By Michael N. Ciampo
Responding to what appear to be minor and routine incidents proved once again that the ordinary can quickly turn into the extraordinary. Although unusual incidents may be few and far between, they do prove that if it happened once it’s sure to occur again. At these incidents, we have to keep our minds focused and let our training and operating policies guide us into action. Learning from these incidents and events will be a sure thing because they are not part of our “routine” responses.
Responding mid-morning for an odor of smoke coming from an apartment on the fourth floor of a multiple dwelling is a somewhat routine call for the Fire Department of New York. During the response, multiple thoughts run through your mind, everything from “food on the stove” to a working structure fire. On arrival nothing was showing, and the building looked lifeless. As we climbed up the stairs, nothing was evident until we reached the apartment door. Here we detected a faint odor, but it was not the common odor of burning food, paper, mattress, or wood.
We knocked on the door but received no response. One member placed a halligan tool between the door and jamb and pried; this created a small gap between the door and jamb, from which heavy black smoke began to issue. Forcible entry procedures were now going into full swing in the smoke-free public hallway, but the faint unknown odor was still present. At about this time, some members started to feel a slight scratchy throat sensation.
As we forced the door, the smoke condition in the apartment was clearly visible. It was a heavy, black smoke, so we quickly donned our SCBA. We entered the apartment in zero visibility and began our primary search. Five feet into the apartment, we came across a conscious and aggravated elderly male, who yelled and insisted there was no fire in his apartment. After removing him to safety, we continued with our primary search in zero visibility with no noticeable heat conditions. At about this time, the units operating in the apartment on the floor above were reporting an unusual and obnoxious odor with no smoke conditions.
In the fire apartment, we opened windows to assist us in ventilation efforts and in locating the seat of the fire. As we stood in the kitchen and opened the windows, a sudden change occurred in the room: We suddenly saw five small fires burning up the walls in this small four by eight galley kitchen. Initially, I thought of arson because of the separate locations. We used a pressurized water extinguisher to put out the small fires as the handline was being stretched into position. On further investigation and at the conclusion of operations, we determined that this was no ordinary kitchen fire.
Responding mid-afternoon for a fire in an apartment on the third floor of a multiple dwelling also turned out to be an unusual incident. Arriving on the scene with numerous occupants fleeing the building will make any firefighter “turn it up a notch” even though nothing was showing. Climbing up the stairs against traffic always proves to be a challenge, and the fire apartment’s occupant hunched over on the second floor landing didn’t help matters. We asked the occupant, “Is anybody in there?” and received a blank stare. The occupant’s face was soot stained, his eyes were tearing, he was coughing, and his head was shaking from side to side. We escorted him down the stairs and proceeded up to the reported fire apartment.
As we arrived on the third floor, we saw an open door to the fire apartment and no smoke issuing from it. As we entered the apartment, we could see a slight hazy smoke condition at the end of the long hallway. Most of us were thinking that it could possibly be a mattress fire because of the light haze and the victim’s condition. In a split second, an odor took our breaths away and dropped us to our knees, coughing and gagging while we quickly tried to don our face pieces. Trying to relay this information to the chief was difficult because of our coughing and irritated throats. The odor was somewhat familiar and something that we had experienced before.
Our search started from the front door inward toward the light haze; we ventilated and searched as we proceeded. At about that time, the outside vent firefighter reported an unusual odor coming from the apartment and light smoke conditions coming from the window on the fire escape. The odor was familiar to me, but I thought maybe it was a cleaning solution, a sulfur candle, or something worse. (It definitely wasn’t the odor of polyurethane and floors being refinished. Recently, we had been experiencing an increase in those types of flash fire incidents.)
Once we reached the kitchen, we found a thermal pane window that was cracked and shattered. A mini-explosion took place prior to our arrival and was later confirmed by other tenants who had witnessed the incident. On the kitchen floor were four cans of aerosol roach foggers; two were knocked over with burnt wrappers; the other two were still discharging a slight vapor mist. We wet them down with the pressurized water extinguisher and began overhaul operations.
We then noticed that some of the lower cabinets were scorched. When we opened their doors under the sink, we found smoldering materials along with two additional aerosol roach cans. These cans were also expelled and had burnt wrappers; we cooled them down with the pressurized water can. That brought the total to six cans for this small six- by eight-foot kitchen. After extended ventilation efforts, we left the scene. Most of us were now experiencing irritated throats from our short exposure to the aerosol bug foggers.
