The Fireman’s Guide to Main Street: 5 Buildings to Know, Part 4

Alexis Shady & Chris Tobin

There is a quote that we believe represents the vast majority of the fire service concerning buildings, it reads;

“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray.”

Thoreau, Henry

Simply put, we all see buildings but few understand what they’re actually looking at. That’s a problem, a really big problem and for two important reasons; which are a building is the one thing that directly or indirectly effects everything we do on the fireground, and the only thing we can do about a compromised building is avoid it entirely. We show up with no solution to sagging roofs, crumbling walls, or missing floors other than staying away. We can mitigate smoke, fire, and rescue trapped victims but we can do nothing about the leaning wall. It’s this stark reality that many forget and have paid the price. You can know all there is about fire behavior, your tools and strategies, none of which hold any value if you’re unfamiliar with the space in which they are relied upon. Some may say all fires are the same, which is true until you put one in a building. Behind every door are an infinite amount of variables, some known, some unknown, and some unexpected. This is why nothing’s routine till it’s over and why knowing your buildings on a visceral level is paramount. If you want to be able to forward think you must understand the data you’re receiving.

This will be a five part series exclusively examining five different types of legacy construction, each with its own article as it pertains to firefighting. The types of buildings were selected based on their prominence in today’s main streets and historic districts. These specific types of buildings exist in small towns from coast to coast but more commonly found East of the Mississippi River where our national building stock originated before moving Westward. 

The five buildings are the old house, the taxpayer, the old mill, the vacant theater, and the bowling alley. Each of these will be examined along with inherent hazards and a play book for handling fires specific to each occupancy. Additionally since many of these buildings are found in small towns with departments that may not have the adequate resources, there will be a section based on short staffed responses for each. The objective of this series is to present the most useful amount of information in the least amount of space. Each of these buildings are worthy of their own book in themselves, this series is meant to be concise and simple information for any level of firefighter. As with any article on architecture, regional vernacular and Departmental jargon may vary. Nothing in this piece is the final say, only the individual reader and their streets can make that claim. 

Part 4 

The Building 

The Bowling Alley:

Bowling has a long history, and is still one of the most popular sports today. Some say the origin of bowling dates all the way back to Egypt, as early as 3200 BC. In the United States, its history can be traced back to the mid 1800’s, but it didn’t really gain popularity until the early 1900’s. During prohibition, bowling alleys separated themselves from saloons, turning themselves into family friendly gathering places. Prior to this, bowling alleys were found in basements and known to attract undesirable elements. Some older buildings may still have the remnants and inherent hazards in the basements of what is today a modern business, storefront or dining establishment. Interestingly enough, many private schools still have smaller bowling alleys in basements. These were installed as legal loophole so alcohol could be served on Sundays. After prohibition was over, beer companies started sponsoring teams, and with the rise of television, bowling continued to gain popularity. This culture gave rise to the 2nd floor bowling alley which was intended to offer a more family friendly feel as opposed to basements. Many of these still exist, and are in older buildings which pose their own set of challenges that differ from a more modern single story establishment. Between 1950-1960, bowling alleys became automated, and rapidly spread across the country.

The various construction styles, bowstring roofs, exposure buildings, wooden floors covered in wax and oil, and endless hidden voids make bowling alley fires a recipe for incendiary disaster. These fires are notoriously difficult battle spaces for even the most skilled fireman. Knowledge of the layout, roof features, and general construction can determine whether or not you lose the building, and your firemen with it.

A Peculiar Thing

 What’s interesting, and what makes these fires even more hazardous than their inherent construction features and fire loads, is the fact they’re obscurely documented. This seems to be one type of fire that we’ve beat around the bush for over a century. In all of the fire service lexicon that exists, one can not easily find a single book nor comprehensive document specifically addressing bowling alley fires. Why is that? Is it because these fires are unwinnable? Will most we encounter will be lost? No victims are found, and no property saved? It’s very ironic that every news story or interview shows a Chief explicitly describing the dangers of bowling alley fires, yet there’s nothing to cite in fire academia other than one’s experience. What are those dangers? Why does it matter? What do we do about them? These are the questions this article tries to answer.

