Venting Through 40-Inch-Thick Roof

Venting Through 40-Inch-Thick Roof

Cork insulation fire is smoky worker for Philadelphia firemen

Picture a six-story brick meat-packing house with three windowless upper floors used for freezer rooms, having walls lined with 12-inch-thick cork insulation plastered with one inch of portland cement. The 58 X 100-foot building had a roof composed of 30 inches of concrete and layered cinders with seven inches of cork insulation and a top coat of three inches of asphalt. The floors were of concrete or packing house brick or a combination of both.

The floors were littered with abandoned pallets, old lumber, and dismantled piping because the building, constructed in 1909, was being demolished.

The sixth floor was heavily charged with an acrid smoke when Engine 30, Ladder 18 and the chief of the 8th Battalion responded to a local alarm at the Morrell-Felin Packing Company plant at 4142 Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia at 3:29 p.m. last December 5.

Sprinklers disconnected

When he reached the scene. Battalion Chief Roth noticed light smoke drifting from the cornice and coming through bricks at the top of the southeast corner of the building. Entering the building at the loading platform, he met a man employed by the firm that was salvaging equipment from the building. The workman told the chief that “something was burning in the wall on the sixth floor.” He also said that sprinklers and standpipes had been disconnected.

Roth told his aide to have Engine 30 stretch a 21/2-inch line up the fire tower to the sixth floor. When he reached the sixth floor, the chief opened a door to a room about 58 X 90 feet, practically the entire floor area, and faced a heavy volume of choking, acrid smoke.

Returning to the first floor, he instructed Engine 30, along with two men from Ladder 18, to don demandtype breathing apparatus and go to the sixth floor via the fire tower. Ladder 18 was ordered to raise its ladder to the roof and ventilate if possible. Simultaneously, Roth ordered a box alarm transmitted. This was struck at 3:35 p.m., bringing Engines 72, 59, 50, Ladder 29, Battalion Chief 9 and Deputy Chief 2 to the scene. Via radio, all engine companies responding were ordered to stretch off with 21/2-inch lines to the sixth floor and have men equipped with breathing apparatus.

Ventilation problem

At the top of the stairs, there was a small hallway approximately 4 X 16 feet with a 3 X 7-foot heavy wood, metal-covered door leading into the refrigeration room. Opening the door, one met the same heavy smoke conditions that prevented entry into the fire area. Roth realized that this was a large refrigerated storage area with no means of providing effective ventilation. Checking with employees of the salvage company confirmed this suspicion. The only openings were the doors to the elevator shaft and the fire tower. An immediate thought was to use the elevator shaft for ventilation, but this was ruled out because a fireman might become confused or “lost” in the heavy smoke and fall down the shaft.

Responding units were now ordered to assist the first engine company and then the second engine company to get their lines in position for service. These companies were ordered to break down to 11/2-inch lines off wyes on the fifth floor. Ladder 29 was ordered to raise its ladder to the roof and assist Ladder 18 in attempting to breach the roof.

At this point, Deputy Chief Howard J. O’Drain, commanding the 2nd Division, arrived on the fireground and assumed command. He met Roth on the sixth floor and was briefed as to conditions and planned operations.

No visibility

He found that even though equipped with breathing apparatus, men were not able to advance hose lines into the fire area, chiefly because of the total lack of visibility in the heavy smoke in the room and emitting into the hallway, and the obstacles on the floor, such as stacked pallets, pipe racks, many lengths of cut pipe, tanks and tools, support columns, etc. However, O’Drain was struck by the total absence of any appreciable amount of heat, which would have indicated a large body of fire, and he correctly surmised that the fire was in the cork insulation lining the walls.

At 3:45 p.m., Chemical 1 was special called to fill breathing apparatus cylinders from its cascade system. A check with Battalion Chief Martin Preite, 9th Battalion, on the roof disclosed that the roof was of concrete construction. A special call was placed for SS 98, an air compressor apparatus. Upon its arrival, the ladder companies were ordered to place a pneumatic air drill in service on the roof to make an opening.

A conference with the chiefs and company employees indicated that the fifth floor layout was similar to that of the sixth floor. It was determined from employees that the fire was in the south wall. O’Drain paced off the distance from the fire tower hallway to a point about 60 feet into the room, then made a right angle turn, and it was 40 feet to the south wall. It was determined that this route would have to be cleared and followed, rather than use the more sure way of following the walls, because the wall areas were lined with cut pipe racks, pallets, skids, etc., in which men might become hopelessly entangled.

Light used as beacon

Chiefs O’Drain and Roth then proceeded into the fire area with a guide rope, traveling in a straight line to a point about 60 feet into the room. There, they found a glow that was barely visible. It was a bright overhead light that would serve as a beacon. From this beacon, a right turn of 40 feet would take the men to the fire.

