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Chapter 2: Strip Store Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

A strip store is a complex, dangerous battlespace because of the combustible content and structure layout. A lack of windows on its side walls creates a space designed for explosions and flashover to blow in the path of advancing Firefighters. Entering a burning store can be similar to advancing into the barrel of a loaded shotgun that can go off at any time. On the outside, a strip store battlespace is heavily fortified behind locks, metal shutters, gates and bars. On the inside, its interior layout may contain highly combustible material on shelves and storage tables and behind counters. Above advancing Firefighters there may be multiple suspended ceilings concealing flame overhead. And, above the suspended ceiling is a large, common roof space that may be open to the adjoining building roof spaces.

Preventing fire from spreading in the common roof space of a strip store is one of the major challenges to an Incident Commander (IC). Another challenge is the collapse danger of a parapet wall on the outside, above the glass show windows. In the northeast, a strip store is called a “taxpayer,” a name coined by builders to define a cheaply constructed, temporary, one-story structure that can be rented for enough money to pay taxes on the property until it can be torn down and replaced with a better built, permanent structure. This cheaply constructed structure is a collapse danger. Today, upscale shopping centers have incorporated the same design layout of the old taxpayer strip store. The following is a list of strip store battlespace features that can help a Fire Officer safely and effectively fight a fire.

Fig. 2.1  Strip store fires are difficult to extinguish and dangerous to fight.

Parapet wall

A parapet is a deadly wall that has killed many Firefighters. A parapet wall is that part of a wall that extends above roof level. It is a decorative, freestanding wall at the front of a strip store that can extend one to five feet high above the roof level. The front parapet usually is higher than the other parapets in order to give the building a more imposing look and sometimes it has an ornamental stone or brick overhang cornice at the top that makes it more unstable. If brickwork is used as an ornamental cornice on the top portion of a brick front parapet wall, it is called corbelling. Corbel brick or stone projects out from the surface of the wall like a cantilever. Parapet walls with corbelled brick tops or cast stone overhangs are unstable walls that can become a collapse danger.

Parapet walls on buildings in earthquake-prone areas of the country are limited in height. Western local building codes limit the height of front parapet walls to 18 inches in height because of their history of failure during tremors and shocks of earthquakes. Explosions during fires have the same effect as earthquakes. Firefighters operating hose-lines, raising ladders or operating in buckets of tower ladders that are inside a collapse zone near a parapet have been buried under falling bricks of parapet wall collapse. A Fire Officer size-up arriving at a strip store fire must include an evaluation of the parapet. Because it may be difficult to see a parapet due to advertising, darkness or smoke at a fire, it is better to evaluate all parapets during building inspections before a fire. Check them out when responding or returning from alarms.

Lintel beam

The steel beam that supports a parapet wall on a storefront wall that has large, glass show windows is called a lintel. And a masonry parapet wall on top, which is supported by a steel I-beam spanning the window, is called a lintel beam. During a major-alarm fire when front show windows have vented flames out of the store, heat can distort this steel lintel beam. If the steel beam warps, bends, twists or buckles, it could trigger collapse of the masonry parapet wall supported above. During a fire, the IC should keep an eye on the steel I-beam lintel for distortion that could lead to collapse. When there is danger of a parapet wall collapse, Fire Officers should withdraw Firefighters from the collapse danger zone. The distance Firefighters should be withdrawn should be one, one and one-half or twice the height of the store parapet wall, as directed by the IC. The exact distance depends on the possibility of the wall being pushed out further than the height of the wall by pressure of sloping roof rafters of a truss or mansard roof or the possibility of an explosion.

Coping stones

On top of a parapet wall at the front of a strip store are coping or capstones to prevent rainwater from entering the cement that binds the bricks. These are similar to heavy cinder blocks resting on top of the parapet. Coping stones can come loose if the mortar loses its adhesive qualities. Ladders scraping against them when being lowered or powerful hose streams can knock these five- or 10-pound coping stones off a parapet wall, crashing them down on top of Firefighters operating in streets and alleys around a strip store. When directing master steams and positioning and removing aerial ladders from a store roof, Officers should avoid striking a coping stone.

Truss construction

Strip stores can have lightweight, truss wood beams or steel bar joists truss supporting roofs and floors. A Fire Officer must know if these truss structures support the roof because these members can fail within five to 10 minutes when unprotected and exposed to fire. At a strip store, Firefighters immediately must report the presence of any type of truss to the IC. This hazard identification and reporting are keys to safe firefighting at a burning building with truss construction. An IC cannot order a safety action unless notified of the danger. This information is critically important for incident command decision-making. Firefighters should not operate on a store roof supported by truss construction during a fire that involves the truss structure.

Cantilever loads

Strip stores are “make believe buildings” that use architectural decorations on front walls to make the structure look more imposing. These decorations include marquees, canopies, cornices and high decorative parapets. All of these decorations are unstable cantilever structures protruding from the exterior walls. A cantilever is a beam supported at one end, unlike a simple beam that is supported at both ends. These decorative cantilever add-ons to parapet walls of a strip store should be noted at fires because they can collapse and pull down parts of a wall with it.

Firefighters call a marquee a swimming pool hanging off the wall of a store. A canopy usually is found at the rear of a store and protects workers from the elements when they unload merchandise from trucks.

Canopies protect from the elements, but are not designed to support roof weight. Firefighters climbing up on a canopy with hose-lines can collapse the structure.

There is no purpose to a storefront decorative cornice other than decoration. A cornice sign also can spread fire from one story to another. A Fire Officer must check behind a cornice attached to a parapet by wood furring for fire spread. A wood cornice called an “eyebrow,” located at the top of a storefront, can spread inside its wooden interior framework and suddenly collapse like a wave. A wood cornice also can collapse if struck by the impact of a ground ladder placed against the building or from the powerful water stream of a tower ladder striking it.

And, it must be remembered, a parapet wall actually is a vertical cantilever supported at the bottom only. If it has a cantilever cornice, canopy or marquee cantilever attached, it is more deadly.

Fire divisions

Stores in a row sometimes are divided by masonry party walls. This is not a fire division. There are no fire divisions in a strip store row. The walls dividing stores actually are party walls with roof beams from both stores supported by one wall. A party wall differs from a fire division. Fire Officers must understand this difference. An official fire division is an independent, solid wall structure, with a documented three- or four-hour fire-resistive rating that has its own foundation and no wood beam penetrating it. A party wall parapet that extends above the roof of a strip store may look like a fire division, but it is not. A strip store brick party wall has roof and floor beams from two adjoining stores penetrating it, which creates small spaces through which flame and smoke can flow. A party wall protruding above a roof may look good, but if you go below, into one of the stores and pull ceilings, you will see missing bricks and mortar, openings for old air conditioning ducts, poke-through holes for electric wires and plumbing fixtures. We say don’t trust a truss for roof and floor stability and I say don’t trust a party wall to stop fire. Before you make a hose-line stand on a roof behind a party wall, the IC must have Firefighters go into the store, pull a ceiling and examine a party wall from below.

Fig. 2.2  Because it may be difficult to see a parapet due to advertising, darkness or smoke at a fire, it is better to evaluate all parapets during building inspections before a fire. Check them out when responding or returning from alarms.

Store glass

There are three important glass openings in a strip store. You have large, glass show windows in the front, a door or small window at the rear and sometimes glass skylights on the roof. A Fire Officer must know how and when to vent these glass portals to safely release smoke without causing a flashover or backdraft explosion. In a row of stores, there are no side windows for venting. You can vent only the top, front and rear of the store windows. Venting glass at a store fire is very important because of the danger of backdraft explosions. If there are signs of backdraft explosion after venting, Firefighters with hose-lines should flank the fire opening and if a blast occurs, they will be on the side of it. Firefighters advancing a hose-line into a store are entering the barrel of a loaded shotgun and improper venting can pull the trigger. Any explosion blast in a strip store will be driven right back into Firefighters.

As a general rule, venting at a store fire is done first at the roof level. Skylight venting will slow down flame seeping through a store ceiling into the cockloft. And if there is an explosion in the store, the roof skylight vent can divert a blast upward. The next opening vented should be the rear window or door to allow smoke and heat pushed ahead of advancing Firefighters out the rear of the store. Finally, the front windows have to be taken out as the hose team enters the store. This procedure is for explanation; firefighting cannot be controlled this closely.

Recently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted ventilation studies at fires. The NIST vent guidelines state no venting should be carried out before the hose-line is ready to advance. If you must force entry to a store after forcing a store door, temporarily close it until the hose-line is ready. When the hoseline advances, all three glass openings then can be vented simultaneously. This coordinated venting will reduce the danger of flashover and backdraft explosion. But in real life, this coordinated venting cannot be realistically accomplished.

A Fire Officer should know

  1. The roof skylight venting at the top can release heat and smoke from the store even if the front and rear glass is intact.
  2. When the hose-line and Firefighters are ready to advance into the store to extinguish the fire, open up the front door and nearby show windows.
  3. Firefighters should be ordered to vent the rear window and doors simultaneously with the advance of the hose-line.

The best we can do is not vent the front door or window until the hose team is ready to advance. All glass venting at a store fire--front, top, and rear--should be coordinated with the advance of the hose-line. It is a fact that premature front door and window glass venting can trigger a flashover or backdraft/smoke explosion if it is done and the hose team is not ready.

The only time window venting in a store should be done prior to the hose-line advance is if a trapped person inside is seen, heard calling for help or a credible witness states a person is trapped inside and a rescue can be attempted. When a Firefighter decides to make this life and death decision to vent, he or she then must enter the smoke-filled area, search and remove the trapped person.

Many rookie Firefighters mistakenly think skylight venting of a store removes smoke and heat from the common roof space. This is not true. To vent a common roof space, you must cut the roof with a saw. Venting a skylight does not vent the cockloft.

Fig. 2.3  The load of roof machinery must not rest directly on roof beams, but instead be independently supported on steel I-beams that transmit the load to bearing walls.

Common roof area

A common roof space, sometimes called a cockloft, is a space above a ceiling and below a roof that extends over several stores in the row. It is a major construction defect found in many strip store buildings. After life concerns and fire extinguishment, a Fire Officer’s goal at a store fire is to keep the fire from entering this common roof space. If fire burns through a ceiling and gets into the common roof space, it can spread and involve all the stores in the row; sometimes the entire block. In some store construction, a brick fire partition separates the common roof area at each store, but a Fire Officer never must assume that there is a fire partition. During the early stages of a store fire, a Fire Officer must order Firefighters to open up a section of ceiling in the adjoining stores and check to see if fire has entered the common roof space and is spreading there.

The IC’s hose-line strategy must be designed to prevent fire spread in the common roof area of a strip store. For example, after the first line is advancing on a fire in the store of fire origin, the next hose-line should be stretched into the adjoining downwind store and the ceiling opened and fire cut off with the hose stream here. Firefighters in this downwind store must check the partition separating the fire store and determine possibility of fire spread. If there is no fire extension to the downwind store, this information is relayed to the IC. The IC orders a third hose-line stretched into the upwind store, the ceiling is opened up here and fire extension evaluated. Every effort at a strip store fire by every Officer is to prevent fire from entering the common roof area and if it does spread here, every effort is made to prevent it from spreading over the other stores.

Suspended ceilings

Over the years, as businesses change, the occupancy is renovated and this usually includes a new ceiling. Sometimes, business owners do not remove the old ceiling and just put up a new ceiling below the old one. To do this, holes are put in the original ceiling. If fire burns through the lowest ceiling, it will spread through the ceiling above into the common roof space. It is very difficult to open up several ceilings and extinguish the fire in the common roof space.

When opening a ceiling to check for fire, an Officer must open up all ceilings, not just the lowest one, to give the hose stream access to the common roof space. If you open up a ceiling to check for fire spread and see another ceiling above it, this ceiling also must be opened with hooks.

When multiple ceilings are discovered, the IC must be notified. If all suspended ceilings are not opened, a roof space fire will not be extinguished by a hose stream. When there are poke-through holes in several ceilings, fire will spread quickly up through them into the common roof space.

Another reason to check the spaces above a suspended ceiling is that suspended ceilings are a major collapse danger during a store fire. If fire enters the common roof space and destroys the hanger framework supporting the ceiling, the entire frame system can collapse like a net over Firefighters in the store.

Roof machinery

The most common roof machinery found on the roof of a store is the air conditioner unit. When discovering roof machinery on the roof of a store during a fire, the Officer must determine if it is independently supported by steel beams or resting on the roof deck. If supported by steel I-beams, the beams should span the roof and be supported at each end by a bearing wall. The load of the HVAC system must not rest on the roof beams, but instead be transmitted horizontally to bearing walls, then vertically down to the ground through the bearing walls. It is important that this steel beam support relieve the roof beams of any additional weight. The independent steel beam supports are designed to allow the roof to be damaged by a store fire below and not cause a collapse. On many of the new fast food restaurants, the heavy HVAC roof machines rest directly on the roof, adding weight to the roof structure and posing a collapse danger. During a fire when the roof beams burn, the HVAC roof machine can collapse through the roof on top of the Firefighters operating in the store. Any HVAC or other machine discovered on the roof of a store during a firefight should be reported to the IC. However, it is most important to determine whether the roof machines are independently supported or resting on and supported by the roof. This is collapse information that must be included in the roof size-up.

Fig. 2.4  After life concerns and fire extinguishment, a Fire Officer’s goal at a store fire is to keep the fire from entering this common roof space (cockloft).

Scuttle covers

A Fire Officer should note the presence of scuttle covers in a roof size-up. Some store roofs have square or rectangular scuttle covers. They provide access openings to a roof from the store below. Firefighters should be careful not to step on them; the scuttle covers could collapse and the Firefighters fall through to the burning store below. Scuttle covers are not designed to support the weight of a Firefighter. Unlike the rest of the roof, there are no roof rafters below them. Treat them as you would a skylight. In fact, some scuttle covers actually are old skylights that were covered with plywood and tar paper, instead of repairing the glass when leaking or broke. The store owner may reason that since the original skylight was not designed to support the weight of a person walking on the roof, the replacement cover does not need reinforcement. Fire Officers should caution Firefighters operating on a roof scuttle that covers are collapse hazards.


In a row of stores, the only access to a cellar that holds stock or storage may be though a trapdoor in a floor. A trapdoor is a hidden opening in the floor of a store. The door has a recessed handle that is used to pull up a section of flooring that opens up to a ladder or stair leading to a cellar. These trapdoors must be closed at night or they become a hazard. Unfortunately, trapdoors are left open and Firefighters searching in smoke can fall into the cellar. Trapdoors are found behind a counter or in an aisle of a store where Firefighters search.

At a store, Fire Officers always must be alert to the danger of a trapdoor during smoky fires. The location of store trapdoors should be documented during fire prevention or fire pre-plan inspections. To avoid falling through an open trapdoor when searching in smoke, Firefighters should use a tool to probe a floor and, when advancing a hose in smoke, keep one leg outstretched to feel for a sudden floor opening and support body weight on a back leg. A wooden trapdoor usually is made of the same material as the floor boards and it is difficult to identify. There will be no beam support for the trapdoor floor, so this floor section will be the first area to weaken during a cellar fire below. A trapdoor creates a concealed, three- by six-foot section of unsupported floor deck that can collapse, taking any Firefighters standing on it down into the cellar.

Metal sidewalk cellar doors

In front of a store there can be another opening to the cellar. This easily identified sidewalk cellar entrance stair in front of a store is used by truck vendors to load stock in a cellar without entering the store. This service cellar entrance is a pair of steel trapdoors, flush with the sidewalk directly next to the storefront window. The metal sidewalk cellar entrance door leads to a steep concrete or open wooden stair. This cellar entrance has no fire-retarding enclosure at the bottom of the stairs. Any flame and heat in the cellar will flow straight up and out of the sidewalk opening. If the cellar fire is severe, there is a strong likelihood the wooden stairs leading to the cellar have burned away or been weakened by fire. Sudden collapse of a cellar step could cause a Firefighter descending the cellars steps, directing a hose stream, to lose his/her balance and tumble into a burning cellar.

Fig. 2.5  Sudden collapse of a cellar step could cause a Firefighter descending the cellar steps, directing a hose stream, to lose balance and tumble into a burning cellar.

Truck delivery persons sometimes place a chute or roller device over the stairs, designed to slide packages and boxes down to the cellar and these chutes or carton rollers are left in place over the steps. During a smoky cellar fire, these chutes and rollers may be obscured. Firefighters attempting to descend the smoke-filled sidewalk cellar stairway may slide into the burning cellar. Even if the chute is seen, it can block the cellar steps, preventing a hose-line advance unless removed. Escape from a fire in a cellar whose stairs are covered with a package chute or roller slide is unlikely.

A strip store fire battle plan

  1. The firefighting strategy in a strip store battlespace is cutting off fire before it reaches the common roof space (cockloft). If it does spread there, cut it off before it reaches adjoining stores.
  2. The first attack hose-line is stretched to the store of fire origin to extinguish a content fire before it burns through the ceiling to the common roof space. A first attack hose-line usually immediately extinguishes 95 percent of all fires. As soon as the fire is knocked down, ceilings are pulled to determine if the fire has spread to the common roof space. The common roof space may extend over all the stores in the row of the shopping center or mall. If fire enters this concealed space, flames may spread through the common roof space and destroy the entire complex of strip stores.
  3. The second hose-line is stretched to the store on the downwind side of the fire store to cut off fire spreading in the common roof space. The downwind store in a row of stores is a usually serious exposure danger. The Officer in charge of the second hose-line in the downwind store should have Firefighters with pike poles pull down the ceiling along the partition wall separating the exposure store from the store of fire origin. A hose-line should be used to stop fire spreading to the downwind exposure. As soon as possible, notify the Officer in command of the fire conditions and the ability of the hose stream to contain the fire or if the fire will spread beyond the downwind store. This information will enhance the strategy.
  4. A third line should be stretched into the upwind store as soon as resources are available. Even if there is no indication of fire, this hose should be stretched here, the ceiling pulled and the common roof space examined. The second hoseline in the downwind store is to stop fire spread. The third line in the upwind store will confine or contain the fire. Notify the IC whether the fire is spreading or contained.
  5. A portable ladder should be raised to the roof upwind from the fire store, away from the fire and smoke. The placement of the ladder upwind to the fire will ensure the smoke and flame from spreading fire or smoke will not obscure or cut off escape of Firefighters on the roof. The extension ladder tip should be raised several feet above the parapet wall so it will be visible to Firefighters on the roof.
  6. The primary venting at a strip store fire is the skylights and scuttle covers that serve the store of fire origin. Firefighters on the roof should vent all skylights and scuttle covers that serve the burning store. This venting will delay flame from penetrating the ceiling and entering the cockloft and reduce the effects if there is a flashover or backdraft explosion in the fire store. Any blast will go up, not horizontally into the faces of advancing Firefighters. The front and rear window glass and doors are vented when the hose-line is ready to advance. This horizontal venting is coordinated with hose advancement. At the first sign of fire in the cockloft, the roof deck should be cut. A vent opening should be cut in the roof to vent flame and heat out of the common roof space before it starts to spread horizontally over the adjoining stores.
  7. An aerial ladder should be positioned downwind from the fire or where it could be used to protect high exposures if the interior attack fails. If needed, another aerial ladder for master stream use should be positioned on the upwind side. If the entire store becomes involved in fire, four aerial master streams may be required on each exposure side.

The game-changer

The game-changers are fire in the common roof space, an unstable parapet wall or a backdraft explosion potential. As soon as a fire is knocked down, the ceiling should be opened and the cockloft checked for fire. A collapse danger zone may have to be set up near the parapet. Venting the front, rear and roof opening are necessary to reduce the effects of explosion or flashover. You may have to skip one or two stores in order to find the forward edge of the common roof space fire spread so all gates and locks on all stores in the row must be opened. Position a tower ladder on the downwind side of the fire store to protect exposures or for use if interior operations fail. When explosion is possible, Firefighters should flank the fire entrance.