 The most recent publication found was over 50 years ago by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, titled “The Fire Hazard of Bowling Establishments” due to a prevalence of these fires at the time. Aside from that, everything we know about these fires as trade exists as undocumented first person knowledge and news stories. Given that fact alone, articles such as this provide at least a starting point for others to critique and expand on for future learning.

The Hazards

Bowling alleys are unique in that they have a wide range of occupancy purposes. Where else do you find a single building with the potential to house a bar or restaurant, arcade games, machinery, hollow floors, and high fire loads such as storage rooms full of oil and cleaning supplies? Knowledge of building codes, and routine fire inspections can help you keep control of these buildings. If the first time you step in your bowling alley is when it’s on fire, you’re already behind.

A common hazard in bowling alley fires is the presence of Bowstring Truss Roofs. When it isn’t hidden, it is the most easily recognizable roof type, due to its arched top. However, these are commonly hidden by parapet walls or rain roofs, so getting out and examining these buildings ahead of time is essential. There are endless examples of fires in bowstring buildings. And many of the most memorable fires that have resulted in deaths of firemen are a direct result of the collapse of a bowstring roof. A prime example is the Cardinal Lanes Bowling Alley Fire in October of 1967. The explosion, and subsequent roof collapse, caused a concrete wall to trap 10 firemen, 5 of which did not survive. The most notable example of bowstring failure is the 1988 Hackensack Ford Dealership Fire. As a result, these roofs are overemphasized for the potential of sudden collapse earlier than expected. The reality is, the same can be said for any roof. When it comes to bowstring or arched roofs just understand what you’re looking at, specifically the fact they push walls outwards onto far more firemen than have been buried under the roof of one.

The design of bowstring truss roofs is very similar to other truss types; triangles transfer the tension from the bottom chord, and the weight from the top chord onto the load bearing walls. The significant difference, and hazard, with these is that due to the shape of the structure, the compression forces the walls outward, and not just down, significantly increasing collapse potential. Some arched roofs contained a steel tie rod to help with stability, but as temperatures increase these rods will fail, ultimately resulting in collapse. Bowstring truss roofs were commonly used in industrial or commercial settings prior to 1960, as they required no supporting columns and allowed for large open floor plans. 

Failure of first arriving firefighters and officers to recognize and relay a bowstring truss roof can result in catastrophic loss. Common reports from these fires are heavy smoke conditions from the outside, while firefighters on the inside report little to no signs of smoke. If you have these signs as you’re entering, use your hook to pop a ceiling tile, preferably from a protected spot such as a doorway, and take a look at what you have overhead. Heavy smoke and fire conditions need to be communicated to command, so they can weigh the risks of continued interior operations under a bowstring roof. 

Bowling alleys also contain the potential for endless void spaces, in some cases caused by the aforementioned bowstring roof construction. Where exposure buildings are concerned, bowstring truss’ were sometimes anchored into the dividing party wall, creating a void that fire could pass through from one store to the next. Knowing how to protect these exposure buildings is important. The heat and flame produced by these fires have the potential to be volatile. Foreseeability is key, without it your bowling alley fire can quickly spread to the adjacent buildings.

The floors themselves are also full of void spaces; in between each lane is a track for the ball return, that runs the length of the lane from the pins to the player’s seating area. These are separated from the lanes themselves; however they can allow undetected fire to run the length of the lane. Many of the lanes and flooring themselves can have voids that also run the length of the building, and are several feet deep. There is no fire wall between the pin machines and lanes, so fire in the mechanics can quickly spread to the rest of the bowling alley. If there is a fire in the mechanics of a ball return or the pin placers, you will need to open up multiple sections of flooring to check for extension.

