog. Under these conditions the fire department can hardly expect to extinguish the fire without large waste and loss. Such a fire calls for heroic measures if the building above the cellar is to be saved.

When these conditions are encountered, all, or at least some of the following procedures may prove effective:

  1. Flooding floors, which are nearly always coustructed of wood, with streams from hand lines, using large controlling nozzles or, in cases where there are excessive floor areas, open butts or open nozzles.
  2. Using special cellar pipes or distributors, where they can be operated effectively on the fire.
  3. Using heavy streams, with approved pipe and hose holders, where they are required to cover exposures, or to confine and extinguish the fire. If advisable, deck guns can be used to sweep the store interior to hold down extension of fire by stairways or through the floors or other openings. If pipe holders will aid hosemen to advance with heavy streams, they should be used.
  4. Of course, covering exposures and extensions of the fire vertically, and laterally, in basement and cockloft and roof areas.

In one case, where the floor was some 21 inches higher than the street level, risers in the steps were knocked in and a 300 GPM deck pipe stream driven into the cellar. This, with the addition of a second such stream, took the starch out of the fire, and hand lines could be advanced to kill the rest of the fire.

The occupancy in this case was a bad one for the fire-fighters, as it included stored crockery in corrugated cardboard containers, stuffed with excelsior and straw. This combination, and lack of oxygen, gave the men plenty of punishment. Many suffered for days with infected eyes and throats.

One other detail in fighting basement fires, which studies of ventilation may have omitted, is: Additional ventilation often can be provided by cutting up an opening in the floors approximately 4 x 10 feet, sides, front or rear, wherever windows may be located, not neglecting, of course, to be sure that any basement ceilings are pushed down, and that all possible obstructing partitions and so on are removed to give freest possible egress to the smoke and gases by way of the floor openings, and the nearby windows or other building opening. Sometimes, in cutting floors for ventilation, we forget to locate cuts where the smoke from the openings will be quickly drawn out through a window or other opening. Of course, care must be exercised to place a guard of some sort around such openings so that no one will fall into the apertures.

Spell Off Crews in Smoky Areas

Another detail: units operating in smoke charged basements should be relieved every 10 or 15 minutes, as conditions warrant. Men made ill and incapacitated by too severe fire duty are of no value to themselves or to the department.

In conclusion, a word or two more about the attic or cockloft fire. I’ve emphasized the importance of heading off extension in the concealed spaces, hanging-ceilings and so on. Let me repeat it—get ahead of the fire. Don’t be placed in the position of chasing it. This may mean opening a roof of a store one or two stores distant from that in which the fire appears to be centered. Don’t take what looks like a dividing or party wall too literally. Many a fire has progressed right through them only to pop out in the rear of firemen working on roofs. And finally, don’t overlook the cornice, particularly if it is a “hanging” cornice and of any size and extent. Fire, once introduced into such a cornice, may travel the length of the building, entering the cockloft over every store.

Fires in the roof sections may be attacked from below, if conditions enable men to get in on the floor, by pulling ceilings to expose the fire and prevent its travel. This is not a simple operation, particularly where ceilings are over 10 feet in height and of metal. Here the handy six foot plaster hook cannot be used but longer, heavier hooks are required.

Under these conditions two to three men should be assigned to a hook and it may be advisable to operate hooks in tandem, or teams. Naturally charged lines should be ready to kill fire that may be uncovered.

Summing Up

To sum up:

  1. Every chief officer (and company officers, too,) should know his “taxpayers”—construction, occupancy, exposures and hazards.
  2. These premises should be inspected frequently for violations to existing codes and ordinances (and violations should be removed or those responsible, prosecuted).
  3. Frequent drills may well be held on such structures and where it is advisable that out-of-town companies may be required to fight fire in such places, it is well to have the companies that will be called upon also drill with the local forces.
  4. Insist upon proper housekeeping: first-aid fire-fighting appliances and, where large areas are involved, if it can be done, secure the installation of sprinkler systems, at least for the basement.
  5. Deadlights or floor openings, covered by opaque glass or material that can be knocked out to enable cellar pipes and distributors to be used, are advantageous where large areas are involved (these are installed in many New England communities).
  6. Drill store employees in the use of first-aid fire-fighting extinguishers, and how to transmit alarms.
  7. Discourage promiscuous smoking; in large stores NO SMOKING rules should be enforced.
  8. Make quick, thorough “size up,” with particular attention to concealed spaces, hanging ceilings, partitions and basement areas.
  9. Play safe: call additional help if there is the slightest chance that you won’t be able to confine the fire.
  10. Taxpayers may, and often do, connect to adjoining stores and/or apartments. Survey these exposures to be certain fire has not communicated to these adjoining structures.
  11. In street level ventilating particularly, watch for backdrafts in opening up. Play safe; don’t expose men.
  12. Large streams and deck pipes may be necessary, even in “taxpayer fires.”
  13. Train your men in opening roofs and cornices; also in “pulling” ceilings, plaster and metal,—and working in tandem.
  14. Map out with all your officers, the fire fighting strategy you would, or might, follow in combating cellar, and roof-structure f ires (make it part of your drills). Secure floor and construction blueprints of the more important “taxpayers,” familiarize yourself with construction details.
A Taxpayer Can Make a Hot, as Well as Fast-Spreading, Fire This more permanent type taxpayer contained the typical occupancies including the ubiquitous cleaning shop—now a furnace. Note contents of trash can afire at far left.

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Taxpayer Fires Present Problems to Nation’s Fire Service

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