Strip Store Battlespace Casualties

Two Boston, Massachusetts, Firefighters trapped under ceiling collapse while battling cockloft fire. NIOSH 2007-32

Chapter 3: Triple-Decker Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

The triple-decker is a treacherous battlespace where, on arrival, fire can be spreading on several fronts: the interior rooms can be burning and flame can be spreading up a shaft and on the outside up the exterior siding walls if it gets into the cockloft to the adjoining buildings. And, if the building is located at the end of a row or stands alone, it can collapse. The most common triple-decker is Type III or V construction and features a narrow wood stair, wooden apartment doors and a railroad flat layout--front to rear--and no fire escapes. If fire spreads to the cockloft and adjoining buildings through a common roof space, the entire block can burn.

Century-old triple-decker design structures have been renovated or new ones built and called condominiums or townhouses, but these structures have the same battlespace hazards as the old triple-deckers, with tremendous firefighting challenges. The following are some construction problems presented by triple-deckers: concealed spaces, interior shafts, combustible walls, wood porches, common cocklofts and collapse.

Structure framing

Because of the height and size of the wood, century-old triple-decker wood construction is braced-frame construction (post and girt). The modern triple-deckers are platform construction. To reinforce the height of the buildings, four vertical timbers called posts are situated at the four corners of the structure for stability; girts or wood timber girders are used to support each floor. Wood timbers are found at the bearing wall sides of each floor level to support floor beams. Girders are connected to posts by mortise and tenon connections.

Older post and girt triple-deckers were required to have shafts to provide light and air to bathrooms, kitchens and interior rooms of the apartment. The shafts are a major fire spread problem. The interior of open front or rear shafts spreads fire to several floors quickly. Any room fire that breaks out a window, enters a shaft and extends up combustible siding ignites the window frames or enters any open window of upper-floor apartments and even through the shaft eaves into the cockloft. It can enter a cockloft around the rotted or missing trim at the top of the shaft enclosure eaves.

After a hose-line is stretched to a room fire, as soon as the fire is knocked down, you must check for shaft fire spread. If fire has spread up the shaft, a second line must be stretched to the top floor and the ceilings pulled around the shaft top to check for fire spread into the cockloft. A third line must be stretched to protect the second hose-line team from being cut off by fire or a ladder raised to the top floor to ensure an escape route if the interior stair becomes untenable.

Modern triple-decker construction

Modern triple-decker construction does not use post and girt construction; it is platform construction. These modern triple-deckers may have fancy, decorative facades and various rooflines and are called new names, such as townhouses or condominiums, but if they are three stories, they are triple-deckers and present the same firefighting problems as the century-old structures.

Fig. 3.1  A row of triple-deckers with fire spreading in the common roof spaces.

They present a new firefighting problem the older triple-decker did not have--the lightweight truss. If the townhouse or condo uses lightweight truss construction for floors and roof in the platform construction, the building is inferior from fire spread and collapse points of view. Platform construction is a superior method of construction unless it incorporates truss floors and roof; then, it is inferior to post and girt and balloon construction.

When building with the platform construction method, the first level of the apartment walls is raised and a two- by four-inch wood plate put on top. On top of the plate, the floor beams and floor deck are placed. On top of this, the second level stud walls are raised and the process of plate, floor beams and under-flooring is repeated. And on top of this, the third floor of the triple-decker is built. Each floor is a separate section of wall; there are no studs or corner posts that extend more than one level. There are no light and air shafts.

However, in the modern triple-decker, platform construction has large and numerous vertical concealed spaces. These voids and spaces contain piping, electric and air system ducts that run up and down the structure. After a room and content fire in a platform-constructed triple-decker is extinguished, the Fire Officer must check the interior bathrooms and kitchens that have most of these concealed spaces for fire in these voids. If fire enters a concealed space of a kitchen or bathroom, it can spread quickly up to the cockloft or common roof space of the triple-decker if built in a row. These concealed spaces are not firestopped and have large poke-through holes at each floor level.

In older buildings, plaster dripping and oozing through lath walls fell to the floors and acted as firestopping. After any fire is extinguished in a modern triple-decker, any vertical concealed spaces containing utilities must be checked for fire spread up to the attic.

A Fire Officer should use the same hose stretching and ladder placement for a modern triple-decker fire. For example, when a concealed utility space is discovered spreading fire upward, the second line goes to the top floor and members check the ceiling near the shaft to see if fire spread to the cockloft or attic. A third line and/or ladder protects Firefighters on the top floor from being cut off by fire.

A modern triple-decker townhouse built with lightweight truss construction has a more deadly problem. It poses sudden, quick building collapse. A Fire Officer must know this lightweight-constructed triple-decker can collapse within five to 10 minutes after arrival. A truss floor or roof can fail much faster than a solid-beam, wood-constructed structure.

The strategy a Fire Officer should use when fire spreads throughout a floor or ceiling truss structure that cannot be immediately extinguished is to remove all occupants and fight the fire defensively. If it is only a content fire and flame has not spread through the plaster ceiling or wall and involved trusses, use a standard operating procedure. But if fire already is inside the structure and spread throughout the truss web members, notify the Incident Commander and order Firefighters to remove all occupants and fight the fire from an exterior defensive position.

Brick nogging

Fire walls between rows of old triple-deckers are built with brick nogging. Brick nogging is a term used to describe bricks placed in between wood stud walls and is found in an old, braced-frame (post and girt) constructed triple-decker.

Brick nogging used on interior wood stud walls can be seen in a cockloft between rows of triple-deckers. Its official use was for insulation, soundproofing and to provide stability and support to the structure.

Some erroneously believe its purpose is for fire-stopping. It is not. This brick infill can be found on walls between attached triple-deckers and on exterior walls where it is covered with wood clapboard or shingle siding. Brick infill is not load-bearing and because it is sometimes used to separate rows of buildings, it looks like fire-stopping. It is not. With a closer look in the common roof space of a row of triple-deckers, you can see mortar between brick nogging is missing or fallen away and, in some instances, there are openings framed into the brickwork between buildings as access openings. A Fire Officer must not consider that this will provide stability or stop fire spread in between buildings.

Fig. 3.2  A post and girt (braced-frame) triple-decker with reinforced timber columns and brick nogging.

Porches and decks

Triple-deckers have large wood porches that sometimes are considered fire escape stairs built at the front or rear of the building. However, these structures are combustible and unless continually maintained, burn and collapse. Some porches were built before a local building code was enacted and so there is no load-bearing standard for them and they have never been tested to support people during their lifetime. Wood porches may have connecting stairs for use by all floors or they could function as a deck without stairs. Either way, these structures must be considered a collapse hazard.

A typical porch, unlike the building interior, will be exposed continuously to the elements, so rot and decay occur more rapidly on the outside structure than in the interior. Cooking grills with propane, old heavy furniture and bicycles sometimes are stored on a porch and can create a fire hazard and collapse danger.

An arson fire often will be started here and quickly spread into all floors of the triple-decker. A Fire Officer must know these untested structures are fire breeders and collapse dangers and size them up before assigning several Firefighters with heavy, water-filled hose-lines to operate on them. Ladder company chauffeurs must consider the impact of an aerial ladder tip being placed on a porch railing and Fire Officers must not allow people escaping a fire to overcrowd a porch. Remove them with ladders or down porch stairs and when collapse appears likely, establish a collapse danger zone beneath and around the overhanging porch. A Pennsylvania volunteer Fire Lieutenant was killed when a porch collapsed. NIOSH Firefighter fatality report: F2002 49

Combustible siding

Some triple-deckers are masonry, but most have combustible exterior walls. Any fire inside the building also can spread out a window and start spreading up the exterior walls. A Fire Officer must know this combustible exterior does not exist on any other type construction. Exterior wall fire cannot occur in fire-resistive, noncombustible, ordinary and heavy timber buildings. They all have noncombustible exterior walls where this cannot happen. This may seem obvious, but a Fire Officer who is transferred to a district with wood exterior buildings may overlook this additional fire spread avenue.


EIFS (exterior insulation finish systems) are combustible and used on Type I and Type II construction. The firefighting strategy for a wood triple-decker fire and new structures using EIFS may require an interior attack hose-line strategy and, simultaneously, an exterior attack hose-line strategy to stop flame spreading up the side of the building. A first hose-line may have to be stretched inside and a second line or deck pipe stream used to wet down the outside.

In some older triple-decker buildings, the wood siding has been covered with an asphalt imitation brick siding. This is worse that wood exterior walls. Imitation brick is asphalt tar. It is more flammable than wood. Flames spread more quickly up the asphalt exterior walls and extend into the cockloft space through the cornice or roof eaves and, at the same time, create flaming oil droplets raining down the side of the exterior. These flaming droplets of burning asphalt can spread fire into the basement if they ignite the window frame of a window well. A simple room and content fire spreading out a window can extend up the siding into the roof space and into the cellar.

A Fire Officer must know there can be several layers of siding on a triple-decker– the original wood siding, asphalt imitation brick and aluminum siding. In a building with multiple layers of siding in between each siding layer, there will be a small space created by wood nailing strips used to attach new siding to the old. Fire can get into this small space and smolder, causing a rekindle after Firefighters leave or it can spread in this space up to the roof space or attic while Firefighters are at the scene. A Fire Officer must have Firefighters check this concealed space between layers of siding after any nearby outside fire.

The side combustible walls of a triple-decker usually are the load-bearing walls and they support the load of all the floors and roof. If one of these load-bearing side walls burns for a considerable length of time during a major fire, it will weaken and the building can collapse. If a bearing wall is weakened by fire and fails, the floors it is supporting will follow in collapse. Of the five types of building construction—fire-resistive, noncombustible, ordinary, heavy timber and wood frame--the wood-frame building is the only structure that has load-bearing walls that can be destroyed by flame.

Fig. 3.3  In some older triple-decker buildings, the wood siding has been covered with an asphalt imitation brick siding. This is worse than wood exterior walls.

Wood connections

A triple-decker post and girt construction can be identified by wood mortise and tenon connections of the timbers’ posts and girts. Mortise and tenon connections connect the girts (girders) to the four corner posts. The corner post has a mortise opening cut through it and the ends of each girt (girder) are cut down in size to fit into the mortise openings. Although large timbers are used to reinforce the three-story structure, they are weakened by this connection. The timber corner posts have holes cut in them and the timber girt ends are cut down to half the size of the original timber at each end. Because of this mortise and tenon connection weakening, the timbers have less load-bearing strength. This connection is the triple-decker building’s structural framework. When investigating most structure failures, it occurs at the connection. The construction element does not break in the middle, but it does break at the connecting points. A structural element, such as a column, girder or beam, rarely breaks apart. They fail at the connection.

If it is necessary to check the stability of a triple-decker during a building inspection, a Fire Officer checks the corners of the building at each floor level where the girts are inserted into the corner post’s mortise. If it is bulging out here, the building may be coming apart at this point or if the corners of the building are not vertical from street to roof, this could indicate a defective mortise and tenon connection. A mortise and tenon connection is the only connection that can be destroyed by termites, fire and rotting. Metal connections are superior.

A post and girt triple-decker can collapse suddenly during a fire when it breaks at the mortise and tenon connection. If this happens, the building can totally collapse in an inward-/outward-type collapse. The first floor wall falls outward and the second- and third-floor walls collapse inward, similar to a falling house of cards. A warning sign of a triple-decker collapse is heavy fire involving the first floor. Upon arrival at a triple-decker building, if fire involves the entire first floor and master streams are required to be used to extinguish fire on the upper floors, it is a warning sign of a collapse. If the triple-decker stands alone unattached or on the end of a row of triple-deckers next to an empty lot, the collapse potential is increased. When an unattached triple-decker building does collapse during a fire, all four sides can collapse simultaneously. If the structure is a corner building, three sides can fail at once. When the entire structure fails, three or four walls and all the floors pancake down, this is called a global collapse.

Air and light shafts

Building and housing codes require a window in every room. When triple-deckers are built in a row, there may be an air shaft built between buildings to provide fresh air and sunlight to interior rooms. The shaft terminates at ground level and is open at the top to allow sunlight down into the shaft and into the rooms of attached buildings. These shafts spread fire from floor to floor by way of the windows opening onto the shaft. The wood window frames of both buildings facing a shaft can ignite during a shaft fire or on a hot night, when all the windows to the air/light shaft are open and flames can spread into several floors of both buildings facing the shaft. This complicates firefighting. You can quickly have fire on all floors, in both buildings, requiring hose-lines stretched to both buildings.

When fire spreads to air or light shafts between two buildings, you must locate the fire origin and have the first line go to the building with the fire and a second line to the adjoining building to protect this exposure. A third hose-line is stretched to any room off the shaft where flame has spread. If there is a report of fire on an upper floor that has spread from a shaft fire, a hose-line is stretched to this point, but a ladder must be raised to this floor to provide an escape for Firefighters in case the stair becomes unusable and they are cut off by fire.

Wood furring and lath

Furring refers to the strips of wood or the process of installing the strips of wood for nailing. Furring is thin strips of wood, usually measuring one by two or one by three inches, used to level or raise surfaces of another material. In

Fig. 3.4  When fire spreads to air or light shafts between two buildings, you must locate the fire origin and have the first line go to the building with the fire and a second line to the adjoining building to protect this exposure

Wood lath refers to even smaller strips--½ by one inch--which are nailed to the furring underside. Wet plaster is applied to the lath surface, creating the ceiling or wall in the rooms of 19th century triple-deckers. This construction no longer is used in modern triple-decker construction. However, old triple-deckers will be with us for many years, fires will continue to occur in them and Fire Officers must be familiar with this construction.

Today, furring strips may be metal and there is no wood lath used. In both old and new triple-deckers, after a room and content fire, these ceilings must be opened with pike poles to check that fire has not spread to the concealed space above the ceiling. Most fires occur in the older, inner-city rows of triple-decker buildings that have wood lath and plaster ceilings. A Fire Officer must train Firefighters to correctly use a pike pole to open a ceiling of wood furring and lath. If a fire-damaged plaster ceiling is not opened correctly and the furring is pulled down, there could be a ceiling collapse.

A Fire Officer also must train Firefighters to open up furring and lath plaster walls to keep damage to a minimum during overhaul. After a room and content fire has been extinguished in an old triple-decker, causing parts of the ceiling plaster to fall, due to heat or knocked away by a hose stream, the direction of the wood lath can be determined. In an old triple-decker building, the furring strips usually run perpendicularly to the floor beams and the wood lath runs perpendicularly to the furring strips. When pulling a ceiling with a pike pole after a fire to avoid a ceiling collapse, a Firefighter should drive the pike pole hook up through the plaster ceiling with the point and hook parallel with the wood lath. Then move the pike pole one-quarter turn forward, with the hook pointing forward, and with short, sharp strokes, pull the pole up and down, removing only the lath and plaster ceiling between the furring strips and not pull down the furring strips. If you pull down the furring strips, this could cause a large part of the ceiling to collapse on top of everyone in the room performing overhaul. Wood furring also is found on other than triple-decker buildings and other than ceiling construction.


Cockloft is a fire service term defining a concealed roof space above the highest finished ceiling. A cockloft is completely enclosed and located between roof rafters and the suspended ceiling. It extends over all apartments in a building and can be one foot to three feet high, designed to insulate the occupancy from the rays of the sun and cold from snow and ice on a roof.

Fig. 3.5  When opening lath and plaster ceilings, remove only the lath and plaster ceiling between the furring strips. Do not pull down the furring strips because this could cause a large part of the ceiling to collapse.

A common roof space is different; it is a cockloft that also extends over adjoining buildings. Fire that extends to the cockloft of common roof space is difficult to extinguish because there are no openings to the space, ceilings must be pulled to gain access, the space is too small for Firefighters to enter and there are large amounts of exposed wood in a cockloft, including roof beams, furring strips, wood lath, wood bracing between beams and the underside of the roof deck. This exposed wood quickly provides fuel for a large fire when fire enters the cockloft. In a triple-decker, the cockloft space will extend over all top-floor apartments and if fire enters the cockloft, it spreads over all the rooms in the building and engulfs the entire top floor of the building. And, similar to an attic in a one- or two-story dwelling fire, the firefighting objective is to keep fire from spreading to this large concealed space. Concealed spaces in a triple-decker lead to the cockloft and any fire that extends to a concealed space may spread to the cockloft and must be stopped.

For example, after a fire is knocked down, a Fire Officer immediately must order Firefighters to check the ceiling space above the fire origin by pulling the ceilings above the fire. Fire can spread into the cockloft space several ways: any fire on any floor that enters the ceiling space may spread to the cockloft; any fire spreading up a light or air shaft can burn through the roof eaves at the top of the shaft; any fire from a flaming, top-floor window lapping up into a cornice; and any fire spreading up exterior siding can enter the cockloft at the eaves. The most common way flames spread to a cockloft is flame extending through a top-floor ceiling.

The cockloft has been discovered by the arsonist. The arsonist knows how difficult it is to extinguish a cockloft fire and the great damage a cockloft fire creates, so one arson method is to cut a small hole in the roof and spill accelerant into the opening and ignite a fire here.

Some Fire Chiefs, including myself, believe if fire spreads to the cockloft from a lower floor, the fire strategy was a failure. If fire spreads to a cockloft, the entire building is destroyed. One of the goals beside life safety and extinguishment of the origin of the fire for an IC at a triple-decker fire is to keep fire from spreading to the cockloft.

A Fire Officer must examine the cockloft for the presence of fire any time a shaft fire is extinguished or flames blow out of a top-floor window or spread to a decorative cornice. This investigating Officer must examine the cockloft as soon as one of these fires is extinguished. When fire is suspected in the cockloft space and Firefighters are to open the top-floor ceilings with pike poles, other Firefighters must be in position and ready with hose streams. If fire is discovered in the cockloft, a vent opening in the roof must be cut over this fire to increase vertical fire rise and slow down horizontal fire spread in the cockloft. An aerial ladder must be in place to provide escape anytime a Firefighter operates on the roof of an unattached triple-decker.

Chapter 4: Multiple Dwelling Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

The multiple dwelling is a three-family dwelling battlespace that has metal doors, police locks, bolts, chains and long hallways. It takes a lot of guts to move down a smoke- and flame-filled long hallway of a multiple dwelling where it can be fatal to pass a burning room off to one side. If you make it down the long hallway inside the apartment, then you face locked window gates, bars and sealed-up dumbwaiter shafts and because the five- to seven-story structure is higher than the surrounding buildings, if you vent prematurely, you set up a wind-driven fire from window to hallway. If you have to stretch a hose-line up a rusted old fire escape because the interior line cannot advance and flame from a top-floor window is heating the metal cornice, hot, molten lead is raining down on you.

Multiple dwellings can be large apartment houses or tenements, sometimes located in old downtown or inner city sections, with nearby vacant buildings and high fire rates. This battlespace is where urban warfare takes place. The following are construction features found in the multiple dwelling battlespace that a Fire Officer must know about to extinguish fire and survive.


These are small glass windows above each apartment door in a multiple dwelling. They are designed to transfer light from a hallway to an apartment. In older multiple dwellings, there was a roof skylight on the top of the stairway, which brought sunlight into the interior stair enclosure through the center of the stairwell and the transom over the apartment entrance door was intended to extend hallway light into the apartments. Some transoms were designed to swivel open. Today, transoms are illegal. However, some older multiple dwellings still have them. The fire problem with transoms is that they could break from heat and allow fire to spread from an apartment out into hallways and cut off people escaping from above, down a stair.

Fig. 4.1  Multiple dwellings are the urban firefighting battlespace.