Due to the layout of these buildings, mechanical rooms can sometimes be difficult to access in the rear or may be below grade. Between arcade games, ball returns, pin placers, and restaurants, there is the potential for a lot of power to be running through these buildings. Because of this, getting control of the power early on these scenes is more important than normal, you’ll want to readily know where the access to these controls is located. For small fires, each machine will have its own emergency shutoff, and there is typically at least one power source that controls all of the lanes as well. One often overlooked hazard is interior furnishings. These buildings are old and usually not updated so you’ll have things like wood panelling, heavy varnished wood work, curtains and carpeting. Again, don’t wait until the building is on fire to go looking for the first time.

The MSDS sheets of various oils used to treat the lanes advise that fires involving these chemicals should be treated as an oil, or Class B Fire. They advise that the “oil will float on water, and could spread the fire”. The oils may splatter once they reach their boiling point, and the polymer film will burn rapidly. Many alleys store cases in the back for routine cleaning and maintenance of the lanes. This means the oils will be both in large quantities in a storage room, and across the alley floors. Universal-type foam is highly suggested. 

Keep in mind, if the floor is burning, you will need to check the void space below for fire spread. Doing so requires lifting a floor panel, typically you would do this away from the fire, but the lanes are divided by the ball returns. In this case, you would need to check in the area of fire, and lifting floor panels may break the foam layer. Also remember, you most likely have a limited amount of foam available. If you can’t sustain applying foam until the fire is extinguished, you’ll be washing it away as soon as you use water. In our research we were unable to find a bowling alley fire that used foam, would this have made a difference?

The Playbook

When understanding an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for bowling alleys, there needs to be a clear distinction between the three types of buildings you’ll encounter. This should be known, preplanned information, well before it’s transmitted in any size up.  These are; legacy sub grade/basement, legacy 2nd floor, and single story modern. Depending on which of these three you have, the orientation and location of the lanes within the building will dictate a wide variance in tactics. This article doesn’t describe specific tactics; but instead highlights general points on which an agency can use their SOGs and capabilities they feel best suits them.   

PC: Alyssa Brown,  Venue Report

The Sub-grade/Basement bowling alley 

Due to the difficulty of sub grade fires in general, any bowling alley fire in a basement progressing past the point of incipient stage should be approached with great caution. Perhaps an option here for a well off fire condition would be flooding the basement with foam. The lane conditioners are of a highly combustible oil and other chemicals that would be made worse with water, same as any Class B fire.

The play here is a strategy of life safety oriented confinement as the main objective in your IAP. The point being to address any life safety hazards such as unaccounted workers or trapped patrons. Fire and smoke behavior in bowling alleys is so volatile in nature that the common methodology of locate, confine, extinguish may not be suitable in a basement even in favorable conditions. Instead emphasis is placed on securing egress routes with the most amount of GMP in the least amount of time as opposed to complete extinguishment. Traditionally smoke isn’t something a stream would be particularly focused on aside from impending backdraft conditions but this is that time. A free burning fire in a basement bowling alley will likely be inaccessible due to the aforementioned conditions. If conditions permit or there’s a report of persons trapped, a large diameter line or two, quickly stretched to the bottom of the stairs will give you the best vantage point for a few reasons.

1. It’s typically a straight run stair so large diameter lines will not have to make turns.

2. It gives you a vantage point to play water on a large area from one location since bowling alleys are wide open spaces.

3.You can scan a large area with a TIC for reported victims while securing your egress and theirs simultaneously.  

Any lines stretched to a sub grade fire in a bowling alley need to have at minimum the same diameter hose line as a backup holding the first floor. The first floor back up line must maintain discipline by not needlessly deploying elsewhere into the building leaving the entrance and basement stairs vulnerable for being cut off. 

