Close Calls: Massive Storm Poses Unique Risks - Part 2

Last month, we presented a fire service perspective on Hurricane Sandy and other massive storms that hit the mid-Atlantic coast within the past year and their impact on firefighters. This month, we report on after-the-storm factors, chiefly unusual structural conditions, by focusing on how this has affected operations of the Margate City, NJ, Fire Department (MCFD).

Our sincere thanks to Chief of Department Anthony Tabasso, Deputy Chief Daniel Adams and all the officers and members of the MCFD for sharing their story.


This continues the account provided by MCFD Deputy Chief Daniel Adams:

Two months after the storm, we started to see homes being raised up onto cribbing and foundation walls being built up to raise the livable space of these homes. Chief Tabasso and I went out and took pictures of these homes and documented the areas of concern in relation to fire suppression and potential collapse. We used the pictures as a training tool for our personnel and it started a discussion among us and the officers of the fire department as to the proper tactics to fight a fire in these raised structures.

Since Hurricane Sandy, a few areas of concern have come to light. My concern is this: We are seeing a number of homes being raised to elevate them out of the flood area or to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) restrictions for flood zones – the number of these homes being raised will continue to rise. A new challenge for firefighters.

What follows are special considerations for pre-planning, policy, training, response and fire operations in structures under these conditions.

These homes are raised on steel beams and wood cribbing is placed minimally at the four corners of the homes. The elevation of these homes on cribbing can be in excess of 10 feet off the ground, and the cribbing is the only thing holding them up. My first impression for fire attack would be to go right into a defensive operation for these reasons, to name a few:

1. Structural stability and collapse potential – The cribbing is sitting directly on the soil with no solid surface under it. When the ground gets wet, the cribbing could shift, making the home structurally unstable and potentially causing a collapse.

2. Fires – All sources of ignition have been removed during construction, so any fire was started accidentally by workmen or it is an incendiary fire. Therefore, you are unsure or unaware of the potential for multiple ignition points and what was used to start the fire.

3. Firefighter access – When asked about access considerations and defensive operations, the veteran fire command officers were in agreement.

• “Defensive operations of what is a pile of lumber! There is no way to control ventilation, so you have a pile of lumber free-burning. The only lives at stake are the folks we brought with us. Risk versus benefit clearly suggests defensive operations. We would not send our folks into a lumber shed nor should we send them into this situation. Protect exposures and master streams. These homes are a recipe for a LODD (line-of-duty death) report.”

• “Agreed. Strategic pre-planning would include videography and a primary concentration on domino-collapse affects. Un-staffed deluge devices would be a good bet, with pre-planned primary and secondary supply sources. The only life hazard is with the people we bring to the fight. We would not ‘go in’ either.”

• “I think you are on the mark – defensive operations. These homes are essentially vacant, correct? If it were our community, we would pre-plan the areas, identify water supply and go in either direct with deck guns/pipes, where accessible, or pre-connected three-inch to lightweight ground monitors for alleys, etc....along with 2½-inch for exterior maneuverability and reach. The best thing for those who own these homes – and your firefighters – is water on the fire, as quickly and heavily as possible...along with exposure protection, which in your area, “down the shore,” is a huge factor.”

With these statements and facts put together, we would all agree that the only option for fire attack is a defensive operation with large-diameter lines and unmanned deck guns. Obtain a substantial water supply and set up your collapse zones. Firefighter safety is of the utmost importance.

The training process for these structures within the MCFD started with the research of going out and collecting the information and pictures of these structures. All personnel reviewed the pictures and a discussion was held on fire attack operations. It was decided that if any of these raised structures is on fire, our attack operation will be defensive only.

• Obtain multiple water supplies

• Set up a collapse zone

• Use unmanned master stream devices

• Exposure protection is a priority

• Risk versus gain

Another concern for the structure sitting on the cribbing is the effect from wind. This structure does not have hurricane straps holding it to the ground; it is sitting on cribbing with wedges holding the structure up. A strong wind gust or a derecho could cause the collapse of such a structure.

There are still a number of homes in our municipality that have not been repaired and have gone untouched since the storm. These properties continue to fester and eventually will become a problem for us; it could be a fire hazard or it could be a potential collapse hazard.

The electrical components of these structures were compromised by saltwater. This will degrade the wiring connections and devices and over time they will break down to the point where they may short out. A number of the affected homes are summer properties, so when the owners come down to open up and turn on the main breaker, we are going to see problems. This is a recipe for disaster. The areas and municipalities around us have all seen an increase in the number of fires related to the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy and it will continue to rise.

My advice for firefighters is the same advice I give when lecturing firefighter candidates when we are talking about when size-up begins. It is my opinion that your initial size-up begins when you are driving in your community. Pay attention to the structures, specifically buildings under construction. How they are being built will have a direct effect on your tactics for fire attack. Specifically, take a close look at those buildings that are being raised now when you can see everything and you do not have tunnel vision focused on the fire. Look at the picture clearly; this will help develop your plan of attack when the alarm bell rings. Be prepared before the response occurs. Then, when a storm does strike, you will have all of that knowledge from your pre-fire size-up to assist you with the firefighting efforts during and after the storm.


These comments are by Chief Goldfeder following discussions with Deputy Chief Adams:

Chief Tabasso, Deputy Chief Adams and the officers and members of the MCFD “get it” because they have been there and understand the challenge. As one chief above stated, in so many cases, it is “a pile of lumber” that is burning when we arrive. Are we expected to take risks to save property? In many cases, yes, we are, but in this case, the property is as unpredictable as it can get because it was previously damaged. The absolute best thing we can do for people whose property we want to save is to put the fire out as quickly as possible. Period.

Deputy Chief Adams discussed size-up and if you have read this column more than once over the years, we have been saying it too – size-up is huge. The failure to size-up before and upon arrival has led to firefighter close calls, injury and death. Many firefighters think size-up is what you do when you pull up, but that’s only part of it.

Here is a better way to look at it.

1. Size-up before the fire:

• What do you protect? What are the buildings, risks and potential fire and rescue challenges in your response area?

• What do you want to do? What is the goal? Protect exposures? Put the fire out? Rescue people? In how long? In what percentage of the time?

• What resources do you have to do that with? What is your staffing and deployment plan? Where are the firehouses? What is your normal staffing? What are your response times? Where are your closest automatic/mutual aid resources?

2. Size-up upon arrival at the fire:

• What do you have on arrival? What’s the building? Where is the fire? Where was it? Where is it going? What’s the plan?

• What do you want to do? What is the goal? Protect the exposures? Put the fire out? Rescue the people?

• What resources do you have to do that with? What is coming on your first-alarm assignment? Does it match the problem you just sized-up? What do you want to accomplish? Stretch three-inch or 1¾-inch lines? Two-inch lines? A deck gun? Do you need to go inside? If so, how many floors do you want searched? Where do you want it vented?

You know the drill. The point is that you are much better off pre-planning ahead – pre-planning every aspect of your community, well before “that” run comes in. In the case of the MCFD, firefighters were faced with some extremely unusual challenges, and they planned for them well before there was a problem. Good stuff we can all learn from. n


William Goldfeder presents “Fireground Command, Control and Accountability: The Fire Time Line,” “Firefighter Injury and Death: ‘Simple’ Dwelling Fire, ‘Complicated’ Results” and “Swiss Cheese and The Fireground” at Firehouse Expo 2013, July 23-27 in Baltimore, MD.