FIRE FOCUS ❘ BY BILL GUSTIN
Fires in 2½-Story Wood-Frame Dwellings
OPERATIONS SHOULD BEGIN WI TH A 360° size-up of the fire build- ing. On side 1 or Alpha (A), two
front doors indicate that this is at least a
two-family dwelling. The door on the left
leads to the first-floor occupancy, and the
door on the right more than likely opens
to a stairway that leads to one or more
residential occupancies on the second
floor. Note the location and the width
of the windows on the Delta (D) side or
side 4: Windows at each level appear to
be vertically in line with each other, and
they are quite narrow by today’s standards. This is most likely because windows in old wood-frame homes like this
were commonly installed one above the
other in the same “stud bay,” the space
between the studs in exterior walls.
Other critical observations in the 360°
could include the following:
• The presence of curtains or an air-con-
ditioner in an attic window. This a
strong indication that the half-story is
occupied. When a half-story is used as
a living space, the habitable portion
of the attic is separated by knee walls
from the diminishing/triangular space
where the slope of the roof meets
the exterior walls, creating a very
dangerous concealed space. Although
a thorough examination of attic and
knee-wall fires is beyond the scope of
this article, firefighters should have a
solid understanding of their hazards
and attic firefighting tactics. 1
• Occupants trapped at windows.
• Gas and electric meters and utility
• Fire involving back porches that extend vertically up the C (rear) side and
possibly threaten exposed structures.
• Basement windows, which are rarely
in the front. Look carefully in basement windows for fire in the basement
before advancing hoselines to fire that
is visible at upper levels.
• Bilco® doors, indicating an outside
• An exterior stairway in the rear that
leads to the half-story attic. This is an
indication that the half-story has been
converted to a single-room occupancy.
Further, when the attic was legally
or illegally renovated as a separate
residence, the interior stairs from the
second floor may have been removed
or the stairway blocked with plywood.
If that is the case, if you enter the front
door on the right with the intention
of ascending interior stairs to the
finished half-story, you will be unable
to do so. The rear exterior stairway is
the only route to the half-story.
The age of this dwelling, built in the
late 1800s or the early 1900s, and the
width and location of the windows on
the D side are critical factors in an initial
size-up because they indicate that there
is a strong likelihood that this dwelling is of balloon-frame construction.
Clearly, fire is rapidly extending up the
building’s combustible exterior siding. If
this is balloon framing, it is most likely
spreading inside the walls, vertically
in the stud bays, which extend continuously from the foundation to the attic.
This allows a fire that originates in the
basement to spread to upper floors and,
ultimately, to the attic. Fire also has an
unobstructed path to burn above ceilings at each floor level.
As mentioned previously, regardless
of where fire is showing, you must first
examine the basement as the point
of origin. The interconnection of
unobstructed concealed spaces in bal-
( 1-3) First-arriving firefighters find a heavy fire
condition on the first floor of what appears to
be a 2½-story wood-frame dwelling with fire
extending to the second floor and attic half-story. (Photos by Gordon Nord.)