This is wood paneling applied to the lower third part of a wall. Originally, it was applied to the hallways of multiple dwellings. Wainscoting adds fuel to an interior stairway. When building codes started enforcing fire safety in multiple dwellings, the interior stair was required to be a fire-protected enclosure. In new multiple dwelling construction, transoms and wainscoting in public hallways are illegal. Only the stair rail and apartment doors could be wood if they met a required fire rating and the hinges were fitted with self-closing springs. Wainscoting still may be found inside a multiple dwelling apartment and adds fuel to a fire. During overhauling operations, a Fire Officer must have Firefighters remove the wainscoting that is scorched and charred by a nearby content fire. Wainscoting is opened up to check the wall space behind it for fire spread.

Also found in the apartment of a multiple dwelling is wood paneling from floor to ceiling. Wood panel walls and wainscoting make firefighting more difficult because it can cause a flameover. Fire flameover is rapid fire spread over the surface of a wall. Wood paneling also can speed up flashover, when a room suddenly can burst into flame more quickly because a burning wood wall surface does not allow the transfer of heat from the content fire to the upper walls and ceilings, therefore speeding up thermal radiation feedback and flashover. A Fire Officer must know a wood wall surface can flameover and spread fire behind advancing Firefighters, while a flashover can engulf Firefighters searching in smoke.

Self-closing door

This is an apartment door normally held in a closed position by a spring. A self-closing door has spring-loaded hinges designed to close the door automatically after it has been opened. An apartment door is the most important fire protection device in a multiple dwelling. A self-closing door keeps fire from an apartment spreading out to the stairway, trapping people on the upper floors. The self-closing door also keeps smoke and heat in a stairway from entering the apartment.

There is a very effective fire education radio message that says, over and over again, “The door, the door, the door, close the door! It can save your life during a fire.” I cannot tell you how many fatal fire investigations have concluded had the victim closed the door to the room, he or she would have survived.

People do not understand the importance of a closed door during a fire. Even a wood door will stop fire and most of the smoke for a half hour. After one post-fire investigation, a building employee confessed that the occupants of the building would pay several dollars to have the spring of a self-closing device rendered inoperable because if the self-closing door closed behind them when retrieving a newspaper in the hall, it could lock them out.

During a fire in a multiple dwelling when a “defend in place” strategy is being used while the Firefighters extinguish a fire, the Fire Officer must order all occupants to stay in their apartment and close the door. Also, when a fire occurs in an apartment of a multiple dwelling on the lower floor and there is a delay stretching the hose and people are coming down a stair, a Fire Officer must order Firefighters to close the door to the burning apartment until people in the stair descend safely. When the hose-line is in place, personal protective equipment (PPE) is in place and the nozzle bled of air, then the door to the apartment is opened and Firefighters quickly advance and extinguish the fire. Once again, an apartment door is the most important lifesaving device in a multiple dwelling.


It is a horizontal decorative molding that crowns a multiple dwelling. A cornice can be constructed of wood, sheet metal or plastic. When multiple dwellings are built in a row, fire can spread to several adjoining buildings in the cornice. Fire coming out of a top-floor window of one of the multiple dwellings can spread up to a wood cornice and then travel horizontally to one or both adjoining buildings. Even if the cornice is sheet metal, it will have an interior framework of wood and a concealed fire can spread to the adjoining buildings inside the cornice.

Fire that spreads to a cornice also can extend quickly into the common roof space or cockloft. This is another reason a Fire Officer should not allow fire to spread to a cornice in a multiple dwelling. Many building codes require a cornice to be firestopped every 20 or 30 feet so fire does not spread to adjoining buildings by way of a cornice. After a top-floor fire in a multiple dwelling is knocked down, a Fire Officer should have a Firefighter with a hose stream move to the front or rear windows and extinguish any fire burning at the window frames that can extend into a front cornice or roof eaves at the rear, as this will prevent fire from spreading into the cornice or common roof space. After a serious apartment fire has been knocked down, a small fire involving only the window frames may not seem important to exhausted Firefighters, but it is crucial because this small fire can spread to a cornice or cockloft and create much more damage than the original apartment fire. Fire spreading into a common roof space can destroy all the apartments on the top floor.

Fire escape

This is an emergency exit that provides a second means of escape if the interior stair is blocked by smoke or fire. A Fire Officer should know there are two kinds of fire escapes on multiple dwellings--a standard fire escape and a horizontal exit fire escape. A standard fire escape has an access ladder between floors that allow people to go up or down; a horizontal exit fire escape does not have an access ladder between floors. Instead, it serves as an escape for occupants fleeing a fire by allowing them to go horizontally into the adjoining building.

A horizontal exit fire escape is the oldest type of fire escape and is built serving two separate buildings. This type of fire escape quickly becomes overloaded with people because they do not understand how to use it and often the adjoining building windows are locked.

Fig. 4.2  Fire that spreads to a cornice also can extend quickly into the common roof space or cockloft.

A fire wall between the two buildings served by the horizontal exit fire escape is the protection. People must enter the window of the adjoining building and use the interior stair of this building to go to street level and safety. A Fire Officer should know there will be overloading on a horizontal exit fire escape and order Firefighters to go to the adjoining building, open the window and assist people into the building through the window off the horizontal exit fire escape as soon as possible before the balcony collapses from overload.

A standard fire escape is the most common fire escape found on a multiple dwelling and can be found on the front, side or rear wall of a building. It will have a metal balcony enclosed by a railing, serving the second to the top floor, and a narrow metal stairway at a steep angle, providing access between floors. There will be a moveable sliding vertical ladder (drop ladder) held in place on the second-floor balcony by a pendulum hook.

Upon arrival, a Fire Officer should order Firefighters to lower the drop ladder by using a pike pole to raise the vertical ladder several inches, which disengages the pendulum hook and allows the ladder to drop straight down to street level. This action allows Firefighters to ascend the fire escape and assist occupants descending the fire escape access ladders.

Fire escapes are dangerous, unfamiliar, outside emergency stairs and people on them must be assisted by Firefighters. Occupants should not be taken down a fire escape if the interior stairs are accessible. Once people are below the fire floor, they should be taken inside a window, through an apartment and down the interior stair, instead of down the dangerous fire escape.

Fig. 4.3  Fire escapes are dangerous, unfamiliar, outside emergency stairs and people on them must be assisted by Firefighters.

In 2015, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, at a five-alarm fire, an occupant fell to his death from a rear fire escape while attempting to escape a fire. When a person is seen on a fire escape during a fire, a Fire Officer should consider the person in danger and order a Firefighter to assist.

There are several features of a fire escape that make them a fall hazard. Fire escapes can be icy and slippery when wet; fire escape ladders descend at a steeper angle than a normal stairway; a fire escape may have only one railing, which makes it difficult to hold onto during descent; and fire escape treads are narrower than a stair tread and, in some instances, two bars instead of a flat metal surface. Rust and decay due to the lack of maintenance cause fire escape treads to collapse under the weight of an occupant or Firefighter use during a fire. A Fire Officer should know that a fire escape is low priority among the victim removal methods used during a fire. The priority of victim removal at a multiple dwelling fire is interior stairway, removal with an aerial platform, removal with an aerial ladder and, last choice, removal via a fire escape.

Gooseneck ladder

This is a vertical ladder from a fire escape to a roof. The gooseneck is the part of the metal ladder that bends over the parapet wall. These ladders are illegal today and found only on multiple dwellings built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Besides being dangerous, they are unsightly and rarely will be found on the front fire escape; they are found on the side or rear fire escape of a multiple dwelling.

The danger of a gooseneck ladder is its 90-degree, straight-up, vertical position. Unlike a ladder placed at a 45-degree angle, the vertical gooseneck ladder does not allow a Firefighter to balance himself or herself with feet on a rung. Both hands must be used to climb a gooseneck ladder. If there is any moment when a hand is not grasping the ladder, the weight of a SCBA on a Firefighter’s back has a pullback effect. Gravity also pulls a Firefighter off a gooseneck ladder.

Another problem with a gooseneck ladder is that it may be attached too close to the wall, not allowing space between the ladder and wall for a climber’s foot to be placed squarely on the rung, with the ball of the foot on the rung. In this case, only the toe end of a Firefighter’s boot may be used for support, while both hands grasp the rung to keep from falling.

A Fire Officer must ensure that Firefighters assigned to roof operations have slings for carrying saws and forcible entry tools. Slings allow Firefighters to carry equipment over their shoulders and have both hands free for ladder climbing, especially on a gooseneck ladder. One of the factors causing the fall of Chicago Firefighter Christopher Wheatley from a vertical fire escape ladder was insufficient space between the vertical ladder and the building wall. He was unable to place the arched part of his boot on the ladder rung.


This is a structure on the roof built over a stairway, elevator shaft or dumbwaiter shaft. Small multiple dwellings do not have bulkheads and instead have skylights and scuttle covers over interior stairs. A Fire Officer should know that these roof structures should be vented during a serious fire in a multiple dwelling in order to prevent smoke buildup and mushrooming on the top floor. When a fire occurs in a lower floor of a multiple dwelling and Firefighters open the apartment door to advance a hose-line, smoke flows out over their heads and rises up the stair. This smoke accumulates on the top floor and sometimes must be vented at roof level. A Fire Officer should order a Firefighter to vent a bulkhead, scuttle cover or skylight that is located over the stair to prevent top-floor smoke buildup and mushrooming.

Before the benefits of roof venting were known, Firefighters would extinguish a fire on the lower floor and after the fire was extinguished, they would find people overcome by smoke on the top floor from the lower-floor fire. Venting these roof portals also allows Firefighters to maintain a position on the top floor to search and advance a hose-line. Without the roof venting, smoke and heat could bank down and prevent Firefighters from working on the top floor during a fire. Roof venting saves lives and assists fire extinguishment.

When venting a bulkhead structure over a stairway, a Firefighter should force open the door leading to the roof. If heavy smoke comes out of the doorway, sweep the floor inside with a tool, looking for an unconscious victim. If it is possible to gain access to the skylight on top of a bulkhead structure, vent that, too. The forced bulkhead door should be chocked open or the hinge broken to prevent it from closing.

Scuttle cover

This is a wood, metal or plastic hatch cover that provides access to a roof from the top floor of a multiple dwelling by a ladder. On smaller multiple dwellings, there may not be a bulkhead structure but, instead, a scuttle cover and a skylight on the roof surface that can be vented. A Fire Officer orders Firefighters to lift or force off the scuttle cover and glass skylight to vent the roof during a fire. When forcing a scuttle cover, pry it from the exposure #1 (A) side, because this is where the fasteners on the cover underside most often are located. The access ladder and scuttle cover usually are near the front of the building on the top-floor landing and the skylight is centered over the middle of the stair. As long as there is no door enclosing the scuttle cover ladder in the alcove, both of these roof openings effectively will vent the interior stair of a multiple dwelling. When prying up a scuttle cover, try not to damage the coaming, the raised frame around the opening, because it keeps rainwater from running into the building. After a roof scuttle cover or skylight is removed from the opening, a Fire Officer should know the returns--the interior surface of the opening between the roof and the top-floor ceiling—once opened, can provide a view of a cockloft. Any fire or heat buildup in a cockloft can be determined by opening the return walls of a scuttle or skylight opening.

Fig. 4.4  When prying up a scuttle cover, try not to damage the coaming–the raised frame around the opening–because it keeps rainwater from running into the building.


This is a glass or plastic roof fixture designed to transmit light or air into a multiple dwelling. A Fire Officer should know that a skylight often is positioned over the interior stair of a multiple dwelling. For effective roof venting, have Firefighters assigned the roof operations perform the following tactics:

  1. At a routine, small content fire, opening the bulkhead door may be sufficient and the skylight need not be vented.
  2. At a bulkhead puffing smoke, it is quicker to vent by opening the skylight than to force the door to the bulkhead.
  3. To get atop a bulkhead structure to vent a skylight, use a Halligan tool, lean it against the bulkhead with the forked end down and adz end up and use the adz end as a step to reach a skylight on top of a bulkhead.
  4. After forcing a bulkhead door for venting to keep it open, use a chock on the door or a nearby, loose coping stone to brace it open or break a top hinge.
  5. Where there is a scuttle cover and skylight, vent the skylight first, then the more time-consuming scuttle cover.
  6. To remove a skylight without breaking it, bend the clips on the skylight strap up, then pull it up to allow the glass panel to be lifted without breaking it.
  7. Recommended tools for roof venting are a Halligan hook and a Halligan pry bar.
  8. During salvage and overhauling operations, replace the skylight and scuttle covers and close a bulkhead door.

Spandrel wall

This is the exterior wall surface between the top of one window and the bottom sill of the window above. When fire is lapping out a window, a hose stream is being directed to stop auto-exposure and there is a possibility of injuring Firefighters inside, the Fire Officer of the Firefighter directing the stream should order the stream to hit the spandrel wall section and not go into the window. Splattering water against the spandrel wall can slow flame lapping up from one window to another. The outside hose stream should not be directed in the windows unless an Operations Officer in charge of interior firefighting confirms that all Firefighters have been removed to safety. A Fire Officer also should know that a spandrel wall can be weakened by the powerful, high-pressure master stream and collapse, so Firefighters should not pass beneath the stream to get into the building.


These are two- by two-inch strips of wood, embedded in concrete or brick, used as an anchor to nail down under-flooring for floorboards. If a serious cellar fire heats up a masonry cellar ceiling, it could conduct heat upward and ignite the wood sleepers of the first floor of a multiple dwelling. After a serious cellar fire in a multiple dwelling that has a masonry ceiling, a Fire Officer should examine the first floor directly above the fire for any heat conduction to the sleepers embedded in the concrete. A thermal imaging camera should be used to scan the floor to discover any smoldering in the wood sleepers. If burning sleepers are detected, the finished floor must be cut open and the charred and burning sleepers removed and wet down.

Fig. 4.5  When fire spreads to the cockloft, an aerial master stream must be placed in position for use if interior attack hose-lines cannot extinguish it.

A multiple dwelling fire battle plan

  1. The first attack hose-line is stretched up the interior stair to the fire apartment. This will be a long stretch, requiring many lengths of hose. All Firefighters at the scene should assist in this stretch. The strategy is to get the first line stretched and charged with water before the second hose-line is stretched. At some apartments, the stair encircles an elevator shaft and must be stretched using a rope to haul the hose-line up to the floor below the fire. The rope is dropped out of a window from the floor below the fire. The nozzle and hose are securely fastened to the rope and the hose is pulled up to the floor below the fire by Firefighters. Sufficient excess hose should be pulled into the window onto the hall for an advance up the stair, down the hall and through the apartment. This should be at least three lengths of hose. The hose is secured with a hose strap at key points so it does not slide out the window. If necessary, the entire first-alarm assignment must be dispatched to get the first line in operation.
  2. The second line is stretched to back up the first line. This hose-line may be needed on the same floor as the fire apartment. Most of the time, it will be used on the fire floor.
  3. A portable ladder may be placed at the fire escape to remove people. An aerial ladder may be used to advance hose-line.
  4. When the fire occurs in a top-floor apartment, the roof should be cut to provide vertical venting for the burning apartment and stop horizontal fire spread in the cockloft.

The game-changers

The game-changers are fire in a shaft, wind-driven fire or fire in the cockloft. When fire enters a shaft, a second hose-line must go to the adjoining exposed building to prevent the shaft fire from spreading to the building. A report of a wind-driven fire dictates that interior forces back out, close the door and advance an outside line through the window with the wind. An outside aerial master stream may be required to extinguish fire in a multiple dwelling cockloft and top floor.

Multiple Dwelling Battlespace Casualties

Bronx, New York, three Firefighters trapped and killed, jumping from fourth floor of multiple dwelling. NIOSH 2005-03.

Additional reading

Forcible Entry Reference Guide, Techniques and Procedures, FDNY, Captain John Vigiano

Chapter 5: Warehouse/Loft Building Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

A loft building is a former manufacturing building that was built during the past century in medium to large cities. Some have been converted for use as storage warehouses, apartment condominiums or retail stores. These are called “hard lofts,” century-old structures converted to any kind of residential, public or commercial use. There are “soft lofts” that are new residence structures built with large, open spaces, such as those found in old loft buildings. The warehouse loft building battlespace structure that is our concern is the century-old loft building that is a warehouse, apartment condo, office or retail store. The use of the building does not matter; it is the century-old structure that is our deadly battlefield.

After manufacturing went south and overseas, loft buildings were left vacant or became dilapidated, old storage buildings, stuffed with baled goods or heavy machinery. This Type III ordinary or Type IV heavy timber buildings, with large, open floors and cast-iron columns, were not maintained, became dangerous, vacant and subject to arson for profit. These 19th century relics remain in the downtown urban centers of America and may be disguised as artist studios, condos or stores, but they are dangerous, rotting, rusting and dried-out old wood and brick structures.

The loft building battlespace can be identified on the outside by its rusted, old fire escapes, with a contraption called a counterbalance stairway of steel cables, hanging weights and a movable horizontal moving ladder. The inside is worse; you climb a creaking, “straight run” stair, rising from street level straight up to the top floor and if you open a door to the side, you see a large, open space with high ceilings, cast-iron columns, an open elevator shaft and tons of high-piled, heavy-baled cloth or cardboard.

It gets worse if you go down. This building may have a level below grade called a cellar and sub-cellar with walls of jagged, black foundation stone. First, you descend a narrow, wood-enclosed level below grade, then down another set of stone steps to the second underground level into a moldy, stale, unvented dark area. Fortunately, there are only a few of these century-old loft buildings left remaining in a downtown area and they may be renovated, called historic buildings or used as artist studios, but they still have a century-old infrastructure prone to burn and collapse.

Some Firefighters say the letters of LOFT stand for Large Old Firefighter Trap. These archaic buildings create a deadly environment for unsuspecting Firefighters: cast-iron columns; unprotected floor openings; unguarded, open elevator shafts; large, potential fire areas; high ceilings that allow flame to spread overhead; sub-cellar dungeons; suspended ceilings that collapse like a net; shiny, thick, cement terrazzo floors covering rotted wood floors; and rusty, old, counterbalance fire escapes with heavy metal weights that collapse when used.

Loft building storage use has been replaced and located out of town in new, dangerous structures--the big box stores or distribution centers. Some loft buildings have been declared historic structures and will be with us for another century. In New York City, they are disguised as fashionable artist residences and have high-end retail stores on the first floor, but they are still century-old loft buildings with sub-cellars. Following are some of the deadly construction features of the loft building battlespace.

Cast-iron columns

Cast iron is an alloy of iron containing so much carbon that it becomes brittle and cannot be bent or shaped; it can be shaped only by casting. Used mostly as columns in commercial buildings, cast iron has great compression strength, but no ability to resist tension loads. Cast iron was used for columns in the structural framework and, on rare occasions, for decorative facades of older commercial buildings in New York City and Chicago.

In the early 20th century, cast-iron buildings collapsed and killed many Firefighters. It was said that cast iron, when heated by a fire and then struck with cold water from a hose stream, would collapse. However, research of structural failures during fires revealed the cause of collapse was not heating and cooling with hose streams, but due to improper casting. The cast column and decorative cornices and front walls were designed to have uniform thickness throughout and this was not always the case. Post-fire investigations identified uneven thickness of a column or façade as the collapse cause. For example, a broken column examined during an investigation showed a column wall thickness of one inch on one side and only one-half inch on the other side.

Today, cast iron rarely is used in structural framing and never for a building facade. Steel has replaced cast iron as a column. However, thousands of older, now historic, commercial buildings with cast-iron columns and decorative cornices exist in the older, center city areas. Cast-iron columns still support wooden girders of old commercial buildings and Fire Officers now issue a violation order to protect it with a fire-resistant covering.

Fig. 5.1  Loft buildings are a deadly firefighting environment.

When fire occurs in a commercial building with a cast-iron façade, Fire Officers should order collapse danger zones to protect Firefighters. Anytime a cast-iron column or façade is discovered during a fire size-up, the Incident Commander (IC) should be notified. This important information can influence his or her firefighting decisions.

Counterbalance stairs

Counterbalance stairway fire escapes are found on the exterior of commercial buildings. A counterbalance stairway is a complex fire escape that has movable metal stairs designed to provide access between the lowest fire escape balcony and street level. It is designed to remain in a raised position by cables and counterbalancing weights and pulleys.

