Few areas of the country have as many brick buildings as does St. Louis. This can be attributed to two main reasons.
At one time, there were 53 clay mines throughout St. Louis, making it easily accessible, and cheaper than in other areas of the country due to lack of transportation costs. The rapid expansion of the city through the early 20th century made this the material of choice.
The “White Cloud” fire that destroyed 418 buildings on the city’s riverfront in 1849. This resulted in the city creating an ordinance that buildings must be constructed with non-combustible materials.
The use of brick resulted in a city filled with gorgeous architecture, the quality of the brick and the designs that ensued from various mining groups is something you don’t see in most areas of the country. Another unintended consequence of the use of brick is that these buildings typically hold up better to years of decay than do frame ones. For a city who’s population has decreased almost 66% since its high in 1950, this is an important feature. (St. Louis population was approximately 857,000 in 1950 down to less than 300,000 in the 2020 census.)
At one point, there were over 35,000 abandoned buildings throughout the City, most in North City. As with every city that struggles with abandoned structures, there is a subsequent increase in fires. These fires, whether caused by fireworks, weather, arson, or for heating/cooking; can result in heavily damaged, sometimes partially collapsed structures. The cost of renovating or demolishing these can be very expensive, and when in a city struggling financially, results in them left standing as is.
Another interesting feature to the city is the amount of brick theft. Because the brick produced throughout the city was of such high quality, the demand for it was (and still is) high. Brick thievery has been an issue for decades, but reached a peak in the early 2000’s. Brick thieves worked hard to obtain their prize, with entire walls going missing overnight. The city cracked down on brickyards to try and slow the theft, but it resulted in many hazardous buildings spread throughout the city.
There’s a great documentary on the brick theft in the city,
“Brick byChanceand Fortune“
If you’d like to read more on this city’s unique brick history, check out the articles below.
Go to any large Midwestern city and take a drive down an alley, what you’ll see is an architectural feature colloquially known as the “Chicago Lumberyard”. A term that reflects the prevalence of rear multi level wooden porches extending as far as the blocks they’re built in. The wooden alley porches you see today were commonly built between 1900-1940 out of functionality more than convenience. Some offered stairs doubling as fire escapes while some did not. Before modern air conditioning, open porches offered relief during the oppressive humidity of Midwestern summers. The only other option was sleeping outside or in parks. Another common function of rear porches was a place for wood stoves and kerosene heating which just added to an increased fire hazard. Porches were naturally built off of the kitchen which allowed for easy access of fuel delivery for cooking as well as ice for those who could afford it.
Today’s rear porches come in two types, open with handrails and fully enclosed framed with windows. Most do not have porch stairs and may instead have a rear stairwell on the first floor accessed through a back door, especially in four family flats. Treated pine is the most common construction material due to its rot resistance, but over time structural integrity is slowly comprised. Modern uses of rear porches can vary greatly from social gathering places, storage, office space, and bedrooms. Typically vinyl siding has been added over the older exterior which can be anything from asbestos siding shingles to era wood siding. All these will require aggressive truck work to overhaul working concurrently with fire attack. Another feature is that the basement stairs are typically right under the 1st floor porch, so don’t automatically assume a porch fire started on the porch. Be sure to rule out a basement fire extending upward on arrival with an effective 360 size up.
Tactical considerations are similar to the principles of exposure protection since rear porches in Type lll’s will be separated by the rear brick wall. This offers a level of protection from fire spread into the cockloft, but enclosed porches are often stacked combustible construction. So you have rapid exterior fire spread to every level of the building from one source, which can extend horizontally into the dwelling on multiple levels at once. Life safety is the number one priority, especially potential victims that may be trapped above the 1st floor. Hose lines must be stretched to the proper location the first time saving costly delays in repositioning. There are many options for deployment depending on your resources and conditions.
