The "Everyday Routine Complex" Fire


Firefighters in any city or town that has "mixed-multiple" structures can tell you of their own experiences with fires occurring in them. I'm sure many have had something unusual happen in them. After any fire at which something bad has happened to firefighters, it is imperative that research be done to determine whether it could happen again and affect the operating safety of firefighters.

This column is about three fires that occurred within several months, all involving mixed-multiple structures and where something unusual happened that left a learning experience. What happened also fortified that firefighting must follow strong procedures to be efficient and successful. If that happens, then firefighter safety will be enhanced for everyone on the scene.

Potential for Backdraft

A box alarm was dispatched for a reported fire in a building on Lansing Avenue in Cleveland, OH. The neighborhood features tightly compacted streets and many mixed-multiple buildings. Upon arrival, the first-due company reported light to medium smoke coming from the second floor of a 2½-story building. Light gray smoke was issuing from the front upstairs windows in a "bump-out"-like structure and there was a definite smell of a structure fire (see Photo 1).

First-due Engine 11 stretched into the structure. The entrance to upstairs was midway down the side of the fire building via a driveway between two similar buildings. The acting officer of Engine 11 and the forcible entry firefighter from Ladder 11 were at the top of the stairs waiting for the nozzleman to arrive. Word came up the stairway that a person might be trapped in the apartment.

The door to the apartment was locked. As the line was still being stretched into position, the acting engine officer and forcible entry firefighter masked up to make entry. There was no smoke in the hallway; just a very strong odor of it. The forcible entry firefighter smashed at the door with the head of his axe, but the officer stopped that action until the line was in place and charged. Then the acting officer held onto the door knob while the door was forced open, controlling the opening. The outside vent crew raised ground ladders and began taking out the front windows. The windows of the turret were completely taken out, and then other windows were taken out, working away from the fire area.

Inside, there was a heavy smoke condition down to the floor throughout the entire apartment. Heat was banked down to about three feet from the floor at the rear of the apartment. Firefighters moved in, staying low with the hoseline and looking for the fire's location, while other firefighters behind the nozzle team searched rooms in the rear of the unit. The fire area was a room in the front of the apartment. Much of the flame was reduced to smoldering ashes as it seems there was not enough oxygen to allow a free-burning fire. Upon finding the fire room, the nozzleman washed down the room with the stream using a solid-bore nozzle, and then attached a fog tip to mechanically vent out the window.

The situation was placed under control and the primary search proved negative for any victims. An examination was made of the entire fire apartment by firefighters. There was extreme heat damage to every room. The fire room was gutted, leaving nothing but char (see Photo 2). The entire apartment was blackened and damaged from the dense smoke, heavy carbonization and heat. As firefighters were looking things over, it was realized this incident had the potential for a backdraft, but quick and early venting combined with attack coordination may have a prevented a sudden ignition of the smoke and gases.

It was noted that the door to a bedroom three feet from the destroyed bedroom was closed during the incident (see Photo 3). After the fire, that room was examined and no smoke or heat damage was found. It was surmised that anyone in this room would have had a greater chance of survival just from having the door closed as a barrier to the fire.

Lessons learned:

