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

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 units at two commercial airports
Population: 2.1 million
Area: 617 square miles

On the sweltering afternoon of Tuesday, June 13, 2006, a fire in a non-sprinklered, three-story apartment building with an open cockloft and interior hallways gave more than 100 members of the Houston Fire Department (HFD) one of their toughest assignments in many months. While the city baked under 100-degree heat, firefighters battled the four-alarm blaze for three hours. More than two dozen families were left homeless.

The first alarm at the Winfield II Condominiums was dispatched at 4:16 P.M., sending more than 30 firefighters, including two incident command system (ICS) officers, on four engines, two ladder trucks, two district chief units, an ambulance, a squad (an SUV staffed by paramedics) and an incident safety officer (ISO) to the scene in the far southwest corner of the city. The HFD staffs three ISO units that respond in SUVs and are manned by a senior captain or district chief. These units respond initially on most structure fires and all hazmat calls across the city.

The apartment complex was composed of six three-story, garden-style buildings, each with 10 units per floor, accessed through interior hallways with self-closing doors on apartments and at stairwells. There were smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in hallways, but no sprinklers in the buildings. The complex was constructed prior to local fire code changes that now require sprinklers in such apartment buildings when they are built. Each building had a flat roof that rested above an undivided cockloft framed with lightweight wood components.

Like all of the buildings in the complex, the fire building was of wood-frame construction with a combination of brick, decorative sheet metal and wood siding on its exterior. Each apartment in the fire building had a screened patio, sided entirely with wood, the sum of which accounted for well over half of the building's exposed surface area.

With a street-level parking lot abutting it on most of three sides, the fire building was easily accessible to fire apparatus, but metal pedestrian security gates on the south side hindered firefighter access initially. The complex's office staff identified the fire structure as Building B. It measured approximately 200 feet long by 60 feet deep, and was separated on its east end from the identical Building A by a small, three-story structure that housed an elevator and lobbies for each floor. This small elevator structure connected Building A to Building B. Fire doors protected the elevator building on each floor, but flames did threaten it through the cockloft. A hoseline was brought in through Building A to protect that side. The original fire apartment was on the second floor of Building B, only one unit west of this elevator structure.

Initial Attack

Engine 68 was the first-due company and, indeed, arrived first. Captain Russell Harris reported fire and smoke coming from an apartment unit on the second floor. Harris, a veteran officer on Engine 68, was no stranger to this complex. He ordered his crew to pull a 1¾-inch attack line into the building, intending to stretch it up through an interior stairwell adjacent to the elevator building, but was blocked by a locked pedestrian gate.

Normally, first-due Ladder 68 would have arrived simultaneously and backed up the engine with forcible entry, but that company was unavailable at the time of the initial response. Harris ordered his crew to grab a ground ladder and access the second floor through a neighboring apartment. Although necessary, this action consumed precious time that the fire used to spread to the third floor via the exterior wood patios.

Acting District 68 Chief Jeff Cook arrived and assumed "Forum West Command," the name of the street facing the fire apartment (also the street on which the complex was addressed). A parking lot lined most of exposure A, which was the side facing the fire apartment, and where Engines 68 and 51 and Ladder 51 set up.

Cook ordered Engine 51 to take a 1¾-inch backup line to the second floor to assist Harris' crew. Engine 10 was ordered to lay two four-inch supply lines from a nearby hydrant, just inside the entrance gate, to Engine 68, and then to take a 1¾-inch line to the third floor to cut off fire extension. While these engine crews worked initially without truck assistance to get water to two burning apartments on two separate floors, the fire spread into the cockloft.

With two of the regularly assigned first-alarm engines out on other assignments and the first-due ladder company also unavailable, it took longer than normal to bring a full first-alarm worth of fight to the fire. Third-due Engine 82 was involved in a disabling traffic accident only six blocks away and had to be replaced by Engine 73, which was returning from another call. All of these delays became even more significant when dispatchers relayed reports that there was the possibility that one or more people were trapped.

With the potential for a serious life-hazard problem developing and compounding a growing fire problem, District 83 Chief Calvin Petrosky ordered that Rescue 10 be dispatched to the fire as well. Manned by four highly trained firefighters, Rescue 10 is one of three such companies in the city. Quartered only a couple of miles from this fire, Rescue 10 had just been assigned permanently to the area after a new, third such company went in service near downtown a few days before.

