On The Job - New York

Spring Valley Fire Department
Chief Robert J. Schultz
Personnel: 125 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Four engines, two aerial ladders, one rescue, one emergency rescue, one mask-service unit
Population: 32,000
Area: 3.5 square miles

Within minutes after the dispatching transmission was made over the Rockland County, NY, fire radio frequency, a mobile radio transmission of "a working structural fire" was heard.

Photo by Michael J. Coppola
Firefighters position a ladder pipe and portable ladders as heavy fire burns in the dealership's service/repair bay area.

In the five hours that followed, the Spring Valley, NY, Fire Department, with assistance from eight other volunteer fire departments as well as additional volunteer and career emergency service agencies, faced one of its most challenging fires in years a blaze involving a large commercial building with a heavy timber bowstring truss roof.

At 01:11 A.M. on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 1996, the Spring Valley Fire Department responded to the intersection of Routes 45 and 59 for a reported structural fire. Additional information described the location as the Gem Buick & A. Motors Jeep Sales dealership.

Built in the 1920s as a bowling alley, the building is a one-story, 120-by-120-foot commercial occupancy of ordinary construction. Within the building are several types of roof systems, including two heavy timber bowstring truss roofs. The interior is in six sections: two new-car showrooms, service/repair bay area, chassis repair area, new-car preparation area and parts supply area. Automatic fire alarm protection in the form of fixed temperature heat detectors were present throughout the building but for unknown reasons the system failed to transmit an automatic alarm for this fire.

Through the years, many sections of the building were renovated or expanded. Most recently, the showroom on the south side of the building was completely renovated. The original heavy timber bowstring truss roof was removed and replaced with an inverted flat roof utilizing a metal parallel chord (steel J-bar joist) truss system to support the Q-decking of the roof above. A concrete block firewall with a fire-rated door was also installed in this wall, separating the showroom from the service-repair bay area. Just before the fire, the five heavy timber bowstring truss assemblies within the service/ repair area were being reinforced with steel angle iron.

Initial Operations

Spring Valley firefighters responded with three engines, two ladders, a rescue unit, an emergency medical rescue unit, one mask service unit and a chief officer. On arrival, they encountered heavy smoke emanating through the rear garage doors and roof of the service/ repair bay area.

Photo by Michael J. Coppola
Initially, a handline was stretched inside. Heavy fire vented through the roof and the handline was removed. Within 10 minutes, the roof started to collapse.

A two-inch hoseline was initially stretched about three feet into the building in an attempt to control the fire from the interior. Once the firefighters were inside, however, a large volume of fire was visible in the ceiling. Radio reports also indicated the fire had extended with blowtorch proportions through three of the 10 skylights in the roof.

Aware of those conditions, the interior forces immediately withdrew from the building. Seconds later, sections of the burning roof started to collapse. This occurred no more than 10 minutes into the operation.

Observing these conditions, Deputy Chief Ray Guarnuccio, the incident commander, ordered an exterior elevated master stream operation. This tactic eventually proved to be successful in extinguishing the main body of fire in this area.

Parts Area Saved

Unable to save the service/repair bay area, firefighters worked to prevent the adjoining parts area from being destroyed. The 30-by-60-foot parts area was covered by a flat inverted wood roof made from nominal dimension lumber and contained five steel I-beams. The ends of the steel I-beams rested on concrete block piers that in turn supported the roof. Firefighters cut ventilation holes in this roof to relieve the area below of built-up heated gases and smoke. Once opened, these holes allowed the members to operate a cellar nozzle from the roof into this area. This tactic helped to suppress the main body of fire in this area. Handlines were operated from the two accessible exterior sides of the building into this area as well.

On seeing these conditions, at 1:33 A.M. Guarnuccio immediately requested mutual aid for a tower ladder and ladder truck from the neighboring Monsey and South Spring Valley volunteer fire departments. Also, with the heavy fire condition and type of building, a rapid intervention team was called from Nanuet. Rockland County Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren Jr. also responded.