Exterior access points such as basement windows will be key for two reasons; opening a window closest to the fire in a vent limited condition will relieve to a degree the pressure pushing out the entry point and give you access for direct application of hose streams. Both tactics should be utilized as conditions present opportunities to do so. Due to the intensity and limited access challenges, exterior streams through windows on or near the seat of the fire should be your primary tactic for a well involved fire. Even if there’s a report of victims trapped, getting water on what you can early will be the best chance for entry for both us and them. If water can’t be applied immediately using large caliber hose lines, then a defensive posture is the only play. Exposure protection should be accounted for early, before the fire has extended upward from the basement. 

Many basement bowling alleys were located in connected rows of buildings or the bottoms of private schools. This sets up a unique challenge for exposures not only for the exterior, but also below grade where buildings may have been connected. In the case for basement bowling alleys in old private schools the exposure concern is the main building above. These bowling alleys were commonly found under the cafeteria or gymnasium for their required large footprint. Keeping these fires contained in the building of origin will require similar tactics used in warehouses where crews hold the protected portions at choke points and corridors with manned or unmanned large diameter hose streams.

PC: Laurie Skrivan, Post-Dispatch

The Second Floor Bowling Alley 

These fires will almost always be found in buildings of legacy construction consisting of Masonry Type 2 or 3 with a reinforced steel frame and concrete floors for the inherent heavy loads. Having a top floor fire offers some opportunity for roof ops, but historically these fires are so advanced upon arrival that anything other than a confined storeroom or kitchen fire will render vertical ventilation impractical. Knowing this allows a roof crew to triage certain opportunities if presented such as opening skylights and scuttles before attempting saw work. 

Another tactical advantage of a top floor fire is the opportunity to deploy a deck gun at an effective angle of attack on arrival. This can’t be done in basement or single story bowling alleys. If on arrival you have fire showing from the front of the building of a second floor bowling alley, now’s the perfect time to deploy your deck gun.         

When arriving on scene of a second floor bowling alley, tactics will depend on whether or not the buildings connected or separated by gangways. If the buildings connected in a row then you have to evaluate two additional aspects. How many sides is it connected on and are the adjacent buildings taller or the same height as the fire building. The following scenarios can present themselves: 

1. Connected exposures on both sides 

2. Connected exposure on one side 

3. Connected exposures on both sides of equal height 

4. Connected exposures on both sides of greater height 

5. Connected exposures on both sides, one equal and one greater height 

6. Connected single story exposures. 

Out of these possibilities, exposure severity from highest to lowest are 

  1. Exposure of greater height
  2. Exposure of equal height 
  3. Single story exposure 

The severity is based on the fact that if an exposure building is higher than a top floor fire building than any fire through the roof will pose a serious threat, especially if the exposure building is downwind and has windows on the windward side.  This also limits roof operations for ventilation since any roof openings made above the fire can affect the adjacent downwind exposure. 

If the exposure buildings are of equal height, then your primary concern is the common cockloft void and cornice work on the building’s facade. These two avenues of extension, combined with expectation of poke through construction in fire walls and partitions over time will allow you a certain degree of strategic foreseeability in where to best utilize resources. The play here is confining the fire to the top floor of the main building while additional lines are to be stretched into downwind exposures as soon as possible along with monitoring roof conditions.

Access for second floor bowling alleys is typically a single straight run stair right off the street. This allows for a relatively simple advancement of a large diameter hose line or multiple lines without advancing around corners. There should be a side or rear entrance also, if these are used just be cognizant they most likely access utility, kitchens or back rooms making advancing a large diameter hose line less advantageous in those circumstances. 

Top floor bowling alley fires that go defensive, and most do, will be easier to utilize aerial master streams due to the obvious access you’ll have when the fire burns through. Any well off second floor bowling alley should by default, position aerial apparatus for master stream operations before the situation even calls for it. This will save you valuable time on the back end when securing water supplies, when exposures become threatened, or in the event of an unexpected collapse.

One Story Modern Bowling Alley.