During a fire, people leave the upper floors, descend the fire escape and on the lowest level, there is a stair leading to the sidewalk, supported by a counterbalanced weight system. To operate the counterbalance stair, a Firefighter with a pike pole moves a lever and pulls down the end of the counterbalance stair. Once the stair is resting on the sidewalk and people descend, their weight overcomes the weight of the steel counterbalance weight that was holding the stairway in the raised position.

A Fire Officer should know that a counterbalance stairway fire escape is dangerous to operate because the counterbalance weights, steel cables, pulleys and even the entire movable stairway can break apart and collapse down to the street. Many of these heavy metal counterbalance stairs and weights have not been tested or operated for decades. Several hundred pounds of rusted metal either are attached to one end of the fire escape stairway or held up by a pulley and steel cable against the side of the building, ready to collapse when moved. These counterbalance weights sometimes are hidden from view in a tin covering above the fire escape.

There have been incidents in which the entire metal stairway has collapsed onto the sidewalk or a heavy metal weight holding up the counterbalance stair has broken from a cable and fallen to the street. There also have been instances where a steel cable and pulley holding the cast-iron weights have broken off a wall.

Fig. 5.2  Prolonged fire burning on two floors is a signal to change strategy to a defensive exterior attack.

A Fire Officer must know when arriving at a fire and people are awaiting rescue on the lowest balcony of a fire escape with a counterbalance stairway that it is safer and more effective to order Firefighters to use a fire department ground ladder instead of the counterbalance stairway to remove people. Even better, a Fire Officer should order a Firefighter to climb up the ladder, calm people and take them inside a second-floor window and down the interior stairs.

Unprotected elevator shafts and floor openings

Old commercial buildings have unprotected elevator shaft ways and floor openings. Elevators have manual, seethrough scissor gate protective doors on each floor and window opening, leading to the elevator shaft way. The scissor gates may not always be closed. Also, there are floor openings where you would not expect: elevator shafts, light shafts, conveyor belt shafts and trash chutes and all create fall hazards and also spread fire from floor to floor, which can trap Firefighters searching upper floors. These floor openings are not enclosed as required; safeguards sometimes are removed or left open at night or obscured or destroyed by smoke and flame.

A great danger is an elevator shaft located at the outer wall of a warehouse factory or storage building that has windows opening directly into the shaft providing light. Firefighters climbing aerial ladders entering windows have fallen into elevator shaft ways, thinking they are stepping onto a floor through the window. These windows opening into shafts must have warning signs outside near the window, indicating shaft way. This sign is to warn Firefighters climbing ladders and notify them that the nearby window opens into a shaft, not a floor. These signs may be missing or painted letters faded from age.

Anytime Firefighters climb through a window of a commercial building, they should check with a tool by probing for a floor before entering. Firefighters even can drop a tool, listening for the sound of it striking the floor.

When operating on a roof at night, there are other open shafts that are great dangers. When a Firefighter climbs over any short parapet wall on a commercial building roof in darkness or blinded by smoke, he/she may not be climbing to another section of roof, so ensure there is a roof on the other side of the low wall and not an open shaft. Again, Firefighters should probe with a tool before climbing over. There may be several bulkheads enclosing stairs, penetrating the roof of a commercial building. These small structures have doors that sometimes are forced open for venting or entry by a Firefighter on a roof. Sometimes, the bulkheads are at the top of elevator shafts, not stairways. Again, at night or in smoke, when forcing the door in the roof bulkhead, do not enter the opening until you confirm there is a floor.

Fire Officers must train Firefighters working in old commercial building districts to be cautious and identify the hazards for them. Most importantly, show Firefighters the searching technique of using a tool to probe ahead when searching in smoke or at night. Firefighters advancing hose-lines without a tool to probe must use an outstretched leg, feeling for unprotected floor openings when moving forward during poor visibility.

Fig. 5.3  A counterbalance stairway fire escape is dangerous to operate because the counterbalance weights, steel cables, pulleys and even the entire movable stairway can break apart and collapse down to the street.

Structure hierarchy

A Fire Officer must know there is a hierarchy of a ware-house/factory/storage structure and amount of destruction during a collapse depends on the first part of this structure hierarchy to fail. Four important structural elements in the hierarchy of an ordinary or heavy timber commercial building are: bearing walls and columns, girders and beams. The higher the first structure to fail is positioned in the hierarchy, the greater the collapse destruction.

For example, if a bearing wall or column fails, there will be major destruction; everything it supports, such as girders, floor and roof beams will crumble, too. If a girder fails, it will trigger collapse of supporting floor or roof beams. When a section of floor or roof fails during a fire, it may not trigger a progressive collapse of other structure members. A progressive collapse occurs when failure of one structure causes the failure of an interconnecting member. When a bearing wall or column collapses during a fire, it definitely will cause a progressive collapse and even may cause a global collapse. A global collapse occurs when the entire structure collapses and nothing is left but a pile of rubble.

A Fire Officer must know when a column on the first floor appears to be distorted or shifting during a fire. This has great significance to the entire structure and all the Firefighters in the building and on the roof, not just Firefighters in the surrounding area of the column. A Fire Officer must notify the IC of this structure weakness.

Large, open floor area

A dangerous feature of a warehouse, storage, factory and loft building is the large, open interior floor space. A warehouse, factory and storage building require the large, open space for storage of content. They must have space for materials and machines and be able to view people for supervision.

A Fire Officer must know that a large, open floor space can allow development of a fire beyond extinguishment with small-diameter hose used in a typical residence building fire. A residence building has floors broken up into small units and partition walls to break spread of fire. Small spaces have small fires; large, open spaces of commercial buildings have large fires. A fully involved, large, open floor fire will overwhelm a small, 1¾-inch-diameter hose stream. Small streams turn to steam and do not have sufficient cooling effect. In a commercial building, a large, 2½-inch-diameter hose is required to ensure fire extinguishment.

Fig. 5.4  Cast-iron column supporting a loft building structure.

Most Fire Officers agree that Firefighters using a large, 2½-inch-diameter hose stream can extinguish fire in a roughly 2,500-square-foot burning area. Two hose-lines can handle a 5,000-square-foot area. Beyond that floor size, there must be automatic extinguishment to protect the building. If the commercial building has a standpipe, the first line should be hose carried up by Firefighters and connected to the floor below the fire. If a building also has an automatic sprinkler system, a hose-line should supply the sprinkler Siamese after the standpipe is supplied. Sprinklers are more effective than a handheld hose-line. But the standpipe must be supplied first to protect Firefighters.

When there is no standpipe or sprinkler system, a Fire Officer should order Firefighters to stretch 2½-inch hose to fight a fire in a commercial building fire. If a 1¾-inch hose is stretched and the fire not extinguished, the fire company can be criticized and blamed. A 2½-inch hose-line with 1⅛ - or 1¼-inch nozzle can deliver 250 or 300 gallons per minute. This is maximum water delivery by a handheld hose-line. A hose team will need all the water it can get to extinguish a commercial building open floor fire.

The reason Firefighters stretch 1¾-inch hose-lines in residence buildings is because this occupancy will have small rooms, limiting the size of a fire and, in an emergency, Firefighters temporarily can close doors to restrict fire spread. This safety tactic is not possible in a commercial building with a large, open floor area. Mobility is not important in a commercial building fire, but the reach of the large water stream is.

Search and rescue in a large floor area is more dangerous because it is impossible to use the standard organized search procedures, such as keeping in touch with walls while advancing in smoke or darkness. Disorientation, which is loss of direction due to loss of vision, is more of a danger to a Firefighter searching in a large, open area than in an area broken up into small rooms. Firefighter fatalities caused by being caught and trapped by sudden flashover when searching is a great risk because there are no rooms to take refuge in and in a commercial building, the travel distance to safety of an enclosed stair is greater.

Fig. 5.5  Floor openings are not enclosed as required; safeguards sometimes are removed or left open at night, obscured or destroyed by smoke and flame.

Fire Officers must order Firefighters to use search ropes when entering a large, open floor to search. A ½-inch-diameter search rope 75 to 100 feet long, which can be clipped together to increase search distance, should be tied to a secure object, such as a stair railing, and played out as Firefighters enter a large, smoke-filled floor area when searching for the location of a fire.

A Fire Officer should schedule pre-planning visits of the fire company with the building management. During a pre-planning visit, Firefighters should note the floor layouts and hazards of commercial building occupancies. This knowledge will provide some safety and make Firefighters more effective during a fire operation.

High ceilings

Warehouses, factories and storage buildings also have high ceilings created by the large, open space needed to store the maximum amount of content and allow large machines to function. A Fire Officer of an aerial ladder company must know the different building floor heights to calculate the reach of a ladder when raising it to a window for rescue. Fire Officers know the building floor heights will vary.

For example, a modern residence building floor height will be eight feet; an older residence building can have 10-foot-high floors and commercial building floors can be 12 feet or higher. A building’s floor height also is important for interior search and hose stream firefighting. In a high ceiling occupancy, a Fire Officer must know flame and heat can build up at ceiling level and not be detected by Firefighters operating upright at floor level. In a typical, eight-foot-high ceiling in a residence, smoke and heat quickly bank down to the floor area and serve as a warning to Firefighters the fire is severe and flashover could occur. This warning is not as quick in a high ceiling commercial building floor area.

Super-heated smoke or pre-flashover conditions—rollover--can build up above Firefighters without their knowledge in a high ceiling occupancy. Firefighters have been trapped searching in a building with a high ceiling because flashover suddenly occurs without warning or fire flows behind them in the higher reaches of the ceiling.

In a typical, eight-foot-high ceiling residence building during a fire, a Firefighter searching in smoke sizes up a fire by how far down he/she has to crouch to get below a built-up heat level. The lower the smoke and heat, the lower the crouch and the more serious the fire. Smoke and heat buildup is rapid when a ceiling height is only eight feet; a high ceiling delays notice of hot smoke and flashover buildup. If a flashover suddenly occurs above Firefighters’ heads, radiated heat quickly flows down on them at floor level. If this happens, they will have to run for their lives with no cover over their heads. They can be beyond the point of no return if the travel distance to a stair enclosure is too great. A 100- by 100-foot warehouse floor with exits at each end can allow flashover heat to overtake them before escape.

A high ceiling with flashover conditions were leading factors in the death of FDNY Firefighter Walter Smith, Ladder Company 24, in a Macy’s department store fire. When searching for the location of the fire, super-heated smoke at ceiling level descended upon the fire company and flashed over. As everyone scrambled to escape, Firefighter Smith became disoriented and missed the way to safety.

Fig. 5.6  A cellar is a below-grade area with a floor height more than one half below street level; a sub-cellar is a floor area below a cellar.

In 1998, two Chicago Firefighters were trapped and killed inside a high ceiling truss roof tire service center in a similar manner. When searching inside a large floor area, undetected fire and super-heated smoke built up over their heads and suddenly ignited. Chicago Firefighters Patrick King and Anthony Lockhart lost their lives. Armed with this tragic information, a Fire Officer should know that high ceilings mean high risks.


Cellars and sub-cellars contain the most hazardous materials of a building. Fuel oil storage, explosive natural gas, high-voltage electricity, toxic chemicals, asbestos, paints and thinners are found in large and small quantities in a commercial building. Anything that the owner wants out of sight or cannot dispose of is stored below grade.

A Fire Officer also must know that a cellar and sub-cellar are the most hazardous spaces in a building. A Fire Officer must be able to identify the below-grade spaces accurately to give a correct size-up to command. A basement is a below-grade area with a floor height one half or less below the street level. This is important because in most building codes, a basement is considered the first floor and, by law, may be habitable. A cellar is a below-grade area with a floor height more than one half below street level; a sub-cellar is a floor area below a cellar.

People are not allowed to work or sleep in a below-grade cellar. Sub-cellars are the most dangerous below-grade areas. Sub-cellars were built beneath 19th and 20th century-old commercial buildings to add space or created when street levels were changed.

Some dangerous construction features of a sub-cellar include limited access, with only one sub-standard, narrow, wooden stair leading to the sub-cellar; no windows to vent smoke and heat of a fire; when a fire occurs, it will be a delayed alarm, because this area is not occupied continuously; because there is limited ventilation portals, there can be a smoke/backdraft explosion; toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, quickly build up during a sub-cellar fire; and limited drainage allows water accumulation from hose streams or sprinklers and a cellar or sub-cellar can become a watery grave for a

Fig. 5.7  A century-old loft building suspended ceiling collapse.

Firefighter rendered unconscious.

A Fire Officer must know how to protect Firefighters descending into a sub-cellar. For example, Firefighters must wear breathing equipment when descending a narrow stairway leading to a below-grade area, even if smoke is not visible. Toxic gases can be colorless and odorless. A Fire Officer must call for electric-powered fans to be used for fresh air input and to exhaust smoke. If initial hose-line attack extinguishment is not possible or is unsuccessful, a Fire Officer must have a defensive strategy.

High-expansion foam is the most effective defensive firefighting for a below-grade area. A below-grade area will contain high-expansion foam within its walls and no plywood barriers will be needed to confine the foam in the fire area. High-expansion foam may not fully extinguish, but it will subdue the flame and heat, which can provide Firefighters time to evacuate upper floors and, in some instances, it can reduce flame and heat so a fire company then can advance down to the cellar with a hose-line to extinguish the fire.

Content matters

Loft buildings often are storage buildings. Storing floor to ceiling baled goods often is the only purpose of these buildings. Fuel of a burning building is provided by the structure and the content. The structure fuel is constant and does not change, but the content fuel load changes drastically over the lifetime of a building. In a loft building, knowledge of the type and amount of content fuel inside a building are critical for an accurate size-up.

Content was a severe fire hazard in a loft building area of New York City called

“Hell’s Hundred Acres.” This area housed century-old, dilapidated warehouses, factories and storage buildings that burned, collapsed and killed Firefighters. The real problem of Hell’s Hundred Acres was the content stored inside the buildings, not just the old buildings themselves. The typical content in a loft building is classified as heavy content load. Each floor can hold tons of combustible, rolled cloth, baled rags, stacked paper and heavy, noncombustible material, such as printing and textile machines, electronics, wire, computers, plastics, plumbing supplies and carpet showrooms. The old wood floors are sagging under the heavy material inside.

Floor load signs must be posted by the Building Department. Storage buildings should be protected with automatic sprinklers and sprinkler heads require a distance of 18 inches below piping to work effectively, while Firefighter hose streams require three feet of space above stock for hose streams to have an effective reach.

The type and amount of storage inside a loft building can be a game-changer. Baled goods of paper, rags, carpets and bolts of cloth all absorb water and collapse floors; heavy machinery speeds up collapse of floors during fire destruction. The many signs showing maximum floor loads should be a warning to us during a fire. A Fire Officer always must consider type of content stored in a loft building.

Suspended ceilings

Century-old commercial buildings have suspended ceilings of stamped decorative sheet metal or an acoustic tile. This large ceiling is suspended by wooden furring strips. If the wood hanger strips burn and are weakened by fire, the entire ceiling can collapse. As a new suspended ceiling is constructed, the old ceiling is left up.

Over the years and several renovations, there may be several suspended ceilings, one below another, and each old ceiling has holes through which fire may penetrate and spread. When Firefighters examine a ceiling for fire spread, all of the suspended ceiling must be opened and the space above examined. The space above a suspended ceiling also may contain electric computer cable with combustible insulation covering. If fire spread to this space, there will be a smoky fire and a ceiling collapse danger. The wood furring strip supports quickly can weaken and the ceiling fall on Firefighters like a net.

The ceiling grid system of sheet metal or acoustic tile can weigh several hundred pounds and when it collapses, there are four outcomes for Firefighters trapped below

  1. Firefighters can be trapped in a lean-to void and be able to crawl out from under the ceiling through a void created by furnishings.
  2. An unlucky Firefighter can be pinned to the floor by the ceiling.
  3. A Firefighter can be trapped inside a small, sealed space beneath the ceiling and killed by combustion products.
  4. A Firefighter can break through the ceiling and be engulfed in flames.
Fig. 5.8  A 1958 collapse of a storage loft building on Wooster Street in “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” NYC, killed four Fire Patrolmen and two FDNY Firefighters.

A Fire Officer must know after a ceiling collapse there is rapid increase in fire and the injury a Firefighter receives will come from smoke and flame following the collapse, so a hose-line quickly must be directed to extinguish any fire. At the moment of collapse, there will be a compression of air space below the falling ceiling, a vacuum in the space above the ceiling and air will rush into the space above the fallen ceiling, igniting any combustible gases. Combustible gases that have built up above the ceiling suddenly will ignite during the collapse due to the inrush of air.

A Fire Officer must know to prevent Firefighters from being trapped by suspended ceiling collapse in a commercial building. For example, when entering a large floor area near a doorway, first have a Firefighter check the space above the ceiling for fire by using a pike pole to open up a small area of ceiling or lift a ceiling panel. The most important method of protecting against a suspended ceiling collapse is to extinguish the fire before it spreads through the ceiling to the concealed ceiling space above. Extinguish a content fire before it spreads to the structure. A Fire Officer must order Firefighters to open up the ceiling above the fire as soon as a fire is extinguished and check for fire in the ceiling space. Open up until there is no char in the wood or metal above the suspended ceiling.

Terrazzo floors

A terrazzo floor is composed of polished marble chips poured over several inches of cement, usually built over an old wood beam floor to give an occupancy a modern, sturdy effect. Terrazzo is the name of the marble chip surface set in the cement. This floor usually is found on a first floor, near the entrance, and its purpose is to enhance the initial impression of visitors.

Fire experience has shown a terrazzo floor can be deadly during a fire for several reasons: a terrazzo cement four- or five-inch base increases the dead load of an old wood floor; cement and terrazzo insulate the heat of a cellar fire below it; and terrazzo conceals floor that is being weakened by fire below it.

The supporting wood floor beams below the terrazzo can burn and fall away and yet the terrazzo can look stable. In this instance, there will be no warning signs of floor collapse. Smoke and heat from the cellar fire will not rise up through a terrazzo floor as they would through a wood floor. There will be no warning signs of a fire-weakened floor, such as a spongy or sagging feeling. When a terrazzo floor collapses after the wood beams below have burned away, it falls in large sections, similar to large chunks of ice collapsing in a partially frozen lake.

Terrazzo floors usually are found in commercial buildings, places of worship, restaurants, hallways, lobbies, bathrooms, kitchens and stores. A Fire Officer should consider a terrazzo floor a collapse danger. A Fire Officer may detect an unstable terrazzo floor above a serious fire by spraying a small stream of water over a hot terrazzo floor; if it turns to steam, it may indicate a serious cellar fire below.

A loft building fire battle plan:

  1. Some loft buildings have standpipe systems; others do not. An IC must determine this on arrival and order the first hose-line stretched or rolled-up hose carried up to the floor below the fire, connected to a standpipe outlet and stretched up to the fire floor. A century-old standpipe Siamese connection may break apart when pressurized.
  2. The second hose-line will be required to back up the first line. The floor areas of heavy timber buildings are large, open spaces and two hose-lines will be required to extinguish a fire.
  3. Ground ladders may be placed at windows for rescue or venting and they should be used instead of a counterbalance ladder to remove people from a fire escape. Venting should be coordinated with the hose-line advance to reduce chance of flashover, backdraft explosion or rapid fire growth.
  4. An aerial ladder should be positioned for possible master stream attack if interior firefighting fails. A Firefighter should remain with the ladder controls on the turntable in case a civilian or Firefighter appears at a window and must be rescued.
  5. Because of the collapse history of loft buildings in New York City and other cities, there is a rule of thumb used by veteran ICs that states, “Prolonged burning of fire on several floors is a collapse danger and withdrawal of Firefighters must be considered.” The district in New York City of predominant loft buildings, called Hell’s Hundred Acres, has been converted to high-priced artist studios and is called SOHO–south of Houston Street–but the century-old buildings still burn and collapse.
  6. Cellar and sub-cellar fires in loft buildings require the use of high-expansion foam instead of sending Firefighters underground or using cellar pipes. High-expansion foam is messy and time-consuming. It slows growth enough to facilitate mop up and extinguishment with hose-lines or provides time for exterior master streams to be positioned around the structure for final extinguishment.