Cook followed up Petrosky's order with a Signal 1-11, indicating a serious working fire. For apartment fires, the signal tells dispatchers to supplement the first alarm with eight more firefighters and an ICS officer responding on an engine, ladder truck and a district chief unit. An air cascade truck was also dispatched, as a matter of routine, to fill self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles.

Harris' engine crew advanced up the ground ladder dragging the line to the second floor through the adjoining apartment to the fire. They began to snuff out all of the flames they could, but their slack ran out midway into the burning unit.

"When we first got up there, the second floor was relatively clear of smoke," Harris said. "The fire apartment had a self-closing door, so smoke was really only coming out of light fixtures in the hall. We found a resident in the hall a few units from the one on fire who I told to get out, but to knock on doors as he left to get any other people still in their units alerted. We were by ourselves for several minutes and had to handle a bad situation as best we could."

As Harris' crew advanced the line into the fire apartment, they radioed for any available company to assist with slack on the line. Engine 51's crew pulled extra line for 68's, then went back to advance another backup line to the second floor. As 68's crew moved into the apartment, smoke billowed into the second floor hallway, reducing visibility there to zero.

Conditions on the third floor began to deteriorate just as rapidly. With a limited number of companies on hand in the first few minutes, the fire gained headway in the third-floor apartment directly above the unit of origin and in the cockloft while it was being contained on the second floor.

With a non-specific report of potentially trapped residents, Cook ordered Ladder 51 to search and evacuate the building. He also ordered both arriving ladder truck operators to raise their aerials to prepare to cut a vent hole. He then pulled a second alarm.

Captain Rodney Mersiovsky, detailed for the shift to Ladder 51, took his crew up the stairwell in the elevator building to the third floor to begin searching. "There was no smoke in the elevator lobby," he said, "but once you opened the fire door into the third-floor hall, the smoke was so thick that you could only see with a thermal imager."

Mersiovsky's crew tried to get into the apartment next to the one on fire, but it was locked and could not even be forced. So, they breached the wall next to the door, entered and began searching. "We were fairly deep into that apartment when we heard a couple of really loud explosions that sounded like they came from the burning apartment next door," he said.

The explosions were later determined to be from oxygen canisters used by a resident there, and their release helped fuel the fire even further. With these explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known, the order was given for firefighters to evacuate the building and switch to a defensive mode of attack until an assessment of the blasts could be made.

Top Priorities

With much of the first-alarm response delayed, Cook had made the rescue of residents and exposure protection the top priorities for his first units on scene. The fire building had the capacity to house 50 or more residents and was becoming untenable on the top two floors.

On the exposure A side, there was a third apartment building immediately exposed to radiant heat. It was perpendicular to and due south of the elevator structure and only 10 yards from the main body of fire. Ladder 76 pulled in on the opposite side of this building from the rest of the companies already on scene and set up its aerial. The company was supplied with water and used its pipe to contain fire spread to this southern exposure. That same truck company was excellently positioned to contain fire in the cockloft of the fire building that was spreading into the elevator structure, the only separation between the large fire building and another one just like it. Engine 83 and Tower 69 were ordered to the north (C) side of the fire building, opposite the side of origin, to contain fire rapidly spreading through the open cockloft in that direction.

The west-side (B) exposure had an outdoor handball court and another surface parking lot. On this west end of the fire building, there was an enclosed stairwell where crews later advanced hose lines defending that end of the structure. Exposure C was entirely a parking lot with only one or two cars parked next to the fire building. At the east end of the fire, the D side contained the elevator structure and Building A beyond it, which housed 30 more mostly occupied units. As flames destroyed sections of the roof and third floor on the fire building's east end, a steady easterly breeze helped push the flames back west through its cockloft.

As one key element for containment had been to protect the elevator building on the east end and keep flames from passing it into another building, the cockloft fire in the original building started to spread in the other direction. Additional handlines were ordered into the third floor via the west end to cut off the fire, but conditions on the top floor were brutal. The fire front had expanded across almost the entire width of the building as the cockloft fire fed off the fresh breeze that pushed the smoke and heat right back into the faces of fire crews attacking it.

As the complex was only two blocks from one of Houston's busiest freeways, the start of the evening's rush hour slowed the response for many companies responding on the second alarm. The prominent column of smoke given off by the fire, although blowing away from the freeway, attracted enough attention from drivers on it that traffic came to a standstill.