These are the quintessential bowling alleys most know to exist across the country. As with any large building, light smoke showing is really a lot of smoke anywhere else. Meaning don’t let the lack of heavy smoke conditions you’d see in a house fire trip you up. These buildings are large so any smoke showing from the front door on arrival had a lot of energy to get it there. As stated before, the presence of highly combustible oil based lane conditioners stored in bulk form and applied to the lanes will create a unique fire hazard that water will make worse, such as any Class B fire. If the alleys or the store room is what’s burning then foam should be utilized as necessary.    

The play for these like all heavy fire load occupancies is putting large diameter hose lines in service as quickly as possible, supported by vertical ventilation where feasible. The one tactical advantage these buildings give you is their wide open space lacking turns and obstructions for line advancement and stream access. Bowling alley fires typically start in one of two places: kitchens or the pin setting machines. Knowing this, you can make the best choice of entry on such a large building instead of needlessly advancing through the front all the way to the back where a rear door was to begin with. The rear access from the inside is almost always along a side wall in a depressed walk way. This is important to know if you find yourself lost or disoriented so you can radio to the RIT or follow this exterior wall to safety.

  If you’re afforded the conditions to make entry, a TIC snd inspection above the drop ceiling must be made and continue as long as crews are inside. Drop ceilings are notorious for concealing large amounts of advanced fire conditions. This can give crews a false sense of security as they get themselves deeper into a building. Any well off fire conditions located above the drop ceiling warrants immediate evacuation as the structural members have been compromised for an unknown amount of time. 

 If your town’s hydrants are sparse, or your flows must be augmented by tanker shuttled drop tanks then these fires will be defensive by default. There’s nothing wrong with that unless you show up not realizing it and waste valuable time “pissing in the wind” instead of spotting rig placement for master streams outside the collapse zone. When operating in a defensive posture, as most will be at these fires, remember to position aerials on corners and expect bowstrings to push walls outward. Set up collapse zones early on and maintain the discipline post fire as well. The collapse hazards still exist even after the fires out, a lesson too many have learned the hard way. 

If you have a report of workers trapped, think about where most workers are in bowling alleys. Ask what their job is, the cashier will work upfront near the entrance. Are they the bartender, cook, or manager? How about the maintenance worker? Perhaps with that information your best place to start would be the rear by the pin setting machines. Knowing that roof scuttles typically open up in rear storage rooms, this may be a life saving vent choice for those trapped in proximity. The point here is to understand these fires are so volatile and your window of opportunity is so narrow that you have to consider only limited precise searches based on the best information provided.  

The stark reality of bowling alley fires is that very few if any fire department shows up with the adequate amount of resources in the amount of time needed to successfully extinguish a well involved fire from the interior.

The Short Staffed Response

The tactics discussed above apply to short staffed departments as well – just use your heads and know your limitations. Get in and preplan the building, you most likely only have one, so there is no excuse not to know it intimately. Prior knowledge of the basics such as the location of the lanes, mechanical room access, utilities, etc. will make the first few minutes of your scene run smoother. 

Understand with bowling alleys you may have a high GPM demand early on and continued throughout the scene, so you must consider the need for more engines for maximum pumping capacity. The main challenge smaller, less resourceful agencies will have isn’t manpower but instead water supply. When deploying two or three large diameter lines such as a 2.0 or 2.5”, tank water is not going to get you in the door like a normal one line off fire would. Forward lays are ideal in these situations with the next in company making the connection unless they are a ways out, then your engine driver may have to obtain their own supply. 

IC’s are going to have to consider many different variables to call for, so pre-plan as much as you can. As discussed above, know your hydrant limitations and have tanker shuttles going early if necessary. Consider calling for additional officers as well as manpower, if for nothing more than to help control the scene and have an extra set of eyes on the building. Early application of foam on lanes and storage rooms is an asset on these fires. You must know how much you have on board your rig, and call for more early on. If the building is heavily involved, this won’t be worth your time; but if you can catch it early, it may make the difference in getting a good stop. Multiple aerials may also be needed, so rural operations will want to get those in route as soon as possible. Like every other fire we’ve discussed, preplanned mutual aid will make your life a lot easier.