  1. Arrival — The first fire company on the scene must give a good, clear situation report of its initial size-up. This can tell other units what their jobs will be when they arrive. In this case, the time of day and the type of situation dictated an occupied structure with a working fire. A light-to-medium smoke condition was visible from outside the structure, but no flame was visible. The report of a possible trapped occupant made for a complex incident.
  2. Stretching in — The first-due engine is responsible for the initial attack hoseline and must make sure it is long enough to access the fire area. This line must be made quickly, using enough hose to reach the fire and beyond, perhaps with only an initial-arriving crew. The second-due engine must make sure this first line is played out before stretching a second line. Here, the stretch was down a driveway, upstairs to a hallway, into the fire apartment and toward the front to reach the fire. Pump pressure and attack volume are critical to firefighter safety and efficiency. Hence, a good "bleed" of the hoseline is necessary.
  3. Forcible entry — Door control! Read the fire conditions and what they are telling you. Don't be so quick to smash a door off its hinges. If conditions are right, firefighters could be met with a ball of fire or even a backdraft. Use the "irons" for this work.
  4. Ventilation — Ventilation is not a fan blowing air into a fire building! This fire had to be channeled out of the front of the building properly. Venting this fire required ladders, hooks and firefighters, and they needed to coordinate opening-up with the fire attack/entry crew. Use your portable radios to coordinate on the fireground.
  5. Search and rescue — Here, as the initial attack line was being stretched in, someone from outside yelled in that "There might be a man in there!" Obviously, there forced a new sense of urgency. Firefighters at the top of the stairs nevertheless masked up and the hoseline was there in seconds. This can be a tough judgment call — to make entry without the protection of a charged hoseline or wait a few seconds for a charged line. Many firefighters have their own stories of making entry under such conditions, only to have the fire light up around them.
  6. Stairways and hallways — Interior hallways in older structures are narrow. Sometimes, occupants have stored their possessions there. During fire operations, they can become crowded with firefighters. Don't let this happen. If the first firefighters inside run into a problem and must retreat, their path must be clear.

No Flame Showing

The second unusual fire occurred at approximately 9:45 P.M. A box alarm was transmitted for a building on fire in the 6000 block of Fleet Avenue in Cleveland (see Photo 4). Upon arrival, people on the sidewalk were pointing upstairs to a working fire in progress. Extremely heavy black smoke was pushing from the second-floor front and west side of the building, but no flame was showing. As engine members were stretching a 1¾-inch line into the building, the senior firefighter told the first-due ladder company to remove the front and west-side windows right away.

The stretch of that initial attack hoseline was down a driveway on side B of the building, up an outside covered stairway and into the rear of the fire apartment, a layout of hose requiring five lengths. As firefighters were masking-up at the top of the stairs, heavy, black smoke was swirling down to the floor and being pulled forcefully back into the apartment by the fire's draw. The nozzle was charged and bled, and then firefighters moved in. Many times, a fire will give little tips that can help lead firefighters to its location. However, in this case, there were no crackling or popping sounds, nor was there any heavy heat condition — just zero visibility and fast-moving smoke. There was no flame or glow.

As firefighters moved deeper into the apartment, the senior firefighter told the nozzleman to "wash down the ceiling." This was a precautionary move to cool fire gases and prevent rollover or flashover from occurring, since time was passing without seeing flame or finding the fire. Yet, there was a working fire in this unit, creating even more gases and high heat. Thus, there was an increased chance of rapid ignition of gases. If the gases were not cooled, they might have ignited or explode into flame.

(Note: Many firefighters are taught during their basic training to wait until they see fire before opening the nozzle — they take this with them as gospel throughout their careers! However, in out-of-control fire situations, there comes a point when if the fire gases ignite, the nozzle may not be able to handle the amount of heat and flames that a rollover or flashover creates; thus, firefighters are burned. Cooling the fire gases prevents this from happening, making a safer environment for firefighters to operate in. Don't use fog streams, only straight streams — solid streams are better — directed at the upper areas of the room. And don't worry about water damage in extreme fire conditions and don't let the fire environment degenerate to the point where you must rely on your turnout gear to save your life. If that is the case, your extinguishment efforts have failed.)

The nozzleman stopped at one point while the senior firefighter found a bedroom and knocked a window out. At that moment, ventilation took effect. The two front rooms of the apartment lit up in flames and the heat throughout the apartment suddenly built up and banked down to the floor. The attack firefighters moved back to the kitchen area to get their bearings in the apartment unit as the fire now showed itself. The attack crew moved in and the fire was handled with 1¾-inch hoseline using the 15/16th-inch solid bore of a break-apart nozzle.

As the fire in both rooms was knocked down, firefighters with tools moved in to perform truck duties — opening the walls and ceilings, removing the wood moldings, etc. The fire did extend to the attic area, but that was handled by another engine company that stretched a second line, as proper firefighting procedures call for.

