This one came in with a flurry of activity from the dispatcher and over the radio. Rapido Taxi has been around the area for many years. It was run out of a one-story structure of ordinary construction, about 40’ by 40’. The taxi business was dispatched from one small area of the building. The rest of the building was occupied by a repair-type area that fixed the taxis and had a two-bay garage area. This was not a big building and not much of a concern from a “big fire” point of view. How big could a fire get in a 1,600-square-foot building, even fully involved? The concerns that emerged were what was inside that made for a stubborn fire and what was around it in regard to exposures. Inside were taxis on lifts, tires, motor oil, and flammable gases and liquids. That made for a quickly-consuming, very smoky fire. In addition, there were partitions built inside that made stream penetration from the exterior very impossible.
The bigger issue was the exposures. In North Hudson, we never have a fire without an exposure problem, ever. This one was no different. Located on the Union City / West New York border (the two most densely populated cities in America), the one-story fire building was attached on the left, Bravo, side by a row of dilapidated three-story wood frame tenements. In the rear, on the Charlie side, was a five-story multiple dwelling of ordinary construction. This exposure had been renovated which, as luck would have it, enlarged all the windows that faced on the fire building. It also had a combustible mansard enclosure on the top floor and roof. This was a concern should the fire vent through the roof. There were also overhead power lines running across the Alpha side of the building. The only thing in our favor was the Delta exposure, a lot with some old cabs in it.
Our dispatch center, locally known as Fire Control, on an incident such as this would usually send out a first alarm response for a “reported fire”, maybe with multiple calls added to the dispatch, At this incident, the dispatch message sent out with the response stated a “fully involved structure.” The time was 2122 hours. The PA almost immediately followed with a second alarm dispatch. I was not even in the Division car yet when the second alarm was transmitted. There weren’t even any companies on the scene yet as far as I could hear. What occurred, I found out later was that when Fire Control (the dispatch center) which was about a block away from the building opened the door to answer a walk-in (verbal alarm) for the fire, the smoke poured into their building. The same was true of Squad 1, who was housed in the same building. So the dispatch center struck the second, something they would not normally do (and hopefully will not do again) In addition, while I was responding, the Police department cut into our frequency with reports of people trapped in on the lower floors of the B exposure and the C exposure. They also said they had officers inside the fire building. It sounded like people were losing control before we got there.
Once on scene, it was time to establish a little control over all the chaos. Squad 1 reported a fully involved repair garage with wires burning on the A side and a severely exposed B exposure. The fire would cause a transformer to blow, darkening several blocks in the area around the fire, but helping out with the electrical issue. Heavy smoke blanketed the area. Angry fire was blowing out of both garage bays and pushing toward the B exposure 2nd and 3rd floors.
The initial tactics conducted by Squad 1 were very effective. They pulled past the building and quickly connected to the hydrant on the corner. They then opened the deck gun on the exposure front and facing wall. They also stretched a 2 – ½” line to the front of the structure for fire suppression. Cars could be seen on the lifts inside and they too were fully involved. Engine 5 assisted with this operation. Ladder 3 entered the two-way block and proceeded to search the severely threatened B exposure. I arrived about this time and directed Rescue 1 and Ladder 1 into the larger C exposure to start search and evacuation there. I struck a third alarm due to the many exposure issues and the need for relief on this hot August night
|Photo 1: This is a little later in the operation and the deck gun has been shut down (I have no early pics). The fire building is behind the apparatus where the streams are aimed. Note the proximity of the B and C exposures. The deck gun protected the combustible wall. Note also the power lines on Side A. (Photo by Bill Tompkins)|
There were all sorts of explosions coming from the garage so we ensured the large diameter handlines (three were stretched to the front of the building and one to the rear) were out of any blast or shrapnel zone. Because of the heavy fire condition and the exposure issues above the roof line, I did not send anyone to vent the roof and hoped we could knock the fire down before it burned the roof off. I had Engine 5 secure another water supply. I also had Engine 4 secure a third water supply and stretch into the B exposure (two lines would be stretched to cover the building’s interior). Ladder 4 evacuated all the exposures on the B side in the row of buildings.There was so much smoke coming from the fire building that I could not tell if the B exposure behind it was lighting off so I had to rely on reports and assigned Battalion 2 to the B exposure. I also assigned Battalion 3, having responded on the second alarm, to the C side to keep the exposure C wall wet and to supervise the search and evacuation as well as the stretching of protective lines into the structure.
