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

The Fireman’s Guide to Main Street: 5 Buildings to Know, Part 3

Alexis Shady & Chris Tobin

There is a quote that I 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 3

The Building

The old mill: What would a town be without the mill? Nonexistent, that’s what. Unless you’re in a planned bedroom community platted in the 21st century then it’s highly likely your town grew around industry during the American Industrial Revolution. Such times gave us terms like “mill town”, “company town,” “factory house,” and “mill village.” The first mills were built in the countryside along powerful waterways and were wheel driven. The advent of steam power did away with this type of construction, and lead to the hulking heavy timbered factories that would dominate the landscape for the next century.

It was due to both the prevalence and their inherent construction features that so many of these buildings still exist in towns all over America. Textile mills were more common in New England, but as with everything else that expanded westward, so did industry and its buildings. Whether you lived in the corn belt, rust belt, or the cotton belt didn’t matter. Every town needed jobs, and those jobs were in one of many large factories that were surrounded by neighborhoods of their workers.

The term “mill type construction” originally in reference to the large New England textile mills is now used interchangeably with any such type four heavy timber factory. These buildings are exclusively legacy or heritage era construction with rough cut sawn timbers and joinery. The exterior walls are noncombustible masonry that are a thicker wythe at the bottom. Generally 24 to 36 inches thick at the ground level and tapering up as the building rose in height to typically no more than six stories. All four walls will be load bearing. Type lV “heavy timber” can be numerous types of occupancies such as churches, gymnasiums, and even residential. Mill type is a subtype of this construction, specifically referring to commercial use, such as factories or warehouses with masonry walls and specific dimensions on components such as floors and roof decking. It all comes down to what building code was used, and when it was published. It’s important the reader understand that Type lV construction can exist in numerous types of occupancies such as places of worship, lofts or restaurants, not just old mills; even though the construction features are the same. This article will be focusing solely on Type lV heavy timber mill type buildings.

The definition of Type IV heavy timber is commonly confused with Type V heavy timber wood framed buildings such as heritage framed construction or old barns. While the heavy timber framing may exist, Type V is still a wood framed building, thus not mill type construction due to the lack of masonry walls. There can be some variance amongst building codes, however all adhere to the minimum dimensions for heavy timber mill construction which is defined by the NFPA as follows:

– Noncombustible exterior load bearing walls.

– Main framing members being no less than eight inches by eight inches.

– Wood columns supporting solely roof members shall be no less than six by eight inches.

– Beams and girders supporting floor loads shall be no less than six by ten inches.

– Beams and girders supporting roof members shall be no less than four by six inches.

The idea behind heavy timber is its inherent fire protection based on mass. Simply put the beams will char, while structural integrity isn’t effected as severely as smaller diameter wood. While heavy timber is typically slower to ignite, once ignited it conversely has the potential to become unstoppable. This was no secret and why Mills were designed in quarters or thirds separated by true fire walls with fusible linked rated metal clad fire doors. The first automatic fire sprinkler systems were also installed in these buildings as early as 1874. These buildings were designed around the idea of passive fire protection in a time when fires were devastating the textile industry. These passive construction features will be a major part of any modern attack strategy, the key is knowing how to use them effectively during operations.

The Hazards

The connections between columns and girders are far more susceptible to collapse than the beams themselves. The connections were often made of cast iron, which we already know is unreliable and fails at variable temperatures, unlike steel which has uniform failure points. Additionally, cast iron fails completely and catastrophically without warning. This is due to how the fire effects the variance in the casting process, not cold water hitting hot metal. In some cases there were cast iron floor columns as well. Depending on the load requirements for the building some floors would have cast iron columns and others heavy timber. It just depended on what the manufacturer wanted.