COMPARISON AND ANALYSIS
In both of these incidents, there were many similarities. Both involved cases of human error leading to a fire and hazardous condition. Both occupants didn’t dispense the aerosol roach foggers according to the manufacturer’s recommended instructions. They both left the stove’s pilot lights on, which turned out to be the ignition source for the foggers’ vapors. They also placed five or six cans of the fogger in a small kitchen area, which released a large amount of highly flammable vapor into a small room. A normal can of aerosol roach fogger is intended for use in an area of 5,000 cubic feet, or a 25-foot 2 25-foot room with an eight-foot-high ceiling.1
At both incidents, firefighters were exposed to an unusual and obnoxious odor even though no visible signs of smoke or fire were initially evident. At first the odors were just a small nuisance, and we continued working in what we thought to be a “clean environment.” Soon we were reminded of how bad for our health the odors could be.
The odor was so strong and overpowering at the second incident that it stopped us “dead in our tracks” as we were walking through a smoke-free environment. The odors and vapors from these foggers affected all of the firefighters exposed to it. Everyone had experienced some form of throat irritation, coughing, and difficulty in talking after the exposure.
On arrival at the fire apartments, we were met by two different smoke conditions. At the first incident, a heavy black smoke was present once we forced the apartment door. The smoke’s source was found to be the vapors that were still burning from the dispensing cans. At the second incident, only a light haze was present in the apartment. Smoldering materials in the kitchen were the only things discovered burning, but the cans were also still dispensing their vapors into the atmosphere. Both incidents were similar in nature, although they exhibited different signs and characteristics.
- When responding to any type of call for smoke, gas, or another odor, all firefighters should be required to have their SCBA with them. If we had not worn SCBA at these incidents, we would have suffered serious injuries. Remember, the caller is calling 9-1-1 because there is an emergency. The caller may not be able to completely define the problem in terms of the type of odor. Many departments are “stumbling” across clandestine drug labs. Having an SCBA on hand is primary life-saving equipment.
- At the first incident, although a heavy volume of black acrid smoke was present in the apartment, there were no measurable heat conditions in any of the rooms. We’ve experienced fires such as these before—a room could be partially burnt out or just smoldering because of thermal pane windows’ sealing characteristics. These types of windows have drastically changed fire conditions and have even changed some of our firefighting procedures.
- Stretching a hoseline at both incidents proved to be very helpful. Although the smoke and fire conditions were different, the line was still in place for protection and extinguishment. In both incidents, the line could have been used to cool down the aerosol cans prior to a firefighter’s touching the cans. We also used the line’s fog vent to help ventilate the apartment.
- During overhaul procedures, always use caution opening up cabinets or closets. Hidden fire could be behind the closed doors. Using a tool to open cabinet doors is an effective way to keep a firefighter out of harm’s way. This procedure is recommended for opening cabinets under a sink, where all sorts of chemicals are normally stored.
- When faced with unusual odor incidents, firefighters may have to proceed more cautiously and deviate from aggressive interior attack mode. Searching each room as you proceed, looking for overcome victims, and ventilating as you proceed may be the course of action. At both incidents, it was necessary to search all the apartments directly above. An unsealed dumbwaiter shaft converted to a pantry in the apartments had let the vapors travel upward and affect the apartments above.
- At unusual odor incidents, consider the response of a hazardous-materials unit or a trained response unit equipped with metering devices. If the situation is minor, the unit can always be returned.
- Have a system in place to clean and decontaminate firefighting bunker gear after such incidents. Spare personal protective equipment or “loaner gear” should be available while the regular gear is being cleaned.
- Calling the manufacturer and receiving a material safety data sheet (MSDS) gave us insight into the product and its hazards. The MSDS also listed using water, foam, dry chemical, or carbon dioxide as extinguishing agents for this highly flammable aerosol. The aerosol may support combustion and may decompose to give off toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and others.2 Consider using a CO meter at such incidents.
- File exposure reports for all members exposed at such incidents. If you can determine the exposure product, you can get a copy of the MSDS and review it. After reviewing the MSDS, you may need to update the exposure report with other pertinent information. Keep a copy of the MSDS with the exposure report.
- All exposed members should be checked out by a medical professional once they develop symptoms from their exposure, no matter how short of an exposure or how minor the symptoms.
- At the second incident, radio messages were difficult to transmit and understand because of the short exposure to the vapors. Having radio equipment with the emergency Mayday button would have proved useful if the firefighters had been unable to transmit a verbal Mayday.
- Tenants self-exiting down the interior stairs during a fire always make it a hectic and frantic event. Having a tenant blocking a landing or creating a “bottleneck” adds to the confusion of tenants fleeing
1. Ortho Consumer Hotline, The Ortho Group. Columbus, Ohio, (888) 270-3714.
2. Material Safety Data Sheet, Speckoz Evercide Total Release Fogger, Prosar, St. Paul, Minnesota.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a lieutenant and an 18-year veteran of the fire service and has spent the past 13 years in the Fire Department of New York. Prior to joining FDNY, he served five years with the Washington, D.C., Fire Department. He has a B.A. degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is a certified New York state fire instructor and has been the lead instructor for the FDIC and FDIC West H.O.T. laddering class. He is also an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.