Three Pittsburgh, PA. firefighters died on February 14, 1995 when they ran out of air and were unable to escape from the interior of a burning dwelling. The three victims were all assigned to Engine 17 and had advanced the first hose line into the house to attack an arson fire in the basement.
A Gut-Wrenching Report
This is the opening paragraph from the U.S. Fire Administration report on the Bricelyn Street Fire. I have wanted to study this fire for years and finally decided to read it. It is one of the most gut-wrenching reports in print, and if you haven’t read it, you and every member of your fire department should read it because it could save your life.
One of the toughest and most dangerous fires we fight are basement fires. But what about cellar fires? Is there a difference? Interesting enough, I was not able to find the definition of either term in Brannigan’s Building Construction for the Fire Service, 3rd and 4th editions, or in IFSTA’s Building Construction Related to the Fire Service 1st and 2nd editions. They mention basements and cellars, but don’t define them.
John Phelps’s book, Complete Building Construction defines a crawl space as “a shallow space below the living quarters of a house. It is generally not excavated or paved and is often enclosed for appearances by a skirting or facing material.” The International Building Code does not have a definition for a cellar, but has two different definitions for a basement: “a story that is partly or completely below grade plane… (502.1) and a portion of a building having a floor subgrade (below ground level) on all sides. (1612.2).”
Basements and cellars are therefore local terms and mean different things depending on which part of the country you live in. But due to the large number of firefighters killed in cellar and basement fires over the years, many cities have required sprinkler systems for inaccessible cellars or concealed spaces below mercantile occupancies and for basements in excess of 2,500 square feet. Local codes vary, but architects who know the building and fire codes inside and out can often circumvent sprinkler requirements.
The Bricelyn Street fire involved a house that was built around 1920. This time of construction is prevalent throughout most U.S. cities. Remember, this was an arson fire that started in the basement directly under the kitchen. A portion of the stairs from the kitchen down into the basement burned out and eventually collapsed.
The captain from Truck 17 and two firefighters from Engine 19 would eventually fall 10 feet through the burned out stairway into the basement near the seat of the fire. Amazingly all three of these firefighters would survive this fire. The three fatalities involved the captain and crew of Engine 17 who died in the living room next to the kitchen.
According to the time lines, the fire was dispatched at 00:22 and members from E18 discovered the captain from T17 at 00:56, a time difference of 34 minutes. The captain crawled back up the burned out stairwell and was discovered in the living room above the basement. When you estimate the time the fire was set and how long it took to involve the building components of the basement (from a contents to a structure fire) and the time it took for the captain to fall into the basement, orient himself, and crawl up a burned out stairway to a window in the living room, you can conclude that the stairs failed in approximately 20 to 25 minutes. That’s right on time for the fire rating of dimensional lumber in Type III or Type V construction (20 minutes). Remember, wood burns 1/8 of an inch every five minutes. If both sides of a 2-by-4 are burning at the same time, that’s 1/4 inch every five minutes and 1/2 inch every 10 minutes.
The building construction of today has changed since 1920. Lightweight floor joists and wooden I-beams can collapse in as little as two to five minutes when involved in fire. The household fire loads have also changed. Class A combustibles are now combined with plastics and synthetics, making fires burn hotter and faster. These two factors combined narrow the window for safe fire attack and put firefighters dangerously close to the time of collapse by the time they lay lines, mask up and make entry.
With all these changes, the only thing that hasn’t changed is our strategy and tactics. After reviewing textbooks, searching the Internet and interviewing firefighters from all over the country, I was surprised how many firefighters were adamant that the correct way to fight a basement fire is to take the hose line in on floor 1 to the top of the stairs and make your way down to the basement. They talk like this is no great task.
Early in my career, I had to do this – once. Once was enough! That basement fire kicked my ass. I was slowly working my way down a chimney of heat and smoke. I couldn’t see a thing, and I was afraid of falling through the flimsy handrails. Everything inside me was saying, “Back out! This is no good!” But that’s nearly impossible when you have a 250-pound partner with full gear and a charged 1.5-inch hose line pushing you down. I never did find the fire. All I saw was a glow and opened the nozzle creating a basement of steam. It quickly became unbearable, and we dropped the hose line and bolted for the top of the stairs to escape.