Large-caliber elevated master streams from two Spring Valley aerial ladders were now in operation and were joined by master streams from the additional ladder truck and tower ladder upon their arrival. Realizing the need to augment water supplies, Guarnuccio, then requested another two engines and a tactical response vehicle from Hillcrest and Pearl River to perform this task. The combined forces "darkened down" the main body of fire in the service/repair bay area at 1:57 A.M. but with the strong possibility of this incident lasting for several more hours, during the next 25 minutes, additional mutual aid was requested for personnel and apparatus from another three departments Suffern, Tallman and West Nyack. This included another ladder, rescue and engine to be used for relief and to stand by to respond to additional alarms.

Roof Identified In Pre-Planning

The area destroyed by the fire was an original part of the structure and measured about 60 feet by 60 feet. Through pre-planning, the roof was identified as a heavy timber bowstring truss roof. This roof system uses large nominal dimension lumber or rough sawn planks that are fastened together with carriage bolts to connect the webbing to the chords of the truss assembly. The ends of the timber truss assemblies were positioned in a "pocket" made within each of the two masonry walls, which also supported the truss assemblies.

Photo by Vincent DiSalvio/Rockland Journal News
The service/repair bay area that accounted for 25 percent of the building was destroyed. Nineteen pieces of apparatus were dispatched during the incident.

Photo by Harry J. Oster
The aftermath of the auto dealership fire and several of the cars that were destroyed. Note the approved fire-rated door at the center right of the photo.

This style of roof is similar to the roof system present at the Hackensack, NJ, auto dealership in which five firefighters lost their lives when the roof collapsed on them in a 1988 fire (see "New Jersey's Darkest Hour," September 1988, and "Hackensack, NJ: One Year Later," August and November 1989)). Because of this known construction feature, coupled with a heavy volume of fire discovered inside the structure on arrival of the first units, firefighters were not permitted on this roof.

The service/repair bay, which accounted for about 25 percent of the building, was consumed by the fire. The remaining 75 percent of the building was exposed to smoke, water or light fire damage. Also, at least nine cars that were in the service/ repair bay area at the time of the fire were destroyed. However, firefighters saved several cars from severe smoke damage by driving them out of the showroom on the south side of the building as conditions permitted.

Photo by Harry J. Oster
The inverted flat wood and steel I-beams over the saved parts of the building's parts supply area. Note the concrete blocked-off doorway in the center of the photo.

The incident was placed under control at 4:10 A.M.; overhaul operations and equipment pickup continued until daybreak. At 6:12 A.M., the incident was declared over.

Fire department resources amounted to nine departments, over 100 firefighters and 19 pieces of apparatus. One firefighter sustained a minor wrist injury.

Through the process of elimination, the fire was ruled accidental. Reports indicate it originated in the service/repair bay area.

Lessons Learned & Reinforced

  • Heavy timber bowstring truss roof construction must be identified in the fire pre-planning. Any commercial structure built in the 1920s or later should be considered to have some type of truss constructed roof. A heavy timber bowstring truss roof can be identified during a fire operation by looking for the distinctive "crown or bow" appearance of the roof from the exterior upon arrival.
  • If conditions permit, during initial roof ventilation operations, check for the presence of large unsupported spaces and the lack of closely spaced supporting members of the roof system. Once either is identified, you can expect that a form of truss roof construction is present.
  • Elevated master streams from the first-due units and mutual aid departments effectively suppressed the main body of fire within a reasonable amount of time. This defensive tactical decision was made during the initial stage of the fire by the incident commander.
  • Once two or more hydrants are used, consider appointing a water resource officer to ascertain hydrant locations and main sizes and to contact the water department for other related information. This should automatic as soon as numerous master streams are put into operation.
  • The staging of additional apparatus and personnel at a location that was remote but still in the line of sight of the fireground operation proved efficient. It allowed the incident commander and staging officer to see and properly deploy the additional resources as needed and let the firefighters in the staging area visually size-up the incident before being utilized.
  • A public information officer (PIO) proved very valuable at this incident. A large number of local news media representatives were present. Without a designated PIO on scene, reporters will ask randomly selected firefighters and fire officers questions about the fire as well as roam the fireground. This can lead to conflicting reports and distract officers and firefighters who are trying to perform fireground duties.