The game-changer

Cast-iron columns, heavy storage content, prolonged fire on two floors and cellar fires are game-changers in a warehouse/loft building. Cast iron does not bend or distort; it shatters and causes a global (total) collapse. Manufacture of cast-iron column thickness is always in question. Consider the content stored inside a collapse danger and two floors of fire as a warning. Below-grade fire requires indirect firefighting with high-expansion foam. A loft building and cast-iron columns make for a deadly battlespace.

Warehouse/Loft Building Battlespace Casualties

Four Seattle, Washington, Firefighters died in a warehouse floor collapse. United States Fire Administration USFA-TR--077, January 1995

Chapter 6: Place of Worship Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

A place of worship battlespace does not comply with fire, building or life safety codes. This holy structure is the most dangerous building in a community. If it were not considered a sacred structure, it would be condemned, ordered shut down, vacated with an order to install sprinklers and smoke detectors and provide a 24-hour watchman. The ceiling is higher than our hose stream reaches; the open space allows a fire to grow beyond our extinguishing capability; it has a massive truss roof; flammable decorations and tapestries; the flame spread rating of waxed and varnished covered wood walls is beyond acceptable limits; it has hundreds of open flame burning candles; and no supervisory management on-scene.

During an inspection, a Fire Officer should have a frank discussion held with the person in charge, explaining reasons why manual firefighting is not successful, stating the construction features that prevent fire extinguishment and recommending automatic sprinkler systems and smoke detectors where needed. I read in the New York Times many years ago about an English Fire Chief saying to the Bishop of an 11th century Protestant cathedral, “Your Holiness, Firefighters can do only one of two things if fire occurs in this holy place. We can save the roof if we break the stained-glass windows and vent smoke or we can save the stained-glass windows if we let the roof burn off.” The Bishop answered, “Save the stained-glass windows and let the roof burn off.” What the Fire Chief forgot to tell the Bishop is that we cannot do either one. Fire experience has shown venting the stained-glass windows will not effectively remove the smoke, heat and flame from upper portions of the high ceilings and the roof still will burn off. He also should have told the Bishop when the roof burns, it sometimes can collapse and push out the side walls. The following are some of the battlespace construction features that make firefighting in a place of worship difficult and dangerous.

High ceilings

The high ceilings of a church, synagogue or mosque are beyond the reach of a Firefighter’s hose stream discharge of 30 to 40 feet. This height allows heat and flame to spread across the ceiling of the large assembly area and up into the attic as the hose stream falls short of cooling the upper ceiling area. Firefighters at floor level will be unaware of the fire spread because it is taking place high above their heads and it will be obscured by smoke covering the area.

The hottest area of a burning room is always at ceiling level. Firefighters directing a stream into a room must aim the water at the ceiling to cool off the rising heat accumulating there. Standard operations for Firefighters are to direct the nozzle upward so the stream strikes the ceiling, breaks up and splatters downward in all directions. “Over your head and all around,” describes how to advance an attack hose-line into a burning room. If the ceiling fire cannot be extinguished, the plaster ceiling and large lighting fixtures will collapse down on Firefighters.

Most fires start at ground level. However, the smoke, heat and flame quickly rise up and accumulate at the ceiling level. At such high ceiling levels, flame can spread behind advancing Firefighters and cut off their escape. Or, smoke at ceiling level suddenly could ignite in a flashover and if venting is limited, super-heated smoke at ceiling level can explode in a backdraft.

Fig. 6.1  A place of worship need not comply with fire codes, building codes or life safety codes.

Firefighters fighting fires in residence buildings are unfamiliar with the hazards of high ceilings because here, the ceiling is only eight to 10 feet above floor level, causing smoke and heat to quickly bank down and warn Firefighters of the seriousness of the fire. In a place of worship, the smoke and heat will not reach the floor level. The high concave ceiling in a place of worship acts as a “heat sink”; that is, it allows heat, smoke and fire to accumulate above the heads of Firefighters. This heat sink effect confuses a Firefighter’s size-up.

In a nutshell, high ceilings prevent a hose stream from extinguishing fire, create conditions for flashover and backdraft explosion and can cut off Firefighters’ escape, with fire spreading over their heads and preventing them from sensing the seriousness of fire and flame spread at floor level.

Large, open spaces

The assembly areas of a church, synagogue and mosque are too large for Firefighters to extinguish a fire with hose-lines. When fully involved, there is too much fire and heat and a typical hose stream’s reach of 30 to 40 feet operated from a doorway will not reach all the interior spaces. This large space can contain a massive quantity of flame and heat that evaporates a hose stream and continues to spread. This large fire can turn 250 gallons of water into steam and not be visibly reduced in size or temperature.

Fire protection engineers and building code officials understand there is a relationship between size of fire and successful firefighting and they require large open spaces exceeding 5,000 square feet to be protected with automatic sprinklers. Among Firefighters, there is an unwritten rule that states a standard hose stream of 2½-inch hose with 1⅛-inch solid bore nozzle can extinguish no more than 2,500 square feet; and two 2½-inch hose-lines 5,000 square feet. A place of worship measuring 100 by 200 feet can have 20,000 square feet of open space.

Fig. 6.2  The high ceiling of a place of worship is beyond the reach of a Firefighter’s hose stream of 30 to 40 feet.

A Fire Officer must explain to the person in charge of a place of worship that manual firefighting cannot quench a fire in such a large open area. Similar to requirements for commercial structures, an automatic sprinkler system is required in a place of assembly to prevent a small fire from growing and filling up the large space. Smoke detectors also are necessary to provide early detection and avoid delayed alarm, leading to a large fire.

Concealed spaces

Even though they look like stone structures, a places of worship can be ordinary, brick and joist, Type III construction. The exterior may be of stone. However, the structure is a lumberyard enclosed with four stone walls. The recurring fire spread fire problem of a Type III, ordinary constructed building is concealed spaces and, like any Type III building, the large concealed space is the attic or cockloft. The interior walls are plaster, with a surface imprinted to look like stone, but if you break it, you find it is made of plaster and wood lath. Behind these walls are wood studs and voids and combustible spaces that lead up to a large attic. Don’t be fooled; the interior is sculpted to appear like stone, but is plaster and wood and the strategy in a Type III building as soon as you knock down a fire is to quickly open up the walls and check for concealed fire spread. Then, get a Firefighter up to the attic and check this area for fire spread.

When you conduct a pre-fire plan inspection of a place of worship, one of the most important tasks is to locate the stair leading to the attic. This stair is usually in a remote location and difficult to find. You can save time searching for its location if you have identified it in a pre-fire plan.

After an Incident Commander (IC) is notified a fire is knocked down, the next order should be, “Get to the attic space and check for fire spread.” If there is a custodian at the scene, have him lead you to the stair passageway or circular stair leading up to the attic. Up in the roof space there will be more combustibles: a wood walkway extending from front to back of the attic, large wood trusses supporting the roof, the underside of roof decking and bent wood lath strips holding up an arched or vaulted plaster ceiling 50 to 100 feet above floor level.

Also in the attic at the front or rear enclosure walls will be a small window or vent. During a pre-plan inspection, the inspector should determine where this opening is located in the façade or rear wall of the attic. This small window or louvre vent opening can assist Firefighters to quickly assess if fire has reached the attic space. From a tower ladder, Firefighters may remove the window or opening cover and check for fire or smoke. Smoke coming from this opening does not always indicate fire, but it can suggest further investigation.

In some instances, this small attic vent is positioned above the large, decorative rose window and it is important to understand these portals give access to very different areas. The rose window opens up into the assembly area below the ceiling and the attic vent above opens to the attic area above the ceiling. An aerial stream directed here could collapse the ceiling below from water weight. An IC must determine if the window into which an aerial master stream is directed serves the attic or the upper reaches of ceiling space where the fire is spreading. The general rule is that a master stream should not be used when interior firefighting operations are in progress.

Fig. 6.3  Don’t be fooled--the interior of a place of worship is sculpted to appear like stone, but is plaster and wood and a Type III building.

Flammable interior spaces

The inside surfaces of walls and ceilings--drapes, curtains, tapestries, rugs, paneled walls, altar, wood seats, dried flowers, hay and palm leaves--can be highly flammable. This combustible interior would not be permitted in any other occupancy. In a place of worship, there is no flame spread limited to the interior spaces.

After attending a memorial service in a church and noticing what seemed like sparkling, bright mosaic tiles, I later that day asked the Fire Department Chaplain assigned to the church if new stonework had been installed. He answered, “No, the entire interior of the church was cleaned. There was 100 years of wax residue from the burning candles over the surface of everything.” This is another reason for early detection and quick interior hose-line attack, because flame can spread rapidly over the wax-coated interior surfaces.

Flame spread defines the burning characteristics of building materials and a building’s interior. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 100; asbestos is 0 on the scale of flame spread and red oak is 100 on the scale of flame spread. A Class A or Class I flame spread rating must be in the scale of 0 to 25; a Class B or Class II in the scale of 26 to 75; and Class C or Class III, 76 to 200. Interior flame spread should be Class A or B. The flame spread rating of a place of worship, covered with wax film, could be more than Class C and up to 500. A place of worship should have an early warning smoke detector system to notify the local fire departments quickly because fire can spread rapidly.

Truss roof

A place of worship often has a truss roof that provides a large interior space without columns obstructing the center seating area. A truss is a long-span roof system. A traditional place of worship will have a timber truss roof and a modern place of worship will have lightweight wood trusses.

The fire service has a long and deadly history with truss construction. Three sizeup indicators that the building has a truss roof are the absence of columns in a large space, a mounded roof surface created by a top chord of a bowstring truss and knowledge that certain occupancies, such as theaters, bowling alleys, supermarkets, garages, auto showrooms, skating rinks, piers and places of worship use truss construction. All these occupancies require a large space without columns.

Fig. 6.4  Two Valley Stream, New York, Firefighters, John Tate and Michael Moran, were killed when this place of worship “inclined plane,” gable truss roof collapsed.

A place of worship does not have the telltale truss indicator of the mounded roof and Firefighters may not realize it is a truss roof. The place of worship truss is usually an inclined plane configuration, creating what looks like a typical rafter peaked roof. So, the shape of the roof does not warn Firefighters of the danger. However, the occupancy should.

There was a peaked roof on a Valley Stream, New York, synagogue, the Temple Gates of Zion, where the local fire company stretched the first line to a room off the altar and quickly extinguished a fire. After the heat subsided at floor level, Firefighters were sent out to replenish masks when, suddenly, the truss roof crashed down and trapped Firefighters. What they could not see in the remaining smoke of the fire was a small spiral stair leading up to an attic space containing timber trusses. Fire had spread up to the attic and caused the timber truss roof to collapse, killing two Firefighters, John Tate and Michael Moran.

A lightweight wood truss roof collapse caused three Firefighter fatalities in Lake Worth, Texas, at the Precious Faith Temple church fire. While extinguishing a fire at the rear of the church at floor level, several lightweight wood trusses crashed through the ceiling, killing three Firefighters, Brian Collins, Phillip Dean and Gary Sanders. The truss is a dangerous roof structure and all places of worship should be assumed to have a truss roof. There is a saying in the fire service, “Beware the truss.”

Rose windows

Fig. 6.5  Venting these windows will not release smoke accumulated at the upper ceiling levels because of their low position in the wall. If the roof collapses, it can push out the side walls.

A rose window describes a large, circular, stained-glass window on the façade of a place of worship over the main entrance doorway. These high rose windows were designed to provide sunlight, high up, near the ceiling interior of a place of worship. This window is an important opening for firefighting. A rose window gives clear access to the upper reaches of a place of worship ceiling area where fire and heat accumulate. It can be used in a defensive attack on a fire, when Firefighters direct an aerial master stream through this window. An aerial stream delivered through a rose window can quench fire at the ceiling level that interior hose streams cannot reach. A 100-foot reach of an aerial master stream directed into a broken section of a rose window at a 30- or 45-degree angle sometimes can extinguish all the fire spreading at upper reaches of a place of worship that a hose stream cannot.

Window venting

In addition to a rose window at the front wall of a place of worship, there are also stained-glass windows on the side walls of a place of worship, but these windows are not as high as a rose window and do not assist firefighting as much. Venting these windows will not release smoke accumulated at the upper ceiling levels because of their low position in the wall.

There will be a higher, concave ceiling space inside above the height of the window top. A gothic ceiling or dome ceiling of a place of worship usually extends higher than the top of side stained-glass openings. These windows do not have to be vented when smoke inside a church is not a problem because it rises and accumulates above floor level. However, on arrival, if smoke and heat are banked down to the floor in a place of worship with a high ceiling, an interior operation should not be attempted. Fortunately, during early interior operations, smoke is not banked down to the floor where it obscures vision.

Fig. 6.6  In 2004, this bell tower of the Ebenezer Baptist Church collapsed and killed two and injured 29 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

There is one scenario that dictates venting a side stained-glass window and that is when it would provide cross ventilation to the large interior space. Portable fans could assist cross venting without damage to the windows. Firefighters must use caution venting in a place of worship because it could feed the fire and cause a flashover or backdraft explosion. An IC should consider a fire in a place of worship to be similar to a high-rise office building fire; a cellar fire without venting.


The side walls of a place of worship support the truss roof structure. The walls and roof are connected. The side walls are bearing walls, supporting a load other than its own weight and can collapse when the roof fails. A collapsing roof will push out one or both of the supporting walls. The 1999 Lake Worth, Texas, Precious Faith Temple church fire that killed three Firefighters when the roof collapsed also caused one of the bearing walls to collapse out onto the sidewalk. Aerial photos show a large section of cinder block wall was pushed out in a 90-degree angle.

Wall collapse danger is recognized by church builders because the side walls often are reinforced with buttress structures. A buttress is a wall column built into the exterior of a wall to help it resist the side thrust of the roof. Incident Commanders must be prepared for a secondary wall collapse when fire is in control of the roof. Set up collapse zones and withdraw Firefighters a distance away from side walls equal to one, one and a half or twice the height of the wall.

Bell towers

Bell towers are the most unstable portion of a place of worship. A bell tower is less stable than the steeple because the bell tower may be an open stone structure with an interior wooden stair and ladder. This stair can have wood intermediate platforms and tons of movable bells at the top. Bells and bell towers at places of worship no longer are used and so they are neglected, not maintained and vulnerable to corrosion, foundation cracks and wind stress. Fire can spread up the interior of a bell tower, weaken the structure and any shock--such as an explosion or collapse--can trigger a bell movement and tower collapse.

In 2004, the bell tower of the Ebenezer Baptist Church collapsed and killed two and injured 29 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Firefighters. A Firefighter who survived the Ebenezer Baptist Church collapse said, “Beware of the house of worship stone veneer.” Stone veneer makes a structure appear to be constructed of something other than what it is. This church had a false appearance of solid limestone blocks, measuring one by three feet. This was only a façade and gave a false sense of security to the structure. “We were under the impression the building was a lot stronger than it was and there was no way it could collapse.” Behind a stone veneer could be a lath and plaster concealed space.

Fig. 6.7  Two Quebec, Canada, Firefighters were killed when the collapsing roof pushed the wall out on them.

Regardless how the church walls appear, if the interior attack is successful and the fire extinguished by the interior attack hose teams, Firefighters immediately should attempt to open up the walls and ceilings near the smoldering fire. They may have concealed spaces. Check the concealed spaces for fire. If fire spreads to the concealed spaces, it may spread up to the large attic space. Flames may spread to an attic through the hidden voids behind the side walls, hollow imitation stone columns and through small holes in the ceiling level around chandelier lights.

In addition to opening up the concealed spaces after a fire is extinguished, Firefighters should quickly gain access to the attic space and check to see if fire already has spread to the large concealed space. Finding the stair that leads up to the attic may take some time and climbing the narrow spiral stair also may slow the Firefighters. However, this is an important action. If the fire is in the attic, the ceiling could collapse or the truss roof beams also could fall and trap Firefighters below. If fire is allowed to spread in the attic unnoticed, there could be a collapse on Firefighters performing salvage, washing down burned content and overhauling.


Structural engineers have identified church or temple towers and steeples as unstable features of a structure during an earthquake. The tower is the square structure rising above the church roof; the steeple is a pointed structure. There may be one or both on the front wall of a church. Sometimes, there is a pointed steeple constructed on top of a tower. A steeple tip has the cross on top. On a temple or mosque, the tower may have a domed, pointed sphere at its top. When the steeple or a tower is located at the front of a structure, this exposure “A” wall must be considered a collapse danger hazard.

The roof of a church with a peak roof is supported by the side walls. Side walls are running parallel with the peak ridge and are the bearing walls. A bearing wall is a wall supporting a weight other than its own. In a church, the weight supported by the walls is the roof.

These side bearing walls also are called primary structural members. A primary structural member supports another structural member. What does all this mean to an IC? It means if the roof burns and starts to collapse, it could push out the side walls. Conversely, if a wall fails, the roof would lose its support and collapse into the church or temple floor. Because of the church steeple and the interconnection of roof and side bearing walls, the exposure “A,” “B” and “D” sides of a burning place of worship are the most dangerous areas during a fire.


If the fire spreads to the attic of the church, there is plenty to burn. In an attic of a place of worship that has a gothic plaster ceiling beneath a peaked roof—such as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City--there are tons of wood. In the attic, there are two-foot-thick timber truss beams. There is the plank wood underside of the roof deck. There, a wood lath covering is bent to the shape of the plaster Gothic arch ceiling below. There is a wooden walkway from the back to the front of the attic space.

If fire reaches the attic spaces of most places of worship, it cannot be extinguished with handheld hose-lines. Access to the attic space is through one small door and there is no possibility to vent. Firefighters will have to be withdrawn and a defensive attack using a master stream strategy.

Before the roof collapses, the ceiling may collapse. If a large part of the ceiling collapses, it will create an explosion-like eruption inside the church that will blow out windows and knock Firefighters off ladders. As a large church ceiling collapses, it causes a compression below the falling ceiling of super-heated air, smoke and flame inside the church. This compression can blast out windows. The collapsing ceiling also will create a vacuum above the ceiling. This instant vacuum sucks air into the nowopen, attic space, creating a flashover of super-heated smoke and fire gases that had accumulated in the attic before the collapse.

A holy place

An added danger of fighting a fire in a place of worship is the emotional factor. Many Firefighters are religious churchgoers and some Firefighters at the scene even may attend the place of worship that is burning. When a church or temple burns, this usually attracts the local parishioners and they are watching their holy place of worship being destroyed by fire.

Inside the burning house of worship there are sacred books, scrolls, gold and silver tabernacles and objects containing their god. All this sometimes leads ICs, Sector Officers, Fire Officers and Firefighters to take unusual risks that might not be taken at an ordinary public residence or commercial building fire.

Again, even at a fire in a place of worship, the priorities of firefighting must be adhered to. The first priority is the life hazard that includes the Firefighters and the second priority is incident stabilization. Property protection is the last priority, even in a place of worship.

A place of worship battle plan

Despite the obstacles presented by the place of worship no-win battlespace, the initial battle plan of action is an offensive interior attack. Get in, knock the fire down quickly or get out! The strategy is to quench fire while it is small, before it reaches the ceiling and out of hose stream range, it grows to a size beyond cooling with hose streams or smoke prevents a quick size-up. First-arriving Firefighters should stretch a 2½-inch-diameter hose-line delivering 250 gallons per minute--one ton--and blast the fire. Other Firefighters should stretch a backup line and if you do not immediately extinguish the fire, withdraw.

