In this final article of “Main Street” fires we will look at search, renovations, and apparatus placement issues. It is my hope that this series of articles has provided you and your department with some useful information and more importantly has inspired you to take another look at your Main Street and size up the hazards you may have to face in these buildings.
We will start our search issues in these buildings with the basement and first floor. If the building houses an occupied business on the first floor you must consider the chance of possible sleeping areas in the basement and rear of the business. Many of these businesses are locally owned and operated “Mom and Pop” type stores and I can tell you from having the experience of parents who owned a small business that long hours are the norm and because of this the chance of some type of sleeping/private area is common and need to be on your search radar. Again the time to note this is when conducting your pre-fire planning and inspections.
Be cautious of large stock and high rack storage, depending on conditions searching with the use of a rope or off a hose line needs to be considered, also a quick tip that might assist you is the “feel of the floor” many times the side merchandise areas will be carpeted with the center aisle linoleum or concrete. As in any structure, but most importantly in a commercial structure the need to stay oriented is very important. If you can constantly feel what the surface is under you while crawling when changes in covering occur, warning flags should enter your mind. The high ceilings in these buildings can mask the true conditions at the ceiling level, if you enter the front door and conditions are tolerable be aware that heavy heat conditions may still be present above you, the thermal imaging camera can assist in determining temperature above, conditions can and will change in an instant. (Photos 1 and 2)
For search operations on upper floors if there are apartments you will be in luck as these buildings can house anything from bars to ballrooms. Prior knowledge and information sharing is the key as is a pessimistic attitude in regards to fire spread, and its potential to quickly trap you while searching. Because of the age of these buildings most will have a fire escape on the rear or sides of the building and while not always true if you spot a single fire escape consider that two apartments serve the escape each floor the escape serves. These escapes may also assist you in conducting searches if conditions limit the use of the interior stairs. (Photos 3 and 4)
Perhaps the biggest issue facing your “Main Street” is going to be handling all the void spaces created by renovations over the years. A good rule of thumb is if you see an industrial sized dumpster be very nosy and see what is happening inside the building, ceilings will be lowered hiding multiple ceilings made of tin, lath or drywall, floors may also have multiple spaces and the roofs you work on will most likely have multiple layers of tar and even worse contain a rain roof. A rain roof is simply a roof placed over top of the original intact roof. These hidden roofs will definitely cause problems and it is a priority that they be identified during the construction phase. One of the FDNY’s most infamous multiple line of duty death fires occurred in a renovated supermarket on August 2, 1978, six brave firefighters were killed and several others injured in a collapse of a bowstring truss under a rain roof. (Photos 5 and 6)
A good relationship with your building department or authority that governs renovations and permits to do such work in your community will provide a terrific way for your department and companies to obtain information and hopefully stay ahead of renovations in legacy constructed buildings.
Most of our rudimentary construction classes for our service mention building stars and braces, most un-reinforced masonry walls will need to be braced over time. The key is seeing what’s out in your district and recording this information for your department. We must remember that these buildings are going to be around for a long time and it’s imperative to keep this information over the life of these buildings as they will outlast most of our careers.
The hazard of braces and reinforcing plates lies in the rods that pull these walls together, the rods fail at temperatures common at most structure fires, these failures can cause or accelerate the collapse of these walls. (Photos 7 and 8)
Apparatus Spotting Truck Companies
My department is like most in the fact that most of our fires take place in single family residential dwellings and our apparatus positioning really doesn’t change too much from fire to fire; however, when dealing with a commercial building burning in the middle of a block of buildings your apparatus placement must be focused on the future not the present. The focus must be on cutting off extension so when pre-planning and preparing for your Main Street fire have your company members reflect on different options and when traveling around your district or when looking for a drill idea consider practicing apparatus spotting.
We discussed in a previous article the hazards of parapet walls and their collapse, the importance of establishing a collapse zone upon arrival needs to be at the front of any apparatus spotting concerns.
Once you hit the parking brake on your apparatus the chances of moving the unit an hour or two into the fire as collapse becomes an issue are very slim and you don’t want the added headache of losing a historic block of buildings AND a million dollar aerial unit. The corner building is also a dangerous place when determining apparatus placement, resist the temptation of putting apparatus in a vacant lot at the end of a row of buildings, the end building that was maybe once supported by the building now occupied by a vacant lot will be susceptible to early collapse. (Photo 10)
Engine Spotting needs to be considered also, an alert officer having a pessimistic approach to fire spread may want to place his/her engine in a position to cut off fire spread in five ten or even twenty minutes into the future. Also; the urge to spot right on a hydrant directly in front of a burning building in a row of attached structures could lead to problems if the parapet or building collapses later into the fight. Utilize the hose you have on the engine and stretch from a safe distance. (Photo 11 and 12)
The challenge today is how your department will handle the working fire in these structures, especially if you have not had much experience or training in these buildings. Failure to familiarize yourself and your fellow department members with the construction, renovations, and basic tactics needed to fight a fire in these structures will lead to a long drawn-out firefight that could possibly result in an embarrassing large vacant hole in your downtown or, worse, a firefighter line-of-duty death. Getting out of your station and familiarizing your crews with these occupancies prior to the fire is a must. I hope this series has helped you and your department. Be Safe