Lessons learned:

  1. Arrival — Upon arrival, heavy, black smoke was coming from the upstairs apartment. The first-due engine positioned itself to let the truck take the front of the fire building and stretch a 1¾-inch attack line. The hose stretch was across the front of the fire building, down a driveway, up an outside entrance stairway and into the rear of the fire apartment. The line then had to be worked toward the front of the apartment. Proper pump pressures must be considered. Fire departments using pre-connected hoselines must be sure of their amount of hose so they don't have a short stretch or have at least one static hosebed on each engine.
  2. Stretching in — While making entry into the apartment, black smoke was down to the floor and being drawn into the fire. Make sure your hoseline is charged and bled and that the stream pressure and volume are ready before making entry into such areas. Inside the middle of the apartment, the nozzleman directed his stream at the ceiling without seeing any flame. This is done to cool fire gases and reduce chance of rollover. Keep the hoseline as straight as possible when moving in, for manageability and in case you have to follow it back out for safety.
  3. Ventilation — Ventilation at the windows is as important as putting water on the fire. Without it, the fire continues to grow and interior conditions worsen to the point of flashover, putting firefighters in peril. A positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fan will only drive fire, smoke and heat into other areas of the building. In this case, the fire was drawing smoke back into the building!
  4. Fire extension — Multiple hoselines were needed as the fire extended to the attic. Fire officers and firefighters must always expect extension. Don't be surprised. Fire departments should equip their engines with hosebeds and hoseloads that allow for multiple and easy stretches. Consider the amount of personnel responding with an apparatus.

Fire in the Cockloft

The third unusual fire occurred in the early-morning hours and was well-involved with heavy fire showing on arrival. The building, also on Fleet Avenue, was a large mixed occupancy with the first-floor mercantile area being remodeled and closed with steel overhead roll-down doors. The upstairs contained two apartments with a rear stairway access.

The first-due engine company positioned itself and stretched a two-inch attack line with a one-inch solid-bore nozzle down an alley to the rear of the building where the entrance was located. The second floor had heavy smoke down to the floor. Firefighters started flowing water toward the fire area and pulling ceilings. Within minutes, with no reduction in fire volume, it was realized that the fire was in the cockloft. Using the larger handline and pulling ceilings enough to gain control or at least stop the fire's movement were not successful and firefighters were pulled from the building for fear of a roof collapse.

It was estimated afterward that the fire in the cockloft had spread over the building before or when firefighters arrived. In a situation like this, when a department starts offensive operations and switches to defensive, it should go through the steps of personnel accountability and then prepare for a heavy-stream attack. This means setting up heavy streams in certain locations for containment and extinguishment. A concern in older neighborhoods is the water supply. If water is lacking, then extra alarms for engines may be needed to provide relay operations. If tower ladders or other special heavy-stream equipment is called for, then the incident commander may need to "open" the fireground to accommodate them when they arrive for work.

Exterior exposures were a strong concern in this case, as a large wood-frame residential structure was located less than four feet from the fire building. A ladder pipe and a handline were used for protection and were successful.

Lessons learned:

  1. Expect fire to spread in these buildings — even the small ones.
  2. Anticipate long hose stretches.
  3. In heavy smoke conditions, it will take you longer to stretch in and locate the fire. In that case, make sure your attack lines are capable of flowing at least "target flow" capacity. That's your protection if conditions deteriorate.

JEFF SHUPE has been a firefighter for the Cleveland, OH, Fire Department since 1981. He also serves as an acting lieutenant and a fire training instructor. Shupe is an Ohio Fire Academy field training officer and lead instructor for the Cleveland Fire Department's "Back to Basics" program. He has an associate of applied science degree in fire technology from Cuyahoga Community College and holds State of Ohio certifications as a Hazardous Materials Technician, Emergency Medical Technician and Firefighter Instructor. Shupe was Cleveland's "Firefighter of the Year" in 2007.