As more companies arrived, they were initially assigned to relieve first-in crews who, by now, were exhausted. The HFD rehab unit, manned by one career firefighter and a team of volunteers, worked feverishly to manage the needs of overheated crews. Despite the intense heat of the day and thick smoke from the fire, only one firefighter required transport to the hospital and he was later released.

As there was never any fire on the first floor and only the origin apartment burned on the second, the remaining fire was confined principally to the cockloft and third floor. However, that fire protected itself from elevated heavy streams by burning well ahead of collapsed roofing while pushing heat and smoke on crews trying to stop it from underneath.

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.

When the mode of operation on a garden apartment fire is questionable, it is usually best to go defensive if life-hazard issues have been addressed. Once defensive, maintain a planned and coordinated attack at all times to ensure master streams do not push fire into unburned areas.

When unburned sections of a long, flat roof do not allow for aerial-stream penetration to the seat of an undivided cockloft fire, consideration should be given to trench cutting far enough ahead of the fire to cut it off. Sufficient crews manning handlines and equipped to expose the cockloft from underneath need to be lined up in adequate number to defend the full length of the trench as well.

In occupied apartment fires, summon and dedicate adequate resources to salvage operations below the fire when structural collapse is not likely.

Evolution of Houston's Garden Apartments

Every major U.S. city has a story to tell about the evolution of its multi-family residences. Such dwellings have formed the backbone for low-cost housing across America, but the types of construction used vary by region and by the time period in which they were built.

Not as much a variable, however, is the fact that these housing units were often built in a hurry to accommodate a rapid influx of new residents in a community, whether they be immigrants from Europe in the 19th century or from other parts of the world in the 20th. For example, New York and most other Eastern Seaboard cities witnessed the construction of block after block of tenements and rowhouses to house immigrants from Europe more than a century ago, only to have them decay and then fall victim to fires and vandalism during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Today, Houston, along with other American cities much younger than those on the East Coast, is experiencing a similar problem to what New York faced, but a generation later and in a different type of structure. The southwest side of Houston is forested with garden-style apartments: two- and three-story buildings, often containing eight to 30 or more apartment units, and often arranged randomly, yet compactly, around gardens and walkways. Most complexes in southwest Houston were built during the 1970s and '80s, when high energy prices first lured Americans from other parts of the U.S. to the city.

Back then, the "immigrants" were not from Europe, but were thousands of young American workers looking for well-paying jobs in the "oil patch." To accommodate them, thousands of attractive garden apartments were built over a very short period. Most had basic wood framing with brick or wooden exteriors, often with pitched common attics or flat-roofed cocklofts, but typically having little or no fire stopping.

Many apartments built in Houston in the 1960s and '70s were constructed with wood shingles or shakes, but after a series of disastrous fires in the late 1970s that consumed hundreds of units, the city restricted use of such materials. Almost all wood-shingled roofs that existed on apartments across Houston on July 31, 1979, disappeared under composition shingles within months after that date, which was when 324 units at the Woodway Square apartment complex went up in smoke.

Today, Houston's garden-style apartments of that generation are much older, often poorly maintained, and now occupied largely by those of limited means, including immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia. Serious fires in these structures have escalated recently. More than half (83 out of 162) of the multiple alarm fires in the city between Jan. 1, 2004, and June 30, 2006, involved occupied or vacant garden-style apartments. In the first six months of 2006 alone, a record-setting 23 of 37 multiples have been in just such occupancies.

Today, apartments are still being built in great numbers in Houston. These new buildings are taller, with three, four and even five floors, and are probably not best described using the term "garden" anymore. Many of these new complexes devote the entire ground floor to commercial enterprises in much the same way many European cities have done for centuries.

Two other key differences between this newest generation of apartments and the older garden ones now falling victim to fires at an alarming rate are geography and fire safety. The newer apartments are heavily concentrated in the city's inner core, only a short bus ride from the gleaming high-rise office towers of downtown.

Many of Houston's oldest residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown have been given a giant makeover in less than a decade by this new style of apartment building. Fortunately, with this new style of structure comes added safety. Sprinklers, standpipes and divided attic spaces are now mandatory in these new complexes; and, so far, the worst fire they have experienced involved one that was still under construction.

TOM MCDONALD is a 24-year member of the Houston Fire Department and captain of Engine Company 37 on the city's southwest side.