The floors of these buildings also pose a special hazard over time. Layers of floor, typically layered tongue and groove (also known as planks) made up the flooring system. Years of chemical spills, and oil from machinery add risk. Cold storage facilities typically had a coating applied to help preserve the wood and keep the floors from being slippery add yet another layer of risk. These both can make floors a fire hazard as they speed up the combustion process which obviously then increases collapse risk. You could also expect to see floor joists in these buildings having fire cuts. Fire cuts are angled cuts at the ends of beams along the exterior masonry walls. The purpose of these cuts was to maintain structural integrity of the exterior walls, having the interior floors collapse inward, onto themselves instead of forcing the walls out. Great for exterior firefighters, not so great for ones inside. Keep in mind fire cuts were designed in an era before interior firefighting with the idea of keeping the exterior operations safe

Lack of windows, whether from original construction or bricked in later significantly reduce the ability to vent these fires. Few entrances also make safe operations a concern. Another hazard created when one of these buildings becomes vacant are the presence of unmarked open shafts. When workers are present or the buildings routinely preplanned, elevator and freight lifts are known and marked, or railed for the workers safety. These things become absent when an old mill falls into disrepair. Railings are scrapped, lifts are removed, and what’s left is an unmarked, unknown large opening spanning multiple floors. The obvious fall hazard, combined with a now unprotected shaft acting as an interior chimney, should be an immediate red flag for anyone arriving on scene of an old vacant mill. These unprotected openings also allow for rapid vertical fire spread, so checking for extension on upper floors is key.

Even after the fires out one often often over looked hazard is the post fire collapse zone. These buildings will burn and smolder for days and without constant supervision the collapse zone becomes less enforced with time. Crews from different shifts may arrive days later and meander into an area with deadly consequences. The walls of these buildings will stay free standing up to heights of many stories and fall without warning. Keep any collapse zone set up at the time of the fire clearly marked with tape even after the fires out.

The Playbook

The interior ops margin for mill type construction is narrow. These fires are either catastrophic block long conflagrations or mundane rubbish burning from vagrants or industrial processes. The play here is for the few fires that are still vent limited and deep seated, requiring interior lines stretched, searches for both fire or victims, and interior exposure protection.

Confinement is key, use the inherent construction features to your advantage. The closing of the fire doors should be an early task done simultaneously with line advancement. The firewalls in these buildings were constructed of non load bearing isolated masonry that goes from the basement up through the roof. There will be fire doors on each level typically directly above one another in the floor plan. The worst case scenario is a well off fire of unknown location. This will be even further complicated if it’s discovered sub grade in a basement. These buildings lack basement windows and stair wells are very small; making the idea of laboriously advancing a large diameter line into zero visibility vent limited conditions seem suicidal.

Tag lines while good in theory, will be of no practical use with stock or palletized goods to maneuver around. Members not operating on a hose line must have a TIC. Becoming lost and low on air is a high probability in these buildings. Accountability and forward thinking of committing members inside must be at a higher level of scrutiny due to this risk. Multiple RITs should be assigned due to the size and reflex/travel time requirements. Too much manpower is just as much of a problem as too little. Use your crews accordingly and diligently, not wasting manpower on things such as utilities or lesser important tasks at hand. Searches must be limited to reflect good intel and not comprehensive like on typical residential fires. You can not send crews searching into oblivion, these buildings demand a conservative search strategy. If you have an employee onsite, it’s imperative a role call is done to account for the workers.

Once the life safety objectives have been addressed, the fire must be located and the fire doors closed. If the fire can’t be located but the doors can be shut, then you’ll soon find out what section you’ve written off. If the fire can’t be located and doors not shut, then you will lose the building and every piece of property in it.

Once the fires been located, it’s a battle against time and GPM. Keep in mind a small fire in a big building is actually a big fire anywhere else. Don’t let the optics play tricks on you. What seems like a one line fire may in reality take multiple lines and even master streams to extinguish. If conditions have not improved after 10-15 minutes, start considering a shift to confinement over extinguishment. It’s better to save 3/4s of a building than none at all. Once the fire has extended up through multiple floors it’s no longer extinguishable from the inside. Lapping will soon follow once the fire reaches the windows. Now you’re confronted with horizontal interior fire spread and exterior vertical fire spread by combustible window frames. You can see how narrow the margin is for successful interior operations. You will only have one shot with an interior attack.

The decision to transfer to interior confinement over extinguishment can be based on some benchmarks.