|Photo 2: This is the C side operation. The Division Commander is in place. The C exposure is on the right. The B exposure can be seen in the top center of the picture. (Photo by Ron Jeffers)|
Although we seemed to be making progress in the fire building, the smoke did not subside for quite awhile. That is because we could not hit much of the fire burning in the rear due to stock and partition issues. As a result, the fire began to burn through the roof, which aggravated the exposure issue. The Bravo wall directly adjacent to the fire building was unpierced, but there were windows further back that were threatened and the windows in the C exposure were directly above the roof of the now-venting fire building. I would liked to have positioned a telesqurt at the B side of the fire building, and I’m still kicking myself for not thinking of it early on (I have to critique myself too). Instead, we set up Ladder 3’s ladder pipe which was in a good position for this operation and supplied it with a fourth water supply. We also still had lines in the B exposure and stretched two more lines into the C exposure to the second and third floor windows above the roof line. We removed the windows from their frames (salvage!) and used these as a vantage point to both protect the exposure and to hit fire burning through the roof. The ladder pipe was also being used for this. The fire was brought under control in about an hour and neither exposure suffered significant damage, although the fire building was gutted.
|Photo 3 above: This was when the fire vented through the roof. Streams from the C exposure as well as streams on the A side and the ladder pipe (coming from above) were put into service. There is also a stream in the rear continuing to protect that side. (Photo by Bill Tompkins)|
|Photo 4: Here is an aftermath shot with a good look at the route for fire spread to the attached exposure. If this wasn’t asbestos shingle, things would have been much more interesting. Photo by Bill Tompkins|
Lessons learned and reinforced:
- Even small buildings can have a lot of fire in them. The major concern is how they influence your exposures, namely radiant heat and convected heat – how will you control them? Even small fires can have big potential (all big fires start small).
- Don’t be afraid to use the deck gun for exposure issues. Make sure you get a sustained water supply. In this case, the deck gun was used to keep the adjacent, fire building-facing wall wet, and, although it did not have the best angle, it was also used to hit fire issuing from the garage.
- Get water on the parent body of fire fast. All things will begin to get better if we can reduce the radiant heat exposing other combustibles in the area
- Be wary of power lines, even during “exterior” operations. Personnel have the knack of creeping into both collapse and in this case shrapnel zones and under power lines. Make sure someone is there to keep it safe, whether it be a safety officer, a division commander, or one of the company officers supervising a crew in the area. Safety is everybody’s job.
Photo 5: In an unrelated fire seen below, the vinyl siding on this exposure building that was approximately 50’ away from the fire building (which had asphalt shingle) melted like taffy. Beneath it was asbestos shingle. It helped save the building. (Photo by author)
- Plan for big water. In addition to master streams, defensive fires demand 2½-inch lines for suppression, not 1¾-inch. The small lines are fine for inside exposures, but big fires demand big water. Even when the first officer pulls the wrong line which happens often, someone must have enough sense to fix the problem and go with the bigger line
- Plan for multiple water supplies. Manifolds or portable hydrants as they are also called work great and don’t create scene congestion. We had two of them in front of this building, one from Engine 5 and one from Engine 4. Engine 5’s was used to supplement the large diameter handlines on the A and C sides. Engine 4’s was used to stretch the smaller diameter lines inside the exposures. We had four water supplies here.
- Set up divisions in the areas you can’t see. Put someone trustworthy in charge to them. In this fire, I could not even see the bravo exposures through the smoke. I relied on the division supervisor in there to keep me aware of conditions, actions, and needs. I know I say this a lot but it has worked for me over the years. I really believe in this method of information gathering and managing the fireground. Put supervisors in major operational areas. Get reports. Evaluate. Adjust as needed and support.
- You can check this fire out on www.allhandsgoingtowork.com
Let’s hear your thoughts out there. Be safe.
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Anthony Avillo, a 25-year veteran, is a deputy chief in North Hudson Regional (N.J.) Fire & Rescue, assigned as 1st Platoon Regional Tour Commander. Chief Avillo has a B.S. in Fire Science from New Jersey City University. He is an instructor at the Bergen County (N.J.) and Monmouth County (N.J.) Fire Academies. Avillo, an FDIC instructor, is a member of the FDIC advisory board and is an editorial advisor to Fire Engineering Magazine. He is the author of Fireground Strategies, 2nd edition (Pennwell 2008) and Fireground Strategies Workbook Volume II (Pennwell, 2009). Anthony is a contributing author of the Fire Engineering Firefighters Handbook (Pennwell 2008) and will be co-author of the Fire Engineering Firefighters Handbook Study Guide (Pennwell 2009).
“The Bigger Picture” is a monthly publication featuring Chief Anthony Avillo’s thoughts, commentary and perspective on a wide range of topics facing the Fire Service. If you have any questions for Chief Avillo please feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.