Fig. 6.8  Despite the obstacles presented by the place of worship no-win battlespace, the initial battle plan of action is an offensive interior attack. Get in, knock the fire down quickly or get out!
  1. The initial attack hose-line is taken in a front or side door and attacks the seat of the fire. This hose-line must be the largest diameter hose available. Maneuverability of hose is not a factor. Large amounts of water and high-pressure stream with maximum reach are the necessary hose-line requirements.
  2. The second hose-line must be taken into the place of worship to back up the first attack hose team. This second or backup line may be needed to assist the first line in extinguishing a large body of fire. A large fire often is discovered on arrival in a church or synagogue fire because of a delay in discovering and reporting the fire.

  3. A portable ladder may be placed at the upwind side of a stained-glass window near the fire. A Firefighter climbing this ladder may vent the window with a pike pole. A portable ladder may be placed at the window on the opposite side of the building and create cross ventilation. However, Firefighters must know the top of a stained-glass side window will not remove smoke from the upper ceiling portions of a place of worship. In fact, it can add fresh air to a ceiling fire out of the reach of interior hose-lines. Venting stained-glass side windows is similar to venting the bottom portion of residence building windows.
  4. At a serious fire, consider venting the rose window at the front of the building. This opening can vent fire gases at the upper reaches of the place of worship.
  5. The first aerial ladder at a serious fire should be positioned in a corner safe area at the front of the place of worship, out of a collapse danger zone and so Firefighters in the bucket can vent the rose window and, if necessary, direct an aerial master stream through it to extinguish flame at the upper reaches of the high ceiling. This action should be started only after all Firefighters have been withdrawn from the interior of the burning building. When a defensive strategy is used, aerial ladder master streams should be positioned on both flanks of a burning place of assembly, out of the collapse zone. There can be no defensive firefighting taking place inside a place of worship. The strategy is to start with an offensive strategy and if that fails, switch to a defensive attack outside the building. Never use both an interior and exterior firefighting operation simultaneously. It is interior or exterior; never both.

The game-changer

The game-changer is fire spreading to an attic, bell tower or steeple in a place of worship. If a Fire Officer cannot see the ceiling of a place of worship because it is filled with smoke and heat, a defensive outside attack should be considered because fire is growing up there and penetrating the ceiling going to the attic. If the IC receives a report fire has spread to the attic, bell tower or church steeple, Firefighters should be withdrawn and aerial devices moved into position and operated out of the collapse danger zone.

Place of Worship Battlespace Casualties

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Chief and Firefighter killed and 29 injured when bell tower collapses. NIOSH 2004-17

Glossary of Terms

  • Apse: Part of the church that is a semicircle or U-shaped wall
  • Buttress: Masonry built against a wall to give additional support
  • Chancel: A space reserved for clergy, it includes altar and front choir area.
  • Nave: A main seating area of a church (assembly seating area)
  • Rose Window: A large, round, stained-glass window at the front of a Gothic church
  • Triforium: A middle story of a church (side balconies)
  • Transept: A space that runs at a right angle to the nave and chancel
  • Dome: A hemispherical roof on a circle tower or base
  • Gothic: Church architecture of 12th century and features a pointed arch

Chapter 7: Lightweight Truss Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

Your home looks just like a lightweight truss construction battlespace. The territory appears like a non-threatening residence, but behind every wall and floor, there is a deadly enemy--the lightweight truss with the sheet metal surface fastener. The lightweight truss battleground also can be hidden in your local store or your new place of worship.

Lightweight truss roof and floor construction is everywhere and increasing. This battlespace has killed 22 Firefighters since 1984 and recent fire service efforts to make it less threatening have failed. The latest setback occurred in April 2016 when the fire service supported some insurance companies and the society of civil engineers who proposed better ways of nailing roofs together. The National Association of Homebuilders disapproved the proposal as too costly. This change to roof construction could have made roofs of new homes less likely to blow off during a hurricane and less likely to collapse during a fire.

This nation’s biggest battle involving burning buildings constructed with lightweight wood trusses occurred on January 22, 2015, at 4:30 p.m., when a plumber’s torch started a conflagration in a wall of an apartment in Edgewater, New Jersey. The fire service was badly defeated in this seven-hour battle. When the flames destroyed 240 residential units, it made 520 people homeless. This humiliating defeat occurred when winds blowing from the Hudson River rapidly spread flames to 240 luxury condos, necessitating 500 Firefighters responding from 35 mutual-aid municipalities, including fireboats from New York City and Jersey City to battle the blaze. The Fire Chief stated that fire spread rapidly in these buildings that were constructed with lightweight wood trusses, even though they were fully protected by automatic sprinklers.

Fig. 7.1  This nation’s biggest battle involving lightweight wood trusses occurred in an Edgewater, New Jersey, conflagration where 240 lightweight truss residential units were destroyed by fire and 500 people relocated.

Unfortunately, sprinklers are designed to extinguish fire in the living spaces; not in the concealed spaces where the trusses are located. This fire spread in the truss structure voids and crevices among the truss web members. The extinguishing system was not designed to stop flames spreading inside walls, floors, ceilings and attic spaces, as this one did. Fire officials explained flames will spread more rapidly in lightweight wood truss buildings than conventional, solid, wood-frame buildings or concrete and steel buildings.

This fire was our nation’s largest fire in buildings constructed with lightweight wood truss construction. It will be classified a “large-loss” fire by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA); that is, a blaze destroying $10 million or more of property.

In 2013, there were only 21 large-loss fires. The Edgewater lightweight wood truss building fire also could be classified a “group fire,” one that destroys a large number of structures, but is confined within boundaries, such as an industrial complex or, in this instance, an apartment complex. This fire was confined by the Hudson River on the east and the Palisades Cliffs on the west and some dedicated Firefighters on each flank. Otherwise, it would have been a full blown “conflagration,” a fire that spreads beyond any natural or man-made boundaries.

In the 19th century, an east coast conflagration most often was in several blocks of old warehouses and factories built close together in a downtown area of a city. Today, in New York and New Jersey, a conflagration most often is a coastal pine barren wildfire that burns several thousand acres of woodlands and any homes built into this forest-like environment.

The NFPA states recurring causes of conflagrations are high winds more than 30 mph, wood shingle roofs, closely grouped buildings and poorly managed forests and woodlands. Perhaps after the Edgewater, New Jersey, fire, the NFPA may add lightweight wood truss construction as a recurring cause of conflagrations.

Concealed spaces and voids

A Fire Officer must know about lightweight truss construction fire spread vulnerabilities. After a serious fire in new construction, the Fire Chief is heard saying more and more often, the flames spread much faster in buildings constructed with lightweight truss construction. This fact often gets overlooked because the collapse danger takes the spotlight with lightweight truss construction.

The nation saw the horrific roof collapse that sent Fresno Fire Captain Peter Dern to the burn center. We pray for his recovery. However, when you investigate in-depth fire spread in lightweight constructed buildings, you see most fires in residence buildings start in the living spaces of a house, such as food burning on a stove or cigarettes igniting stuffed chairs, mattresses and wastepaper baskets of trash. These fires are easily extinguished by Firefighters using the same tactics as in any other construction type. Furnishings are the first item to burn in a residence fire and if not extinguished quickly, flames can spread to the concealed spaces through the walls, ceiling and attic void spaces and feed on the infrastructure.

Fig. 7.2  Fire travels in two directions simultaneously: parallel direction between the truss beams and perpendicularly through the truss web members.

Fire travels in two directions simultaneously: parallel direction between the truss beams and perpendicularly through the truss web members.

An infrastructure fire in a building of lightweight wood, not a content fire, is the fast-spreading blaze the Fire Chief is talking about. An infrastructure fire in concealed spaces speeds more rapidly in truss construction than ordinary, solid-wood construction.

For example, in an ordinary traditional residence building, if flames enter the voids, it travels in one direction between the joists. This construction partially constrained concealed space fire is extinguished easily when Firefighters open the ceiling and use a hose stream into the ceiling space. However, if fire burns inside a truss-constructed concealed space, it travels in two directions simultaneously:

  1. Parallel direction between the truss beams and
  2. Perpendicular direction through the truss web members.

A Fire Officer must know that when opening up ceilings and floors searching for concealed fire spread inside a truss structure, it is almost impossible to stop this two-direction spread. The old tactic for solid-beam construction fire cutoff will not be successful. For solid beams, if fire is detected between floor beams with a thermal imaging camera, go to the nearby wall, open it up and cut flame spread off at this point and work back. If fire is discovered in a wall, pull the ceiling above the hot wall, cut it off there and work back. If fire is discovered in a ceiling, go to the floor directly above and open it there. This tactic will not be successful in a truss building because fire spreads rapidly in two directions.

Mass and fire resistance

Another factor in fire spread in truss-constructed buildings is reduced structure mass. Fire resistance is directly related to the mass of a structure; the more mass, the more fire resistance. Lightweight construction is constructed of small pieces of wood. The largest is two by four inches in diameter and has been called a house of sticks. Lightweight wood truss buildings have less mass than the older post and girt construction or even platform construction using solid beams. In conventional wood construction, there are timbers and two- by eight- or by 10-inch solid beams.

A lightweight truss structure also has what engineers call a high “surface to mass” ratio. Lightweight trusses have a high surface area and so it can burn quickly. On the other hand, a structure with a low surface to mass ratio is constructed with large pieces of wood, such as heavy timber, which is more difficult to ignite and takes longer to burn.

For example, a large timber is difficult to ignite with a blow torch, but if you cut the timber into small toothpick sizes of wood, you greatly increase the timber’s surface area and this pile of toothpicks will ignite more easily and burn more rapidly. The reason Fire Chiefs declare the fire spreads too rapidly in truss construction and cannot be contained by hose streams is these buildings have less mass and higher surface to mass ratio.

Truss building identification

A Fire Officer must know how to identify a lightweight truss building during a size-up to prepare for a fire that will spread rapidly. The best way to know if a burning building is lightweight constructed is to visit the construction site while it is being built. Fire Officers should visit every construction site to examine in detail each new material used.

Building construction is changing rapidly--solid beam truss, “C”-shaped steel beams, wood I-beams, steel bar joists--can be used in residence construction and all of this new construction will have a various degree of fire spread. Lightweight truss construction is the most popular new construction.

Some telltale signs of truss construction are:

  1. The angle of the roof slope is often the same 30-degree, low slope roof.
  2. Instead of a window at the gable ends of a roof, there will be a vent louvre opening.
  3. In some instances, a quick glance into a garage can identify the roof construction of the main building.

The key to effective firefighting and safety from collapse at any fire involving truss construction is early identification of the truss and immediate reporting to the IC. Firefighters and Officers must report the presence of truss construction to the Command Post. Only when informed of the truss construction can the IC order effective firefighting strategy to stop a fast-moving flame spread.

Truss construction building indicators

There is a trend in the fire service of requesting laws to be passed marking buildings with truss construction with warning signs. Hackensack, New Jersey, has truss buildings marked with a triangle; Chesapeake, Virginia, requires truss buildings to have a letter T; and New York State has two vertical lines to identify truss construction. However, these laws usually only apply for commercial buildings.

This does not help because residence truss buildings are where the rapid fire spread is being discovered and where Firefighters are killed. The fire service cannot depend on size-up or laws to give us information about this fast-burning construction; we must take action.

To do this effectively, the individual fire company must identify truss buildings in the community when they are being built and this information must be programmed into the dispatch systems. When an alarm is received, dispatchers notify fire responders of the truss construction information programmed into the computer by radio. Fire Officers must have this information before they arrive at the scene to stop rapid fire spread. In addition to identification and reporting the truss, the fire service must develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) to combat the rapid spread of fire associated with this construction.

Passive fire protection

Not so long ago, traditional wood residence buildings had passive fire protection built into the structure when using wood materials. The construction features would assist Firefighters stopping fire spread in concealed spaces. Passive fire protection is fire resistance by construction. Some examples of passive fire protection in traditional construction that are not present in truss construction are:

Fig. 7.3  This house of sticks has nothing larger than two-by-four wood members.
  1. Solid, full-depth bridging was used every eight feet to stiffen and brace a floor system. A two-by 10-inch floor beam would have a solid-wood, two-by-10 block nailed between the joists. This was designed to enhance the stability of the floor structure, but also was an indirect fire-stop for flame that spread into the concealed floor spaces.
  2. Wall stud bracing sometimes was used in a stud wall halfway between the bottom of the wall and the partition top. This solid block of wood fit horizontally into the concealed wall space, also indirectly providing a fire-stop for flames that burned through the plaster wall, spreading vertically in the space between studs.

  3. Brick nogging used as insulation and soundproofing between attached wood buildings and the bricks placed in the vacant spaces of wood wall also acted as a fire barrier, slowing down fire spreading from one building to another or room to room.
  4. Even as stated above, solid wood floor and roof beams would channel flames between the joist so it would spread only in one direction and Firefighters had a chance to open a ceiling and shoot a hose stream into the concealed space and extinguish the fire.

Truss construction has none of the above passive fire-resistive construction techniques that assisted Firefighters for centuries. In fact, the truss open web spaces and small dimension wood speed up fire spread in concealed spaces.

Stopping fire spread with automatic sprinkler systems

The Edgewater, New Jersey, fire on January 20, 2015, occurred in four-story, lightweight wood truss buildings that had the interior of the buildings fully protected by automatic sprinklers, but this system had no effect on the fire spreading in the walls, ceilings and attic spaces. These luxury apartments housed more than 500 people who lost everything as their homes were totally destroyed by fire.

To improve effectiveness of automatic sprinklers, they must be installed in the concealed spaces, ceilings and attics, in addition to the living spaces. The sprinklers in

Edgewater, New Jersey, were designed only to extinguish a furnishing or content fire occurring in the living spaces, not a fire in concealed spaces. Sprinklers would be more effective in the concealed spaces of lightweight truss-constructed buildings because this is where the fire spreads most quickly and where Firefighters have most difficulty extinguishing flame with hose streams. Firefighters are trained to extinguish furnishing fires and are effective at doing this. They have no problem extinguishing a fire in the content of a lightweight truss building; it is when a fire spreads to the concealed spaces and spreads uncontrollably in the truss spaces that Firefighters are defeated. This area requires automatic sprinkler protection.

Stopping fire spread with hose-lines

With any fire, the most important action is the operation of the first attack hose-line. Stretch the first line to the fire origin and extinguish the flames, then order a second, backup line to protect Firefighters with the first line in case there is an explosion, flashover or too much fire. And in a multi-story building, stretch a third line to the floor above to prevent vertical fire extension. This is the strategy for most fire in wood residence buildings.

However, Fire Officers, including myself, advise a different strategy for fire in buildings constructed with lightweight truss construction. This strategy recommends the following:

Fig. 7.4  This HVAC machine is placed directly on the lightweight truss roof.
  1. Stretch the first line the same way into the interior and extinguish the content fire. If the fire involves only the furnishings, such as a stuffed chair, couch or mattress, we use our standard interior attack. As soon as the fire is extinguished, Firefighters must examine concealed spaces. They open the ceilings above the quenched fire and open up nearby walls, checking for fire spread to the concealed spaces. If fire has not spread to the concealed spaces, this successful strategy has the same standard operating procedures for any solid-beam traditional construction fire.
  2. However, if when the Officer orders Firefighters to open up a ceiling or wall and flames are discovered spreading uncontrollably in the concealed spaces with lightweight truss construction, notify the Incident Commander. The IC should not order a standard attack of a second or third line and instead all occupants should be removed and the fire extinguished from the exterior. This fire in the concealed spaces will spread too rapidly throughout the truss infrastructure for an interior defensive strategy to be effective. Fire spreads rapidly in the concealed spaces and the truss structure quickly becomes a collapse danger.

The building industry has constructed more affordable housing for Americans and increased revenues by using this fast-burning construction with lightweight trusses and will not change, so the fire service must change its firefighting strategy.

Structure collapse

The nation recently saw a video showing Fire Captain Peter Dern, of the Fresno City Fire Department, critically injured by a roof collapse. This roof was lightweight truss construction. Captain Dern’s name would have been added to the list of truss roof collapse Firefighter fatalities at the end of this article if it weren’t for the fast actions of a Rapid Intervention Team (RIT).

The following are six construction features that contribute to early collapse of lightweight truss roofs at fires. They are the sheet metal surface connections; the absence of a standard size connection; truss failure before roof deck failure; no ridge rafter; the top and bottom chords are spliced and not continuous pieces of wood; and heavy air conditioning machinery (HVAC) overloads the lightweight truss construction.

Fig. 7.5  There is no standard size for connections; some are small, some are large.

The sheet metal surface fastener

This is a defective connection. As the name suggests, it only connects the surface of the wood truss sections. The piece of sheet metal does not penetrate the wood as does a nail or bolt. At a construction site, the sheet metal connections sometimes come apart during unloading and rough handling and there is a warning sign attached to the truss, stating the damaged connection should not be repaired or used. Yet, in some instances, the defective truss is used.

From a fire protection point of view, the sheet metal surface fastener is a sub-standard, dangerous connection and should be outlawed. When you investigate a lightweight truss collapse scene after a fire, you find it is not the truss that fails first, it is the sheet metal surface fasteners. They fall off the wood when it chars or they curl up and partially pull away from the wood surface when heated, leaving the truss section in place, but not connected. This thin surface fastener is a piece of sheet metal with punch-out points and only penetrates the wood surface ¼- to ½-inch in depth.

As the name suggests, it is a surface connector. It does not penetrate the wood and, as a result, it fails quickly. When exposed to flame, the wood truss chars, blackens and suffers what is called “alligatoring”--a surface of charred bumps and crevices. When “alligatoring” occurs, sheet metal connections fall away from the burned wood surfaces and leave the truss unconnected. As the thin sheet metal pieces heat and fall off charring wood surfaces during a fire, a serious collapse hazard begins. Firefighters working on a roof to cut a vent opening are in danger of the unconnected truss sections coming apart. Sometimes, the connections do not fall away; they curl up and pop off of truss sections and leave two or three sections of a truss unconnected and in danger of collapse.

There is no uniform, standard size, sheet metal connection

When a standard, solid-wood residence structure is to be built, carpenters will have a barrel filled with five- or 10-penny nails to be used to fasten the structure together or carpenter’s nail guns used by several carpenters will have similar sized nail fasteners loaded into the gun. All wood structure members used to have standard size nail fasteners for structural connections. Not so with lightweight trusses.

When examining truss floors and roof sections are laying around, Firefighters will see there will not be standard size connections connecting the wood pieces of truss together. The sheet metal connections of two or three sections of wood will vary in size. Some will be three by six inches, some will be two by four inches and others can be as small as one by three inches. When the connectors of a truss vary in size, so will the strength of the truss.

The rule of truss stability is the truss is only as strong as its weakest member. That will be the smallest sized sheet metal connector. The sheet metal fasteners are not melted by the heat of fire; they simply fall away from the wood because they do not deeply penetrate the wood. After a fire, sheet metal connections will litter the floor or roof space. Or, sometimes, they distort and pull away from one of the pieces of wood and partially stay in place. When sheet metal fasteners fail, a charred, unconnected truss remains in place by gravity. Any vibration, such as a Firefighter cutting with an ax or saw or removing the roof deck, suddenly can collapse a fire-weakened truss.

Roof deck is stronger

Fig. 7.6  The sheet metal surface fasteners are missing and the roof deck is not burned. Truss supports failed before the roof deck.

A parallel chord truss can fail before the roof deck. In some instances, the truss roof system comes apart before the wood deck fails. With most construction, the roof deck burns away first and the solid rafter system continues supporting the deck. No so with lightweight trusses. In this construction, the ¾- or oneinch plywood deck outlasts the trusses and sheet metal surface fasteners. Firefighting size-up experience has shown, up until use of truss construction, the roof deck fails before the supporting wood roof system below. This no longer is true with a lightweight wood truss system.

