Don’t Judge A Building By Its Curtains


Everyone got theyah cup of cahfee? Everyone comfortable? Good.

Today we're going to talk a little building construction and tactics and strategy. This discussion is going to be based off a recent job we had in a Lace Curtain, or Triple-Decker. Due to departmental rules and regs and such I'm not able to show any actual pictures of the incident but in case you're unfamiliar with that type of construction the picture below from a similar type incident and building may help you visualize it better.

So this is a job that the brothers from Somerville, Mass. had a while ago and comes from the website As you can see this type of architecture is narrow and tall. It is almost always a multiple occupancy with one unit per floor or sometimes two, one front and one back. About the only way to be sure is by counting gas or electric services, but as we all know that can sometimes even fail us if the landlord is a little unscrupulous and has tapped off existing lines etc. They started being built in the late 1800's and were popular into the 1930's. Because of this the construction is mainly balloon although more modern imitations are platform. Because of the ballon construction we were usually assured of two things; 1) it's gonna be a wicked job and 2) it was fairly sturdy and held up pretty well under fire conditions. Hence, you usually ended up with a job as shown above, with fire on multiple levels, usually the uppers. This has also led to many fire deaths and dramatic rescues due to the occupant load and the quick fire-spread.

So, in our case the job comes in around 0330 (of frickin' course) and is originally an "odor of smoke in the area", which gets a single Engine Company dispatched. As the first-due was driving on the other side of the block from where the address was one of the windows on the side of the building on the second floor failed and the jake in the back saw it light-up. They whipped around the block and called for a working-fire response, probable entrapment. We were just about the farthest company from the scene so we were a little while in getting there. Since we are a specialty-type unit we can be assigned anything from Engine work to Truck work to almost any kind of Rescue work, depending on type of building and what order we arrive in. On this particular one the duty-Chief ordered us to split our crew and have one team head to the third floor for search and rescue and the other to the cellar for a quick recon. My Loo took the newest member of our company and went up and had me and another seasoned guy go down. We hit the gas meters as we went by and quickly ascertained there were three units. Since 99% of all these Lace Curtains are built the same we now had a real good idea of the floor plans on each level. We then went down-cellar to complete our assignment. We had just a little bit of smoke hanging at the ceiling and not doing anything and no heat, so at least we knew everything was above us. As my partner and I finished up looking round his flashlight beam caught something that kind of glinted. I took my lantern and shown it on the same area. That's when I saw it. "Dougie!", I yelled to my partner. He turned and looked at me and then where my lantern was shining. "Oh shit!", was his response. As we were hustling out of the cellar my radio transmission went something like this (edited to fall within my department's rules and regs and such); "Command from 14-cellar!". I got the acknowledgement. "Command be advised this is not legacy construction. It's been rehabbed using light-weight floor joists and hangers. No tellin' what else is going on in here Chief." Command acknowledged my transmission and then repeated it to "all companies on the fireground". The first two lines had made a really good dent on the fire and by the time we rejoined my Loo and the kid, now on the second floor, it was pretty much knocked. Talking to the Chief later he told me he had every intention of pulling everyone out once the searches were complete if the Engine guys hadn't been making good head-way. With the delay in the alarm and the head-start the fire had on us I would agree about one-million percent. 

This fire turned out fine, everyone got out, no one was hurt and the building stayed up. But our little find in the basement wasn't the only thing that was a surprise. During overhaul and throughout the investigation companies found that the typical 2×6 or even 2×8 floor joists throughout the third floor had been replaced by engineered open-web trusses as well. What we had found in the cellar were the wooden I-beam trusses and joist hangers secured to a block wall. We also learned the block wall had been built in-place around the original foundation, both to reinforce it and to have a place to hang the trusses. Nice, huh? The flat roof common to these buildings had also been rehabbed but only partially, probably because of cost and effort. Three open-web trusses were found there by the Truckies that had been opening up. Now, in retrospect my partner and I kinda messed up on this one. We fell prey to being a little complacent. It wasn't til after everything was said and done that we noticed the new high-efficiency vinyl windows, the obviously new front door, and the drywall ceilings instead of the plaster-on-lath that should have been there. Tell you one thing, never again.

Many of these buildings are located in "historic" neighborhoods so they are subject to many strict rehab rules on what an owner can and can't change. Almost all of those rules have to do with the appearance of the building from the curb, not so much what's on the inside. So this leads to a couple different things. First, that chowderhead landlord we were talking about before? He just might not want to conform to all the little codes and regulations and so forth so he does his little rehab job on the sly. Which means no inspections from the town, which means it may or may not be up to code. Second, everything may very well be up to code but they're using todays materials to replace yesterdays and we're still looking at the same "old" building from the street. So I guess what I'm saying is that no matter if you're looking at a;

New York Brownstone









Philly Georgian









Chicago Walk-up













or San Fran Victorian,









be alert brothers and sisters and be looking beyond the curtains to what's in the guts of that building because it may not be what you think.

Now, getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and go do somethin'. Like get out into your still-district and look around at buildings.



















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