– Interior streams showing no improvement in conditions.

– Fire showing on more than one floor upon arrival.

– Unable to locate the fire for an extended period of time under deteriorating conditions.

– Hazardous material making a direct attack unsafe.

– Localized structural integrity problems such as a portion under construction, floors missing, etc. making entry into the involved section impractical.

Confinement is a last chance strategy to save the remaining unaffected parts of the building and its property. This strategy should only be attempted when there are no indicators of compromised structural integrity, and the fire hasn’t spread to multiple floors for an extended period of time. If the building is sectioned off by firewalls, the decision needs to be made on where to hold the fire. Depending on conditions this may be the next closest fire wall or two sections away if it’s a fast moving fire or resources are slow to deploy. The objective is to hold the fire doors containing the spread of fire to the original section of origin as much as possible. These buildings may carry large quantities of stored products so as with any property conservation strategy, the risk should be taken accordingly. Interior streams and personnel should be positioned on the protected sides of firewalls only long enough to set up portable ground monitors. Once the interior streams are in place aerial master streams should be positioned at the upwind side of the fire wall and directed onto anything burning through the roof. If the fire doors are missing or the fire walls have been compromised this tactic shouldn’t be attempted and operations should transfer into a defensive posture using only exterior master streams. Unfortunately, due the robustness of heavy timber roof construction, fire will spread horizontally unchecked from one section to another instead of quickly burning through like in other types of construction. This makes exterior master streams completely ineffective when trying to stay ahead of the fire. Roof ops are limited to existing openings such as skylights, roof top stairwells, and HVAC vents. Keep roof crews on the protected sides of firewalls if they’re monitoring conditions. Don’t waste the resources on heavy timber roofs, the fire will likely outpace you with tradition vertical ventilation tactics. Once exterior operations are warranted, position aerial master streams at corners and junctures of firewalls in long runs of masonry walls. After resources are positioned it’s then a war of water, from here GPM wins the day.

The Short Staffed Response

Manpower! Manpower! Manpower! Followed by water and even more water. The bigger the structure, the more people you will need. It’s important for Officers to have a clear understanding of their departments resources, and even more so, their limitations. Remember, fires in these structures can be deceiving. Like we discussed above, what appears to be a small fire in these buildings can be rather large, purely due to the size of the structure, and you need to be prepared. These fires are definitely what one would consider a high risk, low frequency event, so extra command staff may prove to be beneficial. Accountability and continuous 360’s will be important for safety on these fires. Extra eyes on the outside can also help identify fire spread on additional floors, as it may look contained to an interior crew. Depending on the size and location of the fire, you may want to consider assigning division or operations chiefs, as well as water supply management responsibilities to additional officers. Doing so allows command to focus on the bigger picture.

Accept the fact that complete interior searches will be next to impossible to complete safely due to the size and complexity of these structures without adequate manpower and prior training on large area search. Even more so than the other fires we’ve discussed, preplanning is key. Command needs to know how long it will take mutual aid or additional staffing to arrive on scene. Preset mutual aid assignments can potentially help with these response times. Prior knowledge of the building such as location of utilities and the interior layout for the location of open elevator shafts, fire doors, and all available exits will help ensure the safety of your crews. Having contact information for maintenance staff or the owner readily available can help you as well if you don’t have floor plans on hand. You’ll also want to consider additional water sources as the use of aerials have the potential to quickly overpower the nearest hydrants depending on pressure available.

Unlike taxpayer fires, where we suggested the use of the smaller diameter hose due to low manpower and maneuverability; selecting the larger diameter hose may be the key to these fires. The likelihood of deploying more than one attack line is high as well, and closing the fire doors as mentioned above should be a priority. Two more reasons manpower is important. Because there are few walls throughout the large open space, fire spreads rapidly, and your stream may need to be able to reach from the stairwell to the far corner before conditions allow you to advance, yet another reason to choose the 2.5”. One benefit to the open space, is that there are few concealed spaces allowing hidden fire spread, which in theory should make finding the seat of the fire easier.