Don’t let auto alarms make you complacent. “Nothing showing” on arrival doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no fire. Depending on the design of your bowling alley, there can be a massive void space above the drop ceiling that will hold a lot of smoke and fire, until it doesn’t. Regardless of staffing; if you suspect, or know, that a building has bowstring construction, focus needs to be on opening the ceiling and checking for fire above. If there is visible fire in the trusses upon opening the ceiling, serious consideration needs to be given to going defensive. There is no way to tell how long the fire has been burning, or how close you are to collapse. Same can be said for a basement fire, if you’re going to try to make an attack, you must protect the stairs. 

The most common answer to the question of “what was unique about your bowling alley fire?” is consistently how quickly the fire seemed to spread. These fire scenes are described as “fast.” This is an important fact for short staffed or rural departments to remember as their response times may be longer. Later arrival times and fast moving scenes make for a dangerous combination if command isn’t thinking clearly or paying attention. These buildings have a high fire load, and if backdraft mitigation isn’t possible, exterior operations may very well be your only option. 

There is a lot of debate on 2.5” vs. 1.75” for big fire attack. You can put out a lot of fire with a 2.5”, that is, if you can maneuver it. These fires don’t give you a lot of time to mess around before you lose them. Luckily these buildings are wide open and lack a lot of small rooms which is ideal for large diameter hose lines. This allows a minimal amount of manpower to get a 2.5” in place from a decent vantage point of relative safety.  If you choose a 2.5” but either have to park it in the yard, or flow for a few seconds, shut it down to move and it takes you twice as long to advance, the 1.75” may be the better choice. Simply put, you know your staffing limitations, so pick which line(s) you’re most efficient with and get to work. If the fires reported in the machine room or the rear a 1.75” may be your best bet since maneuvering will be key. 

Due to the construction and design layout of these buildings, sometimes by the time detection systems and sprinklers are activated, the fire is too powerful to be suppressed. If interior operations are unable to be completed for whatever reason, utilize what you have; 2.5” lines, deck gun, aerial waterways. Just remember, don’t park your rigs, or your firemen, inside the collapse zone. 

Remember, like we discussed with the old mill; a small fire in a big building is a large fire anywhere else. Don’t let the size of the building distort your view of these fires. Know the specific hazards of your building: is it below grade, second story, does it have a bowstring roof? Do they store chemicals for treating the floors? Where are victims likely to be found? Know the hazards that accompany these unique features, but don’t let them cloud your vision for the rest of the scene. Have a general idea of how you would approach a fire in these structures, but be flexible enough to change tactics as the situation dictates. Our hope is that this article opens a dialogue on these unique fires, and that more knowledge can be passed on for further learning.

Citations 

Many individuals were consulted in the writing of this article, their knowledge and experience greatly influenced the hazards and tactics discussed above. Due to the nature of how common trade knowledge, jargon, terminology and methods are passed down amongst the fire service much of the articles information can not be cited as a proprietary source to one particular piece of work, individual, group or otherwise.

Dunn V. Collapse of Burning Buildings: a Guide to Fireground Safety: 2nd Ed. 2nd. Ed. Tulsa, OK: Pennwell; 2010.

Dunn, V. (2007). The strategy of firefighting. Tulsa, OK: PenWell.

Fried, E. (1972). Fireground Tactics. Chicago, IL: H. Marvin Ginn Corp. 

Hill HJ. Failure Point: How to Determine Burning Building Stability. PennWell Publishing Company; 2012.

Mitchell, U. S. D. of L. J., & Connolly, B. of L. S. W. (1953). The Boy Behind the Pins: A Report on Pinsetters in Bowling Alleys, Bulletin (170), 1–47. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books

NFPA 220: Standard on Types of Building Construction. (06.2018).

Pindelski, J. (2007, September 12). Truss Roofs: Do You Know Where the Firefighter Killer Hides? Retrieved March 15, 2020

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