Firemen were then organized into four-man teams with breathing apparatus. To insure an adequate supply of air on the fireground, Chemical 2 was special called.

The first team, with the leader wearing a guide line, advanced into the fire area. The other members, holding on to the guide line, advanced a 1/2-inch line to the seat of the fire. The next team stood by in the hallway with the captain of Engine 59, who was detailed to time the men from the moment they left for a period of 10 minutes.

A staging area was set up on the fifth floor under the direction of the captain of Engine 50, who organized teams, sent them in turn to the sixth floor landing, saw to it that breathing apparatus was refilled, etc. During this operation. Engine 72 was used exclusively for refilling air cylinders from the chemical companies’ cascade systems, and firemen from Engine 50 were detailed to replace empty cylinders on fire fighters’ backs.

When the 10-minute working time expired, a fireman was sent along the guide line to tell the team to come out. After all five men returned, the next team of four men entered, using a guide line on their leader and following the hose line to the seat of the fire. Only one guide line was used to cut down chances of lines being fouled by litter on the floor.

Realizing that the overhead light could be seen dimly when close to it, O’Drain ordered the ladder companies to set up a string of 500-watt lights along the pathway, and these served as beacons. Although these lights did little to illuminate the room, their glow could be seen when close to them.

Units operating in the dense smoke reported that there was an almost complete lack of heat in the lire area, and they surmised that was because the walls and ceiling of the room were lined with ice, almost a foot in thickness, which was absorbing much of the heat as it melted.

Satisfied that the fire was being checked, O’Drain turned his attention to the problem of ventilation, and this was indeed a problem as the roof was over three feet thick.

Smoke difficult to move

A smoke ejector was placed in service in the sixth-floor hallway with the sleeve out the only window on that floor. It did little good. It is thought that the heavy humidity of the smoke and the absence of heat prevented an effective draw-off.

Deputy Chief John Hammes and Acting Battalion Chief James McDevitt arrived on the fireground to relieve at the change of shifts, and they were briefed on the situation.

It was noted on the fifth floor that large chunks of ice were falling from the ceiling. Hammes ordered a check of the sixth floor ceiling along the route the men were using to make sure that falling ice would not endanger them. It was determined that ice on the ceiling of the fire area had already melted, and there was no problem.

When the ladder companies completed the first roof opening, a smoke ejector was placed in service. Apparently because of the high humidity and low temperature of the smoke, it did not do an effective job. Hammes ordered Engine 72 to stretch a 1-inch high-pressure booster line to the roof, lower it through the opening, and then ventilate from below, using the highpressure fog stream to draw off the smoke on a venturi principle. When the second opening was made, another high-pressure fog stream was used similarly.

Burning cork uncovered

This action drew off the smoke, which diminished to a point where men working in the fire area were able to remove their breathing apparatus and locate the exact areas of burning insulation. The ladder companies then proceeded to open the inside cement liner of the south and east walls and strip out burning cork for extinguishment.

The fire was placed under control by Hammes at 9:10 p.m., although some first-alarm units remained on the fireground until 12:30 a.m., when they were relieved by a fireground detail of one lieutenant and five firemen with a pumper for continued wetting down of smoldering cork. At the 8 a.m. change of shift, the detail was reduced to one lieutenant and three firemen. The detail was lifted at 1:00 p.m. on December 6.


Areas of buildings such as this, with limited access, inadequate ventilation, etc., create an unusual fire extinguishment problem. When sprinklers and standpipes are being dismantled, the contractor should maintain standby lines during demolition work.

The feasibility of having the staging area on another floor was proven by the fact it helped keep the hallway to the fire area clear, and it provided a lighted area for filling air bottles, keeping check on the men, etc. This fire, involving a large area with many obstacles, showed a need for the staging area and a firm method of accounting for all men. If men had entered this area unchecked, someone might have become “lost.”

The use of lights as beacons was proven. While they did not in any sense illuminate the room, they were visible when close by and provided a visible lane for operations.

Special equipment useful

The fire proved the value of having specialized equipment available for penetrating the roof. While other city departments might have provided this equipment, at the time of the fire it might have been difficult to obtain it promptly. Further, fire fighters were trained in its use under fire conditions.

The need was proven for having adequate refills for breathing apparatus and a means of refilling from cascade systems.

Manpower was supplemented by the arrival of the on-coming shift at 6 p.m., which relieved a crew bordering exhaustion. Had this fire occurred at an earlier time of day, it probably would have necessitated a second alarm for manpower only. One of the drains on manpower was carrying breathing apparatus cylinders up and down stairs, as the only elevator shorted out early in the operation.

Smoke ejectors were used in conjunction with high-pressure fog lines to provide a means of ventilation. A lM-inch line was used on fog at the doorway to clear smoke out of the hallway.

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