FDNY CHIEF Brad Walls surveyed the facade of the Whitestone Shopping Center as his firefighters from Battalion 47 approached the flamed-filled Lollipops Diner.
Before the firefighters could turn their hoses on the blaze, the restaurant’s front window melted and the fire jumped to the awning. The overhang burst into flames and rained melted plastic onto the sidewalk like a fire-laden waterfall.
Concerned for his firefighters’ safety, Walls pulled back the battalion.
“The fire increased in magnitude greatly,” he recently said, recalling the blast that occurred at 1 a.m. on Nov. 2, 2008. “It started spreading and made its way down the frontage of the building.”
“It burned with high heat, a lot of flame, a lot of dense, black smoke.”
No one was hurt in the fire. But the mall’s overhang — a covering coated with Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems, or EIFS — sustained damage that took months to repair.
Shortly after the incident, Walls began researching EIFS, a lightweight synthetic wall covering used to insulate more than 500,000 houses and commercial buildings across the country. He wrote an article for the FDNY’s official training magazine WNYF, in which he recounted the Whitestone fire and suggested changes in firefighting tactics when combating a blaze involving EIFS.
“There is an inherent danger to it,” said Walls, a 22-year veteran of the FDNY. “It’s not a cellular-based material. It’s a petroleum-based material. And it brings with it all the baggage petroleum has.”
EIFS industry leaders say the stucco-like insulation is safe when installed with properly tested materials. They point to the fire safety track record of the product, developed after World War II to help rebuild Europe.
“EIFS is now a mature, widely accepted building system that is fulfilling national priorities with its superior insulation and energy saving properties,” said David Johnston, executive director of the EIFS Industry Manufacturers Association, via e-mail. “Probably the most germane facts that the industry has are the ones that demonstrate EIFS fire resistance.”
The city building code allows the use of EIFS in construction as long as the materials used to install the product meet fire safety standards.
When it comes to EIFS, Walls said, looks can be deceiving. The test is as simple as knocking: If you hear a hollow sound, the substance is most likely EIFS, he said.
“You can’t determine it by looking at it,” Walls said. “You just don’t know.”
The battalion chief, a 49-year-old Middle Village resident, uses video of the Queens fire as a training tool for his firefighters.
“A picture is worth a thousands words, and a moving picture even more,” Walls said.