We didn’t save anybody; the owner wasn’t home at the time of the fire. Plus, he was a pack rat, and we risked our lives, got beat up and endured steam burns for junk. How heroic.
The third firefighter feeding us hose from floor 1 blocked the basement door open with his body. This allowed all the smoke and heat from the basement to enter the kitchen and living room, which caused extensive smoke damage and many household items to melt. Why did we perform this kamikaze evolution? Because that’s what we were told to do.
There has got to be a better way. There is – an exterior indirect attack.
There are many size up and life hazard considerations that will determine your offensive strategy, but here’s one technique that’s safe to use when making the stairs isn’t an option. The Bresnan Distributor Nozzle, also called a “Bulldozer,” is a 2.5-inch cellar nozzle that flows 340 gpm at 50 psi.
It has nine variable angle orifices, which cause the ball bearing, revolving head to rapidly spin 360 degrees. It throws a water pattern covering 36 feet in diameter.
Using a 14-foot roof ladder, place the 2.5-inch hose down the center of the rungs. Have the Bulldozer coupling rest on the roof hooks of the ladder so it supports the weight of the nozzle, but the head of the Bulldozer can spin freely. Lash the hose to the ladder at the first rung below the hooks using a body loop or webbing. Make the knot secure, but allow some slack for the hose to fill with water. Lash the hose again at the fifth rung below the hooks in the same manner while keeping the hose aligned down the center of the ladder. This should be sufficient because there is no recoil reaction on this type of nozzle.
The drawback to this evolution is the lack of a shutoff. The water flow needs to be controlled at the pump panel (which is how I do it), by a hose clamp or by a hydrant gate valve inserted at one or two hose lengths behind the ladder. With practice, this is still a pretty quick evolution. Consider the time it takes to make entry into a smoke-filled house, locate the access to the basement and try to make the stairs down to the basement. This evolution can be operational, introducing a effective sprinkler system into this space.
Gradually charge the hose line until you have full control of the hose with the ladder. Make sure the nozzle is spinning at full pressure before inserting the tip of the ladder into a burning basement; otherwise the flames will burn the hose, damage the ladder and the Bulldozer will fall into basement. (That’s a guaranteed letter of explanation to the chief.) Once the ladder is inserted into a basement window, this is a one-person operation.
The firefighter can have a 10 to 11-foot reach into the basement. This can’t be done with a 1.75- or a 2.5-inch unsupported hand line. The weight of the charged hose would cause the line to drop, you would lose control of the shutoff and the hose would whip around uncontrolled with such force that you would not be able to hold on to it.
The ladder allows for horizontal reach into the basement. The firefighter can aim the ladder up into the floor joists or down to the floor. You can reach to the left or to the right. The ladder tips and the beams can be used to knock over obstructions in the basement like stacked boxes, newspapers and clothing, which could block the nozzle pattern.
When you have heavy smoke and fire blowing out a basement window, the chance that there is a savable life in that space is zero. If ventilation is going to be delayed, you’re going to have a tough time making entry and enduring the heat, especially if you try the stairs from floor 1. You have to apply water to the fire. In a super heated, confined space like a basement, 340 gpm of water spray will convert to steam and expand 1,700 times its volume. The steam will fill the space and knock the fire down.
Obviously there are preferred tactics to fight a basement fire. If there is an exterior entrance into the basement, I would probably take my first hand line there. But to insist that the first line has to come down from the floor above makes about as much sense as insisting an attack on a two-story house fire with fire on the first floor has to start from floor 2!
For those of you who are concerned about water damage, this is a basement! A cellar. It’s not the master bedroom, and even if it is a living space, the water isn’t going to damage any more floors below this level. If you delay getting water on the fire, you could end up losing the entire house. Instead of water damage, be more concerned about firefighter damage. (That’s you.) Instead of thinking whether you can make the stairs to the basement, ask yourself, “Can I survive this event?”