On page 109, the photograph of a roof vent cut shows a horizontal roof truss support system burned and charred and the missing sheet metal truss fasteners have fallen away, littering the fire room floor. Some were still in place, but half curled up on the truss, not connecting the intended two sections of the wood. Fortunately for the Firefighters who cut this vent opening, the truss did not collapse. The photo also shows the ½-inch plywood roof deck still intact, providing the only roof stability. A lesson learned with this photo is a thin plywood deck is the last line of defense on a truss roof and if a roof deck fails, there is nothing to stop a Firefighter from falling into the fire below. This photo reveals how a lightweight truss roof differs from a solid-beam roof in a fire.

Fire experience has shown a roof deck is the first part of the roof to fail and even after this, solid roof beams below the deck continue to support the roof. If the roof deck collapses, a Firefighter can grab onto the solid beams below to keep from falling into the fire. Not so with truss construction.

There is no structural ridge rafter at the peak of a truss roof

On solid rafter sloping roofs, there is often a structural ridge rafter at the peak, which supports roof rafters. The structure ridge rafter and the bearing walls independently support roof beams on each side of the sloping roof.

A lightweight truss peaked roof will not have a structural ridge rafter at the peak; if one side of a truss fails, the other side does, too. Firefighter size-up experience may assume there will be a structural ridge rafter at the peak, roof rafters on each side of the slope will be independently supported and this construction could provide safety for Firefighters after they cut a vent opening on one side of a peaked roof.

For example, after performing a vent cut, if they crossed over the peak on the opposite slope, they were independently supported. Here, the high end of the roof rafters were supported by the ridge rafter and the low end supported by the bearing wall. This safety maneuver no longer is possible on a truss roof because there is no structural ridge rafter. The fire-weakened truss rafter on one side can cause the collapse of its other sloping side.

With a lightweight truss sloping peaked roof and no structural ridge rafter and one side of the sloping roof fails, the other side fails, too. The 1989 Phoenix, Arizona, truss roof video reveals this danger. It shows two Firefighters falling though a fire-weakened roof on one side of a peaked roof and a Firefighter going to their rescue and falling through the roof on the other side of the sloping gable roof.

Truss chords are spliced together

Top and bottom chords of lightweight wood trusses are not on long pieces of wood. Instead, they are several smaller sections spliced together with the same ineffective sheet metal fasteners. The top and bottom sections of a truss, called chords, usually are one piece and larger sized than the web members, which are smaller pieces of wood in the middle of the chords, holding the truss together. In a timber truss, top and bottom chords will be one continuous section of laminated wood and also larger sized wood than the smaller, intermediate web members.

Chords of lightweight wood trusses are not continuous beams and they are not even larger pieces of wood. They are the same size as web members, but more dangerous, because they are spliced into one long section with sheet metal fasteners, penetrating only the surface of the wood. The chords are not providing any more strength to the truss than smaller web members.

Heating, venting and air-conditioning machinery (HVAC) overloads a truss

A heavy air conditioner should not be resting directly on lightweight truss roofs or hanging from a truss in an attic dormer. HVAC roof machinery should be independently supported by steel beams that transfer its weight to adjacent bearing walls from there to the foundation. Lightweight truss roof construction cannot support heavy roof loads and will collapse at this point during a fire.

Current unsafe construction methods allow HVAC machinery to be placed directly on the truss roof. The only reinforcement required is to double up the lightweight truss sections. This is totally unsatisfactory.

There have been two fires where four Firefighters have been killed because heavy HVAC machinery supported by roof trusses collapsed during fires. During a fire in a gift shop in Orange County, Florida, roof trusses supporting an HVAC machine collapsed and trapped and killed Firefighters Todd Aldridge and Mark Benge. In Houston, Texas, a fire in a McDonald’s fast food restaurant with HVAC machinery supported by the roof, collapsed during a fire and killed Firefighters Lewis Mayo and Kimberly Smith.

If an inspection of commercial fast food restaurants in your community reveals heavy HVAC machinery placed directly on the roof supported without reinforcement, it should be referred to the Building Department. If the local Building Department approves this construction over your objections, an alternative defensive firefighting strategy should be drawn up and used at fires in the occupancy.

The following tragic list of Firefighter fatalities illustrates the dangers of lightweight wood truss collapse. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and independent research have identified the following lightweight truss collapse incidents that have killed Firefighters in the past 30 years:

  • James Presnall, Irving, Texas, 1984, caught and trapped below a roof collapse, fighting fire in a building under construction.
  • Todd Aldridge and Mark Benge, Orange County, Florida, 1988, caught and trapped below the collapsing roof of a gift store that was supporting a heavy air conditioner in the dormer.
  • Alan Michelson, Gillette, Wyoming, 1990, fell into the fire area when the roof of a church collapsed.
  • James Hill and Joseph Boswell, Memphis, Tennessee, 1993, caught and trapped below a church roof collapse.
  • Strawn Nutter, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994, fell into the fire area when the roof of a self-storage building collapsed.
  • John Hudgins and Frank Young, Chesapeake, Virginia, 1996, caught and trapped below an auto parts store roof collapse.
  • Edward Ramos, Branford, Connecticut, 1996, caught and trapped below a roof collapse of a carpet store.
  • Brant Chesney, Forsythe County, Georgia, 1996, fell into a cellar when a floor of a house collapsed.
  • Garry Sanders, Phillip Dean and Brian Collins, Lake Worth, Texas, 1999, caught and trapped below a church roof collapse.
  • Lewis Mayo and Kimberly Smith, Houston, Texas, 2000, caught and trapped below a collapse of a fast food restaurant roof supporting heavy air-conditioning machinery.
  • John Ginocchetti and Timothy Lynch, Manlius, New York, 2002, fell into a cellar when a floor of a residence building collapsed.
  • Cyril Fyfe and Kevin Olson, Yellowknife, Canada, 2005, caught and trapped below the collapsing roof of a lumberyard shed.
  • Arnie Wolfe, Green Bay, Wisconsin, 2006, fell into a cellar when a floor of a residence building collapsed.
  • Scott Davis, Muncie, Indiana, 2011, caught and trapped beneath a church roof collapse.
Fig. 7.7   Most Firefighters killed by lightweight truss roofs are killed inside the building when the roof collapses on top of them. Firefighters Todd Aldridge and Mark Benge were killed in this lightweight truss roof collapse in 1988.

The above list details 22 Firefighters killed fighting fire in lightweight truss construction buildings; 16 of them killed inside burning buildings by truss roof collapse, four Firefighters killed falling through truss floors and two Firefighters killed falling through truss roofs.

Recent scientific, full-scale testing by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in 2014, titled Improving Fire Safety by Understanding Fire Performance of Engineered Floor Systems, has documented once again the early collapse danger of lightweight construction. An important finding in this study was comparing failure time of lightweight truss construction to other joist systems. The following are documented failure times of several floor systems:

  Floor System   Avg. Failure Time (min.)
Solid-wood beam 15:01
Wood I-joist 7:20
Steel C-beam 8:10
Lightweight wood truss 4:48

The above results of the UL 2014 fully scaled fire tests were designed for floor joist systems. However, the fire service can assume similar collapse results for roofs.

Fire and wind

“Dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.” The dogs in this case are the fire service, insurance companies and engineers at a National Association of Homebuilders conference on April 16, 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky, who proposed better ways of fastening roofs together that would keep them from blowing off during hurricanes and collapsing during fire. The caravan drivers were the lobbyists and bureaucrats of the National Association of Homebuilders who disapproved the proposals as too costly.

This change to roof construction could have changed residential building codes, making roofs of new homes less likely to blow off the house during a hurricane or tornado and collapse during a fire. Nails! Nails! Nails! Nails! We want nails! The insurance companies and engineers want more of them in roof construction to make them stronger during storms. This debate was mainly between the insurance companies and engineers versus the homebuilders, but the fire service was watching closely.

The insurance and engineering community wants to prevent roofs from sailing away during high winds and the fire service wants roofs and floors less collapse-prone by using more and bigger nails, not flimsy sheet metal surface fasteners and glued joints as they are today. The battle at this meeting was really fought by the insurance industry and engineers. However, the fire service has “skin in the game” because roofs that easily blow off also easily collapse during fire. The fire service supports this battle for stronger roof construction.

Fig. 7.8  This would not have happened if there was a ridge rafter in the roof construction.

If builders or home owners really want to harden roofs from fire or hurricanes, we know how to do it. Let us start once again by building roofs that have heavy, solid rafters, not lightweight pieces of truss wood. Also, let’s return the ridge beam to the roofs to connect the tops of rafters together and return the collar beams in the attic, stiffening opposing roof rafters and, finally, let’s have the roof rafters nailed, not just fastened on the surface or glued at joints.

Today, the affordable lightweight truss roof beams can be connected only on the surface without the use of penetrating nails. The fire service wants nails, nails, nails, too! It took decades for builders and building codes to allow the “softening” of roof construction, taking away mass, substituting lightweight trusses for solid-wood roof rafters, removing the ridge rafter from the roof peak, omitting collar beams in the attic and replacing the number and size of nails used in roof connections. Trusses have replaced solid beams and they are fastened together with thin metal surface fasteners that do not penetrate the wood, but sink into the surface only ½-inch and sometimes they use glued joints for these trusses that replace solid-wood roof rafters.

All of this change has been to make houses more affordable. Yes, they are more affordable, but now the roofs blow off more easily during strong winds and the fire service also knows floors collapse during the early stages of fire, killing Firefighters. Now building and insurance companies want to “harden” the roof construction. Builders know how to harden these roofs to keep them from blowing off the structure, but it is expensive. For example, they can reinforce a roof to handle lateral forces acting along both the length and width of the peaked roof structure, as well as an uplift vertical force. A wind-resistant roof is dependent upon all of the roof’s structure combined, such as the rafters, ridge beam, collar beams and nailing of the entire roof to the supporting wall plates. Engineers know poor connections (lack of nails) are the single most common reason for failure during wind events and the fire service knows it is the single most common reason for burning building collapse, too.

Today, home owners incorrectly assume their roof will be built to a high standard if it complies with the building code. Builders like to brag everything will be up to code. This is a false assumption. Building codes are minimum standards. Some in the National Association of Homebuilders and the construction industry believe a home owner bears some responsibility of a home’s ability to resist high winds and collapse. And, they say a home owner should pay for any upgrade of roof construction. The insurance companies, architects and engineers recommend a home owner request this additional roof tightening if needed, but even if you do not require additional roof bracing, every home owner should ensure that the builder uses the required number of nails for all roof connections.

Roofs blow away by winds and they also collapse during fire. Since 1984, 22 Firefighters have been killed in buildings using lightweight truss roof and floor construction connected with flimsy sheet surface fasteners and glued joints, instead of solid wood connected with nails. So Firefighters have been warned about the roof and floor dangers of lightweight construction. Fire Chiefs who practice “risk management” strategy recommend if flames involve the structure parts of a nail-less lightweight truss building, Firefighters use more defensive tactics, consider early withdrawal of occupants and fight the fire from the outside.

Soft building construction

How did we get sheet metal fasteners and glued connections holding up floors and roofs? The “softening” of home building began after WW II when building codes in America changed from “specification” to “performance” codes. Today, all codes are performance codes. With a performance code, for example, you cannot specify the use of 10-penny nails or any other specific construction material. Very few specifications are used in a code today. As a result, there are several different kinds of connections--other than nails--used in home construction.

For example, there are sheet metal surface fasteners and the glued truss connectors that have passed a fire performance test and replaced the more expensive, but more effective, nails. As one pessimistic Firefighter stated, “If we ever invent a type of Velcro or tape that can pass a performance test, we will have taped or glued roof construction.” A home owner eventually will have to pay for any fire- and hurricane-resistant improvements, such as more nails, either way. It may be by requesting and paying a builder for extras as I did, from pass-along costs if the National Association of Homebuilders does agree to strengthen residential building codes or by higher insurance costs after fire or wind damages a roof.

A lightweight truss building battle plan:

Fire involves only furnishings and content; not the lightweight trusses.

  1. The first hose-line goes to the fire and extinguishes the flames, using a standard operating procedure.

  2. Second line backs up the first line.
  3. Ground ladder used for rescue.
  4. Primary venting by placing ground ladder at window of fire room; Firefighter with pike pole vents window, coordinated with hose-line advance.
  5. Aerial ladder positioned for rescue and/or master stream use.

Fire involves the truss structure and cannot be extinguished with initial water stream.

  1. Second hose-line is large diameter, stretched into aerial ladder for master stream use.
  2. Ground ladder remains on truck.
  3. Primary venting: none.
  4. Aerial ladder uses master stream to protect exposures. All persons should be evacuated from the building and defensive outside hose-line attack used. There should be no roof venting operations. A collapse zone should be established at the perimeter of the burning building and nearby structures protected by hoselines.

The game-changer

The game-changer is a report from a Firefighter that the burning structure has lightweight truss construction. A report to Command of the presence of lightweight wood truss or wood I-beams should change the IC’s strategy. If the fire involves the truss structure, the strategy should be changed from interior to exterior attack. Fire experience and scientific tests document there is a five- to 10-minute period before collapse starts. Occupant evacuation, defensive outside attack and protecting exposures are recommended.

Another game-changer is a report of unsupported roof machinery—HVAC—resting directly on the roof. Firefighters must report heavy machinery supported on the roof of a building. Roof machinery is a contributing cause of lightweight truss collapse.

Lightweight Truss Battlespace Casualties

Houston, Texas, two Firefighters killed when fast food restaurant roof collapses NIOSH 2000-13

Chapter 8: High-Rise Building Battlespaces

Writing stuff about private dwellings that makes people want to read this.

Writing by Vincent Dunn

Helmuth von Moltke said, “When your plan meets the real world, the battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” German military strategist real world wins. Nothing goes as planned.” However, General Dwight

Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” An Incident Commander (IC) must understand there is a difference between a plan and planning. With high-rise firefighting, you must have a plan, but you also must be ready to change or alter some parts of the plan when things go wrong. The following are 10 high-rise construction “plan disruptors” that can make an IC alter or modify a high-rise firefighting plan of action.

Fire resistance fails.

High-rise buildings are not fire-resistive. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has declared a new definition for a fire-resistive high-rise building. NIST defines a high-rise building as one that will burn and not collapse. No mention of resisting fire; just “will not collapse.” This is a comedown on the safety of high-rise buildings.

In the 1950s, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defined the term fire-resistance building as a building that barring an explosion or collapse, fire will not spread from one floor to another for a designated time--one, two or three hours. Fire can spread in a high-rise building on the inside and outside. Fire and deadly smoke can spread on the inside of a high-rise through the air conditioning system.

Fig. 8.1  This historic fire at One Meridian Plaza, Philadelphia, killed three Firefighters and spread to nine floors.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, buildings did not have air systems connecting five or 10 floors together with air ducts. Back then, heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems served only one floor. Today, the air ducts of a HVAC system penetrate all the walls, floors and ceilings of five, 10 or more floors in a building. And, sometimes, the safeguards built into a HVAC system do not work.

For example, at the MGM casino fire in Las Vegas in the 1980s, where 80 people died in hotel rooms, fire dampers in the ducts that penetrate walls or floors designed to stop smoke spread triggered by heat-sensing devices sometimes were set at higher temperatures than the smoke spreading in the ducts and did not close properly. And detectors intended to be installed inside return air ducts designed to shut a system down when smoke was detected were missing and/or defective. This allows interior spread throughout HVAC air ducts for several floors.

The outside walls of a high-rise building pose another fire protection problem. Flames can spread up the outer walls of a building that has been renovated by installing a new combustible aluminum cladding on its exterior walls. In some instances, a flammable plastic insulation or glue is used behind the metal cladding. This new combustible cladding-spread flame rapidly can rise up the exterior walls of a building and spread inside the structure through windows, air conditioners and poke-through holes in the exterior wall.

The fire at the United Kingdom Grenfell tower--a 24-story high-rise--on June 14, 2017, was a tragic example of a combustible cladding fire. The fuel that allowed fire spread and killed 71 people was plastic insulation installed between the old façade and the new aluminum cladding. It is recommended that a noncombustible, mineral wool fiber insulation be used instead of flammable plastic insulation.

We now can add combustible exterior cladding to the other outside avenues of fire spread in a high-rise building, such as auto-exposure--window to window--and the small space between the curtain wall and the outer edge of the concrete floor.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has told the fire service something we suspected for several decades

High-rise buildings no longer are fire-resistive. We in the fire service have seen fire spread on the inside and outside of high-rise buildings for decades.

For example, in New York City in 1970, the One New York Plaza high-rise office building fire spread two floors from the 33rd to the 34th floor. And in the 1980s, fire spread five floors in a Los Angeles high-rise, the First Interstate Bank building. In the 1990s, the One Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia spread nine floors, from the 22nd to the 30th floors. And in 2001, the uncontrollable fires that resulted from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center spread and caused the high-rise towers to collapse. These major high-rise fires showed the world and the fire service the vulnerability of modern high-rise building construction to fire spread on the inside and outside of the structures. So NIST has told us the truth, “the emperor has no clothes.”

Large, open floor areas are beyond reach of hose streams.

Firefighters cannot extinguish fires in today’s high-rise office large, open floor spaces. An office floor area in a 100- by 100-foot-wide building that does not have any interior partitions may help productivity of the workers, but if a fire spreads throughout the space, the Firefighters will be unable to extinguish such a large fire using hose streams.

Fig. 8.2  A 10,000-square-foot area floor cannot be extinguished with hose-lines. Fig. 8.3  Spray-on fire resistance is blown off by HVAC air movement.

A typical large office floor has a center core containing stairs, elevators, bathrooms and storage areas. Additionally, there is the ceiling and maybe small offices around the perimeter of the floor area, but most of the interior is one large area that if fire spreads in it, Firefighters will be unable to quench it because of the size. A 200- by 200-footwide building can have a 40,000-square-foot open floor area.

There is an informal, general rule in the fire protection field that says a space more than 5000 square feet should be protected with an automatic sprinkler system because it is too large for Firefighters to extinguish with handheld hose-line. The fire service cannot extinguish a fire in a 20- or 30-thousand-square-foot open floor area in a highrise building when it is full of heat, flame and blinding smoke. At best, Firefighters advancing a 2½-inch hose-line with a 1⅛-inch nozzle discharging 250 gallons per minute can extinguish only about 2,500 square feet of fire.

If the fire department has the resources to back it up with a second hose team, two hose-lines can extinguish perhaps 5,000 square feet of flame. One reason Firefighters cannot extinguish fire in large spaces is the reach of a hose stream. A water stream from a large, handheld hose directed from a doorway can reach only 50 feet inside the area, not 100 or 200 feet. A modern, open floor office design, with cubicle work stations and/or dwarf partitions separating areas on a floor can have flame and smoke spread quickly throughout a 100- by 200-foot floor area. City managers and some Fire Chiefs will not admit this to the public if they want to keep their jobs. However, fireground Commanders who work in high-rise office building areas know this is a fact.

What really happens at a high-rise office building fire in a large floor area is what we call “controlled burning.” That is, Firefighters are unable to advance in on the fire from the doorway, operating the hose stream in a stationary defensive position for as long as it takes for all the contents on the floor to be consumed by flames. If the ladders can reach, outside hose streams may add to the effort. But only after all the plastic desks, computers, paper, electric wiring and cable, ceilings and partitions are burned to a crisp by fire and heat subsides, can Firefighters then move in to extinguish the hot spots.

To effectively extinguish a high-rise fire, it takes 70 to 80 Firefighters using a rapid-response, blitz attack. If this fails, it will take another 100 to 200 additional Firefighters. Most fire departments do not have this capability, so city planners must ensure every high-rise office building is fully protected with an automatic sprinkler system and smoke detectors.

Spray-on, fire-retardant material (SFRM) is missing.