The basic strategy here is confinement by holding the rear wall, thus keeping the fire out of the main building while searches are conducted. Since porches are in the rear you have to weigh your options when deploying hose lines. Is stretching down the gangway for exterior application going to be quicker than forcing entry with an uncharged line to an upper floor? Does an engine company respond to the rear? How about tandem lines? One goes inside to stop horizontal extension, and one to the rear to stop vertical extension lapping upwards to the roofing material additionally available to protect adjacent exposures. Traditionally the first line went to the fire floor and the second went to the floor above. All these have to be considered. If people are reported trapped the first line must go inside and hold extension at the rear wall putting water in between tenable spaces supporting a rescue effort. If there are rear interior stairs those have to be protected as well.
If your staffing is unable to stretch multiple lines quickly and must rely on only one, err on the side of probability and make entry knowing most porch fires start on the inside and typically have no doors to slow fire spread. Tenable space must be claimed early on and with expedience. Any fire attack that starts outside must have the manpower and second line ready for almost concurrent entry or you risk delaying actual extinguishment of interior spaces for exterior ones that pose less threat to valuable property and possible victims inside. Additionally re-stretching and repositioning a charged line back to the front and possibly up stairs is extremely laborious, even more so in an already understaffed situation.
Interior operations need to be cognizant of the transition between the legacy floor of the main building and lighter weight decking of a porch. The collapse potential increases with porches made of modern floor decking such as plywood covered in tile which presents a “terrazzo floor” effect. Weight is also a factor due to aging structural supports not originally designed for a fully framed room with contents. It’s not uncommon to find holes burned through right inside the porch entryway. Anyone advancing the nozzle shouldn’t enter a porch if they can’t assess its integrity. Sounding the floor decking with your heel of your outstretched foot or a hand tool is paramount. Let the stream do the work until visibility increases and operate from the building side of the rear wall if the floor is comprised.
Master stream options are limited to rear accessible areas such as alleys. If obstructions are present like light poles, wires or overgrown brush and trees a 2.5 hand line will be optimal. A portable monitor device stretched to the rear is also a choice for well off fires with exposures. Exposure protection will also be the most effective from the rear instead of trying to operate from the front down gangways that diminish your stream angles. A quick stretch to the rear with a second or third attack line should be considered. Exposures are common place with rear porches, so expect one on each side especially if wind conditions exist.
Roof ops can assist by keeping vent holes near the rear and checking the rear wall by pulling back the flashing or tar paper for any extension into the cockloft. The objective is holding or limiting fire extension to the porch side of the rear exterior wall on the original building. Horizontal extension into the cockloft or attics is number one. Guttering should be pried off in the rear to expose the layers of decking and roofing materials during overhaul. Additionally, some rear porches have scuttle openings on the top floor porch roof making vertical ventilation that much easier. A trick is to open the scuttle and force the apron wall inside for quick access into the cockloft. Careful not to unknowingly operate above a porch which is inherently weaker than the roof decking of the original building. Some are tarred over in a way it’s difficult to notice any transition. The parapet side walls will give you a clear indication of where the back wall terminates and the porch roof starts. Pull back some coping stones and make continuous checks for horizontal fire extension into the main building. Any extension found should be immediately communicated with the IC and coordinated with crews below.
These are just a few basic principles to guide by, but there are many more out there worth knowing. The main thing to remember is what inherent issues your building stock presents regarding rear porches. Become intimately familiar with your working environments using every non fire related run as one more opportunity to preplan for the fire related one.
There will always be debatable hot topics in the fire service, fog vs smooth, interior vs exterior, wood ladders, metal ladders, this helmet vs that one etc etc etc. These debates exist because of they’re subjectivity thus its impossible to definitively be right or wrong. One recent topic that has peaked my interest when talked about is half story construction. Most notably because it’s not a debate at all or at least shouldn’t be anyways. Terminology in the fire service can be a source of debate all in itself with its endemic vernacular, trade jargon and slang. That’s what makes this particular topic even more intriguing. It Is not a firefighting term at all, it Is an architectural term used in a firefighting context. This is important because due to the fact it’s not a subjective jargon it can conversely be defined with objective terminology making it either right or wrong. There’s no grey area with half story construction, it either is or it is not and that’s where things start to get uncomfortable in conversation especially if you’re a Chief who’s department has been sizing up buildings inaccurately your entire career.