What To Learn Before A Building Burns

The size-up of a building and the surrounding properties must start when site plans for the construction of a building are submitted to building officials or the fire department, or both, for approval. Once it's built, a structure must be reviewed as often as possible, namely through on-site fire department drills.

The presence of heavy timber bowstring truss roof construction must be identified before a fire. If present, this should automatically be considered a "weak" structural element in a fire situation. Initial fire suppression tactics must be adjusted accordingly to provide the greatest safety for firefighters along with increasing the chances to successfully "head off" a fire in this type of building.

Rockland County Blaze Claims Lives Of Firefighter & Son

Photo by Michael Crean

Blauvelt, NY, Firefighter Albert J. DeFlumere Jr. died while trying to rescue his 6-year-old son, Matthew, from their burning home on Oct. 26, 1996. DeFlumere, 49, a 31-year member of the Blauvelt Volunteer Fire Company in Rockland County, had just taken his wife and two other sons through a bedroom window when he returned for Matthew. The father and son were found holding each each other about a foot from a window. The early-morning fire destroyed the two-story building that housed the family's apartment and a restaurant.

Firefighters Battle Flames, Frigid Temperatures At Quick-Oil-Change Shop Fire

At 2:52 P.M. on the 10-degree afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 19, 1997, the Spring Valley, NY, Volunteer Fire Department responded to an activated automatic fire alarm at an automotive quick oil change service center on Route 59.

Upon arrival, firefighters under the command of Chief Robert J. Schultz encountered a heavy concentration of smoke emanating from the top and side roof vents of the one-story, 70-by-30-foot, peaked-roof building. Initially, a two-inch handline was operated from the fixed attic staircase inside the building. Several other handlines also were positioned as members performed roof ventilation operations and attempted to open the ceiling below to expose the fire. Primary and secondary searches were conducted and proved negative. At the time the fire broke out, four employees and one customer were in the building and escaped safely as soon as they smelled smoke. The one vehicle that was inside was driven out of the building by an employee.

Firefighters working inside had to use extra caution because they were surrounded by petroleum-based products and had to avoid falling into the four large pits (about 15 feet long by four feet wide and five feet deep) in the concrete floor. (The pits were used by the shop's employees to service vehicles.) When heavy fire in the attic caused the roof to begin to collapse, the interior forces were ordered out of the building. Four large-caliber apparatus master streams were then placed into operation to extinguish the fire. The incident was placed under control at 4:45 P.M. and declared over at about 6 o'clock.

The Spring Valley, Nanuet, and Tallman fire departments operated at the scene and the Monsey Fire Department was placed on standby. Sixty firefighters and 12 pieces of apparatus (five engines, two ladders, one rescue, an EMS/rescue, a mask service unit and two chiefs' vehicles) were on scene.

Photo by Jennifer Macgowan
Firefighters gained access to the roof until heavy fire in the attic caused the roof to begin to collapse.

Photo by Jennifer Macgowan
Four large-caliber master streams were needed to knock down the heavy fire.

The fire appears to have started in the attic area but the cause was not immediately determined and was under investigation by the Spring Valley fire inspector and Rockland County Fire Investigation Unit.

Environmental authorities were notified of the fire because there was a large amount of petroleum-based products in the shop but most of the water runoff that may have mixed with the products froze when it reached the exterior, rather than traveling off the premises.

Another concern was preventing injuries from hypothermia and falls on the ice throughout the incident but no injuries to firefighters or civilians were reported. The local utility shut off gas and electric service to the building and salt spreaders were called to the scene because of the icy conditions that developed on the fireground and on the road.

Harry J. Oster has been a career firefighter with the FDNY for over nine years. He is assigned to Ladder Company 49 in the South Bronx. Oster also is public information officer for the Spring Valley, NY, Fire Department. He holds an associate's degree in fire protection technology.