While fires in these buildings are considered difficult to start due to the low surface-to-mass ratio, they expand quickly. It is important that you acknowledge your department’s limits, and understand that these fires can quickly overwhelm even a well staffed urban department’s resources. That fact, combined with response times, manpower, and collapse risks, may make defensive operations your only option.

Remember, a small fire in a big building is a big fire anywhere else. Manage your resources wisely and don’t be afraid to change tactics if you’re not seeing changes. Utilize the inherent construction features to your advantage. In theory, with a quick response and enough manpower, if you can get to the fire, you can put it out. That is, if you have enough water.

Citations

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.

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

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

Move with a purpose.

There is a quote that says, “a truly great mentor is hard to find, difficult to part with, and impossible to forget.”

One of those men is LT. Tony McLain.

From day one of my fire academy, I was blessed with great instructors. Each in their own way, representing what I want to be as a fireman. They worked hard, had a sense of humor, cared a lot about the guy standing next to them, and most importantly the public they served. They didn’t care about recognition and didn’t think they were anything special. They are just a group of firemen that love the job, and want to pass on as much as they know to the next generation. A handful of them became more than just instructors, but mentors, and Tony was one of them. From his constant repeat of “and things like that” while giving a lecture, to walking around yelling “gasket” every time we reloaded hose, to jokes about me showing up the guys; working with and learning from him was a never-ending source of education and entertainment. He had a way of giving you crap one minute, and teaching you an important lesson the next. He took the job seriously, and expected you to do the same. Work hard, but have fun when you were done.

Honestly, I credit a huge part of why I’m on the job today to him. I was at the tail end of my fire academy, and had the opportunity to apply to my department. I knew I wanted to be on the job, but I wasn’t convinced I was ready. I voiced these and other concerns to him one night after class. I don’t remember the exact words he said, but it was something along the lines of quit doubting yourself, you’re ready. Hearing someone I respected as much as him tell me they had faith in my abilities as a fireman gave me the courage I needed to apply. A year later when the offer finally came, I needed a little nudge from another mentor to take the plunge and accept the offer…but I wouldn’t have even tried if it wasn’t for Tony.

On the fireground you would frequently hear Tony say, “move with a purpose.” And you knew that meant you better get your ass in gear. He didn’t meant run around like an idiot, but to move quickly and efficiently. Do the job you were trained to do, the right way, no shortcuts. You knew if he was saying it, he expected more from you. I’m a big fan of quotes and I came to love what he said. I have no idea if he meant it as more than just a motivator to get moving on the fireground, but I began to model my life after that quote. I still try to live by that saying every single day, in all that I do.

“Move with a purpose” became a life motto, a reminder of a good fireman, and a way to stay focused. Is what you’re doing right now helping you to accomplish your goals? Are you doing something everyday to make yourself a better fireman, a better person? Are you putting the citizens you serve before yourself? Are you focusing on making things better, or wrapped up in the things you can’t control? Are you eating healthy and staying physically fit so you’re stronger on the fireground tomorrow? Is what you’re doing right now helping you continue to earn the title of “firefighter for the city of xxx”? Are you regularly doing relevant and realistic training? Tony’s mantra became more than just something to yell at the guys standing around on the fireground, but a central part of my everyday life.

On November 21st, 2018 the world lost a great fireman, mentor, brother, and more importantly husband and father. It’s still hard to believe that I can’t walk into his office and get some joke about my relatives or showing up the guys. I do know for certain that the world lost an entertaining, knowledgeable, caring, and passionate individual. He was a great fireman and an excellent teacher. I am extremely grateful to his family for sharing him with the fire service, and in supporting him spending his free time teaching the next generation of firemen like myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the opportunity to tell him this when I had the chance. So if you do nothing else today, tell your mentors thank you, and how much you appreciate all that they’ve done for you.

I had hoped to be able to work with and learn more from him in the future, however I am forever thankful for the time I had learning from him. We are all better for having known him.

If one day I am half the instructor and mentor to future firemen as he was to me, I will call it a success.

Until then, I’ll keep moving with a purpose.

RIP LT.