…my response to them is “you’re the reason why this problem exists”…
Now one might say in defense that their department considers half stories a “full story” or “attics” and I my response to them is “you’re the reason why this problem exists”. By taking a well defined architectural term and incorrectly applying it as jargon only creates needless problems for our trade and honestly it makes you sound uneducated. Now you might ask yourself why does this even matter? Why does knowing how to correctly identify this type of construction offer any value at all? Because of two very important characteristics of half story construction, knee walls and roof type. Most notably the top floor voids inherently created by knee walls that you won’t encounter in a full story. Top floor fires in half story construction are a game changer to any IC. These construction features set up a very dangerous set of conditions that are covered here in great detail… Killer in the Attic: Fire Operations in Half-Stories
The point of this article is to address the knowledge gap of identifying half stories on arrival and what the actual definition of one is. I’ve made several social media posts in the past using all sorts of visual aids and graphics to some avail. There always seems to be a portion of the audience that are either still confused or not in agreement so it’s time we clear the air and get the facts straight. A lot of the confusion can be addressed locally by becoming intimately familiar with your building stock. There’s all sorts of misleading characteristics in half stories. False dormers, split floor levels, attic windows and in some cases a hybrid full story and half story construction in the same building typically a loft over an attached garage. All these things can be ruled out or expected if you’re familiar with the buildings in your area. I know in mine 99% of the time what appears to be a half story is a half story, but it’s because I know false dormers or split levels among others aren’t prevailing construction features in my city.
The Size Up
The size up is integral, since building construction is the one uncontrollable factor of every fire ground that directly or indirectly controls everything on it. Knowledge and avoidance are the only tactics we can use for a dangerous building. Everything else… we have the tools to mitigate. When sizing up a building it is important to include half story in your radio traffic. This conveys to incoming units the inherent challenges and the fact you’re dealing with some sort of pitched roof. The limitation of any size up is it’s only as good as what you can see unless you have previous knowledge… ie a preplan. There are many exterior clues but ultimately the only definitive way to know you’re dealing with a half story containing a habitable space is by making entry. Using exterior indicators combined with local knowledge one can usually make a correct assessment from the outside. (yes, there are rare exceptions)
Keep in mind you can have a half story without an occupied space on the top floor. Many get hung up or confused on this. The use of the space does not denote the definition, the construction features do. A half story is dependent on interior wall height and where the roof line terminates. You can have this space accessible by interior stairs but not used as livable space. This still means it’s a half story… and all the inherent problems of half stories will still be present due to how it’s framed not how it’s used. If the top floor doesn’t have full 8ft ceilings thus creating knee walls and the roof line terminates at floor level on the top story making the exterior walls part of the roof then it’s half story construction. If you Google half story definition you’ll get multiple versions of the same basic terminology. Most are used in the home appraisal industry. Keep in mind any height can be a half story you can have a 95 and a half story building depending on its top floor construction. Do not confuse this definition with attics. In North America an attic is a non habitable space for storage inaccessible by stairs. In Europe attics that doubled as living space were called garrets. That’s where some of the confusion starts. Attics have different definitions depending on era and region. Half stories can have attics also and most do, accessible by a small attic scuttle and only used for running utilities or limited storage.
As already covered the big indication of half story construction is where the roof line terminates. If the rooflines above the top floor windows contain 8ft walls then it’s a full story. If it’s at floor level of the top story then it’s a half story. Your attention should be on the top floor. That’s where all your exterior indicators will be. The next big clue are dormer windows, yes there are false dormers but that’s why you rule this out by the presence of gable windows. I have never known anyone to hang a false gable window into a gable wall, that would be asinine. False dormers are usually smaller, without curtains and are accompanied by gable attic vents. If you have large dormer windows with side gable windows that’s a enough indication to include half story in a size up. It’s always better to err on the side off caution than not. There are indicators of living space also. These will be blinds, curtains, lamps and window AC units. Typically people don’t put those in attic windows.
The following are some photos with notations for reference and to show the variance of architectural styles of half stories.
All things considered there’s always exceptions but by combining multiple pieces of information one can be confident they’re making an accurate size up. I hope this article has helped those with difficulty identifying half story construction.