On The Job – Texas: Apartment Cockloft Fire Taxes Houston Firefighters as 30 Units Are Destroyed in Fast-Spreading Inferno

Tom McDonald reports on a fire in a non-sprinklered building that gave more than 100 Houston firefighters one of their toughest assignments in many months.

HOUSTON FIRE DEPTARTMENT Chief: Phil Boriskie Personnel: 3,877 career firefighters Apparatus: 87 engines, 37 ladders (including three towers), one heavy rescue, two tactical rescues, three air cascade units, plus fully integrated EMS operations, a Hazardous Materials Response Team and ARFF...

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The smoke billowing from the apartment building obscured any visibility on the roof, so an early plan to cut a trench across the width of the building had to be abandoned simply because the smoke was too thick to make it even a remotely safe task. As Ladders 51 and 76 and Tower 69 operated aerial pipes into the fire, a third alarm was struck. When the additional manpower arrived, crews were given needed relief. Periodically, the pipes were turned off and additional attempts were made to attack the fire from underneath. Eventually, however, the fire marched through the full length of the cockloft and third floor.

Problems Faced

This fire presented far more problems than those in a typical apartment fire, but nearly all were problems commonly encountered by fire departments across the country, just not all at once. As the fire building was more than two decades old, built under different codes than those in effect today, it possessed undesirable features that hampered firefighting efforts. A similar building built today in Houston would be required to have sprinklers throughout, attic separations and standpipes, giving firefighters several advantages. The added set of circumstances unique to this fire — remote location, several normal companies not available, and life and fire extension problems immediately present — all combined to give first-in units an almost unbearable set of problems, but command focused on the key priorities and, as a result, no lives were lost.

Key points and lessons learned from this fire include:

With limited resources, perform search, rescue, and exposure protection first
Back crews out of fires when major safety concerns arise
Get additional resources on the way early
Rehab firefighters frequently when smoke and high heat are taking their toll
Position apparatus, especially aerials, where they will benefit most
Consider trench cuts on long roofs with open cocklofts

Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Winfield II Condominiums

4:16 P.M.: Box — Engines 68, 10, 82 and 51; Ladders 76 and 51; District Chiefs 68 and 83; Ambulance 10; Squad 68; and Safety 2.

4:22: Special — Engines 73 and 69; and Rescue 10 (added for life hazard).

4:25: 1-11 — Engine 83; Tower 69; District Chief 28; and Cascade 2.

4:32: 2-11 — Engines 60, 48, 28 and 75; Ladders 28 and 75; District Chiefs 21 and 59; Rescue 11; Safety 15; Cascade 23; Rehab 17; EMS Captain 57; Command Van 11; and Shift Commander 27.

5:03: 3-11 — Engines 70, 35, 78 and 508; Ladders 16 and 21; District Chiefs 78 and 5; EMS Captain 2; and EMS Chief 11.

6:11: 4-11 — Engines 77, 43, 13 and 37; Ladders 26 and 18; and District Chiefs 8 and 6.

7:42: — Under control (three hours, 26 minutes).

Strategies & Tactics Reinforced

Recognize specific risks associated with certain types of older apartment structures, especially life-safety concerns in non-sprinklered buildings with interior hallways as well as containment concerns in buildings with wood exteriors and open attics or cocklofts. Summon additional resources quickly when any of these risks are present at a fire.

When limited resources are on hand, search, rescue and exposure control trump all other concerns. Containing fire movement within the original structure may need to be sacrificed until these first priorities are addressed.

As firefighter safety trumps all other concerns on the fire ground, when explosions from unknown sources occur during a fire, back crews out of the fight until the danger can be thoroughly assessed, even if it temporarily means having to let the fire grow larger. Account for all personnel on scene after such evacuation orders.

Summer heat and humidity can sap firefighter strength quickly, even among the most seasoned crews, especially those doing labor-intensive tasks. Summon additional help early when even just the potential for a tough firefight exists. Rotate interior crews frequently when they are subjected to such adverse conditions.

Be cognizant of the potential for commuter rush hours to have major impacts on response times of additional resources, especially when most units will have to use a high-volume road or highway to get to the scene.

In major apartment fires, position apparatus carefully for maximum efficiency and exposure protection, combining, if possible, the sometimes mutually exclusive goals of staying out of a collapse zone while allowing for other apparatus to pass. Take extra time to position rear-mount aerial devices so that aerials are directed behind rear wheels. This often results in a higher vehicle stability, sufficient stream reach, and much less danger from radiant heat or structural collapse.