The fire-retarding material protecting structural steel from fire is ineffective. After 40 years of use, there is no scientific basis for how thick spray-on, fire-retarding material should be to give structural steel protection from fire for a specified time. The NIST investigation of the World Trade Center terror attack on 9/11 revealed there was no fire test documentation to determine the thickness of spray-on insulation to give steel a one-, two- or three-hour fire resistance. The thickness (½- to ¾-inch) of the (SFRM) spray-on first was applied to the structure steel to give it two hours of fire resistance. Then, after tests in the 1980s, the thickness of the WTC SFRM insulation was increased to 1½inch. At that time, the thickness of the 1½-inch fire-retardant spray-on was said to provide fire-retarding protection of the steel supporting the floors for two hours.

Fig. 8.4  Exterior insulation finish system (EIFS) used as exterior wall cladding on high-rise buildings, creating exterior fire spread, has become a major fire service concern.

Fig 8.4 Exterior insulation finish system (EIFS) used as exterior wall cladding on high-rise buildings, creating exterior fire spread, has become a major fire service concern.

During the 9/11 investigation, no fire testing documentation was found to justify ¾- or 1½-inch thickness of SFRM would provide a two-hour fire rating for steel floors. In addition to disagreement about the thickness of the fire-retardant spray-on, it was discovered that it falls off the steel due to air movement of the air conditioning and heating systems.

Adhesion to the steel, consistency of the fire retardant to cover all the exposed steel surfaces and correct thickness are the three criteria that NIST determines are necessary criteria for the spray-on, fire-retardant material effectiveness during a fire. To adhere to steel, the steel must be clean. In addition to incorrect thickness, it was discovered the spray-on mistakenly was applied to steel that first had been covered with primer paint. Tests at NIST laboratories showed when covered with primer paint, fire retardant had only one third to one half of the adhesive strength and fell away more quickly than if the steel was not painted.

This method of spray-on fire protection of steel was known to be ineffective since its introduction in the 1970s. And during the investigation by the NFPA or UL of every serious high-rise office building fire in America, a large area of steel and concrete composite floor cracked and floors sagged or heaved up and had to be replaced after the fire. NIST determined the cause of this floor damage was spray-on fire retardant missing from structural steel girders and beams.

Fig. 8.5  Firefighters must take the elevator two or more floors below the fire floor.

Elevators stop working.

Elevators fail during high-rise fires. Elevators in highrise buildings are perilous and unpredictable during fire. Occupants and Firefighters using elevators can be trapped in a smoke-filled hoist way, taken above an uncontrolled fire or taken to a floor where the door opens to flame and deadly smoke.

The Americans with Disabilities organization protests in high-rise buildings that they are provided access to upper floors, but not back down during a fire or emergency. The World Trade Center 9/11 investigation estimated 500 disabled, infirm and aged occupants were taken to areas of refuge and could not be removed to the street before the collapse. The Americans with Disabilities organization demands that owners of high-rise buildings install an elevator that can be used safely during a fire.

The reason elevators fail during fires are due to fire, smoke and water runoff from sprinklers and hose streams. My 15 years of high-rise firefighting experience found water runoff to be the major cause of elevator malfunction. An eight-year study of elevator malfunction causes at major New York City high-rise fires, conducted by the New York City Fire Prevention Bureau in the 1980s, documented that elevators failed one third of the time, even when used in phase II--Firefighter emergency use mode. Phase I is elevator recall mode. Phase III is an elevator demanded by Americans with Disabilities for safe use during fire, which does not yet exist.

The FDNY study stated elevator breakdown occurred when heat, fire and water entered the elevator hoist way. Water from Firefighters’ hoses and the sprinkler extinguishing system are the number one cause of elevator malfunction because wiring inside elevator hoist ways are not insulated and water causes short circuits and elevator stoppage. Building codes do not require waterproof insulation of electric wiring in elevators used by Firefighters in Phases I and II.

However, there is some good news for people with disabilities and Firefighters, finally, 15 years after the tragedy of 9/11. On the drawing board, there is a so-called “occupant-evacuation elevator” the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is recommending for New York City Building Code to be installed in high-rise office buildings more than 420 feet high. The following preliminary construction recommendations are being requested for an occupant-evacuation elevator that can be used by disabled people and Firefighters during high-rise office building fires:

  • The floor in front of the elevator door must have several-inch rises to protect the hoist way from water runoff coming from Firefighter hose streams and automatic sprinklers.
  • A generator must provide uninterrupted service during emergencies.
  • The elevator stops at every floor.
  • The elevator is enclosed in a concrete core at least 18 inches thick.

Despite this promising beginning, the Americans with Disabilities organization cautions the following

This is only a recommendation; it applies only to high-rise buildings more than 40 stories; it is considered only by New York City; and the real estate owners could have it stopped. So, use the stairways in case of fire.

Concrete and steel interfere with Firefighters’ radios.

Fig. 8.6  Curtain wall has space between edge of floor and inside of glass enclosure wall.

Steel and concrete in the high-rise structure interferes with Firefighter radio transmission. During a fire or emergency, Firefighters may not be able to communicate messages back to the Commander in the lobby because of the construction. It is a fact there can be no firefighting command and control of an operation without radio communications. When radios do not transmit at high-rise fires, ICs have to improvise radio relay systems, set up time-consuming secondary special radio repeater systems or stretch a hard wire during the most critical early stages of a fire. This is unacceptable.

Case study #1: Fire on the 51st story of the Empire State Building, the IC calls on radio, Command to Operations Officer (on floor below fire, 50th floor). No answer initially after several tries and several minutes of silence, there is a response, “Battalion 6, Staging, to Command, I read you. I will be your relay to Operations.” For three hours and five alarms, this relay communication system was required with no communication to the Operations Chief.

Case study #2: Incident Commander runs through falling glass to enter and set up lobby command and finds a Firefighter at the desk who tells him there is no communications with Operations Chief on the 21st floor due to construction. The Chief looks around and sees a house telephone on the desk, writes the phone number down and gives it to a Firefighter on the way up and tells him, “Call this number and give a progress report.”

Case study #3: Several months after the first terrorist cellar bombing in the World Trade Center in 1993, it was learned that there was no radio communication during the five-hour operation.

The Officer in charge of the FDNY Communications unit called me and said we now have a more powerful radio. I told him to meet me in the lobby of the Empire State Building to test the new, powerful radio. During the test, the new radio transmitted only up to the 65th floor of the 102-story building.

Today, Fire Chiefs have special radios to use when concrete and steel interfere with the everyday Firefighter’s radio. Chiefs can communicate, but Firefighters with less powerful radios cannot.

McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm, investigated the second terrorist attack of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and produced Increasing FDNY's Preparedness, which recommended stationary repeater systems be installed in existing high-rise buildings to enhance Fire Department radio communications.

In new high-rise buildings under construction, when they are inspected by the fire department to see if the standpipe works, simultaneously and before the certificate of fitness is granted by the local government to occupy the new building, there should be a test of fire department radios. The standard Firefighter’s radio--the one that is used at every fire--not a special radio carried only by Chief Officers or a mobile repeater radio--should pass a test before the certificate to occupy is granted. This standard Firefighter radio test should allow transmissions clearly from the building lobby, to the roof of the building and from the lobby down to the lowest below-grade level. If radio transmissions fail, there should be no certificate of occupancy issued and a stationary repeater system should be installed in the high-rise building to assist Firefighters’ radio transmissions.

The building systems fail.

Fig. 8.7  Sagging and cracked floors are a collapse warning sign and potential avenue of fire spread in a fire-resistive building.

At a low-rise building fire, Firefighters bring all the building systems they need: Their legs are a vertical transportation system; the hose is a water system; their radios are a communication system that always works; and if the building’s fire-resistive construction fails, they have a backup aerial master stream system outside to finish the job. Not so in a highrise building.

The Firefighters fail if elevators fail, the standpipe water system fails, the radios fail and the building construction fails if there are no master streams tall enough to reach the fire from outside. It is a fact at most major high-rise building fires, the building systems fail and cause Firefighters to fail, trying to extinguish the fire.

The greatest example of high-rise building system failure occurred in Philadelphia at the Meridian Plaza high-rise fire in the 1990s. At this fire, all the systems failed: the standpipe was incorrectly set with a low pressure regulating valve; Firefighters had to stretch a supply line up 20 floors to the fire, which took more than an hour; the elevators failed; masks and equipment carried by Firefighters walking up 20 floors caused exhaustion; Firefighters’ radios were ineffective due to the building construction; and when the building’s fire resistance failed and flames spread nine stories, it was beyond the reach of the outside master streams. Instead, Firefighters spent 11 hours fighting fire and heat in the sealed building.

The building designer failed, too. When this 38-story building was constructed, automatic sprinklers were installed only in the below-grade cellars and the eighth floor. This vital protection was omitted in the first 30 stories and fire burned in this so-called, fire-resistive building from the 22nd to the 30th floors.

Many years ago, I was at a fire and reminded how critical building systems, such as fire-resistive construction, are. At the same time, as a City-wide Tour Commander arrived and was assuming command of the fire from me, the Operations Officer interrupted us with a radio message, “Operations to Command, we are having trouble advancing the hose-line forward because of the wind blowing in from Central Park.” The Commander asked me with some alarm, “What do we do now”? I answered respectfully, “Chief, all 10-76 companies and all Sector Chiefs are in position to extinguish this fire. It’s up to the building’s construction now.” Today, I could order a “fire blanket” dropped down from the floor above to stop the wind or the “fire-blaster nozzle” set up on the floor below.

Stairway does not go to the roof.

Stairs in residence buildings lead up to rooftop stairs; in high-rise commercial buildings, stairs do not go to the roof. Some stairs deadend at intermediate floors; other stairs lead into a mechanical machine room; and stairs that do lead to the roof have a metal ladder and locked hatch cover enclosure.

Fig. 8.8  Schomburg Plaza, New York. A landmark incident on March 25, 1987, when seven people on the upper floors died as the fire spread from a basement compactor.

Fatal fire investigations in high-rise buildings sometimes reveal people do not follow an IC’s instructions to stay in place or go down a designated stairway. Instead, they make the fatal mistake and attempt to go up to the roof in a stairway. Some rescued victims tell the Fire Chief, “I was going up to the roof to wait for a helicopter.” No fire department in America has a plan to rescue people from roofs with helicopters. This may happen if people make a mistake and are trapped on the roof, but there is no plan. There is insufficient space on most roofs to land a helicopter.

If occupants of high-rise buildings do not receive fire evacuation training from the local fire department, they have no idea what to do in case of fire. They must stay in place until directed or assisted to leave. Then, they must go down the stairs, not up to the roof.

There are some occupants of highrise buildings who use elevators for years and do not know where the stairways are located. After a fire in a high-rise office building is extinguished, Firefighters must conduct a secondary search of all stairways from the fire floor up to the termination level. People sometimes are found overcome in stairways above a fire.

Stair exit doors can be locked.

Exit doors in high-rise office buildings can be locked to prevent unauthorized entrance from a stair enclosure to occupancies. An exit door leading from the occupancy to the stair enclosure must be open and the exit door from the enclosure to the street must be openable from both sides. If occupants or Firefighters enter a high-rise office building stair enclosure and the door closes behind them, they are locked in the stair enclosure and must walk down to street level where the door is openable to the street.

On October 17, 2003, occupants were ordered to leave a burning high-rise office building in Chicago and became locked in the stair enclosure. Smoke filled up the stair enclosure and they could not get down below the floor where the fire was burning. Firefighters had the door open to fight the fire. Smoke flowed over their heads up the stairs and they told the occupants to go back up. Occupants in the stairway could not re-enter the occupancies on any floor because the doors were locked. The investigation revealed there was a switch at the lobby desk that a building employee was supposed to pull that would open all exit doors from the stair side in case of fire, but it was not activated.

Today, the building laws in Chicago and the rest of the nation still allow doors to be locked from the stair enclosure side, but an electronic control switch instantly opens up all stairway locked doors when smoke detectors are activated or by pressing the button. Unfortunately, this law is not retroactive and many cities allow stair exit doors to be locked from the stair side and some now require every fourth door to be openable for re-entry and the remaining locked.

Locked exit doors, in addition to ignorance of what to do in case of fire in a highrise building, require the IC to make stair searching a high priority after a fire has been extinguished. It may not be possible to search stairs above a fire during the primary search, but as soon as the fire is extinguished, this must be given high priority as part of the secondary search.

Smoke-proof towers can create wind-driven fire.

Fig. 8.9  Window keys are obtained at the lobby desk by first-arriving ladder company.

Firefighters should not use a smoke-proof stair as an attack stair to advance a hose-line because the air shaft in the intermediate vestibule can pull fire and heat into the stair from a broken window during a fire and prevent Firefighters from advancing a hose-line from the stair enclosure. A high-rise office building, unlike a high-rise residence building with openable windows, is a sealed building and windows should not be vented during the initial attack because it could start a wind-driven fire that stops Firefighters’ advance. The windows in a modern high-rise office building are locked and not designed to be open. This creates a sealed atmosphere inside a building that has a different temperature and pressure from outside of the building. If a window is broken in this sealed building during a fire--by heat or venting and there is an open door from the smoke-proof stair--this can set up a flow path of wind from the broken window to the smoke-proof tower air shaft. This wind-driven flow of heat and flame coming from the window to the stair enclosure shaft can stop Firefighters and cause them to withdraw back to the stairway.

When there are two stairs and one is a smoke-proof tower, the latter should be used for evacuation of occupants, not to attack the fire. If the smoke-proof tower is the only stair to have a standpipe and must be used as an attack stair, it is important that windows not be vented by Firefighters. If a wind-driven fire does occur and stops Firefighters from advancing, the door from the smoke-proof stair must be closed and another attack hose-line stretched from the other stair enclosure. If the high-rise fire can be reached by an aerial stream, an outside stream may become the strategy after all Firefighters inside have been moved to safety.

High-rise residence buildings are more deadly than office buildings.

A three year (1996-1998) study by the U.S. Fire Administration showed, on average, more people die in high-rise residence building fires than non-residence high-rise building fires (3.9 persons per 1,000 high-rise residences vs. 1.6 persons per 1,000 non-residence high-rises). One of the reasons for the increase in fire deaths is that high-rise office buildings have more lifesaving fire protection installed in the structure than the residence buildings.

For example, in the residence high-rise building:

  1. There is no emergency communication public address system from lobby to apartments for a person in charge to tell occupants what to do during a fire. When a fire occurs, the IC cannot give people who feel trapped in their apartment advice. The most frequent advice that should be given to people in apartments of a high-rise building during a fire is that they should stay in the apartment and not go into the halls or stairs. Or, in a rare instance if evacuation is necessary, occupants must be informed what stair to use for exit. Some stairs will be clear of smoke; some stairs will be full of smoke and occupants must know this.
  2. There are no automatic sprinkler systems required to be installed in a residence building as they are in most high-rise office buildings.
  3. There are no fire drills held by management to inform occupants what to do or not to do during fire as there are in high-rise office buildings.
  4. There is no person in charge 24/7 in a residence high-rise building as in an office building.
  5. The stair enclosures are not marked with letters and floor numbers, inside and outside on the doors leading to exits. This makes it impossible for an IC to designate an avenue of escape for occupants. The IC cannot inform occupants what stair to use because it is clear of smoke and what stair not to use because Firefighters are using it and it will become full of smoke.
  6. There is no written evacuation plan stating what to do in case of fire; when to leave and when to stay. The only lifesaving fire protection device installed in a high-rise residence building is a self-closing apartment entrance door.

A high-rise fire battle plan:

Despite the above high-rise construction “plan disruptors,” Fire Officers must plan for high-rise firefighting.

The first line

The first hose-line, four lengths of rolled-up hose, is taken to the floor below the fire and connected to the standpipe. The hose is stretched up the stair and the fire is attacked. The largest hose available (2½-inch diameter) should be used to attack a high-rise fire. And, a solid-bore nozzle should be used because if the building is taller than an aerial ladder, it may not be possible to vent windows, which is important when using a fog nozzle to prevent burns. Four lengths of hose may be needed for a typical, large floor area. You get one chance to extinguish a high-rise fire with a hose-line. You do not want to stretch short of the fire.

The second line

The second attack hose-line, also rolled-up hose, should be connected to the standpipe outlet two floors below the fire or on the fire floor if fire conditions permit. This second hose-line is used with the first attack hose-line. Because the floor area of a high-rise office building is very large, there may be a large body of fire that requires two hose teams operating side by side for extinguishment.

Portable ladder

A portable ladder may be placed on the lower floors of a highrise and, in a rare instance, at the second-floor window of a high-rise if the lobby command station of the high-rise office building is located on the second floor. In this situation, a large group of people leaving upper floors may crowd up here and request assistance from Firefighters. Also, the stair from the second-floor lobby to the firstfloor street exit may be crowded and portable ladders placed at the second-floor lobby area can evacuate people and prevent a panic and rush to the stairway.

Window venting

Venting windows should not be undertaken if the street below is crowded with people. Firefighters first on the scene should request window keys from the building manager at the lobby desk before going up to search for the location of the fire. Because of the danger of injuring people in the street and on the sidewalk with falling glass, before any venting involving breaking glass in a high-rise, permission of the IC must be requested. Windows may be vented if the falling glass will land on a building setback or the roof of an adjoining building or the Officer in command has the street cleared. Most high-rise firefighting is accomplished without venting to prevent injury to people in the street. Venting should be coordinated with the hose-line advance on the fire. When the hose is charged and the Firefighters begin to move in, vent as many windows as possible from the aerial ladder.

Aerial ladder

Fig. 8.10  The New York High-Rise nozzle is designed for use at wind-driven fires occurring on high-rise building floors that are above the reach of an aerial or tower ladder.

An aerial ladder should be raised for rescue, to extinguish auto-exposure or a combustible cladding fire. For example, if the interior attack hose stream cannot be advanced by Firefighters after Firefighters inside are removed to safety, the aerial master stream can be used. Also, even if the fire floor is several stories above the aerial ladder tip, it may stop window-to-window auto-exposure or exterior cladding fire of a combustible exterior insulation finish system (EIFS).

When a high-rise, wind-driven fire cannot be extinguished by interior hose-lines and the fire floor is above the reach of an outside aerial or tower ladder, a New York High-Rise nozzle may be used to extinguish the fire from the floor below the fire.

The game-changer

A game-changer at a high-rise fire is a report of sagging and cracked concrete floors above a fire. Firefighters should not operate above or below the floor. A sagging or cracked floor is in danger of collapse. Another game-changer in a high-rise building is a wind-driven fire. If Firefighters cannot advance a hoseline onto the floor due to wind from broken windows, strategy must be changed. A new game-changer is a combustible cladding fire. At a combustible cladding fire, the defend in place strategy is not an option. This should result in positioning a tower or aerial ladder near the window, causing the wind inflow. After confirmation that interior forces have withdrawn to the hallway and closed the door, the fire is extinguished from upwind. If the fire is above the reach of the ladder, a “fire blaster” nozzle could be used from the floor below. A combustible cladding fire is a game-changer that may require total evacuation of the structure.

High-Rise Battlespace Casualties

Brooklyn, New York, three Firefighters die in hallway of high-rise building. NIOSH 99 FO1

Chapter 9: Fire Escape Battlespaces

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Chapter 10: Glass and Steel Building Battlespaces

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Chapter 11: Buildings Under Construction Battlespaces

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Chapter 12: Floor Battlespaces

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Chapter 13: Roof Battlespaces

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Chapter 14: Timber Truss Battlespaces

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Chapter 15: Wall Battlespaces

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Chapter 16: Ceiling Battlespaces

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Chapter 17: Door and Window Battlespaces

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Chapter 18: Topography Battlespaces

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Chapter 19: Structure Framing Battlespaces

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Chapter 20: Stairway Battlespaces

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Chapter 21: Fire-Resistive Building Construction Battlespaces

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Chapter 22: Noncombustible/Limited Combustible Construction Battlespaces

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Chapter 23: Ordinary Construction Battlespaces

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Chapter 24: Heavy Timber Construction Battlespaces

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Chapter 25: Wood-Frame Battlespaces

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Chapter 26: Chronic Fire Spread and Collapse Battlespaces

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